For starters, this race report is going to read a bit differently than last year's, as I felt like a completely different person running this time around. At one point I was actually asking myself, "Who ARE you?? How are you running like this?!" as I gleefully bounded down the final descent. I want to share just how much difference a year of learning and training can make, especially because all the changes that took place could not be seen on the surface.
I want to share the changes I made with nutrition, hydration and training that not only brought me to the starting like of this year's Quest for the Crest 50K with confidence, but carried me through to a strong finish with a big smile.
1. Too much work, not enough rest. Between a standard regimen centered around a couple key workouts and a weekend long run, PLUS working days in the gym and nights in a restaurant, I should have spent a lot more time resting - that is, SLEEPING. But I was too caught up in socializing after work and was plagued with constant soreness and fatigue.
2. One-hit wonder. That's what my training was like: Week after week nearly the same thing without much variety except the location of my long run. I also did most of my running on my own, so I did nearly every run at the same tough-to-hard pace, because I thought "recovery runs" were junk miles I could easily do without.
3. No nutrition plan. I thought it was enough to just eat when hungry so long as I kept up with my hydration. But I also often only ran with a low-calorie electrolyte drink (Nuun tabs) and did not replenish calories properly during longer runs. I thought that as my body became more efficient I could get away with less, when really I should have been training my body to eat and digest MORE. So when race day came and I decided that I was then going to try to introduce gels into my race diet, my stomach revolted.
1. I recognize this is not something everyone can do, but I adjusted my work schedule to allow for less stress and more restful evenings. I'm still on my feet most of the day and there's no shortage of things to do between training clients and running a household, but I haven't gone "out" (like I used to after weekend shifts) more than a handful of times in the past year. Some people can party AND crush it on the trails; I had to recognize I am NOT one of those people!
2. The change in my schedule allowed for more runs with other people which gave me a renewed sense of excitement for the trail and made those long runs far more tolerable. Sometimes we'd push, other times we'd take our time and stop to chat - especially at places like the Appalachian Trail, where we'd meet fascinating characters setting off on their through-hikes. I was no longer killing myself to get the run "over with", which allowed me to focus more energy on those key cross-training workouts during the week.
3. Actually having a plan that - big shocker here - included eating and drinking MORE! I discovered Tailwind* which completely turned my training around. Between last year and today I played around with different concentrations of the drink mix as well as various combinations of fluids and solid foods until I found my perfect mix. I'll include more details below, but I'll tell you here that I had to figure it out for myself, not just go on what other people said I "should" try. And I'll use bold text and italics here for extra emphasis: No two people are exactly the same, so there is no one "perfect" nutrition plan that will suit every individual. You have to find what works for YOU!
The information that follows are the things I did that made Sunday's 50K a success. With nearly 23,000 feet of total climbing and descent, I knew that my strength training was of utmost importance. And through becoming a Tailwind Trailblazer*, I have gotten to know many other athletes like myself who were able to offer helpful advice for figuring out my perfect nutrition plan.
For my legs, quality cross-training was key. I made sure every spin class I taught offered a unique challenge, cycling through a variety of rides (get it?!) that either focused on heavy hills, muscle skills, or long sub-threshold intervals. I told my riders that they are free to do whatever feels good for THEM on that day, and that I was just there to offer suggestions to make it a killer class. They could always choose to go their own pace, or try to keep up with every drill if they were there to attack their own fitness goals. Outside of spin, my cross-training included the stair climber, Precor elliptical, and multi-chain exercises like squats plus shoulder presses and lunges plus bicep curls. Core work was essential as well; planks, push ups, trunk rotations, and bicycle crunches to name a few.
Every few weeks I'd wear myself out on purpose. I'd either do 800m repeats the day before a long run, or challenge myself with a tough cross-training workout the day before a tempo run. Again, I stress that I only did this once every few weeks, to train my legs to work hard when tired. This would be followed by an easy week of relaxed runs and lots of stretching, foam rolling, and minimal resistance exercises.
Nutrition-wise, I learned that I needed to try to take in 100-200 calories per hour. Some people may need more, some do well on less, but this is what worked best for me. I relied on Tailwind as my primary source of liquid calories but I still wanted to train my body to work on solid food so I trained with Lära bars, banana, oranges, and Hüma gels (it seems I do well with products that use umlauts in the name). This allows me to adjust my nutrition based on what's available to me... or what I happen to leave behind at an aid station, as was the case on Sunday:
Hour 1: 200 cal Green Tea Tailwind in 10 oz water -- this is more concentrated than the typical serving suggestion but it forces me to take in more calories. I followed each swig of TW with a big sip of water from my Camelpak.
Hours 2-3: Big handful clementine slices (aid station), about 150 cal Berry TW (I spilled some powder on the trail!)
Hours 4-6: Hüma gel (100 cal), 200 cal Green Tea TW
Hours 6-8: A little banana and nibble of salted potato (aid station), swig of Coke, then grabbed Lära bar, another gel, and another baggie of TW from drop bag. Accidentally leave TW on the ground but remember everything else. About half a mile away I realized what I'd done but was not going to turn around! I did a mental check and knew I still had about 350 cal on me so I'd be fine. I ate a gel and about half of the bar and took in plenty of water.
Hours 8-9: Hit the last aid station and had to "cheat" by drinking Gatorade! But it tasted a little less concentrated than the stuff in the bottle, and the orange flavor really hit the spot. I chugged about 6 oz and asked for a refill of my flask. I took another nibble of my bar and set off toward the final descent.
Hour 9-9:46: Even though I knew I would be done soon, I paused a couple times on the last descent to drink that Gatorade and keep up water as well. I did not want to crash and burn at the finish and I really think this helped me finish strong, with plenty of energy to smile and high-five!
All in all I guesstimate that I took in 900-1,000 calories, which for nearly 10 hours felt perfect. I dragged a bit on the third climb and probably would have benefited from NOT having forgotten my TW but I never came close to truly bonking.
My race strategy, based on last year's experience, was to hike the first climb strong but not too hard. I tailed some people that were moving a hair slower than my adrenaline wanted me too, but I needed that to keep my effort in check. If someone stepped off to the side though, I'd take the opportunity to pass until I caught up to the next person. Once up on the ridge I was astounded by the frost. I reached in to snap a picture with my iPhone only to find the bitter cold nearly drained my battery! No matter, though, my dear husband was a course marshal at the top of the first climb so I just hand it off to him and think "Screw it. I'm not here to take pictures, I'm here to run!"
On the map, the ridge seems relatively level compared to the rest of the course. But it's not, as anyone else who does this race can attest. Last year, this section drained my soul. I had really thought I'd be able to run more but this year I knew better and settled into a hike/shuffle pattern. Here, it was all about the mental game, literally taking the trail 20 feet at a time and not worrying about anything else. With each dip and climb it seemed as though the seasons changed. The sun would hit us and I'd break a sweat. Up and over to the other side of the ridge and we were back in the frost, speckles of ice hitting us in the face as the wind picked up and pulled the frost off the trees. This continued on for several miles to the next water stop - the start of a challenging out-and-back that would give us just a wee bit more climbing before the second trip back down the ridge. The volunteers here were amazing, by the way; instructed to take care of a water stop, but decided instead to raid their own pantry to supply some food and hot vegetable broth. A few sips of that put a smile on my face and a pep in my step.
Now my perception of last year's course is skewed by overall inexperience, but I thought this out-and-back was not nearly as torturous as last year's, which was shorter, but WAY steeper, and came at mile 26 rather than this one, which was around mile 16. I personally appreciated getting that bit done while I was still feeling pretty energetic.
Onto the next downhill, which I lovingly call "Butt Slide or Die" based on last year's warnings. We really lucked out this year though, because even though it was very cold up top, it was dry. So we did not have too many slick spots to contend with on the descent down to the bottom of the crest and the second full aid station. The first mile and a half is super tricky and technical, but then the trail gets a little more manageable and I was able to tick off some quicker miles. I knew the next climb was going to be the toughest physically and mentally, so once I reached the aid station I got water in my flask and Camelpak and grabbed the calories I needed, except for the baggie of TW I left behind.
We were on road for a little bit, which last year I mostly hiked. This time I ran most of it, as well as the first couple miles of the trail once I was back in the woods. But I knew what was coming and started timing myself to take in calories every 30-45 minutes.
Enter "Switchback Hell". It's exactly as pleasant as it sounds. I didn't really count but I'd say it was about 15 or so steep switchbacks that don't do much to lessen the grade of elevation. Here is where I had to stop a couple of times to stretch my back and touch my toes, taking deep breaths and pushing out all thoughts. This is where I was grateful that my iPhone was functioning again, as I was able to plug in and tune out to some steady, ambient beats. When I finally hit that clearing and the rocky, rooty trail gave way grass and mud I knew the worst was almost over. Well, except for that mud. It was unavoidable in spots and I soon had to give up going around and just trudge straight through, hoping it was JUST mud and not horse manure (this was, after all, Buncomb Horse Trail). Still the views up top were the brightest and clearest we'd had all day and I was so happy to finally be up there.
I think I spent the final 20 minutes telling myself "Almost there, any second now you'll see the gravel. I know you're almost there. You HAVE to be almost there!" No matter, I was moving in one direction and it was toward the finish line. When I DID finally hit the gravel trail that would take me to the finish I dug in and pumped those legs with everything I had left (which, to any bystanders would not look fast at all but I WAS running!)
32 Miles, 10:45:46
34 Miles, 9:49:18
If there was any additional lesson to be learned from this year's running of Quest For The Crest, it was to always be open to learn more. Now that I know what to do to finish WELL, I can start to think about what I need to do if I ever want to be competitive at this race, or in ultra running in general. To be clear- I have no illusion of ever keeping up with Magda, Sally, Nikki, or any other of those amazingly talented women out there. But I want to do MY best, one race - one training cycle- at a time. And this past year showed me that with a little focus and dedication I can make a big improvement in a relatively short amount of time.
The moral of the story? One goal is never the end if you don't want it to be. You are in charge of your progress by being ready and willing to learn and grow with every step along the way!