Race Report: My First Ultramarathon

As many of you know from seeing my facebook posts, I did it! 50K. About 32 miles. Ultramarathon. It was really hard. I expected it to be hard, and it was harder than I expected. It also went really, really well. I was capable of running the entire way, and I actually sprinted into the finish line, past so many friends, high fives, and smiling faces. There’s a lot of photos of me in that moment, but I wish I had photos from my perspective. I was out of the woods, done with the fields, heading up the grassy hill towards the finish line—and then I heard my name called out over and over again, and looked up to see an endless line of high fives from my friends gathered at our club cheering tent, and there was my roommate with a hand-drawn sign (which he’d gotten SIGNED by folks from our hashing club and the donut shop), and after seven plus hours out there in the sun my body was capable of running, really actually running, right until the end. It was magical.

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Running until the end is my biggest accomplishment of the day. I know what it feels like to limp into a finish line. On my first marathon (MDI, Oct. 2017) the outsides of both of my knees were in intense pain for about the last eight miles of the race and I was forced to walk. I tried to put on a run for the last few paces and only ended up limping more. My legs wouldn’t go. This pain was due to iliotibial band syndrome, or IT band pain, which is one of the most common injuries for runners. I rested up, but it flared up again on a 10-mile race I hadn’t trained enough for, and then again during training for my 20-mile relay leg of the Riverlands 100 Miler in May 2018. I finally invested in physical therapy (cue $1,000 of medical debt, thankfully paid off by now) but started it too close to race day for it to have a real effect, and I walked about the last 11 miles of that 20-mile leg. (But I finished. And didn’t invalidate the 80 miles my teammates had already run.) Thanks to that experience I almost didn’t put another marathon on my schedule that year, and I wondered if my body just wasn’t cut out for the kind of distance I was asking it to go. But I signed up for Maine Marathon, kept doing my PT and added more strength training, got a coach and stuck to my training schedule, and in September 2018 I was able to run the entire distance of my second marathon—though I did have pretty intense IT band pain on the outside of both knees for about the last 6 miles. It was the same pain, but I’d done enough strengthening and training that my legs kept working just long enough.

At Pinelands 50K on Sunday (May 26, 2019), I didn’t have any IT band pain.

Maybe it was the day, maybe it was the slow speed, maybe it was the trails (though Riverlands was also slow and trails)—but maybe it was all my hard work. It always feels like I’m not doing enough, but maybe bringing my stretch band to the gym every time I go and doing my clamshells and monster walks in the minutes before every circuits class, and maybe all the heavy-lifting I was doing as I was just getting out of my concussion fog and starting to up my miles—maybe it all paid off, and maybe, just maybe, I earned it: A good day. A 7 hour, 22 minute journey with fully functioning knees.

I don’t mean to imply that it was painless. On those other long races I mentioned, I was able to tell myself that things hurt as much as they did because something had gone wrong. On Sunday, I learned how much it hurts when everything goes right. Around mile 17 was when it really set in; an deep ache in my thighs and butt and everywhere. Every step hurt, uphill and down, and a 14-minute mile felt like an 11-minute mile had a few hours before. I asked myself, hang on, why am I doing this again? Why is this fun? What is this for? There was still such a long way to go. The only thing to do was to get on top of the pain. I told myself that this is what I wanted. This is what I’d asked for. And since I was still able to run, I’d better do it. The mental game was easier after mile 20 or so, because with less than 11 miles to go I knew that I’d walked farther in worse shape, and had the perspective to be so grateful that I was still running. And I did walk some, and I stopped at aid stations, and I took my time. Maybe I should have walked more in the beginning—walking every hill is a standard ultra strategy. But I still have more trouble on downhills, and at the end jogging uphill felt better than stopping to walk. I did have a danger spot below my left knee by the end that was already saying no on downhills and probably would have turned into an injury if I’d had to go much farther. For the last few miles I ended up leapfrogging with several different batches of runners. They would pass me as I picked my way down a steep slope, and then I would chug slowly by them while they walked the next hill. I was hoping for a time under 7 hours and came in 22 minutes over, but the course was slightly long and it was a hot, hot day, my training hadn’t included quite enough hills, and I had so many friends out there—it was nice to be able to stop a minute and chat when I saw them. And there’s always next time. Which is not a thing I thought I’d be saying if you’d asked me around mile 17.

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I don’t usually race with my phone but I thought I might want it. I didn’t. I only took this selfie because there was an alarm ringing, and to turn it off I had to take the phone out anyhow. Mile 30ish.

There’s lots more I could say about the race. It was such a big day with so many moments. I’m publishing this alongside a facebook post tagging a lot of people specifically, but I don’t want to close without saying thank you, again, to my friends and my parents and all the people who supported me and cheered me on. You’re the best and I am so lucky to have you on my team.

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Race day swag! Yes, the medal was a cowbell. Yes, it works.

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Three Days to Pineland Farms

Time for a race-week blog update. Pinelands 50K is in 3 days! I feel confident about my training, and I feel like I put in the work that I needed to. At my last blog post I had just logged a 46-mile week. I caught a cold two days later, and still finished the week out at 52, my most ever. The next week I hit 60. 60 miles in a week! Starting from concussion week back in January, I went from zero to 60 in just 15 weeks.

My heels had been hurting a little bit this whole training cycle, though. I think part of it was switching to a more minimal shoe in January, the Altra Solstice. Altras are SHAPED LIKE MY FOOT. Having enough room for my big toe is AWESOME and I don’t want to go back. But they’re a little less supportive in the footbed, and the Solstices especially are very light-weight without a lot of cushioning. I think they’re a better choice for shorter road distances than the kind of heavy endurance training I was doing. A few weeks ago I upgraded to Altra Escalantes. The Escalantes cost more and have a little more padding, while still being a very minimal zero-drop shoe. They also have a mesh upper (as did the Solstice) which is a NECESSARY shoe feature for me to avoid aggravating a tailor’s bunion on the outside of my right foot directly beneath my little toe. The Escalantes were immediately very comfy, so comfy I went on a surprise 22-mile long run from the store immediately after buying them, but right after that 60-mile week my little bit of heel pain exploded into a LOT of heel pain—three weeks out from the race. Oh no!

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I am not sponsored or paid by Altra but please let them know I’m available.

If you’ve never trained for an endurance race, here’s how it works: You up your weekly mileage slowly (ideally by no more than 10% per week, but everyone fudges that a little). You do one long run per week, and up the mileage of that run slowly as well. If you’re training for a marathon or ultra distance, you may be doing back-to-back long runs. This helps you get used to running on tired muscles and simulates how you’ll feel at the end of a race. There can be a lot of run math involved in stacking up miles per day, and miles over a 36-hour period. You don’t do a long run equal to your race distance; this would only wear you out and if your goal is to run a certain distance, why do it before you do it? You have to trust that your training will get you there on the day. And three weeks out from the race, it’s time to taper. You ease off your miles slowly, try not to panic, and rest up for race day.

So my heels, mostly the right one, started hurting lots right as it was time to start cutting back miles. I did a slightly more aggressive taper than I meant to, but not by too much—45 miles down from 60 in the first week, 35 in the second. Meanwhile I was trying everything to cut down on the heel pain (plantar fasciitis, to use the technical term). Taping, new inserts for work, stretches, rolling, ice, whatever. On one very rough 20-mile day I got a giant blister on the bottom of my foot from the tape I was using. The next day, due to walking funny in the morning when my heel was killing me, my tailor’s bunion flared up in a VERY PAINFUL way and started hurting when I was just walking around. Yikes. But with more ice, mesh shoes for work, bandaids for my blister, I was able to keep running. And my heel feels better after a 35-mile week than it did after 60. I did up my training pretty quickly, so hopefully I can avoid this next time if I keep up with all the stretches and train a little smarter. I also saw a podiatrist yesterday. He recommended giving my feet some rest when possible for the plantar fasciitis, and to mostly keep doing what I was doing (with the exception of KT tape because I was doing it wrong and in danger of squishing a tendon!). He also gave me a cortisone shot in my tailor’s bunion to cut down on the swelling, and the good news is that if I can keep wearing the right shoes I’m probably not going to need bunion surgery someday. Yay!

Everyone has an ache or pain or worry they panic about during the taper. I talked to a lot of friends yesterday doing the same race, and everyone has a thing. When you cut down your mileage suddenly, your body has a lot of leftover energy, and your brain uses that energy to panic. The mental game is to KNOW that you’re going to panic, accept it as part of the process, and convince yourself that it’s going to be okay. My other big worry this week was support at the race. My parents can only be there for the morning, and I have giant club full of friends who will be there cheering and running their own races…but I don’t know how I’m going to feel after running for 6-8 hours, and I really wanted someone there at the end specifically for me. And then I was pretty stressed (understatement) about being vulnerable enough to ask for that kind of support, and not sure who to ask, as it is a holiday weekend after all and I’m just going to be in the woods for 7 hours. It’s not the most exciting spectator sport. But my roommate, who is a hero and a saint, was able to switch his late shift for an early one (we work at the same shop). He’ll be able to be there when I finish—or very soon after, if I have a really good day—and I won’t have to drive myself home. So with that in place and my feet feeling somewhat better, I’m getting pretty excited to go out there on Sunday and actually do this thing I’ve been working towards for months. Hopefully, knock on wood, if nothing goes wrong, I’ll be a member of the Ultra club when I write my next blog post. Fingers crossed. And to close out: Good luck to all my friends racing this weekend. We’re all gonna crush it.

The Grind

Today I’m writing about training for the Pineland Trail Festival 50K, because I haven’t been doing a whole lot else. I would like to preface any negativity in this post with this: I know I am incredibly lucky to be able to do this stuff. Having the health to push my body this way, the time to fit hours of running into my schedule, and the financial security to purchase shoes, gear, nutrition, etc. are privileges I do not take lightly. Life is good.

So I’m training for a 50K trail race, which equals 31 miles. That’s about 10K more than a marathon, which makes it an Ultramarathon—and it’s only a baby-step into Ultra territory. At the same race where I’m doing my first 50K, some of my friends are doing their first 50-Miler. I know at least seven people who have completed one or more 100-Mile races. I like to chase down a big goal, to do the big thing. That’s why I did my first marathon a few months after my first 10k. I STILL haven’t done a 5K race. So now that I’m training for an Ultra, my brain is doing a thing where a 50K—31 miles—feels like the 5K of Ultramarathons. I have a lot of friends doing the same race as me, which is so awesome and is going to make race day SO MUCH FUN. But as we’re gearing up for it, it also kind of normalizes it. It feels like everyone is doing the thing, so it shouldn’t be this hard or feel like such a big deal. I know the truth is that my friends in this particular run crew are a very small selection of the population that happen to be crazy people. Just, it turns out that hanging out with crazy people messes with your head, and you start to say things like “just” a 50K. So part of my head-game this training cycle is to remind myself that 31 miles is a lot of miles, even if other people are doing more.

Training! It’s actually going really well. Last week I ran 46 miles all together. This week I plan to break 50, which will be the most I’ve ever run in a week (at the height of marathon training last fall I had one week at 47.2). The transition from concussion-recovery to serious training happened pretty quickly. At my last blog post I was just working back to what felt like regular miles, and I’ve continued upping it every week since then. So far my body is handling it. The first week in April was my first week over 30 miles, and that week felt really rough. I was exhausted and just. Couldn’t. Seem. To. get on top of any life responsibilities beyond running and working and social events (and my social events are mostly runs). But the next week I accidentally hit 40 and seemed to be feeling a little better. I’m training differently than I have before because it’s been harder to schedule long runs, so I’m spreading the miles out over more days in the week, and doing multiple runs in the same day rather than one long run. In Maine we’re still working our way towards spring, and when it’s cold and rainy I’m less excited about planning long adventure runs. I find myself circling around trying to hit a certain number of miles on my watch before going to the pub run or whatever thing is next. When I’m feeling low, I joke that my entire week is just a math problem that hurts a lot. And I’m not feeling low all the time—IT’S COOL that I get to do this stuff, and it’s cool that my body keeps handling every increase in training. Watching the miles add up throughout the week is very satisfying. I think it’s just a side effect of being tired, and of being right in the middle of it, that it’s kind of hard to appreciate how hard I’m working. Hopefully it will all pay off on race day—but I am very aware that there’s plenty of time before May 26th to get injured, or for things to stop working. Also, like always, there’s a lot of anxiety about whether I’m doing enough or doing the right things. On a morning trail run last Thursday I tripped and fell a lot, probably just because I was tired from the 12 miles of trails I did the day before, but the next time I was on trails I was more nervous about falling and tripping on roots than I usually am—which, when you’re training for a trail race, is NOT GREAT. But I’m sure it will all come together. Or it won’t, and the miles I put into training will have to be their own reward, which would also be okay.

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This is a screenshot from my training log in Strava, the running app I use.

As a closing note, I really appreciate all the support I’ve received from friends who have asked about my training, put up with me mentioning running in just about every conversation, and worked around my schedule when my response to anything is, “Well, I have to run x-many miles that day.” I do hope the above paragraphs don’t look like complaining—I know I’m taking on big goals and doing a good job. This post is just an honest look at some of the thoughts my brain is having as I’m getting ready for next month. As for today, the sun just came out—maybe there will be nicer weather than I expected for my afternoon/evening run. And I’ve saved my longest run for tomorrow, which should be the warmest, clearest day this week. In conclusion: my feet hurt, but life is good.

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Recovery

Hi! Concussion update: I feel better! But it took quite a bit longer than the 2-3 weeks promised by all my “help I got a concussion” google searches. And by better I mean that I haven’t had a concussion headache for two weeks—I’m still testing things out and increasing my activity so this doesn’t necessarily mean I won’t get another concussion headache if I accidentally hit my limits. We’re currently almost 8 weeks out from concussion, so I had about 5.5 weeks of decreasing but continuing symptoms. I’m putting that out there in case this comes up in anyone else’s panicked googling about what to expect from a concussion. As the weeks went by I worried that I was one of those unlucky folks for whom concussion symptoms last years, and I was making all these calculations about how far to push it. If I get headaches when I run now, is it making the headaches worse if I run through them? Or is this just how running works now and I can run through them as long as I can put up with the pain of having a headache? For the last few weeks, though, I’ve actually felt better and I’m working back up to regular levels of fitness. 15 miles last week is way fewer than I wanted to be running this time of year and this close to a 50k race in May, but it’s the most I’ve run since concussion day on Jan 11th, and I also attended two circuits classes last week. My strength training goal is to hit the gym three times a week—one class and two more run-muscles-focused workouts on my own—so it felt great to make it out to more than one gym day. My message to any concussed people out there is that, if your concussion symptoms are hanging around longer than the expected amount of time, it doesn’t mean you won’t feel better. Rest up, take care of yourself, and give it a few more weeks. Of course I’ll keep this space updated about any lasting effects that have yet to make themselves known!

Blogging about my concussion was pretty helpful while I was having all these brain things going on that I didn’t understand. I did go to work the day after my last post, though, and as soon as I went back to work, work was the only thing I had energy for. Some people advised me to take more time off, and I would have if standing up was still making me queasy, but with my finances the way they are at the moment (I make tips and there is a HUGE difference between summer and winter income) I needed to prioritize working as soon as I was able. I wasn’t at all sure I would make it through the day but I felt pretty safe going into my coffee shop on a sleepy weekday to give it a try. It also helps that my work crew is a good family and I knew 100% that all my coworkers had my back. I needed to do everything very slowly for a few days and I still felt off and weird and headachey but I made it through. God bless my manager for how many times he asked, “How are you feeling, Grace?” that first morning. The answer was always a very tentative, “I think I’m okay.” The HILARIOUS thing is that, while having very few cold symptoms, my voice was getting a little hoarse towards the end of that first day, and I woke up the next day with LARYNGITIS. Nothing hurt, but it sure sounded terrible. My voice was reduced to whispers and occasional squeaks. Once I’d convinced people I wasn’t actually dying and it didn’t hurt to talk as much as it hurt their ears to listen, most people agreed the timing was pretty funny. And thankfully there was enough side work for me to do that I didn’t have to try talking to any customers.

I’ve learned a lot about listening to my body, and getting back to regular activities has been a slow process with several relapses. I received a few sessions of osteopathic treatment from a dear friend who is a DO, and that helped immensely. I’ve also been taking some supplements that are recommended for concussion (arnica, fish oil, homocysteine cardioplex) and I stopped drinking for several weeks after concussion day, right up until my birthday the first week of February. I think not drinking was a really good call, especially when I wasn’t running much. Running helps me maintain my mental health and stay positive during the winter, so I expected my mood to plummet when I wasn’t able to run. I actually felt fairly level and okay (though injured and exhausted) and I think removing alcohol, a depressant, at the same time I removed running helped me stay fairly stable.

Big news in other parts of my life. I purchased an iPad Pro for making digital art, and it is the BEST. Some of you have seen my sketches on Facebook an Instagram. More info and updates on that to come. Oh, and I’ve been working on my gym selfie skills:

November Goals and Portland Sweat Project

Hey it’s the last day of October!

Tomorrow is November 1st, and I’m not doing NaNoWriMo this year (National Novel Writing Month, a thing where you write 50,000 words during November). I have done and won NaNo for the past five years. Five is a nice round number, and I’m proud to have finished and reached my 50,000 word goal every single time I’ve attempted it. As it turns out I already had a pretty strong streak of “Reach the finish line at any cost!” even before I started doing foot races. Back in 2014, my NaNo project was this cool little urban-fantasy book about a lady trucker and a telepathic dragon. I still think it’s a cool little book—though with the current draft at over 100,000 words, it’s not such a little book at all. And every year since 2014, November has meant a brand new project and a whole lot of writing energy… directed away from that cool little book that I’d really like to finish. So I want to write in November, but instead of starting a brand new book that might reach 50,000 words without even figuring out what it wants to be when it grows up (did I mention NaNo 2016 and 2017 were basically plot and theme disasters?) I want to really focus in and move forward on my existing project. I want to do the type of writing and editing and fixing that isn’t easily quantifiable by word count, and I want to finish the ending and create a readable draft. So that’s November goals this year. I also have a few other creative projects that I don’t want to completely abandon for the month, so it makes sense and feels right to keep moving forward on what inspires me right now rather than doing something new just for the sake of doing it. But for all of you out there gearing up for NaNoWriMo 2018, I wish you the very best of luck!

Also, a note on today. The temperature was just below freezing when I woke up around 5:30 am. On a workday I would have already been at work, or at least hurrying in that direction from my all-day parking spot a ten-minute walk away. Today I had the option of curling up into a warm bed and going back to sleep…but instead I got up and #JustShowedUp for the first time ever to a 6:30 am free fitness meetup in a city park. It’s called Portland Sweat Project and it wasn’t as scary as a TOTALLY new thing since I knew most of the crew from my run club, but it was still really early in the morning. I’m generally not a morning exercise person, but within minutes of sprints and squats and pushups and burpees I felt awake and alive and took off my parka because I wasn’t even cold anymore. Then we ran around city hall and played duck-duck-goose (with squats and planks) in the square and took a picture with some pumpkins at the farmer’s market. Winter is bad but I learn over and over again that going outside and moving and sweating and running with your friends is pretty much always the correct choice.

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My newbie photo from PSP! (Photo credit © Mari Balow.)