Race Report: Mountains2Beach Marathon 2016

The 2016 Mountains2Beach Marathon was not quite the race I’d prepared to run.  I’d run the race in 2015, and achieved a BQ time that was not enough to save me from the 2016 cut-off time (BQ -2:28). When I studied my 2015 performance, I thought about the factors that slowed me down toward the end of the race (heat, sun, lack of hydration), and I worked and planned to be prepared for those obstacles in 2016.

What I didn’t anticipate, however, was a course change. A change that, while on paper didn’t seem that different from the 2015 course in terms of elevation, ended up being enough to keep me feeling rather disoriented as the course wound its way down a highway (where’s the bike path?), from Ojai to Ventura. Last year’s peaceful bike path through the trees was replaced by a rolling highway, and cars held back by police officers (thank you!) at a number of intersections along the way. I saw a couple of drivers, clearly frustrated from having to wait, dart across the course with little separating the runners from their car. It was definitely not a time to “zone out.”

Actually, perhaps the biggest change was in the first 6-7 miles of the course. Last year, runners were leaving downtown Ojai by mile 2; this year, we spent more time wandering around Ojai, beginning the race with a not-insignificant elevation gain for the first 3 miles, then pretty much doubling back past the start line, and finally heading down the road. We didn’t join the bike path until mile 11; I’d driven the course the day before specifically to be more familiar with the course changes, however when we got to mile 11 and I saw the bike path, I assumed the rest of the course was the same as last year, save for the last 2 miles at the beach. I mean, the course map showed a squigly line from Ojai to Ventura, and the elevation chart showed a downhill profile that, at least from mile 11 on, seemed like last year’s course. But I’m not familiar with the area, so I completely missed the fact that about 1.5 miles in on the bike path the course left it – and never returned.

It’s not that I mind a rolling course; in fact, I totally love California International Marathon because of the rolling course. I just like knowing what to expect. In my brain, for months now, M2B was a downhill freight train. Turns out, not quite so much.

Around mile 15, a funny thing happened. Not funny. Tragic. Shitty. Frustrating. My left hamstring, which I confess had been a little tight after Revel Mt Charleston a couple of weeks ago, decided to go full cramp – OUCH! Like, stop and scurry to the side of the road and try to stretch it out kind of OUCH. Here’s a confession: I have been fortunate in that I have not been injured during a race. Between December 2014 and August 2015 I ran 3 marathons, BQ times in each, without any problems during training or the race. I know, I’ve been damn lucky.

M2B2016_1After a brief stop to stretch, I tried to resume my pace. I lasted about 2-3 miles, each mile getting slower and slower. My hamstring was not feeling better; in fact with each step it felt like a painful balloon threatening to pop. The reality of the situation hit me hard and fast; this race was not happening. A BQ was not happening. I looked at my Garmin, where I could see that I was still within 30 seconds of my target, and I glided to the right side of the road, slowing down to a walk. I could have settled into a major pity-party right there and then, however my hamstring was KILLING me with each step, keeping me very much in the moment. I was at mile 17, on some random highway. I had 9 more miles to get to the finish line. I texted my husband; he was waiting at mile 23, ready to pace me to a strong, on pace finish. I was afraid he would think I was just having some sort of stressed-out breakdown, that he’d try to convince me to “suck it up.” But I’d never felt anything like what I was feeling with my hamstring before. Ever. When I tried to run fast, it stabbed with a sharpness that was unsettling.

Had there been a van waiting to pick me up at any point, I’m about 99% certain I would have gotten in. I wasn’t concerned at all about a DNF. I was concerned about not being able to run for weeks or months – who knows how long? But I didn’t see any van. It was miles before I would see a medical tent too. So I walked. But walking didn’t last long at all (maybe a minute). Not because the pain went away; because my brain started calculating how damn long it would potentially take me to walk 9 miles. OMG. I couldn’t fathom the thought. I settled into what had to look like a very uncomfortable “wog,” dragging my left leg along.

The other thing that really kept me going, however, were my friends who became my cheer squad that day, chasing me down the mountain with signs, cowbells, smiles, laughter; they were amazing! They cheered me on from no less than 5 different spots on the course; earlier in the race I breezed by with my arms raised, bolstered by their voices! After I was hurt (and I didn’t tell them, but I think they figured it out), I hobbled by and found real strength and energy in their supportive words.

As I approached mile 23, anticipating seeing my husband, my left foot, which was dragging, caught some torn up asphalt and I tripped and splatted into the road. Somehow I managed to bang up my right knee, right shoulder, left side of my forehead AND left side of my ribcage. I looked up from the ground to see a handful of volunteers: “Ma’am, are you okay?”

Um. NOPE. I was dazed. I was bleeding. I couldn’t breathe (my ribcage was killing me). Holy. Cow. When is this race going to be over?? I pulled myself to my feet, grabbed some water to wash off my wounds, and moved on.

I finally reached my husband who, while understood I was super slow from a hamstring blow up, wasn’t aware of the fall until he saw my bloody knee and shoulder. A pained expression washed over his face. Seeing that, I began to choke up, only the physical act of choking up was excruciating – of course it was, because why should I get to cry? So we continued on; I got slower and slower as I became breathless with each step, not being able to take deep breaths, or even normal breaths. But I kept moving forward; along the final mile, my cheering friends once again greeted me, along with some more friends who I didn’t know would be there – what an amazing surprise! As horrible as I felt, as in pain as I was, I was so damn happy over the course of that last mile, and I credit that 100% to my husband and my friends.

Mountain 2 Beach MarathonI approached the finish; I wouldn’t be “stuffing it in.” Nope. No more falling. No more hurting. I hobbled in but, seeing the photographer at the finish line, I threw up my hands and smiled. Why? Because I was so, so happy that I managed to finish that race!

Ironically, it wasn’t even my worst marathon time; like, not even by a long shot. 4:18:09 isn’t a BQ but in any other circumstance I would be so pleased with that time. So I’ll take it.

I stopped at the medical tent; the medical voluteer listened to my lungs to make sure I hadn’t done serious damage. He cleaned up my knee and gave me ice for, well, everything. I had a friend who was running her 2nd marathon that day and, with all the love and support I’d just received, I definitely wanted to pay it forward, so we waited along the final stretch and cheered runners in until we saw her. While waiting, I sucked down a double margarita (my amazing friends brought it to me at the finish), shed some quiet tears, and reflected. I don’t know where my Boston dream goes from here.

October 21, 2015: 10 Lessons Learned Running Ragnar Vail Lake

It was quite an adventure
It was quite an adventure

A few weeks ago I ran my first Ragnar event: Ragnar Vail Lake. I was also our team’s captain, a designation which, to me at first just meant “the one who registered the team.” But as the event drew near I felt more and more responsible for leading 7 other people on this adventure, so I did as much research as I could to be prepared, and in the end I think it went well for everyone.

So rather than post a play-by-play recap of the event, I thought I’d share what I learned in case I ever lose my mind and decide to foray into another trail relay. If you are an experienced Ragnarian these are probably obvious insights, but for the less experienced, lets just say I wish someone had told ME these things.

      1. Looking at the Village from the Red Loop
        Looking at the Village from the Red Loop

        You won’t just wear your headlamp on the trail. It’s dark for a full 12 hours in October, and the campground is completely dark. Going back and forth from your campsite to the village, you’ll want some light so you don’t trip over tent stakes, bodies asleep in sleeping bags, and such. And you might want some light if you need to visit the porta potty. So bring extra batteries.

        On the trail? Two light sources are a MUST when running a trail at night. Why? I found that my bright headlamp pretty much washed out the ground in front of me – I saw the trail but not the small rocks and bumps that could trip me up. I held a small flashlight down low and it cast enough of a shadow to allow me to avoid several face plants on the Red trail.

      2. Runner order, complete with smiley faces expressing how we felt about each leg!
        Runner order, complete with smiley faces expressing how we felt about each leg!

        Post the runner order, and make sure everyone can see it. Make a poster. Put it on a piece of paper. Send it out before hand. Know it. Live it. In addition to helping remind us who is going where, when, we enjoyed crossing of our legs as we completed them. I also had a smaller version with estimated start times, which I updated after every leg. That helped us have an idea of when each runner should head down to the Transition Tent.

      3. Don’t expect to get any real sleep. I guess what I mean to say is, tents are not soundproof. And blow up mattresses suck. Unless you are one of those people who can sleep under any conditions (and I know there are people who are like that), don’t expect to get more than an extended nap, if that. Personally, I think I drifted off for a total of 10 minutes. Maybe. Sure, I laid down in my tent for several hours but the constant quiet chatter of runners (everywhere) as they left/arrived for their legs, plus my odd cold-sweat issues (it was cold, I was warm, I would sweat, then I would freeze) kept me awake. I probably would have had a better shot at sleep had I trudged down to the fire pits where people were talking at full volume – white noise, if you will. BUT having said that, don’t stress out about not getting any sleep. Not only did I get through my legs with almost no sleep, I ran my last leg – a fourth leg, no less – with my fastest time.
      1. Quite a few tents up the night before the event.
        Quite a few tents up the night before the event.

        If at all possible, set up your campsite the night before the event. We had an early start time (9:30am) and by the time I started the first leg, the campground was already pretty crowded – and teams continued to stream in and setup tents well in to the late afternoon. We only set up 2 tents the night before but we also roped off an area for the rest of our tents, so it was one less thing to worry about in the morning.

      1. Eight individual runners = eight distinct palates. If I did this again (as a captain or as a team member) I would encourage everyone to just be responsible for their own fueling. That is just my opinion. It is great to be able to coordinate a pot-luck styled setup beforehand but ultimately it can be challenging to make sure everyone’s individual fueling needs are met. The event did have a caterer selling basic meals – wraps, burgers, and a free pasta dinner for runners – yes the lines could be long at times but between legs what else are you going to do? And if you have certain things you like to eat before a run, this is no time to “be a team player” and just go along with whatever the team decides to bring. Bring the food you want/need to eat. Do bring something that doesn’t need to be heated up. And do prepare it before hand so it’s ready to eat. If you are traveling from out of town and cannot bring your meals, be prepared to eat what the caterer sells, or arrive early enough to hit the store so you can bring the food you need to eat. I felt we had too little of certain foods, and way too much of other foods, in our attempt to quasi-potluck our meals. While I wouldn’t stop anyone from taking the potluck approach if this is what they really wanted to do, for me I would still plan to be responsible for my own meals.
      1. Best advice I’d read beforehand: Put each leg’s outfits in a separate plastic resealable bag. Label them (Leg 1, Leg 2, etc). Include EVERYTHING you plan to wear on that leg in that bag – I even included my hairbands, hats, buffs, underwear, etc. (Using this approach I did end up bringing something like 7 pairs of underwear – better safe than sorry!) Bring extra bags with extra clothes in them. I had bags for my between-leg apparel. I had bags with warmer running clothes and warmer hang-out clothes. I had bag labeled “extras” with extra everything – socks, underwear, etc. Let me just say that, crouched in a small dark tent, was I ever grateful to have everything bagged and labeled!
      1. Have a plan B in case a runner gets injured. Because it will happen. In fact, have a plan C in case two runners get sidelined. This was, I felt, my biggest fail as a captain. I understood that once the race began I could not bring in a new runner as an alternate (Ragnar rules), but I guess I (VERY INCORRECTLY) assumed that once we got to the “start line” with all 8 runners, all 8 runners would, well, they would run. In my mind if there was an injury, certainly it would be so tragic that, as a team, we simply wouldn’t continue. (I know, a bit over-dramatic, right?) But small tweaks, sprains, and twists can sideline a runner (or should – you don’t want to run on a small injury and turn it into a major one).
        I would recommend polling the team – who would be willing to run a 4th leg? Who would be okay running a back-to-back leg? Who would run an extra Green leg, but not an extra Red leg? Who doesn’t mind being awakened in the middle of the night to run a leg? Have that conversation well in advance of the event. And be sure you have teammates willing to take on those extra legs.
      1. The noodles...
        The noodles…

        It’s fun to have a team shirt and a team “theme” (ours was Just Keep Running, inspired by Finding Nemo’s Dori and her saying “Just Keep Swimming”). But don’t kill yourself trying to decorate your campsite. There were a few teams that really took their camp decorations seriously, but from what I observed the vast majority did not. You just aren’t there long enough to enjoy it.

      1. Bring extra toilet paper. The porta potties run out.
      1. Embrace the adventure! If you are new to trail running be sure you get some trail miles under your belt before heading to Vail Lake – those trails are no joke! Red was downright scary – I ran it in the dark – but scary in an exhilarating way. Honestly, it was the most fun I’ve ever had on a trail run, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little terrified as I headed out on that leg, after hearing reports from my teammates about ascents so steep that many runners fell backwards, tumbling down the mountain, and narrow single track with long, steep drop-offs. Luckily, my headlamp contained my peripheral vision so I couldn’t “see” what to be afraid of and as such, running Red in the dark became an awesome adventure for me!
Finisher Glass
Finisher Glass

Will I run another Ragnar Trail race? Um….maybe? I’m a road runner at heart and while the right trail can be a blast to run on, I just haven’t embraced it the way many do. But I’m open to it. Vail Lake was the first Ragnar Trail race for my entire team, and I’d like to think everyone got out of it what they hoped to.