Monday, February 10, 2014

ATY 6-Day Race: Lessons Learned

As long as the last post was, I didn't want to weigh it down with the details of the race. That is, the stuff that I want to remember in case I ever decide to do something like this again. Just maybe it will be useful for someone else too...

First, the big question. Could I have done 300 miles? Yes. I am sure I could have. I made one mistake that would have made it much more difficult, and another mistake which stopped me from trying, but I believe that if I did it again with my current knowledge, I could have completed 300 in 6 days.

The first mistake that preventing me from trying for 300: Believing that the soreness I felt after day one was a sign that something was "wrong". I don't know why I got the idea that 50 miles wouldn't make me sore. Of course it will. But it always gets better. Soreness never means something is broken or getting worse. Don't be so afraid of the discomfort.

My second mistake: Don't rush. This bit me a tiny bit on day one: no 9 minute miles! But on day three, it created a huge problem that I'm still paying for. I had to walk most of the day. My muscles were too sore to run. So I walked. Which is fine. But I tried to walk fast. I was worried about getting behind in mileage or being out on the course too late so that I would get cold. Don't worry about it, slow down. It only made my hip hurt to walk that fast, and that was a problem that I had to deal with the rest of the days of the race. In fact, I'm still dealing with it. On day four, I wanted to walk a lap with Brian. But he was walking fast. I should have just not done it. Instead, I forced my way through it at the end of the day. My hip was toast after that and I had two days of running to do still. Be patient, your body can do it, but only in its own time.

The trivial things:
  1. I rocked the nutrition this time! So don't mess with it next time. If you don't feel like eating something, then don't. But pick something else that doesn't sound so disgusting at the moment. Remember that you can't come back from real hunger on a day like this. I drank primarily ginger ale the whole time. This has become my go-to ultra drink. I had no nausea trouble the whole time, even in the heat. It also is a "slow-drip" of calories, so I didn't have to work so hard to make time for chewing. The only thing that would have improved the situation is if I could have added ice to my bottle every once in a while to make it more palatable. I REALLY don't like ginger ale when I'm not running - weird.
  2. Don't ever forget sunscreen or lip balm (frequently). And remember to not put sunscreen on your forehead - it only ends up in your eyes - painfully. And you're wearing a visor on your forehead anyway.
  3. Timing chip needs to be VERY loose on the ankle. Even better, find a way to attach it to your shoe.
  4. Gaiters - I have to find ones with a wider, more comfortable elastic top. I wore them the first three days, but then realized that they were a big contributor to the ankle tendon issues. The last three days I skipped them, but then had to stop every once in a while to remove the accumulation of rocks from my shoes. Find another pair. (or make them?)
  5. Break down and shell out the dough for a pair of Hokas. The bottoms of my feet paid dearly in pain for what I wasn't willing to pay in cash. Try them out early, and just do it for an event of this length.
  6. Allergy medicine from the start. I didn't wait for any symptoms, I just started taking Claritin the day before the race. Not a hint of any asthma problems.
  7. Some beds are hard on the hips. Figure out a way to sleep on your back. As if this is doable...

ATY 6-day race

In February 2013, I was trying to get over my failed attempt of running 100 miles in 24 hours at the 2012 Across The Years race. But also taking over much of my thinking (and probably the real reason that my mind was not in the race at ATY) was our big move to NYC. In January we had flown out, purchased a place to live and Brian met with his future boss. I thought maybe the ultra running had come to an end. At that same time, there were some posts on the ATY facebook page that were trying to gauge the level of interest in expanding the event to a 6-day race. I was intrigued, but didn't even think about it in relation to me.

Fast forward to the summer in NY. My visit to the 3100 mile race showed me that that was too much. Mostly too much heat. I knew that if I did a multi-day, it wouldn't be a month long, and it sure as heck wouldn't be in that much heat and humidity. But I did start thinking about the 6-day race...

I started researching a little on training programs (I would post links here, but I never really found anything helpful beyond 100-mile training programs). I talked to Brian to gauge how crazy this idea of running for 6 days was. On a side note, I still have not found a thing that I want to do that Brian will discourage me from doing = reason #1,238 that I love him so.

I had no idea what target mileage I should even set, as this was so out of the realm of what I've done before. I had this for data:

My first ultra was a 12 hour night run, in which I managed 3 25k loops on fairly rough trail. So about 45 miles, just under 12 hours, and I was a bit of a wreck for a good 5 days afterward.

My second ultra was a 24 hour run, in which my goal was 80 miles. Because of the length of the loop track, I did 80.9 miles in 21 hours. I was a wreck for a week after this. Probably longer, but I jumped into running (and speed walking with the neighbors) too soon and paid with foot problems that lasted for two months. 

My third ultra was the latest 24 hour run, in which my goal was 100 miles. Which I didn't do. Because I quit. Because of many different reasons. But I did run 43 miles that day, and I was okay to go out for a jog the next day.

So from this I knew that 40ish miles should be fine to recover from and do day after day. Because I'm totally irrational when setting expectations for myself, I translated this to mean that I should be able to do 60 miles per day for 6 days and be just fine. I did scale back eventually and reset my mileage goal to 50 miles per day for 6 days (mostly because you earn a bigger belt buckle for each 100 mile increment, so why was I doing the extra 60 miles without getting a bigger belt buckle?)

So great. A plan was made; I put it up on the fridge and started working on it. I held out on registering until the last fee increase to make sure that no injuries would waste this (rather large) entry fee. I registered on October 30th. 

Then it was November.

Did I mention that I have lived my entire life in the desert, and I really had no clue what the big deal about this thing called "wind chill" is? I thought my biggest problem was going to be the much larger amount of rain. Turns out my biggest problem was the 20F wind chills that were my reality for over half of November. I thought Tucson was windy! Ha! I thought seriously about how many miles I could do on a treadmill. I shopped around for gyms for their treadmills, but who was I kidding. The longest I've ever managed on a treadmill was 6 miles. They are absolutely mental torture for me. So instead I modified my training. I took a whole unscheduled week off the week of Thanksgiving. I changed a couple of 30 mile runs into more back-to-back 20 mile runs (20 miles being the limit on damage to my face from being out in the cold). I started tapering a week and a half before I should have, because there was too much ice to run safely in the park anymore. I did the best I could to retain my sanity, because I was a VERY MEAN person when I pushed it too long in the cold.

And the result was? 

The first day I ran I managed the 50 miles. The bottoms of my feet and my ankles were super sore. My ankles are always the first to go on me, so that wasn't a surprise. But the bottoms of my feet were a bit of a surprise. So on day two, when I woke up and couldn't really even walk, I realized that I may have to adjust my goals once again.

Day one and feeling fine
On day two, I managed to run quite a bit after walking the first five miles of the day. I was a bit surprised, but also a bit encouraged. It seemed then that 30 miles a day for a total of 200 miles could be within my reach. Limiting the mileage to 30 a day guaranteed enough time to get nine hours of sleep, which is like a magic pill for my legs. The only talent I feel that I have developed is amazing recovery with sufficient sleep. Day two also was the start of several other events, which introduced several familiar faces to the course - so that helped tremendously with my morale.

Support on day two: Jessica runs with me
 On day three, I could eat these words. Even before the race started, Brian and I had discussed how day three and four would probably be the hardest, and I just had to hang on through these and then it was easy street. Day three would be hard because two days after anything is the worst muscle soreness for me. We were COMPLETELY RIGHT about that. Most of day three was spent walking, as my quads were so sore that they wouldn't really support me in a run. I kept a smile on my face and was determined to get through this. I especially didn't want to let Jessica know how bad day three was, because she had rescheduled her 48-hour into a 72-hour, which meant that she would be feeling day three pain the next day. I did pass the 100-mile mark this day, so I was guaranteed to get that belt buckle. I just still really wanted the 200-mile version of it (bigger, of course!)
I told Jessica that Nick wouldn't post our picture if we were walking and eating soup. Sorry Jessica!
On day four, I woke up, but I can't really say I woke up. My hips hurt so much from walking so much (and so fast) on day three, that I hardly slept but for a couple of hours. I was pretty sure that my race was over. As funny as it sounds, none of my training had prepared walking muscles to walk for that many hours. But, today was New Year's Eve, and Brian was starting his 24-hour race today! So I got up, got ready and said that I was going out there no matter what, but was going to quit if I couldn't run. And it was amazing! I could run. Pretty well. I got to see Brian quite a bit, who was doing an amazing job of pacing, but even then, it felt like he was sprinting compared to what my run was at that point. This was day three for Jessica, who now knew all about the pain of day three, but was well on her way to her 100-mile buckle.

Day Four: I Can Run!
 Days five and six were pretty quiet out there on the course. Most people registering for the shorter races chose to finish on new year's day. I don't blame them, it is kind of the point of the event. But the six-day race had two more days to go. The last two days were much warmer, and even had a warm, dry wind that made the middle of the day pretty hard to deal with. Most people left the course. I stayed through this time, grateful to have the problem of too hot for the first time in months. Although I was slathering on the sunscreen these two days, after the race I had a whole-face peeling that I'm hoping was more due to chapping than burning. But I've never had that much peeling on my face, so that was weird.

The night before my last day, I got a text from Jessica. She wanted to come out and join me for some miles! I couldn't believe it. She has got to be one of the best people to have in your corner cheering you on. So positive!

Brian dropped me off in the morning of the sixth day, and I started my usual one-mile warmup walk. I was feeling so calm and proud and strong. I remember being so surprised when I started running how easy it felt. It seemed that every mile I was running now was working to repair any damage I had. I felt like a spectator for most of the day, observing the world-class race that was taking place between Joe Fejes and Yiannis Kouros. Jessica showed up in the hot hours, and we had a blast chatting and jogging around the track. I felt so good that sometimes I was even able to run - really run - a lap. It was great! My dad and Carolee were there, and mom and Brian showed up too. I was really having fun, but also looking forward to being done earlier than normal on this final day so that I could get cleaned up and go out for a real celebration dinner.

The last lap I asked Jessica and Brian to run with me to the finish line. Brian hadn't run since his race which ended two days before this. He had ran 70.86 miles in under 17 hours, so he was really sore. Jessica and I imitated his run a little bit, and we all laughed and joked our way to the finish line. I had told everyone that my plan was to cross the finish line and then lie down in the grass, and that's exactly what I did. I love lying in the grass in the sunshine, and it had been beckoning me during the entire race. My family thought I was crazy, but it was a huge reward mentally for me.

I collected my belt buckle and mug (and looked through the other buckles, fondling the 300-mile one for a while, thinking of what could have been), posed for a few photos, and then hugged everyone goodbye. It was a quiet end to an epic journey.

One proud, sunburned, wind-chapped, sore and tired girl.