Today I'm taking a break from my usual fitness-related posts to get a little more personal. Before I broke into working for myself as a personal trainer, I was a run-blogger, in the loosest sense of the term. That's to say that I never had sponsored posts, nor did anything I wrote ever stand out in the ever-growing sea of health and fitness bloggers. I started writing to share my journey of maintaining fitness while pregnant and getting back on a training plan after having my child. As the years went by and the races came and went, work took priority over writing race reports, which is why I haven't posted one since this time last year. Which is what brings me here today.
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.
Making these changes from last year to this year not only vastly improved my running over all, but they helped me shave almost an hour off of last year's time on a course that wound up being two miles longer. I ran to that finish line and was steady on my feet, rather than collapsing in the grass like last time. Last year, thoughts crept up in my head causing me to question just what the hell I thought I was doing trying to tackle that mountain crest. This year, the miles and hours ticked by and every time I started to think "How much longer?" on any given stretch I shut my brain up right there and said, "It doesn't matter, you're moving forward no matter what."
MY Formula For Success:
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!"
Immediately following our climb was a long, but not nearly as steep downhill to the first aid station, where I stopped for 30s to refill my flask and grab the clementine slices. I turn right around and start charging back up. I felt great and was easily able to shift into a run/jog on the flat or lower incline sections. When it got steeper I got into a solid rhythm with a power hike. Back on the ridge I saw my husband, who had warmed my phone back to life in his pocket (who knew?) but I kept it off as I took it back from him and headed on across the ridge.
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.
With a little more low-grade climbing to go, I had to stick with hiking until I hit the last aid station, the spot of last year's out-and-back, which I was ever more thankful to NOT have to do this year (it was included originally, but shut down due to concerns of ice and slick rock). Once I chugged my liquid sugar and caught up with another runner who was pushing a strong pace all day, I had a renewed sense of vigor and started to pick up the pace for the last 6 miles. She pulled away, and I let her go knowing she had the strength and experience I as still working toward. This was definitely for the best because I caught a toe a couple times starting on the final turn down the hill that nearly sent my face flying into a boulder. I stopped, regained composure, and plodded on at a controlled pace until the trail opened up to allow me to pick up a bit more speed.
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!)
This race was me, against myself, against those mountains. It didn't matter who was in front of or behind me. I did not care about gender place, let alone overall place. I cared about finishing and feeling GOOD at the end, and I did just that. (Although, I hit the post-race BBQ with a little too much enthusiasm... had to stop myself and take a few sips of ginger ale before my stomach revolted).
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!
*I am not sponsored by Tailwind, nor am I paid to post positive reviews of their products. As a trainer I never "prescribe" one product over another, only offer my suggestions based on what works for me. I am a Tailwind Trailblazer because I love their product and how the company fosters a strong community of support among all of its featured athletes.