Saturday, February 23, 2013

Undetermined Injury

The week leading up to a PR distance race - meaning the first time I race a new distance or racing into the unknown is particularly stressful because the self-pressure to finish the race is incredibly high.  As for taper craziness, the week leading up to the 100 miler was a typical taper week for me - you know, worrying about things that are totally out of my control, like the weather, getting sick or anything that would keep me from getting to the starting line.

Once race eve arrives and the forecast is fixed and I haven't gotten sick or suffered a freak injury, first and foremost I am thankful, and next my thoughts move directly to worrying about sustaining an injury or getting sick during the race or anything that would prevent me from getting to the finish line.

So, naturally, when I get to the finish line, I am incredibly grateful  -- and that is exactly how I felt when I received my buckle.

I needed that preface because the rest of the post may sound like whining ...

I realized going in that I might walk away (pun intended) from my 100 mile adventure with an injury of some sort, and honestly, I was just hoping it wouldn't be a broken bone from tripping in the dark.  I was so incredibly grateful during the race that I didn't have even a single angle roll (big improvement for me!) and I only stubbed my toe a couple of times.  I was hurting at the end of the race, but hey, it is a hundred friggin miles, it should hurt a little, right?

Well, here we are three weeks later and my knee is still hurt, and what's worse for me as a type-A planner, the ART doctor is not sure what is wrong with it.  I have been foam rolling, stretching and getting ART a couple of times a week for the better part of two weeks now and my knee has not improved at all. 

I can bike, do the elliptical, yoga and some P90x, but running?  I can't make it more than a quarter of a mile without the stabbing pain that makes me pull up lame.  I am thankful to at least have other forms of exercise that do not hurt, but I want to run again, or at least know when I will be able to run again!

The pain is odd - stabbing/fire pain on the outside of my knee and near the fibular head, that comes when my knee is bent, typically after walking downstairs, walking after extended periods of driving, crossing my legs for too long or sleeping with my knee bent.  I haven't tried to run through it because I have been trying to be good and I certainly don't want to exacerbate it.

I have "passed" all of the clinical test, meaning I exhibit no pain when asked to push or resist the doctor at various angles.  That should be good news because it should mean that I do not have a tear or anything "serious", but if it were my IT band, it should be getting better by now, and honestly, my right leg (the side of the injury), is feeling pretty darn loose otherwise.  I do have muscle imbalances - strong quads and weak glutes, so I am working on strengthening my glutes, but my knee pain still eludes me.

I had x-rays done, which as expected, showed nothing, other than my right leg is 3 mm shorter than my left leg, so I need to add a lift to my right orthotic.  Good to know.  X-rays were step one before potentially getting an MRI if the pain doesn't stop.  So what's next in the mean time?  A week of seeing how things go with a re-evaluation the first week in March, which will be a month post race.

So, while I not-so-patiently wait to get better, I try to remind myself that this too shall pass, to be thankful for a successful race and to enjoy some much needed unstructured training and time off. 

Although, honestly, all of that would be easier to swallow, if I knew what was wrong so I knew how to fix it ...  

Oh, and ironically, I vaguely remember telling my pacer Eric I wasn't go to run for 2 months after the race - runner's intuition?

Have you had an undetermined injury and how did you overcome it?

Friday, February 15, 2013

Rocky Raccoon 100 Mile Trail Race - Race Report

This is likely the longest race report I have ever written … the race took me 29 hours, so I had lots of material!

If you don’t want to know about how I ended up signing up to run 100 miles, my training, the Buddy Agreement or Pre-race, but want the gory details on the race, skip ahead to Race Day or just look through the photos because they tell the *real* story.  There is also a bulleted Short Report.

My road to the starting line of the Rocky Raccoon 100 miler actually started back in 2009. After finishing Ironman Florida in November of 2009 I was looking for a short term goal before ramping up training for Rev3 Cedar Point 140.6 and my running partner Mark wanted to run the Rocky Raccoon 50 miler in February 2010. I agreed and started training in earnest, but by early December 2009 it was clear I had not fully recovered from IMFL and my piriformis was being a literal pain in my butt. Rather than risk injuring myself and jeopardizing my triathlon season and races that I had already committed to, I chose not to run the RR 50 with Mark and I ended up crewing instead.

Crewing for Mark was my first real experience around trail/ultra runners and I loved the vibe, how welcoming everyone was and I knew then and there that I would be back to run Rocky one day, although I assumed it would be the 50 miler! Mark ran the RR 50 again in 2011 but I was training for IMTX so no Rocky for me. I wanted to run Rocky when it was my “A” race, not as a filler.

Thankfully, we both had conflicts in 2012, the year of torrential rains during Rocky.

Fast forward to the Spring of 2012, Mark and I were on a long weekend run and Rocky came up. He told me he was considering the 100 miler and I told him, without much thinking about it, that I would do it if he was doing it. I think he replied with something to the effect of, “Who said I wanted to run it with you?”, yet, at the end of that run, we had agreed to run the Rocky 100.

When we pulled the trigger to register on May 27, 2012 my trail experience was limited to two 50Ks from the Fall of 2011 at Huntsville State Park and almost zero other trail miles to my name.

Training Leading up to Rocky

I started ramping up my weekly mileage right after I pushed the registration button, but I didn’t hit the trails. Everyone says that Huntsville is flat and fast and you can train for it with road running … I humbly disagree. Maybe an experienced trail runner can get by training for a rooty trail run by running on the road, but I quickly learned that I lacked serious confidence running on trails and that my ankles were weak. This became most obvious to me at the Captain Karl’s 60K at Reveille Ranch over Labor Day weekend. I survived the race, but I walked (limped) away from that race with a new respect for trail running and a plan!

Photo post 60K, my longest run up to that point and likely my wost race ever - but we finished!

I hired Joe Prusaitis of Tejas Trails to guide the rest of my training to Rocky and our plan was to get to the starting line injury free and not over-trained. I work full time, travel for my job and have two young kids, all while trying to stay happily married, so family balance is important to me. We discussed my overall goals and then Joe sent me a training plan.

One of the number one questions I got in the months leading up to the race was “how do you train to run 100 miles?” Well, there are certainly people far more qualified that I am to answer that question, but I will share a glimpse of what my training looked like. Let me stress that my way is not the “right” way, it was the right way for me. There are lots of plans to get you ready and you have to find what is best for you.

• 3 key workouts a week – 2 speed days (sometimes a hill workout) and 1 long run. I did not run back to back long runs, which is popular with the ultra crowd. Other days were depending on how I felt, my travel schedule, kids sports schedules, etc.
• Every 4th weekend off from running (no long run)
• On my “off” weeks, I ran an average of 35 miles during the week
• On a “typical” week, I ran an average of 50ish miles per week
• My peak weeks were 80 miles, which I hit twice
• My longest runs were two 50-milers, one in early December and one 3 weeks prior to Rocky

I also moved all of my long runs to the trails. It was important to me that I go into Rocky with total confidence and experience running off road. I did a lot of races as training as well, including Reveille Ranch 60K, Little Rocky 50K in Huntsville, The Cactus Rose relay (25 miles in Bandera), Wild Hare 50K, Run Like the Wind 12 Hour (54 miles), The End of the World Trail Marathon, and the Texas Marathon. The coups-de-gras was an unsupported 50 mile run in Huntsville 3 weeks before Rocky. This was so important to me because I finally learned the trail system and I got very familiar with the course.

The Buddy Agreement

Meet my buddy Mark aka Blue Steel
(photo at Park Road aid station mile 75.6, I had a mouth full of pancakes)

Running Rocky with Mark was awesome. The shared experience and company can’t be beat, but if you are considering committing to a race – of any distance – with someone, you need to have “the talk” beforehand. The talk entails deciding before the race how committed you are to actually staying together for the entire race, includign what each of you will do if:

1) One of you is having a bad day (stomach distress, injury, feeling like crap, just “off”),

2) One of you is off goal pace (too fast or too slow), or

3) In a worst case scenario, one of you has to DNF.

Mark and I decided before the race that we were committed to run the entire race together, for better or worse, and only in the event that one of us needed to DNF (which we would both do everything we could do to keep the other person from doing), would we separate.

I took the Friday before the race off from work to pack my drop bags and head up early to Huntsville to pick up my packet, drop my drop bag, set up our canopy, and listen to the trail briefing. My boys had a school holiday, so as a bonus I got to spend the morning with them.  They each picked a superhero temporary tattoo to put on my wrists so that I could think of them during the race when I needed extra encouragement since they were spending the weekend with the grandparents.

Spiderman and Black Widow courtesy of Tyler and Andrew
Packing my drop bags was a bit overwhelming, but ultimately, I decided to err on the side of being over-prepared and I had duplicates of everything (one for each drop bag). Waiting until the last minute to do this caused a lot of unneeded stress. Mark picked me up at 2 PM and because I wasn’t ready, I just threw everything into a big bag with the plan to sort it out on the drive to Huntsville. I didn’t have time to make my peanut butter balls, so I grabbed the ingredients with the plan to make them at the hotel that night. I was ready to roll at 2 PM, but I was so not ready.

Traffic made us late for the trail briefing but we got the Cliff’s Notes version, picked up our packets, set up the canopy for our crew and said good night to the park, a mere 12 hours until race start.

We had dinner in Willis at the Pizza Shack, which we all enjoyed and then it was straight to the hotel to wind down. We stayed at the Fairfield in Conroe and they were very accommodating. The night manager let me use the kitchen facilities to make my peanut butter balls and they opened a limited breakfast early the next morning for us. This allowed me to toast bread for my Nutella which made me a happy girl.

I fell asleep reading lot of well wishes from friends, family and teammates and this overwhelming support stuck with me throughout the race.

Over breakfast at 4:45 am, Mark informed me that he had gotten a whopping 30 minutes of sleep – obviously, not ideal before a 30 hour race. His lesson learned for the future is to have some sort of sleep aid (with which he would have already tried successfully prior) available. We left the hotel at 5:10 am for a 6:00 am race start.

Race Day

We arrived at the park just after 5:30, paid our entry and parked. It was all pretty seamless and we were just a short walk to the starting line. We had just enough time for one last porta-potty stop, a photo-op and a kiss good luck from my #1 fan and biggest supporter, Douglas, before rushing to the starting line.

Do I look scared?  If not, I am doing a good job of hiding it!

The 100 mile race is five 20 mile loops with aid stations at Dogwood (start/finish), Nature Center (3.1 miles), Damnation (6.2 miles), Damnation again (12.2), Park Road (15.6), and back to Dogwood (20). The 100 mile runners have access to drop bags at Damnation going both directions and at Dogwood and crews have easy access to their runners at Dogwood, Nature Center and Park Road.

Our race strategy was to mentally break the race into 3 segments, the first 60 miles, the fourth lap aka “the beast” and the last lap aka “the victory” lap, and within each lap, aid station to aid station.

The race started at 6 am and the last thing I remember was the 30 second count down and Joe saying, “30 second and 30 hours to go …”

Lap 1: 4:08:17

I was a nervous wreck. The enormity of running 100 miles weighed heavy on my mind as the race started. I hate running in packs, especially in the dark. I like to be able to scan the trail and choose my own path, not be stuck running on someone’s heels because I tend to trip in these situations. It always takes me a few miles to find my trail feet so I did my best to settle in. For the better part of 3 miles the guy behind was trying to clear his nose / head and the noise he was making was beyond distracting and if I am totally honest, a little disgusting. I am sure my anxiety was not helping matters becasue later in the race this would not have even phased me.

Two good luck messages I received before the race really stuck with me in these early miles and throughout the entire race. The first was from Meredith who reminded me that you can eat an elephant one bite at a time and the second was from Steven who reminded me to enjoy every single step.

When we rounded the corner to Damnation for the first time the volunteers welcomed us with excitement and cheers and I felt myself relax and genuinely smile for the first time all day. I finally settled in and started to really enjoy the race. I ran with a handheld bottle (to keep things light and more easily gauge how much water I was drinking) and I wore my Nathan hydration vest to carry essentials, including a waterproof digital camera. Yes, the camera was an essential. I took photos all day and asked others to take photos of us as well and I am so glad that I did - the photos really tell the story of the day better than I can and they helped me remember how I was feeling.

First real smile of the day!

Runners turning the corner at Damnation

Drop Bags at Damnation

We ran into some old friends – Happy Feet and Bacon and Eggs from Run Like the Wind – and made some new friends on the Damnation loop too, including Blue Mohawk Guy from Colorado. I think he dropped three f-bombs in the first sentence that came out of his mouth, and I knew he would be great company! We ran in a small pack of 5 or 6 experienced ultra runners who told tales of Leadville and Javelina which made me thankful to be running Rocky at sea level in February Texas weather!

Back at Damnation, minus headlamps - 12.2 miles
As the conversation picked up, the lap really flew by. It was great to see Doug again at the Park Road aid station, snap a few photos, and then it was back to Dogwood. Doug spent the day chasing us down between Dogwood, Nature Center, and Park Road and updating Facebook and Twitter with pictures and updates on our progress.

Peanut Butter Jelly Time with my guy at Park Road - 15.6 miles

There are a couple of miles along the lake and various other points in the race where runners coming in/going out are sharing the same path, including the section leading back to Dogwood. This can be mentally exhausting trying to watch where you are stepping and dealing with on-coming traffic, and as one would expect, this traffic was greatest in the first couple of laps (especially while the 50 milers were still racing).

Before rolling into Dogwood, we passed the research study in which we had agreed to participate before the race. Essentially, they had a video camera recording us as we ran by and we were to call out a number between 6 (sitting in a chair) and 20 (most difficult you can imagine) that represented our effort level at that moment in time. First lap effort level was 11, I think, or "fairly light" on their scale. Shortly after this, we rolled into Dogwood, and as will be the story for the entire race, took far too long at the stop. We took off our cold weather gear, grabbed our sunglasses and hit the porta potty before heading out for Loop 2. Doug joked that we were on pace for a 20 hour race and I had to remind him that our laps were going to get progressively slower ... but he was only joking, he knew I was expecting to come in around 27 hours.

Photos - 20 miles

Lap 2: 5:10:32

It was really starting to warm up at this point in the race, so we made a conscious effort to be diligent about staying hydrated and taking in enough salt. At Nature Center we saw Erin, one of our pacers for the 5th loop, for the first time. Despite lots of email and Facebook conversations, I had only casually met one of our 4 pacers before, including Erin. So Erin and I actually took the opportunity to do quick introductions. We let her know that we were expecting to be slower than our pre-race emails indicated so she would be starting her leg later than projected.

Seeing Erin was also a reminder that the “real” race wasn’t going to start for another 37 miles. I knew that barring injury, we could run 60 miles, so I had to fight my mind to enjoy the moment and to not feel as though we were going through the motions to get to 60 miles.

One of the many bridges in Huntsville State Park

We were feeling pretty good when we hit the marathon mark at Damnation – over a quarter of the race (in mileage, not time!) done. Not unexpectedly, our legs were getting a little sluggish, but experience told us that they would bounce back – and they did.

All smiles and Blue Steel at the marathon mark ...

I grabbed an extra hand held bottle for this Damnation loop (and dropped it back at my drop bag at the end of the loop) – as I did for each of the next 2 loops – to make sure I had enough water, especially once it started getting hot.

We consciously walked more of the up hills on this lap, trying to save something for the end. On the Damnation loop we met another newbie chasing his first 100 mile buckle. We ended up laughing about how annoying Ted on How I Met Your Mother can be and how our kids love the fun Disney family show Good Luck, Charlie. I dubbed our new friend, Marshall (like Marshall from HIMYM) and we leap frogged with him for 5 or so miles before losing each other back at Damnation.

For most of the first 40 miles we ate a combination of PowerBar gels, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, peanut butter balls (my last minute balls made at the hotel were terrible) and PowerBar chews. I drank water with NUUN for extra electrolytes and flavor and occasionally grabbed a handful of Pringles. My goal was about 200 calories an hour and I purposefully avoided caffeine, which I normally train with, until dark. I really enjoyed the new PowerBar gel flavors Orange Dream and Pomegranate Blueberry Acai.

Mark and I were both developing headaches around mile 32, so we took advil and pressed forward. The Damnation aid station made quesadillas and grilled cheese during the day, which were yummy diversions from the PBJ.

Mark and I tried to play a round of the movie game – name an actor and a movie and then the other person has to name another actor from the same movie or name another movie in which the actor you named has appeared – but I am terrible at it, so that didn’t last long.

We did end up going through two rounds of the alphabet band game (A – ACDC, B – Beatles, C – the Cure, etc.) before deciding there was no way we could go three rounds.

When we made it back to Park Road we saw Doug, Mark’s family and some of his friends who came to spend the day with his wife and daughter while we were running. It was great to see the crew after 12 miles on our own.

What a greeting at the Park Road aid station!

Who's happy to see her hubby?  This girl!

After leaving Park Road, we passed the research crew again and this time my effort level was a 13, or somewhat hard.

When we made in back to Dogwood I got to meet Stan, one of our loop 4 pacers, who was so genuinely excited to be there. He couldn’t wait to join us and he came prepared with songs and stories! I was pumped to have him join us and his presence geeked me up for the laps to come.

I grabbed a blueberry muffin from the hotel at breakfast and I decided that 40 miles in was the perfect time to enjoy it – and it was divine! Seriously, at that moment, it might have been the best tasting thing I had ever had. I asked Doug to pick me up more muffins when he left to get his dinner, which he did, and I enjoyed those later too!

We knew it would be getting dark on this lap, so we made sure we had our headlamps (we did) and then we were off to tackle our last lap without our pacers.

Lap 3: 5:48:43

Despite the fact that our laps were getting progressively slower (more walking up “hills” and longer aid station stops), Lap 3 was probably my best lap all day. We saw Doug and Mark’s family (who were saying good night to Mark) and the rest of our pacers, Erin, Jennifer and Eric at the Nature Center. I got hugs from Jennifer and Eric, despite my smelliness 43 miles and 9+ hours into the race – a heck of a nice to meet you! Seeing everyone and hearing their excitement to be a part of our adventure gave me so much energy that I was on Cloud 9 and physically felt awesome most of this lap. I ran with the biggest smile on my face and annoyed Mark, who was pretty tired at this point after getting no sleep the night before.

Pacer crew, minus Stan who was holding down the fort at Dogwood, I am giddy with excitement!
I have no idea why Mark was hiding in this picture ...
Guess who is in a good mood?

Mark and I also decided we needed runner’s couple counseling since we were at odds on how long to spend at aid stations (my gripe) and the frequency, timing, and ad-hoc nature of our walk breaks (his). Mark is actually trained to counsel people so we spent at least an hour putting ourselves through therapy, which was funny and helpful at the same time, and best of all, it passed a good chunk of time. End result – I agreed to be more communicative and deliberate about our walk breaks, and Mark, well, I am not sure if he agreed to anything …

We also met two great women on this lap as well, Betsy from Seattle and Malea from the Dallas area. Betsy was running with a monkey on her back, literally, because she had to drop last year at mile 90 (chasing aid station cut offs) and she was determined to finish this year. It was a great reminder that you are not finished until you are holding your buckle - spoiler alert - they both finished (and beat us too!).

As we started the Damnation loop, we saw a 50 mile runner coming back towards us who had missed the 50 mile cut off. I hope she found Joe at the end to pay for her extra mileage! :)

Mark tripped and landed gracefully on this Damnation loop, but that was it for both of us in terms of falls, I think. I stubbed my toe several times and caught myself on a few trips early on, but thankfully, no ankle rolls or blood.

We stopped to take a picture at mile 50 and celebrated that every step after 54 miles was uncharted territory and a PR distance for us. We told stories and laughed – so much so that a guy pulled out his earphones and said that we were more interesting than the music he was listening to.

Poor planning on the 50 picture ... you get the idea

We had to turn on our headlamps on the way back to Damnation and we stopped to grab jackets as the temperature was going to drop quickly with the sun down. Night fall also meant that my ban on caffeine had been lifted and it was time to switch to the PowerBar gels and chews with caffeine!

Damnation - with headlights and jackets

Guess who is still in a good mood and who isn't?

When we made it to Park Road, I was thrilled to find they had pancakes and syrup. They were delicious and unexpected and just what I needed. I told myself that I could make it another 20 miles just for more pancakes!

Guess who woke up and is in a silly mood now?
 Never mind, did Mark just fall asleep standing up?

We passed the research crew again and my effort level was the same as lap 2 – 13, or somewhat hard.

I was literally giddy as we ran back into Dogwood - I was super excited to have our pacers join us and to start the “real” race! Bring on the beast!

These pictures of Mark crack me up, check out the progression ... here we are with Eric and Stan (L to R)

 Is Mark doing the Cougar growl?
Wait, what are we doing?

Finally, a normal picture! Notice how different my eyes will look in 20 more miles and 7 hours later (Scroll down)...

Lap 4: 7:06:55

As you can see in the photos, I started the beast lap all smiles and I ended the beast lap in a dark hole.

The first miles with Eric were great. We kept a great power walking pace and had lively conversation. Eric fell once and for some reason, this was funny to me, maybe because he made a joke about it, but Eric, I am sorry if I laughed at you! Mark and Stan spent these early miles together and we all met back up at the Nature Center. Mark’s feet were really starting to hurt and after changing shoes at Dogwood, Mark took his shoes on and off many times over the next 40 miles. So, while we were keeping a decent moving pace, it was our stops at the aid stations that really slowed us down.

Nature Center gave me the first inkling that my stomach was starting to turn sour, but for the time being I was ok. With night fall, we began eating potato soup, ramen noodles and instant mashed potatoes, again, all welcome changes to all things PBJ. We saw Doug and he told us to wake him at Park Road because he was going to park there and rest in the car while waiting for us.

We all left the Nature Center together and Stan sang us a humorous, self-written song about fire ants. It was really well done and I was impressed with his ability to sing and shuffle along at the same time.

When we turned on the stretch to Damnation I had to stop in the trees to hit the bathroom again – another foreboding sign, and took some Tylenol for aches that were developing.

When we got to Damnation, Mark wanted to change into his other set of extra shoes, so I used the opportunity to change my socks. I discovered large blisters on a couple of toes, but they weren’t bothering me, so I didn’t pop them even though Eric really wanted me to. The new socks felt awesome!

This is what the blisters looked like after the race since I didn't get a photo during the race :)

What I remember most about the 6 mile loop from Damnation to Damnation was having to stop to in the woods – a lot - and losing a glove, which coincidentally was found by Stan. Eric and Stan kept us entertained and we generally all stayed together. On one section, Eric and I got ahead and I stopped to pee and in the balancing act that followed I dropped a glove on the trail. When Stan and Mark caught up I lamented that I had lost a glove and Stan said he had picked one up because he saw one on the trail and didn’t want to leave any litter behind. He didn’t realize it was mine, but I was so thankful to have it back because my hands were cold.

When we got back to Damnation I asked one of the volunteers if the frequency with which I was having to stop to pee should be a cause for concern as it is not my normal habit, but she said that she would be worried if I wasn’t having to go and that my body was just letting go of the water it retained during the heat of the day. It was also on this section that I realized my stomach was starting to feel worse and I began to worry about how much worse it would get. I was getting cold after our stops and then too warm as we got moving again, although on occasion I would get really cold for no reason. Looking back, I don’t know why I didn’t put on a long sleeve shirt under my windbreaker, I had plenty of clothing options in both of my drop bags and a clean, dry shirt would have likely helped (certainly on lap 5)!

On the route back to Park Road, Stan regaled us with another song, this time about cereal. It was another creative masterpiece using pretty much every cereal you could think of. I told him after this experience he would need to write a song about body functions since that seemed to be the topic of our loop, given my frequent bathroom stops.

When we made it back to Park Road, Eric went to wake up Douglas while I hit the porta potty and attempted to get excited about the pancakes that made me so happy a mere 20 miles ago. I made myself eat a couple of pancakes despite my protesting stomach, knowing that I needed the calories.

I think that this is the only photo from this lap, except the one right before we start lap 5 ... I blame that on it being the middle of the night?  I have a mouth full of pancakes I am attempting to chew ... 75.6 miles in.

In reading this report, it sounds like a lot of food, but we typically only ate a little bit at each aid station, and a single serving of a quarter PBJ, a triangle of quesadillas or a serving of mashed potatoes, for example, are no more than 100 calories, if that. I tried to eat solid food at the aid stations and PowerBar products in between aid stations on the trail, that way I was taking in calories at least every 30 minutes. Despite my best efforts all day, there were at least two times my stomach growled and I realized I was HUNGRY. When that happened, I just loaded up on calories the best I could and thankfully, that did the trick.

Eric or Doug also took the opportunity to let Erin and Jennifer know that we were on our way so that they could be on deck and ready to go.

We tried to run a little bit on this stretch which actually felt good, but I don’t remember much else as this was the beginning of my darkest point in the race. As we were approaching Dogwood, I remember seeing Dat Le on his way back out for lap 5, another friend from RLtW who we had run into several times over the course of the first 80 miles, and he left us with sage advice … “don’t stop for too long.”

Check out my "deer in the headlights" look ... 80 miles in, ramen noodles in hand

Lap 5: 6:58:15

Eric and Stan had done an excellent job leading us through what is considered by many as the hardest lap, and they passed the baton to the very capable Erin and Jennifer.

Eric and Stan laid it out for the girls, we needed to finish this lap before Noon – which gave us roughly 7 hours and 45 minutes to finish the loop, and we had taken over 7 hours on the last loop. Erin checked with Joe on the aid station cut offs and she and Jennifer memorized where we needed to be by what times. Our goal was to stay in front of the cut off times by an hour and half, to play it safe, and Erin and Jennifer took this job seriously.

There was something liberating about starting the last lap, but in terms of how I felt, the first 6 miles of this loop (Dogwood to Damnation) were probably my darkest miles. My stomach was still not feeling “right” as if I was on the verge of feeling really nauseous without actually feeling nauseous, at least for more than a few moments at a time. I call this a nervous stomach. I didn’t want to throw up because I was worried about having enough calories to keep going and despite the fact that I was not watching our cumulative time or the time of day, I knew we had many hours before making it back to the finish line so calories definitely still mattered. I ended up power walking with one hand cradling my stomach and doing a deep Lamaze type breathing for a good portion of those 6 miles. The deep breathing was calming more than anything else, as if I concentrated on just my breathing nothing else would hurt, including my stomach. This was also the first time all day that I really felt tired, but thankfully the sun rise was just around the corner and it was what I needed to wake me up and shake me out of my funk. I know I talked to both Erin and Jennifer during these miles, but I have no idea what we talked about.

It was during this stretch that Mark had his first hallucinations, which were recounted by Jennifer to us at the Nature Center aid station as I had been walking with Erin. Apparently, Mark tried to convince Jennifer that there was a snake in the path. Of course, it was a root, but Mark gave it a wide berth because he still thought it was a snake, despite Jennifer’s insistence that it was not.

After the brief stop at Nature Center I got really cold, teeth chattering, shaking cold. This had happened earlier in the race for brief moments, but I quickly warmed back up as we got moving, so much so that I often actually got hot, but this time, I stayed cold. Jennifer was kind enough to offer me one of her layers, which I put on over my pack, so it was basically covering my arms and upper chest, but it did the trick and warmed me up immediately. I looked ridiculous, Mark called me hunch back, but I was warm! Around this time, not far from Damnation, I had to stop to pee again, and Mark and Erin went ahead.

Erin and Jennifer did a great job switching back and forth between Mark and I throughout this loop in an effort to keep both of us moving. I was so happy to see Damnation, mentally checking off one more stop on the lap. My Garmin died around 85 miles so I also lost the ability to judge time and distance.

While Mark was stopped at Damnation, I was ready to keep moving, so I took off and Jennifer followed me, and Erin and Mark decided to catch up. I did that a lot on the last lap, I would just take off when I was ready without saying anything to anyone, but Erin and Jennifer kept an eye on me and I was never alone for long. It wasn’t planned, I think I was just doing what my body told me to do, which was thankfully “keep going!” I remember starting a conversation with Jennifer on the climb out of Damnation and when Erin and Mark were within conversational distance Jennifer telling them that “Anne is back”. I guess I was in a darker place than even I had realized. After the race, Douglas told me that he had been worried about me when I left Dogwood and Nature Center because I had a lost look in my eyes (see photo above).

When Mark and Erin caught up to us, he said that they had picked up a stray … and that is how Hannah joined our ranks for the last 14 miles of our 100 mile adventure. Hannah, an experienced ultra runner, was doing the 100 miler solo and had no pacer so she joined our band of misfits and we were all the better for it. For me personally, having someone who had completed this distance before and could validate how I was feeling made a huge difference, especially when the tears started.

Mark and I spent a lot of this lap in varying degrees of “dark places”, but Erin, Jennifer and Hannah kept the conversation going and the miles ticked by, albeit slowly. I was still stopping to pee every mile and half, but Hannah swore she was too and that it was totally normal, so I stopped worrying as much about that. My stomach settled a little bit more and I decided that I was going to just take in PowerBar gels and forgo the solid food for the rest of the race. I was just done chewing, and the balanced nutrition and easy to swallow gel were exactly what I needed.

Hanna also doled out hard candy that sucking on seemed to help calm my head and my stomach. This is definitely something I will keep in my pack for future races.

The sun rose on the Damnation to Damnation loop and it definitely woke me up. I had heard that there is something indescribable about a sunrise during an ultra – the dawn of a new day, renewed hope, the light at the end of the tunnel – and I can attest that all of those things are true. It didn’t hit me right at sunrise, but around 91 miles into the race when we crossed the dam and saw the still lake and sunlight literally pouring down on us, I was moved to tears. This is one of the only spots you get full sunlight on the course and the sun warmed me to my soul – I don’t think I realized until that moment how cold I had been. I actually had to hand the camera to Erin and ask her to take photos of the lake because I thought it was so incredibly beautiful but I was too overcome with emotion to take the photos and I didn’t want to stop moving! So I cried and power walked and the moment passed, but I knew in my bones, we would get our buckles.

Look how still the lake is and how everything if perfectly reflected in it?  Beautiful!
 See how the sun is steaming in on the right side of the photo - I swear, it was beaming directly into me to warm me up!
 A lovely day to fish ... or finish 100 mile trail race!
 Here we are walking ahead ... the sun was so bright and warm it was almost spirtual!

When we got back to Damnation, I grabbed something to eat and took off again solo. We had done a good job on sticking to the schedule of staying in front of the cut offs thanks to excellent pacing by Erin and Jennifer.

Walking with Hannah to Damnation
 Finally, a picture with our pacers and Hannah (Jennifer, Hannah, Erin L to R) before leaving Damnation - I was so out of it at 80 miles I forgot the group photo!  Great shot of my half attempt to put on Jennifer's shirt.

I forgot to thank the volunteers before I left so I turned around and yelled “Thank you!” and one of them responded, “Congratulations!” … which, you guessed it, made me cry again. They were happy tears. Tears of joy and accomplishment not tears of pain, although likely tears of an exhausted person. Hannah told me she bawled her eyes out earlier in the race and that my reaction was totally normal, driven by out of whack hormones from being exhausted. Regardless, I didn’t let the tears slow me down.

One of the things that I love about ultra runners, is that they are so supportive of one another. At one point, while I was walking and crying somebody passed us and said that I “looked great!” I am sure that I looked like crap, but I appreciated the sentiment all the same.

The 3.4 miles from Damnation to Park Road were all about getting to see Douglas for me. I was doing a good job power walking or walking with purpose, but my right IT band had seized up and it was difficult to muster much of a run. I knew I would cry like a baby when I saw him, and that is exactly what happened. Thankfully, he wasn’t concerned by the tears at all, he understood my emotion and he told me later, was thankful to see the tears because that meant that I was back from whatever dark place I had been in the last time he saw me. With the sun out and just over an hour to go, I took off my layers, my pack and my headlamp and gave everything to Douglas, leaving me with just a couple of PowerBar gels and my handheld for the last section.

 Full on tears seeing the hubby
 This is it, Mark and Anne - 95.6 miles in.

The volunteers at the Park Road aid station congratulated us, although I am not sure they knew what to think of my emotional display, and we were off. It was 4.4 miles to the finish line and while we knew we had plenty of time to get there, we were ready to get there. We passed the research crew for the last time and I gave them a score of 18 out of 20, equating to “very difficult” on the difficulty scale. They told me that I looked great compared to others that had passed by, whatever that means 97 miles into a race!

Shortly after we saw Erin’s boyfriend, Manuel, running towards us. He had camped out in Huntsville with Erin all weekend and would have liked to run with us, but it is only one pacer per person. We introduced him to Hannah and congratulated him on entering the ranks of pacer. I seem to recall all of us playing a bit of the Movie game, laughing, walking with Mark – both of us acknowledging without words that we were hurting. Mark’s feet were really hurting, so he had trouble walking at my pace, but he was still able to run / shuffle / trot whereas at this point my right leg was really in pain and I definitely preferred walking for pain management. Looking back, I wonder if I had pushed myself to try to run it out if I would have been able to mentally move past the pain, but at the time, I knew I didn’t need to run to finish, so I didn’t.

At some point, my pace took off from the group, again really just doing what was comfortable for my body, and Manuel joined me. I think the first thing I did was apologize in advance for an emotional outbursts that he may witness in these last miles. He was great company and he ticked the miles off one by one for us since his Garmin was working. We talked about triathlon and this race and God knows what else. When we turned away from the lake towards the main park road which is the route to the finish, I could almost taste being done. I knew we had one more rooty climb, and that I would wait for Mark and the rest of the crew at the road crossing right after that. It was a long last mile.

Waiting at the road crossing with Manuel
When we got to the road crossing I got a little emotional again. I had a brief conversation with a 12-ish year old boy who was pacing the last bit with his Dad and asked him if he was so proud of his Dad – and of course, he was. It didn’t take long for Mark and crew to catch us and for the last half mile (or less), Mark, Hannah and I walked it in together, with the pacers sort of falling back.

When we finally got within sight of the finish line, we talked about trying to run it in but the consensus was walking it in was just fine. I really wanted to run it in but my right leg didn’t want to hear it. Of course, I cried, as we crossed the finish line in 29:12 and I received my hard earned buckle.

Last stretch
 We did it!

 Still crying ...
 A smile!

Sweaty hugs and thank yous were exchanged and then I hobbled over to our canopy and sat down and took off my shoes and socks. I quickly got cold in the shade, but Douglas thoughtfully got me into the sun and it felt heavenly. My body also quickly got stiff, which made my subsequent trip to the porta portty and the car quite humorous and painful. As I sit here typing, my right knee is still out of sorts, but my heart is happy and hopefully my knee will be happy soon again as well!

I have to end this report with gratitude – I am so incredibly thankful for the endless support and encouragement my husband tirelessly gives, he truly deserves his own buckle. I feel incredibly blessed for the support of our pacers, Stan, Eric, Erin, Jennifer and bonus pacer, Manuel, for their willingness to sacrifice their weekends to be a part of our adventure and for their relentless commitment to help get us to the finish line. To Joe, for showing me the way. To my friends and family for the following along all day and for cheering us on for us from afar. To my Rev3 teammates for the endless encouragement and my sponsors, especially PowerBar for keeping me well nourished, Tri Slide for keeping me chafe free, and for Normatec MVP for helping me recover after every hard work out and race. And, of course, to Mark, whom I am incredibly grateful to have shared this experience.

If you made it this far, thanks for reading!