Tuesday, April 5, 2011

A Mountain Goat in Grasslands

Grasslands 50M was exactly what the name says: Grasslands. This land is grass, short shrubs, sand, sand, more sand, and heat in the open. It was a complete and utter suffer fest…

All photos are curtesy of Carina Cervantes

I was feeling flat all week. Whether I am burnt out with hard training, or just with hard life, I don’t know, but my workouts were lousy even for a taper week. I was not excited to go race at all. But when I showed up at the start to get my package, and everyone was so thrilled and happy, and even though I felt lonely, quite a few happen to say hello…well, you know, I felt guilty for my negative emotions and decided instead of going for a crappy race to put in a great training run. It’s all about attitude…

The race is 1 out-n-back correction trail and 4 various size loops. All I knew is that every loop is about a mile shorter than the previous. Yeah, I wasn’t into it…but I was ready to go. I was in a pleasant frame of mind…until I got off course a mere mile and half into the run. Now, I have to admit, that those horse trails were perfectly marked and color-coded, but it was dark at the start, I was looking down and running in no-man’s land: 4 guys far in front, and everybody else quite far behind. So, I ran off to some lake, asked fishermen if they saw anyone, turned around and caught on a bunch of trains of runners mid-field. While I didn’t care much (common, it’s only took me 3-4 minutes!), the adrenaline still pumped and the heart was too fast. I told myself to calm down. Not the first time happened, not the last time for certain…

Before the race RD Kevin said it’s going to be upper-80’s and in the open will feel like a 100F. At 2M in I took my shirt off. I never – NEVER – raced with no shirt. Now, I learned to run on training runs in TX wearing only sports bra, but this is only when nobody I know would see me. It was a race! I could care less – I needed to let my body breathe and cool off. Speaking of breathing, thankfully first 3.5 hrs we had mostly clouds and a breeze!

But back to the course. Once on a first loop, the warning (I wish I knew before signing up) were sand, sand and more sand. Fine sand, dust, coarse sand, an inch high, a couple, ankle deep…into your shoes, can’t run, hard to walk…am I on California beach???

But, I was out for a training run, and although I knew I am running up front, I was calm and quite positive, asking names of guys around, taking out my map at various intersections to make sure I am on correct color-coded loop, looking for markers, opening and closing the horse gates (which were so high up, I either reached standing on my toes, or couldn’t no matter what and crawled under). And I kept plowing forward.

At 11:30am the sun burnt up the clouds, and the heat came full force. Soon after I reached an AS I figured was roughly soon after half-way, and a volunteer, commenting on my being first female said some name and “she may still catch you”. Now, I may not be in a race, but I surely hate the idea of being passed by anyone in second half. At that time, despite feeling every small muscle from my anatomy book due to sliding in the sand, I was feeling rather strong and moving well. Second big loop was done, and it turned out to be a whole mile further in a distance than I thought – 31.1M instead of 30! Amazing how little I was prepared – and how little can get you excited. I went on loop 3, more sand – and the running was over…couldn’t. Zapped. Done. But the powerwalking was still good…apparently, since I pulled up on a few guys. What meant even though I am falling apart, others are not fairing any better (I know, it sounds bad, but it does help to keep moving). I did run big parts, so it was not all lost. And my mental state was pretty serious - get it done, and get it done soon! Last 3 miles on that one-before-last loop a guy I caught up with took off, running on testosterone (well, he did look strong, he was just hanging out with his struggling buddy). He wasn’t getting chicked, my man Steve. That was ok. I came to loop’s end and saw him there, and exhaling “last 9M, 2 hrs” left ahead.

And – the energy didn't magically appear for that final "kick". OK, I said, I powerwalked whole Palo Duro, I can make it with 9 miles. I was baking, dehydrated, hot, with chills under my skin and goosbumps under my hair. When Steve passed me once again, I told him to go ahead. Mentally, I was still ok, but in true ultrarunning style things change in a second. I was walking and telling myself: 8 miles left, 7.5, 7, 6.5…I remember distinctly being happy when number 6.5M came up…and literally a few seconds later I repeated 6.5M left – and was horrified. It seemed like an eternity. That I will never ever be able to make it that far. Amazingly, I started to add running bursts, in 20 seconds or so at first, then a bit longer. But the mind was done. I came to the last AS to see Steve again and told him I hate him for being able to run so well so late. Refilled my bottles with ice and water – and left before him. Of course, he caught me in a minute, than we walked together through like a mile stretch of sand. And then I was jogging. Then he was. I was walking faster, he was running stronger. We played leap, and eventually with 3 miles left I let him go. As he disappeared, the dark clouds of dehydrated fried mind came over. I was an emotional ball on the verge of tears. I didn’t want to be passed. I was afraid to look back. I never asked at any of the AS if anybody of the ladies was close, because I was petrified I would have to race – and now was mad. Getting passed in the last 3 miles would break me. I was vividly picturing if that happens. I wanted to cry and couldn’t – no water, no energy. I wanted a hug. I wanted to be home. I was telling myself, now that the last 50M course in TX is done, I don’t ever, never have to run another ultra here. Heck, I may never run another ultra, period! Then I thought I might be looking like zombie. I felt like one. I had my mouth open, eyes with blank stare, face unmoved – a photographer would have been thrilled. Somehow I was still throwing in lots of short runs. There was so much angst and pain in me, when I popped up, I hardly realized I am a bit off the other side where I had to be.

I finished about 40 seconds behind Steve. While I was congratulated and given something into my hands, I couldn’t speak, smile or react. It took me quite a few minutes to say I am ok. Apparently, I won and was 5th overall (officially 4th since one guy ran as a bandit and was DQ'ed) in time of 9:52… I think I am still not reacting properly. I think my neurons short-fused and fried.
There was a lot of filth and dirt in my clothes - and in my shoes - but I do have to give a shout-out to La Sportiva shoes and Drymax socks – with all the sand and dust and sand, no gaiters and no changes, I had not a single blister (and I've seen a few at the finish line). The built-in protection in the shoes and technology of the sock was flawless.
My dry report doesn't do justice to a race and it's organizers. It was done perfect, the single track was great, the marking awesome, and volunteers were angels. I really, truly loved how it was done. I am just not a heat runner... I am surprisingly not sore at all, in any places - while it was challenging to run on sand, the softness of it prevented from DOMS. I was kind of traumatized by the burning heat and sinking sand during a 50 miler:)

One more thing to add. Racing in Texas at anything above 50k is all about surviving skills, not the speed. Being fast is all good when you go 3-4-5 hrs. Then it's about taking care of yourself, knowing your body, drinking and eating and taking salt...and in this part I did as good as possible. May be that's why I survived the quickest:)