It is the Monday after the Flagsatff 55k Sky Race and my body feels like I went 5 rounds with Ronda Rousey and my knees look like hamburger meat. For a variety of reasons it wasn’t my day. I got well and truly rocked by this race and while I am definitely somewhat disapointed, I am proud of the accomplishment and want to try to learn from the experience. The diagnosis below is not a list of excuses, but rather an attempt to identify contributing factors to why I had such a rough day. Some of them are out of my control, but many are not and all can teach me something which can be applied in future races.
First of all I want to say that even if I had the race I was expecting, I would have been outrun by the women’s champion Kristi Knecht. From what I can tell, she is a total beast and did an amazing job representing her hometown in this race. I was hoping for a sub-7 hour finish; pretty much exactly an hour faster than what I actually ran. Kristi just missed the course record with a super impressive 6:36. I wish I had more time to hang around at the finish to get to talk to her but alas I was so slow that I had almost no time between finishing, the awards ceremony and having to rush off to catch my flight.
Part 1: Great Expectations
It is funny how a 2nd place finish in one race can feel like the best thing in the world and be such a big disappointment in a different race. It all comes down to expectations. I am not disappointed in the 2nd place finish at Flagstaff. As I said above, I was well and truly out-run, but I am disappointed in my time. It is possible I had unrealistic expectations going into the race, and possible that I should have adjusted expectations after I had some pretty big setbacks in the first couple of miles – more on those later – but either way, the fact that I felt significantly worse and was moving significantly slower than I expected played a big part in the mental struggles I had on Saturday. I knew the race would be hard, but I am so much more fit than when I did Broken Arrow in June, I thought I would be able to move faster. I knew the altitude would be something I had to deal with, but I have been sleeping in an altitude tent for 4 weeks and thought it would have helped more than it seems to have done. Maybe I didn’t have enough time in the tent or maybe I overestimated the impact it would have on how I felt, but either way when I realized about 4 miles in that I didn’t feel good at all, I knew I had a lot of mental work to do to even get to the finish of this race. I knew the final climb up a black diamond ski hill would be tough, but overall the course looked more runnable than Broken Arrow and so I used that, plus my added fitness and time in the altitude tent to anticipate I would be able to run around 6:50. I thought that time might be good enough for a win, but I wasn’t sure and just hoped to be able to be in the mix.
Part 2: Mental Momentum
Funnily enough, I had re-read Chapter 2 of How Bad do You Want It by Matt Fitzgerald on the plane. This chapter focuses on preparing yourself for the worst so that when you feel better than expected, you create positive mental momentum which can have a dramatic impact on performance. I dug myself into mental hole very early on and struggled to get out of it for pretty much the entire race. Despite a very hectic past few weeks at work, I was able to mostly clear my head and focus thanks to a free day in Flagstaff on Friday. I spent the day marveling in Mother Nature’s beauty at a peaking Aspen grove and got to see my friend Brogan who happened to be in town and is the best hype man around. I also found a serendipitous unicorn pin at some random store which seemed to be the exact reminder of my mantra for the year that I needed: Be more unicorn. I started the race this way, but almost immediately started the downward spiral when I was clipped by a passing runner about half a mile in. I went down hard but the adrenaline was so high that I popped right back up and held onto my position. As the adrenaline wore off, the shock of the fall set in and I felt shaky and weak. I dropped back and tried to shake it off. About a mile or so later, as I was going up the first big climb, I saw a blue ribbon. Blue is bad since it is used to mark the wrong way. I did not see an orange ribbon near the blue ribbon and I realized I must have missed a turn in my post fall haze. I kept going for a bit hoping to see a ribbon and when I didn’t I turned around started going back down. About a quarter mile later, I came across the next couple of runners who informed me I had indeed been going the right way. I cursed myself and turned around. At this point I knew I had given up precious time and was going to have to fight like hell to be in contention. The first climb up Elden was hard but I felt like I was moving ok. Once we topped out and I didn’t have my usual turnover on the decent I realized my body was not responding the way it should be. My feet were not picking up and I almost tripped several times from catching my toe on a rock or a root. Each little dinger took a chip out of my confidence. I made it up Elden the second time without being passed by the 39K runners who started 2 hours after us (which was a goal of mine) and saw Jamil at the top. When I asked how far ahead F1 was, his response was “uhhhh a lot” and I knew I was out of the running for first. That knowledge combined with how bad I was feeling only 12 miles into the race had me running scared for pretty much the rest of the race. The mental momentum was not going in the right direction. However, I knew the next 12 miles were runnable and I could get my legs back. Except that I didn’t. The lowest point for me mentally was around mile 16 when I was figuratively crawling my way up a mild climb that normally wouldn’t have even phased me. I was thinking “If I have to walk this much for the rest of the runnable section, I am so totally fucked” Just as I was entering the dark place, this energetic 39k runner passed by me and offered a friendly hello. I looked over only to see that it was none other than Alicia Vargo, a local professional runner who had a baby something like 10 weeks ago and was looking super strong. This alone was inspiring to me but I assumed she would just bound off so when she slowed a bit to ask me how I was doing and to offer some encouraging words before taking off, I was really blown away. In hindsight, this was the turnaround for me mentally. I made it to the top of that climb and found myself elevated by the simple act of kindness from my fellow runner. I told my legs to GFY and found a new sense of focus. My legs never did come back, but I was able to make them work enough to get up the steepest climbs I have ever done and overcome more mid-race challenge than I have faced before and for that I am proud.
Part 3: Let’s Get Physical
There is no doubt in my mind that I am the most fit I have been since I started trail running a couple years ago. I have been building slowly and consistently all year with no major setbacks or chunks of time off for the first time since I graduated college – which was a decade ago. I am still working through some core, back and hip issues and have a couple minor niggles from a long season of racing, but I went into this race feeling strong and prepared for the tough mountain terrain. I have been fighting off the office cold for about a week and had a small cough and restricted lung capacity but never fully succumbed so figured I was fine.
I’ll never know how my race would have gone if I hadn’t fallen early, but I think that the majority of my lingering physical issues are from that fall. My back and core muscles were so tight and sore when I woke up on Sunday that I had trouble even getting out of bed. My friend who is a PT pointed out that my symptoms sounded like whiplash which I hadn’t even considered, but it makes sense. My pace certainly didn’t push my physical limits and my leg muscles feel fine. This conclusion leads me to wonder how many of my physical issues on the day might have been caused by that fall. I feel pretty strongly that my continually growing back pain and tightness was caused by the fall since I had no issues in training. In the end, it doesn’t really matter since these things happen and you can’t control them and they are a part of racing, but having an explanation for why my body felt so bad certainly helps.
Another factor to consider is the altitude. While the race does top out above 11,000, the majority of it takes place between 7,000 and 9,000 feet which is similar to the TRT 50 miler I ran in July. This race was significantly shorter and yet I felt better running at TRT. I have been sleeping in an altitude tent set to 9,000 feet for just under 4 weeks leading up to the event in the hopes that it would make the runable sections actually runable for me. Maybe I didn’t have enough time in the tent, or maybe it was set too high for the amount of time I was able to be in it and so I didn’t get the benefits. It was an experiment and I am still working out how I respond to the tent. I do know I had just started to feel peppy in training again before the race and that I felt totally normal at 7,000 in Flagstaff before the race.
Part 4: Conclusion
So what does it all mean? Well like I said, I had a tough day, I worked through it to finish and hold onto second place*. I learned some things. I became stronger. I got to experience a beautiful sunrise from Mount Elden and run through peaking Aspen groves. I got to see a friend I hadn’t expected to see. I got to meet Rob Krar and the Vargos. I got to experience the generosity of our little trail running community when Eric Senseman let me, a total stranger, stay in his brand new house. I am taking the good memories and the lessons and moving on to prepare for my final race of the season on my home trails at sea level: the North Face Endurance Challenge 50 miler.
Huge thanks to Sufferfest Beer, Salomon and Gu for their support and to all my friends and family who sent me encouraging texts and tweets, it meant a lot to me to know you were pulling for me. A special thanks to my coach Mario who took time out of is Hawaiin vacation to check in on the race and follow up with me afterwards. Thanks to Aravaipa Running for putting on such a well executed event.
*When I came through the finish they announced that I was in third place, even though I had been running in second all day. After a discussion with the finish line crew, I learned that I came through the mile 30 check point 10 minutes ahead of 3rd place but she came through the finish 9 minutes ahead of me. I most certainly did not get passed on the final climb even though it was almost 2,000 feet in 1.5 miles. Upon further investigation we learned that the 3rd place female and another male runner had accidentally cut off the final 500 or so feet of climbing. Since she was the front runner for the US Sky Running Series and it was a small course cut, they decided to give her a 10 minute penalty instead of a DQ. This meant she won the overall series (congrats Amanda!) and somehow it meant that I got 2nd on the overall series which was certainly a surprise.