The marathons of 2018.

This autumn I ground away at two big goals: finishing my dissertation, and running my first trail marathon.

A number of people told me I was insane to try to do both of these things at the same time. But everyone has different ways of staying happy and maximizing what they are capable of. For me, it’s essential to have more than one thing to focus on. I have a few friends who must live like I do: they said, oh, that’s perfect!

The last few months of dissertation writing were really hard. Although I made a plan with my supervisor about how to get everything done, work didn’t really proceed according to plan. Some things took longer. Other tasks required waiting on collaborators for feedback. Sometimes I simply realized that I had no idea what was expected as a certain output. I tried to start working anyway, only to have my first attempt deemed garbage.

By contrast, my marathon training was straightforward. I won’t say it was easy, but I knew what I had to do.

***

I didn’t sign up for just any marathon; the Transruinaulta in southeastern Switzerland is mostly off-road and features 1,800 meters (~6,000 feet) of climbing, plus the corresponding 1,800 meters of descents. In order to do a race effort I felt good about, I knew I would have to take training seriously.

I bought a training plan from Uphill Athlete, a company and community run by Scott Johnston and Steve House. I have known about Scott for years through the cross-country ski community (though I have never met him), and I respect his work, experience, and philosophy so much. I knew that whatever plan I got from Uphill Athlete would deliver me well-prepared to the start line. It had been seven years since I last followed a training plan, but at last, I was ready to return to intentional, organized training. I dove in and had confidence every step of the way that I was doing the right thing.

“The right thing” involved functional strength training exercises that did more to rehab my ankle from last year’s ruptured ligaments than anything my non-skiing PT had taught me. It included interval sessions that I found I really enjoyed – a surprise, since in those last seven years I had done intervals less than a dozen times annually, and some years probably less than five times.

One week “the right thing” involved a 30-kilometer run/hike one day and a 20 k  run/hike the next day. That was hard, but I planned in advance to head to the Engadin valley for the weekend so that I the spectacular scenery would entice me out the door on Sunday when my body was already tired.

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Enjoying some amazing trail running/hiking around Pontresina.

And maybe the hardest week was when “the right thing” had a 30 k run scheduled on a weekday. I woke up early, took the train to Baden, and ran all the way to the office. I have to admit I wasn’t a very effective worker that day.

But even though it was often hard, I knew what I had to do. Just follow the plan. The plan will get you where you want to go.

Training for a marathon was probably the easiest thing I did this fall.

***

The trauma (there, I said it) of the last month of my dissertation has almost blotted out the months that came before, work-wise. But looking back, I can piece together what they looked like.

I want to be clear that a lot of my problems were self-inflicted. I’m a perfectionist. I hate doing less than the best I could possibly do.

I also have a strong viewpoint that data should not go un-analyzed and un-reported. It’s not good for science if we leave something in a file drawer just because it didn’t turn out to be interesting. That means that someone else will repeat our experiment in the future. And if they also leave it in a file drawer because it turns out to not be interesting, then some unsuspecting third scientist will also decide to tackle it. And so on. You get the picture.

My natural tendency to overwork myself was at some points made worse by my supervisor. Florian is a great supervisor – I would highly recommend working in his lab, and the effusive thanks I eventually wrote in the acknowledgments section of my dissertation were not exaggerations. But he knows how to get the most out of all of us. And at this point, he has known me for four years. He probably knew that if he told me he didn’t think I could do something, that would make me try that much harder to get it done.

All of which is to say that in late August when I sat down with Florian to plan the final few months, I should have been confident that my dissertation would be fine. I had already published three chapters of it as papers, which is a great position to be in. If I had wanted to, I could have coasted in to the finish, writing up one more chapter and calling it a day. Nobody would have said my dissertation wasn’t adequate.

But neither Florian nor I were interested in that option. Instead we planned out three more chapters, plus an introduction and conclusion to the dissertation. I had the data already for all of those chapters, but I still had to analyze it and I still had to do the writing.  I had until mid-November to get all of that done.

And so I made an estimate of how long everything would take. Choosing and learning the appropriate geostatistical method to upscale my survey data: would that take two days, or two weeks? Better just schedule one.

“You can write a paper in a week,” Florian said. I didn’t feel like that was true, but sure, chapter four, let’s schedule a week for the writing.

Inevitably, things didn’t go according to plan. And I also had to apply for postdoc fellowships, too, an exhausting process during which I came up with a research proposal that didn’t even strongly relate to my dissertation. Charging ahead on both of these fronts required shifting between intellectual arenas in my brain.

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So here’s a plan I didn’t end up following, like, at all… in fact, the chapters aren’t even the ones that ended up in my dissertation!

Most days I came home from work exhausted, but through early fall, I was making progress. I submitted the fourth chapter to a journal two weeks before we had planned. Things weren’t going exactly as I had thought, but the parts going better than planned seemed to be making up for the areas where I was way behind.

***

In mid-October, with one month until my dissertation was due, I took the train to southeastern Switzerland on a Friday afternoon and got ready to race the next day. I had been tapering, which felt weird. I hadn’t done any competitions I felt strongly enough about to taper for since my only other marathon run, back in 2013 in France. (That one was on the road; I trained for it, but not according to any real plan.)

My friend Annie came down to race too, and was likewise stressed by work. She had been in the field all week, hardly ideal preparation. We went to bed early, and neither of us slept well. We made some overnight oats for breakfast and found a regional bus that would take us to Ilanz, where the race would start.

In the leadup to the race, a lot of people would ask how long I thought it would take. I had no idea what to answer. Five hours? Four hours? There was all that up and down. Plus, though it was clear that the race wouldn’t have much pavement, would the balance be dirt/gravel roads, or singletrack? How technical would the terrain be? This was clearly not a race where you could pick a pace or split and just try to consistently hit it.

Instead, I made a race plan based on heart rate. I wanted to start off easy on for the first few kilometers and then get into an easy but fast groove for the first ten or so kilometers, which looked mostly flat on the course profile. I set limits for the big climbs: don’t let your heart rate go above this. If you have to walk, walk. You’re in this for the long hall and you are not going to make yourself bonk. Downhills are one of my strengths, so I wanted to run every downhill as fast as I sustainably could.

Oh, and I planned to eat as many calories as I could stuff in my face.

I more or less followed this plan. My slow start meant that people poured past me in the opening kilometers (it was an individual-start marathon, weirdly), and I ended up going a little harder than I planned – but still easy enough that I don’t think it taxed me too much. My plan had probably been too conservative.

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First 10 k: whee, this is fun!

After that, my plan worked great. On the climbs that went for kilometer after kilometer, mostly on dirt roads but sometimes on singletrack, I kept up a steady effort hovering just around my anaerobic threshold. The downhills were a blast as I flew past people. Sometimes they would pass me again as I slowed to my steady pace on the uphills, but it paid off.

We hit the high point of the course around 30 k (20 miles) into the marathon, and there was an aid station at the top. One guy who had been running around me – sometimes ahead, sometime behind – staggered over to a picnic table and sat down heavily.

“Scheisse,” he groaned.

I ran through the aid station, stopping only for a few seconds to refill a water flask. I had quite a few kilometers of gradual to steep downhill to look forward to. I hadn’t completely wrecked myself on the uphill, and I started reeling people in. I was flying, catching runners whom I had told myself not to worry about as they went past me on the last climb.

It was pretty fun until a few kilometers to go. We had all been warned that there were three steep hills just before the finish, so to save something. The first one was a reality check after those nice kilometers of downhill, and it was longer than I had guessed, but not so bad.

The second one was short and very steep. I walked. Everyone walked.

The third one: very steep. It was terrible. I mentally cursed the race organizers. I came over what I thought was the top only to see that the hill went on. I felt like I was crawling. My swagger from a few kilometers ago was long gone. But at least from here it would only get easier towards the finish.

Down the other side, around a corner and… what the hell? Another steep hill. Like, really steep, find-something-to-grab-ahold-of steep. There were two retirees by the side of the trail. The runners ahead of me swore out loud this time, and the retirees laughed at them. At us. If I wasn’t so tired I would have fixed them an evil glare as I went by.

By the time I went down the fourth of the three hills, I wasn’t even fast on the downhills anymore. There was a very, very gradual climb to the finish line, back on pavement, which should have felt fast and easy. Instead, I struggled to maintain a jog. But I got to the finish, clocking a time just under five hours.

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The organizers set up this sweet panorama so you could mug and get a cool finish line photo as if you were running on the trail, but I was so beat I didn’t even notice. Whoops!

The sun was shining as we congratulated each other and began to refuel the calories and salt we had lost. Dry clothes felt so good. Sitting down felt good. I was proud of myself – my result was not particularly great, but I had worked hard and followed a plan and, I believe, done the best race I could do on that day. I was just over a year out from a major injury, and another major victory is that I hadn’t hurt myself again. That functional strength had worked: even when I was so tired, my feet nimbly navigated the trails and my ankles stayed stable.

Most importantly, I had a ton of fun and I was already dreaming of what long trail or mountain race to sign up for next year.

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With Annie at the finish: we did it! (Photo: some older lady walking by, who we accosted…)

***

The race hadn’t been easy.

If I’m thinking about the events that cap off my grueling goals, I think my PhD defense – scheduled for January – will be much easier. I like giving presentations, and I am excited to tell my colleagues, friends, and family about what I’ve been working on. I’m sure I will be nervous, but mostly, it will be fun. I’ve been imagining that day for months and months and months.

Compared to a mountainous trail marathon? PhD defense = easy.

But if I’m thinking about the paths that lead to those days, the running was much easier. The day after my marathon, I went for a little walk in the mountains with Annie, because we were already there and the views and mountain feeling are too good to miss even when your legs are jelly.

On Monday I went back to the office, and I didn’t take another day away from my dissertation until I handed it in just over a month later.

Again: that bad, bad situation of overwork, and everything it led to, was somewhat self-inflicted. I could have told myself, look, this is crazy. You don’t even really need six chapters. Florian, I can’t do chapter six. I’m going to take the weekend off and unscramble my brain and work on giving you a great five-chapter dissertation.

But that is not what I did. I wrote for hours at a time. I revised. I formatted. I cried. I ate a lot of cookies (a lot!). I asked colleagues to read terrible drafts. I rarely went running. I kept writing. I slept badly. I complained. I became a bad friend and officemate. I resented Florian. I cried more.

What I lacked was confidence. I was trying to follow the plan we had made, but it wasn’t working. I didn’t have that feeling that if I just did what was on the schedule, everything would be fine. Most days, it felt like there was no way in the world that everything would be fine.

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You think you’re doing okay and then you start correcting your bibliography and it looks like this…

Maybe partly because my training was over and I was rarely exercising, I totally lost perspective. My dissertation seemed like the only thing in my life, in some ways, and it felt like a slow-rolling disaster. Every little setback seemed like the end of the world.

But, on November 19, I handed Florian a printed version of my dissertation.

He made some minor corrections and told me it was very nice. This was classic: he had previously told me that he expected he would make a lot of corrections and there was no way I’d be able to turn it in the next day. But by saying that, he had ensured that I would ruin myself attempting to give him a nearly perfect dissertation.

I made those small corrections, and on November 20, I submitted my dissertation to the University of Zurich. It was anticlimactic. I uploaded a PDF to the online interface, and then walked some paperwork over to the Faculty of Science. The woman at the desk who accepted my registration for a PhD defense didn’t even say congratulations. Nobody had come along to give me a high five or hug, because I hadn’t asked them to.

Instead I went home and, much like after my marathon, lay on the couch. I sank into the leather cushions and felt like maybe I could stay there forever.

***

Recovery began the next day.

If there’s anything that being an athlete has taught me, it is that recovery is important. It’s not something I’m particularly good at, and it’s also something that I didn’t really value for much of my “serious” athletic career. I was interested in too many other things – when I didn’t have to train, I filled that time with something else. I’m pretty sure I would have been a lot faster if I had just taken a nap.

But now I’m some combination of older and wiser, and my body is older, and my brain is older. They need recovery and I fully believe in its value.

I took almost a week off from work, and now I’m back. I’m able to enjoy going to the office again. I’m able to get excited about reading papers, another thing that I almost completely neglected while I was writing. Many of the projects I am working on now, in this time between my dissertation and defense, are collaborative, and that feels great to get back to, too.

And in the back of my mind I can say that no matter what else happened in 2018 – the political, the personal, the stupid stress I put myself under – I accomplished my two big goals. That feels pretty good.

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Before and After the Fall: A Meditation on Healthiness

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It was a busy summer. And so, I inevitably got sick.

After a rainy ridge run in the Jura mountains confirmed that me and my friend Steve were more or less compatible overdistance-run partners, we ran across Liechtenstein. I often do these sorts of point-to-point runs in the mountains in summer and fall, but a certain amount of caution is usually maintained in choosing routes when I’m alone. Having a buddy willing to go the crazy places I suggested opened up new route possibilities and with it, more wear and tear (and fitness!) for my body.

The summer was full of opportunity and I was giddy.

We ran a section of the Via Alpina, a 1500-mile trail which traverses the Alps from Monaco to Slovenia, crossing through six other countries on the way. While I’d love to trek the trail some day, these days section runs are the best I can do. We “only” went 25+ kilometers in Switzerland’s Kanton Glarus.

Another day we “ran”, or mostly walked, up an incredibly steep headwall on the far side of Walensee lake, climbing 1500 meters in just three kilometers. The run along a small shelf below the uppermost cliffs was gorgeous, as was the relatively gentle descent back to the other end of the lake. But after that one I told Steve he could pick the route because I had caused us a world of pain.

Later in the summer, I skiwalked up to a glacier with my friend Jonas. I don’t know if Jonas knew how steep it was going to be, but I certainly wasn’t mentally prepared. By the time we hit the ice my legs were rubber. We wisely decided across crossing the glacier.

View from the glacier down to Engelberg.

At some point, I started to feel fit like a warrior, even if each of these individual crazy adventures (and a few more long ones on my own) left me totally exhausted, achy and sore. Pain brings fitness, though. I was hardening up.

But then, when I thought I might be getting onto a bit of a roll, fieldwork started.

I was asked with another PhD student to organize a big joint project for our whole lab this summer. It was/is a really great project – lots of interesting angles, and a cool opportunity to be involved in something so big. I really love fieldwork, too. But organizing everything was incredibly stressful. And I had to be at work extra early to organize everything before the rest of the team showed up, then often stay late to process samples and equipment when the day was over.

I did not run those weeks. On the good days, I forced myself to ride my bike either to work (a measly 9 km) or back, but usually not both. By the end of the day of fieldwork I was so tired that riding home seemed impossible. It was mental exhaustion above all else: after a day of remembering details and always trying to plan two steps ahead, plus perhaps driving for three or four hours, any additional feat of willpower was doomed to fail.

But… I got to see many new corners of Eastern Switzerland. And I love fieldwork! Did I mention that I love fieldwork? Why would you ever work in an office if you could work outside?

Here’s what a block of summer fieldwork for an aquatic ecologist looks like. It looks, despite what I just wrote above, like happiness.

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I think that even those of us who love our jobs lie to ourselves a little bit and say that because the work is something we enjoy, it’s easier than it really is. This kind of research is what I dream of doing. I love the science and the questions we ask and (try to) answer; it’s outside; there’s always something new and it never gets dull. For better or for worse, there’s a new challenge every week, sometimes every day, and you end up using a crazy-diverse set of skills and developing new ones. I wouldn’t trade my job for anything (well….). But there’s no denying that it totally saps me to organize such ventures.

As soon as fieldwork was over – no, not really, just in the middle of the experiment when we let nature do its thing and tried not to stress out about what might be happening in our absence – I headed back to North America to visit friends and family, go to a few weddings of people near and dear to my heart, and give a talk at a big ecology conference.

The first night I was back on Eastern Standard Time, I slept for 14 1/2 hours.

It was so, so awesome to see so many people I love! But I was flying constantly across the country to get to one thing or another and I never really settled in. For the most part, it wasn’t a very relaxing vacation. I also had to put out some fires with the experiment from afar, not being able to see anything in person, which is always nerve-wracking.

With my cousins Jess and Emily at a family wedding in Houston.

Some of the most relaxing moments of my "vacation" were walks in the Lyme Town Forest with my mom and our dog during my six days at home.

A rainy-ish hike up Mount Moosilauke with Susan and Jenny was a great way to cap off my time in New Hampshire.

And so yes: I cannot even schedule my “vacation” to be recovery time. There’s so much exciting stuff to do! I’m like a squirrel chasing every fun thing that catches my attention.

As soon as I got back to Switzerland it was back to fieldwork as we took the experiment apart. Again with the organizing and the long days.

Because I had been in the south for a lot of my trip back to the States and I am legendarily bad at exercising in hot weather, I had lost a lot of my fitness – I just hadn’t been running a lot, much less biking or rollerskiing.

Nevertheless, on the yearly goals list I had made myself in the spring I had written “do a mountain running race.” This had been an idea of mine ever since moving to Switzerland: I couldn’t really live in the Alps without doing the mountain running thing, could I?

The previous summer I had chickened out. I was doing some other fieldwork, a bit more ski-specific training, and just generally didn’t feel great about my uphill running chops compared to people who grew up in the Alps. I was sure I would get demolished, which was one thing, but more scared that I just simply wouldn’t have fun.

But in September I thought, I’ve got to pull the trigger on this or else this goal will stay as an unchecked box on my list. If I waited much longer there would be snow in the mountains. So I impulsively signed up for a mountain half-marathon in Arosa and convinced Steve to join me. Then I’d at least have someone to commiserate with, I thought, and I was certainly right about that.

Pre-race in Arosa. This dude guided our way to one of the best hotel breakfasts I've ever had.

Earlier in the summer, I had done a not insignificant number of long trail runs – longer than a half marathon – with a lot of elevation. But that day, I just didn’t have it. I’m not sure if it was simply a bad day (those certainly happen) or whether the difference between self-pacing and trying to guess a sustainable race pace just wrecked me early, but it was a brutal slog. The course climbed 900 meters in about eight kilometers at the start, then dropped off a precipitous face where you felt more like you were free-falling than running. Then it was up a second peak and a long downhill run back to the finish.

Falling off the mountain.

By the time I was running the last few kilometers, I had totally bonked. I was a mess at the finish line: rubber legs, salt-crusted face, salt streaks covering my arms and legs, dehydrated, totally depleted but with no appetite. It took me hours to get back to anything resembling being alive. A crazy thunderstorm rolled into the mountains and we sat drinking a beer and watching the lightning, me just being thrilled that I didn’t have to so much as stand up.

My first mountain running race experience was tough, but I’d probably do it again, with a clearer understanding of how brutal the race was going to be. The event was great and there’s a nice camaraderie to this community. I felt at home. So next year’s goal list: “do a second mountain-running race”…. maybe I’ll be faster?

Work got crazy again as we decided to use a student project to do a pilot test of a new experimental setup. One day I ran home from the office and titled my Strava workout “Trying to avoid a nervous breakdown about the new experiment.” I was literally running away from my problems.

Planning new experiments is so exhilarating, but it’s also frustrating and stressful and involves revision after revision of plans and ideas.

Around that time, Steve and I ran from Zurich to Zug, a nearby city. It was a 34 k run with a surprising amount of elevation gain: more than 3,000 feet, not bad for living in Switzerland’s lowlands.

I didn’t realize it, but it was going to be my last good run for a while. At the end of the next week, I noted that my supposed-to-be-easy evening run “felt like garbage”. I was just tired, I figured.

The next day I got sick. Really sick: going through an entire box of kleenex a day, unable to do much of anything, debilitatingly exhausted. I first blamed allergies but then, after a day and a half of this misery, took some flu medicine. I immediately felt better. Not good, but better. Ah-ha! If medication made me feel better, that meant I was actually sick. Right.

I didn’t get better very quickly, and had to take some time off of work. I didn’t exercise for two weeks. When I did, I felt okay, so I got excited and a few days later did a 16 k point-to-point run with my boyfriend (who was visiting, and who I thus felt I needed to provide with some workout opportunities). Predictable result: setback, more kleenex boxes. After a few days of re-recovery, we tried a 26 k run/hike up to a mountain hut. It was beautiful.

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Because of the snow and ice, we didn’t push the pace that much. My main challenge was staying warm, but my immune system seemed to handle it okay. The 20 k point-to-point going south from Zurich two days later, though, was one push too far. It required another kleenex box, more medicine, a few more days off from running.

You’d think that at almost 30 years old, I would have learned how to take care of myself better than this. But when to go back to training can be a tricky question – and I’m not exactly training for anything. When I go out for a long run in the mountains, it’s because that’s what will make me happy on that particular day. The balance of long- versus short-term planning is quite a bit shifted from my “athlete” days, meaning that I can risk a little more do get out there sooner – but the potential consequence, lying in bed being miserable, isn’t so nice either.

At a certain point, it came down to this for me. After weeks of yo-yoing back and forth between really sick, sort of sick, and sort of healthy, I couldn’t tell what “really healthy” actually was supposed to feel like. Better than yesterday, better than yesterday, better than yesterday; that seems like a good trajectory. When is better good enough?

And how do you value the trade-offs in life when athletic pursuits are essential for your happiness, but “performance” isn’t your job? Doing two jobs (now three, but that’s another story) and trying to get in good blocks of exercise is certainly pushing the limits of what I can do, mentally and physically. Yet my jobs are stimulating and fulfilling; I want to do well at them. I couldn’t quit them. I also couldn’t quit running (or, in the winter, skiing). If I did that, I’d be less stressed and I might not get sick, but I would be unhappy and the lack of exercise would leave me unhealthy for an entirely different set of reasons. I think I’d be less efficient at my jobs. To non-athletes that sounds counterintuitive, but I suspect that any recreational sportsperson knows exactly what I mean.

I’m lucky that I have some role models in this department. Most of my peers don’t pursue sports – I suspect that if I was in a similar graduate program in the U.S. the number might be higher, but without organized college sports teams many in Europe drop out of organized sports when they start their bachelors, and by grad school are focused primarily on academics – but a few do. When we see each other it’s like a relief: yes, I’m not crazy, this is a real thing that people do! And I’m not the only one who feels like doing work and sport together makes me better at each.

But it undeniably comes with costs. And so, occasionally, you run yourself into the ground and you get sick. Then the longer you sit around waiting for your mythical health to arrive, the more you stew in your own unhappiness. But pushing the envelope also might mean longer sitting around, just drawing things out.

I seem to be healthy again, finally, and I’m going to push it – but not too far. Ski season is coming and somehow, I need to break this cycle.

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berglauf racing.

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On the advice of a friend, I signed up for an event outside of Zürich called the 5-Tage Berglauf Cup.

That means, in English, the 5-day mountain running cup. It was organized by a local ski club and featured five days of racing from small villages up to the top of hills in the Zürich Oberland, a rolling region of farms and rivers to the east of Zürich itself.

By the Monday that the series was about to start, I realized that things might not be as easy as I thought. Fabian, who had told me about the series in the first place and had done it many times, wasn’t able to come to any of the races after all.

And things are measured in meters here, not in feet as they are in the United States. So when a five-kilometer race has 500 meters of elevation gain, that doesn’t seem like so much… until I thought about what 500 meters really is. 1600 feet. A lot of topo lines all piled on top of each other on a map.

On top of that, I had just gotten back from a three-day training camp in the Jura mountains on the Swiss-French border. I don’t train full-time – I am doing a PhD and hold a part-time job! So I only do these “training camps” with a group of other skiers three times a year or so. When that happens, all of a sudden I’m training twice a day, usually with one session of intervals and one a long recovery workout. It really takes it out of me.

I stood on the start line on Monday, not knowing a single other person at the race, and I didn’t feel so great. And I definitely, definitely, only felt worse once we started climbing.

I felt like I had made a huge mistake, as a member of the Bluth family might say.

At the end of the day, as I was running down from the finish (no transportation is provided, so you have a handy compulsory cool-down unless you make friends with someone whose family drove a car up) I wondered whether to continue or bag the whole thing.

Those five kilometers had been hard, not fun. It was hot and humid and I could wring the sweat from my tank top after just over half an hour of racing. I tried to eat a granola bar but it wasn’t going down.

Tired from the weekend, I hadn’t been able to push myself, get my heart rate very high, or even have much of a killer instinct at the finish, where the next person in front of me was a 62-year-old man.

(Which, by the way, is awesome. You go, guy!)

My dreams of an age-group podium were definitely gone and I knew that I’d be in for a world of pain. I think that I often sign up for races because I believe that going hard will make me feel fit, but this did not make me feel fit!

There are plenty of Swiss people who never, ever run up a mountain. But for those who are interested in running up mountains, there’s lots of places to practice and, well, they are pretty expert.

As I neared the bottom of the hill and the bus stop where I’d start my hour-and-a-half ride back to my apartment via public transportation, I caught up with a middle-aged guy running backwards and sideways, clearly trying to stretch out his legs after the steep run downhill.

“We made it!” I said, holding up my hand for a high five.

I don’t think high-fiving is a universal behavior in Switzerland, and he let me hang.

But we started chatting, and when I stopped at the bus station, he asked where I was going. Did I need a ride? Zürich wasn’t too far out of his way.

My long bus and train ride home was cut to a pleasant 30-minute drive, and my new friend said that “This was the worst one.” By the time I got home, I had decided that I would race the rest of the week. After all, not showing up for a race you paid for seems like chickening out, and I may be slow, but I don’t want to be a chicken.

So the week rolled along. I felt a bit better on day two, and had even a good day on day three (good enough that I almost puked at the finish…). My friend Joseph had told me he would come race that day if we had a beer afterward, but then he backed out. So what? I was hooked on this mountain running thing!

(And Thursday I took as a day off, since only your best four results from the five-day series are scored in the cup.)

I ended up racing up 6,000 feet in elevation in four days, with an average grade of 9.5%. As the week went on, fewer 55-year-old women and teenagers beat me. If there’s one strength of cross-country skiers, it’s that we are tough and can take the hits in grueling race series.

I was proud to have finished the Cup, especially after sweating all day in my unventilated seventh-floor office in the midst of one of Europe’s worst heat waves ever. Not exactly good race prep.

For those of us with day jobs, maybe we enter races for glory. But in the end we finish them for the satisfaction of doing so. Dropping out is not an option, and crossing the finish line is an accomplishment something that most of our coworkers will never be able to boast about.

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marathon de sauternes: I came, I ran, I drank the wine.

sauternes finish

Never before has a race left such a mark on my body. I can’t wear running shoes because of the huge, grotesque blister that formed on one of my toes, despite them being the same shoes I have worn for all my training runs. I’m afraid to wear sandals because people will undoubtedly be grossed out by that huge, grotesque blister.

I didn’t notice it during the race, in fact not until I took my shoes off and changed my clothes, but I must have subconsciously changed my running stride to compensate because the whole left side of my body feels like it doesn’t work. The twinges start in my hip and travel down to my knee and my foot. As I traipsed through Marseille today in search of the Swiss embassy and my work permit, I swear I could hear a clicking in my knee.

That’s in addition, of course, to the dull ache and fatigue that is ever-present in both my legs – quads, hamstrings, calves, the little muscles around the knees.

I have never chafed from my sports bra before, but the top of my ribcage is raw on both sides, as is one shoulder from a strap. No shirt is comfortable.

And with my fat thighs, I know better than to ever wear running shorts on a long run. I had worn spandex shorts instead, so there were no seams to rub back and forth until they make the skin bleed. But for the first time ever, even these gave me minor chafing on one leg. Another raw spot.

I’m sunburned and that night my contact lenses were plastered to my eyes; I had to dig repeatedly to get them out. Lack of oxygen going in and out for too many minutes I guess.

Commensurate to its aftereffects, running a marathon takes a bit more preparation than many athletic endeavors. This relates not just to the months and weeks leading up to the big day, when you ought to be putting in the miles, fast on some days and slow on others. It also applied to the weekend of the race itself. You have to eat right, get enough sleep, show up on time, and have a plan for eating and drinking during the race.

Preparing for my first marathon was challenging in any number of ways. There was a brief period where I was really optimistic about how my training was going – I loved running and was putting in more miles than I ever had in my life! It was exciting. I didn’t stop loving training, but as my masters project got more and more out of control, I had less and less time to run. I thought that 68-mile week was a jumping-off point. In fact, I never returned to that mileage again. Nor, for the most part, did I complete the tempo runs and threshold workouts I had penciled into my datebook.

Spurred on by my friend Lynn (thank you, thank you, thank you Lynn!), I tried hard to be more serious in the last ten days before the marathon. I did two good workouts and not much volume besides that, and I made sure to go to bed early. But still, I did not feel good. In fact, my legs felt heavy and sluggish, and running felt worse than ever. My pace was slowing down, too.

Then, the weekend was upon me. I woke up early on Saturday to catch the train to Bordeaux, where I rented a car. I drove to the race site to pick up my number and do a quick fifteen-minute jog. It felt terrible, and seeing all these marathon enthusiasts made me feel decidedly fat. I had no doubt that it was a great venue and location and could be a lot of fun, but I felt like everything I had done up to this point had been wrong. I had done the wrong things at the wrong time, and it was going to be a disaster.

Plus, there was the specter of running a marathon completely unsupported. The other people I saw picking up their numbers had girlfriends or husbands to help them out, who would walk or bike from point to point on the course to cheer them on and hand them food and sports drink.

I’ve done a lot of minimally-supported ski racing, but I think this might was only the first or second race I went to completely alone, not knowing a soul. Plus, I speak French, but not that well and not when people talk fast. It was disorienting and a little scary. As I picked up my number, a roving race organizer with a microphone wandered over and started interviewing me about why I had picked this marathon and what time I was shooting for. I bumbled my way through in French, struggling to even answer the questions in my head – what time was I shooting for? I had told myself only to finish under four hours, but now that seemed hard to imagine.

The organizer took my uncertain answer as an indication that I hadn’t understood the question, so I had to repeat myself. I hope to finish under four hours. J’espère.

That first day it took me forever to fall asleep at night, thinking about what was to come. (Also, there were weird noises in my hotel, sort of like a gun, or some construction nailgun… even now, I have no idea what they were, but I spent about 45 minutes planning how I could escape out the window onto the roof if needed.)

Then race morning rolled around and everything was magic again.

* * *

I definitely never saw these guys, but the organizers posted this photo on their facebook page.

I definitely never saw these guys, but the organizers posted this photo on their facebook page.

There’s something about a race that still gets to me after all these years. I guess that means that I’m definitely not done with sports yet, not done being an athlete even though I’m technically not one – I’m a student, a worker, an adult. I really have no business doing well in races. But competing so infrequently means that when it does happen these days, it’s like the excitement and adrenaline and atmosphere flips a switch in my brain and my whole worldview changes.

I didn’t feel sluggish that morning. I felt excited and above all curious. I returned to the finish line where I had picked up my number; the field that they had been haying the day before, carting off huge round bales on a flatbed trailer behind a tractor, had been marked off into a parking area. Somehow, that made me feel at home. I dressed, stashed some gummies in a pouch secured by Velcro and one pack down my sports bra (I’d eat those first), and joined the procession of runners who were walking the 1500 meters from one chateau to the next for the start.

And what a start it was. I immediately knew I had done a good job picking my first marathon. We lined up many-deep on the narrow dirt driveway to the chateau, about halfway down. The whole thing must have been almost half a mile long, and was lined with plane trees on either side. Overhead, from wires strung between the two rows of trees, the flags of the various countries represented in the race were fluttering in the breeze. It felt epic and somehow honorable, even though it was just a silly running race.

I put myself somewhere in the middle of the pack to start so I wouldn’t get too carried away. We set off, very slowly at first as the pack gained momentum and people began passing and working their way to the front. I just relaxed, slowly moving just a bit faster. I had no idea what pace to go. I just pretended I was out on an easy run, and went that pace. The only time I checked my watch was at 10 k. It said 51:30. That seemed fast, but I felt fine. If anything, I felt like I could go faster. I decided to hold to my original plan of ignoring my watch from that point out.

I had been yo-yoing with two men in bright green running shirts, and so I fell in behind them. We ran together for the next seven or eight kilometers; sometimes they would go almost too fast for me, but other times, usually right after a feed station (of which there were, thankfully for the solo runners like me, many, almost every three or four kilometers), they would slow down and I would take the lead. Finally, they talked to me. I almost didn’t realize it at first because it was still in French.

“How many times have you done something like this?” one of them asked.

“This if my first marathon,” I said.

“Wow,” they both said.

“I don’t really know what I’m doing.”

“Well, you have a very good pace,” the first one said, skeptical and obviously surprised I was going so fast.

“I’m a cross country skier,” I replied. “I’ve done some ski marathons before, but that’s different.”

Yes, it’s different, they agreed.

“We’re running at about 3:40 pace,” the second one said, still incredulous. “If you keep running with us, that’s where you’ll finish. 3:40.”

Gosh, that seemed fast. Okay.

* * *

DSCN0163

By the time we reached the halfway point, one of the green shirt men was getting tired. He actually didn’t even notice the sign that said “21 kilometers,” and then told his buddy that he had to slow down. I stayed with them at first. We had also passed the point where the “duo” runners, who each run 20 kilometers and then the last two together, tagged off. So a few fast, fresh runners were flying by us.

Some of the duo runners were going a reasonable pace, though. It was hard to remember, since they had just started and I had already run so far, but they were still running a half marathon, which is pretty darn long and requires good pacing. Without really noticing it, I left the green shirted men behind and fell in with a few of the new duo runners, again all men in middle age. The pace felt fine, but we were passing people. That’s always a great motivator and boost.

For the next 20 kilometers, I ran entirely with one tall man with tall compression socks. Eventually we started talking a little bit. He was as surprised as the others had been that this was my first marathon, and offered me lots of valuable tips. At one point he said to “garder un peu” because the last part of the course was hilly and I would need it later (he was right). At another point he told me I should come back and do the Marathon de Medoc, because there was more wine and more chateaux.

More than anything, he was a great leader. He’d give hand signals when the course turned or there was a pothole in the road. With ten kilometers to go, he said, “this is where it gets difficult.” And, exactly as I knew it would, it sure did. Sometimes I would fall off the pace and he would look back and motion with his hands or say, “allez!” Get up here!

Up until this point, I had eaten a gummy every seven kilometers. A college teammate had once used that strategy with gels in a ski marathon (by that calculation, moving much slower on foot, I should have been eating more in all likelihood). But when the 35 kilometer mark rolled around, I could barely force myself to put anything in my mouth. I didn’t want to eat, I didn’t want anything. I felt sick. I forced myself to eat half of one, knowing that I needed any extra energy I could get, but it almost made me throw up. I tossed the rest on the side of the road (bad etiquette) in disgust.

We were still passing people – maybe even passing more than we had before – but he was getting tired too. I could hear that his breathing was even more labored than mine. Sometimes I’d get a fresh wind and take over the lead, feeling like I was finally doing something helpful for the tall guy who had made it so easy to simply follow his pace and his footsteps. It had taken a lot of thinking out of the act of running, and I was incredibly grateful.

Just as he had said, about four kilometers from the finish, the course went up a big hill. Note: it wasn’t really that big. Maybe like the stretch of Highbridge Road from the mailboxes to my house. But the whole course had been more or less flat, and this seemed really hard. I struggled and fell far enough behind that my leader stopped looking back.

At the top of the hill, though, after a chateau and a feed station, I looked up down the road and saw undeniable woman shorts and woman hair. My competitive instincts kicked in. I must catch her. I thought of that last ski race I did in Sweden, where I didn’t realize I was in second place and had let someone get away. I doubted I was in second place, but I certainly wasn’t going to give up. I found it in me somehow to pick up the pace and, in the process of reeling her in, found my friend again.

But as I passed the woman, she looked me right in the face and I got nervous that she wasn’t going to give up easily. I had to drop her like it was serious. So I kept pushing even though it was incredibly hard and incredibly painful. I didn’t want to walk, but I wanted to slow down. I reminded myself: beat her. She’s right there, beat her. And, that guy – you’ve been running with him for almost 20 kilometers, you can run with him for another fifteen minutes for sure. Just stop being a wuss and do it.

Going up the last big hill, a little over two kilometers from the finish – about the size of the one before – I saw another woman. She was obviously flagging. I passed her.

At this point, I was just counting down the meters. Your mind practically shuts off. The last 20 minutes of the race are compressed in a strange way – they took forever, but I can also barely remember them happening. I passed the 40 kilometer mark. Then the 41 kilometer mark, where the first-leg duo members were waiting for their partners and cheering for everyone else. “Allez la fille!” some of them shouted. I grimaced. It was another hill.

Finally I could see the chateau where I knew the finish lay. I’ve heard that it’s rude or unsportsmanlike to kick it in at the end of a citizen’s race, but I tried to empty all the remaining energy out of my body. It wasn’t hard to do. People were cheering so I had a little extra adrenaline to spare. After I crossed the finish line and had my timing chip removed, I was handed a congratulatory bottle of wine and sat down in the grass.

It was over.

* * *

dinner

It had been so fun, even the hard part. And it kept being fun. After managing to choke down a small piece of a sandwich and immediately draining three bottles of water, I wandered over to the results board and saw my time: 3:30:00. I laughed to myself that it was so exact; someone trying for a goal time of three and a half hours could never have run it right on the dot. A funny coincidence.

But more than that, I was amazed I had negative-splitted the race, run a decent time considering all of my misgivings about my training and preparation, and managed to be the sixth women across the line.

(For an actual marathoner, that’s not a very fast time. But based on my training record this spring, that should have been definitely impossible to put together 26 eight-minute miles, and I’m really, really happy to have run that fast. I have no business doing so, and I think it was due less to my training than to the many years of practice I have digging deep. I probably wasn’t in any less pain than anyone else, the difference was simply that I kept pushing the pace at the end anyway.)

After changing my clothes, wiping the sweat off my body, and discovering my disgusting blister, I headed for the big tent where the organizers were serving up a meal for racers. It had cost I think ten Euros on the registration form. This turned out to be a good investment: I finally had my appetite back and chowed down on the tabouli, bread and cheese and salami, a huge, dripping, delicious steak, and some of the better “frites” I’ve had in France. For dessert, a slice of apple galette, and there was a glass of sweet Sauternes wine to go along with the whole thing. Only in France is this a post-marathon meal and only at a marathon does it cost so little.

Looking back, it was an amazing experience. It went better than I really ever could have hoped. I didn’t die in the last six miles; I never walked; I never wanted to quit. That’s all sort of incredible. I really had my head in the game the whole time, which is the most important thing to me at this point. Sometimes I can space out or give up, but I didn’t do either of those things. And mostly, it was fun!

Given my bad training record, it’s easy to imagine how much faster I could be if I took this seriously. But I don’t want to. I think it was so fun because it was an adventure, one where I was just out to see what happened. Chasing times would make it too stressful. Maybe I’ll do another one sometime, but it will be hard to compete with the atmosphere in Sauternes, and I know I’ll never be a career marathoner. Just an occasional tourist.

first marathon

une evasion de la vie quotidienne.

intro

As soon as I stepped off the plane in Calvi, Corsica, on Thursday night, I let out out a sigh of relief and wonder. Six hours earlier I had been in the lab, sweating and stressing over locusts. The project wasn’t going well; coordinating with my supervisor wasn’t going well; communication between us and the other research team sharing the lab space was downright horrible. This setting is not good for your health.

But as I stepped onto the tarmac, I absorbed the sun. I felt the mountains. I smelled the sea. Life was about to get better.

By the time I took a taxi into town, checked into my hotel, dumped my stuff, and headed out the door, dusk was coming and there was about to be a sprinkling of rain. Clouds were rolling in, but it didn’t matter. I had no idea what the city held, so I hiked up to the most obvious interesting part: the citadel. The wind blew my hair as I looked back over town, across the bay, and into the mountains. I was free from locusts, on my own, in this beautiful new place. Why weren’t more people up here!? (Probably, the rain.)

Then I walked down through the port and out onto the rocks. There’s no better way to calm yourself down than to sit by the water, looking at the horizon and listening to the waves. This was just what the doctor ordered.

first night 1

first night 2

And so began three days that I would call one of the best vacations I have ever taken. I don’t spend much time vacationing in warm places – usually I’m chasing snow – but Corsica was a reminder that focusing solely on winter is a mistake. Between this and the trip that I took to the canyons of southern Utah last spring at about this same time, warm places are asserting themselves as pretty darn great.

I slept so late on Saturday, waking up just in time for the hotel’s breakfast. It was bright and sunny and I needed to get out exploring. A quick look at the map revealed a huge peninsula just south of town: Punta della Revellata (things are always mixed up French and Italian). That’s where I headed, running along the road for ten or fifteen minutes before dropping down onto a dirt track along the coast. Every time I turned a corner I wanted to stop and take in the view, or take a picture. It took some discipline just to get 20 minutes before taking a water/photo break. It felt like forever to get to the next acceptable break.

run 1

run 2

At the end of the peninsula is an oceanographic studies center of some sort, so I started finding dirt roads to follow. I followed them, winding back and forth up the steep slope, until I got to the top of the hill, almost 500 feet over the Mediterranean. The great thing about being a retired athlete is that every day doesn’t hinge on executing a well-conceived workout. I set out to go on a run. But everything around me was too much to take. By the time I reached the top, I had to stop and appreciate what was around me. I climbed up onto the rocks and lay in the sun for a long time, succumbing to the reptilian warmth-seeking genes I inherited from my mother. (Love you, mom!)

punta 1

punta 2

punta 3

punta

Finally, I ran home. I’d probably run just an hour and a half, maybe 1:45, but I was tired – the sun takes it out of you, as does a week of getting only five or six hours of sleep per night. I hadn’t been taking care of myself, and part of the point of this vacation was to fix that.

For long periods of my life, I did not take vacation. After I entered middle school, we barely ever took family trips; in college, I visited some amazing places, but my travels always had a purpose, whether it was work or training or racing. The idea of just taking vacation – to do nothing – was foreign.

Now, as an adult balancing school and a job and living by myself, I have a different outlook. The harder you work, the more you need a break. Think of it like intervals as an endurance athlete: you can do long threshold intervals with short rests in between. Or you can do really hard, short intervals, where you need rest more frequently. At this stage in my life, I’m doing some very high-intensity intervals. I can go on one weekend trip and feel like I’ve come to a revelation about some aspect of my life; apparently it took five to realize that I need to keep taking these trips.

I needed recovery, and I am going to keep needing it. I have to build it into my plans. Burnout is not an option; periodically doing nothing is a very good one.

I arranged the trip less than a week before leaving. With my current project, I have to work most weekends and holidays. In theory I split these obligations with my supervisor, but I’m never quite sure what her schedule is, which leaves me in the lurch and often on the hook. So, suddenly, it was a mad dash: I need to get out of here. I can get out of here! Train tickets, a plane ticket, a hotel reservation. And here I was, running back along the rocky coast of a famous island. (Besides all the Napoleon stuff, Christopher Columbus was apparently born in Calvi.)

And it’s amazing that I have the opportunity, and the means, to something like this. I am a lucky girl. This semester my trips have never been more than long weekends, but they have gotten progressively more expensive: each time, the hotel ten Euros a night more than the last. After a few trips, that adds up. And Calvi was the worst; you can stay somewhere cheap, or stay somewhere decent. I’ll be skimping for two weeks to make up for it, but it was completely worth it, even the ill-advisdely pricey last dinner I ate at a restaurant in the citadel, overlooking the harbor.

The island has incredibly natural beauty. I wish I could have spent a week, or a month, exploring it all. With little public transportation, I was limited to forays on foot from town, but even just in three days, just around Calvi, I was amazed by what I could do. I would spend the mornings running or hiking (I’ll post a separate photo gallery from my last hike), and then make sure to spend each afternoon on the beach.

beach

stone pier citadel

beach 2By the time I left on Sunday, I was in a different state of mind, a more calm, relaxed, and centered state of mind. It was hard to say goodbye to Corsica, because I really fell in love. I want to come back in two months, when the Tour de France rolls through with three long stages. (I can’t; it coincides with the week my project is due.)

I want to come back every spring for the rest of my life.

That probably isn’t possible, but I know that I will be back. So in that way, and with my newly zen outlook, it wasn’t so hard to say goodbye after all.

goodbye

goodbye 2

silver falls half marathon.

So I promised a full writeup on my half-marathon, and then I kind of forgot about it because I’m so busy frantically writing and nursing my sore leg and registering for the GRE. WHAT!? Yes, registering for a stupid standardized test. I thought I would never have to take one of them again. Also, I made some amazing fish cakes and dilly potatoes from The Scandinavian Cookbook. No photos, sorry, but the recipe is here and you should make them. So. Good.

But back to the half marathon. I registered for this thing way back in August; I saw an e-mail from a friend mentioning that it was a great race and sold out very quickly, so the day that registration opened I went on line and bought myself a spot. I didn’t know what I was getting into, and at that point the race was months away. It just seemed like a good thing to do.

All through this month I felt the half marathon looming. I should do some threshold intervals, I thought. Or maybe I should do some more long runs. Either way, I should probably do something. I hadn’t been training – just doing easy runs and the occasional rollerski. Two weeks before the race, I actually had a good week of training. I did 3 x 15 minutes at threshold, and a rollerski, and some 60-second uphill intervals, and a 10-mile trail run. I knew that it wouldn’t do me any good physiologically, really, but I wanted to be mentally prepared to suffer.

Then the week before the race I woke up one morning hurt. It was my ankle at first – it felt weak and kind of crumbly – but it caused a shooting pain up the outside of my calf when I moved. I had no idea where this was coming from or what I had done to cause it. At first I thought maybe it would go away as quickly as it appeared, so I did an easy run. It didn’t get better. So then I took the two days before the race off. I was nervous, really nervous, that I was going to be limping around for 13 miles.

Luckily, that’s not how it happened. We arrived at the rainy, cold start in Silver Falls State Park about 40 minutes before the race, picked up our bibs, and tried to stay warm. I had an idea that I wasn’t going to go out too fast, that I was going to ease into the first mile to gradually get my heart rate up. The gun went off and I jogged about a quarter mile, and then my competitive juices got going and I thought, what am I doing!? This is a race! I started passing people and went through the first mile in just over seven minutes. My plan had failed, but the andrenaline kept me from noticing my ankle and calf. They didn’t complain one bit.

At first I thought the fast pace was a huge mistake, but then I figured I would just go with it. In every long ski race I’ve ever done, I’ve been afraid to push from the start. I’ve thought about the distance and rationalized my way out of going hard. This time around, I ignored that. I watched my heart rate climb into the high 170s and low and then mid 180s and I embraced it. I just kept running. The first few miles were flat or rolling and it wasn’t until mile four that we had a big climb and I noticed that my legs were heavy and not really working the way they usually do. But oh well: I pushed anyway, and I passed some very athletic-looking guy who was walking. Walking! Four miles into a half marathon! Come on! At that point we were running 7:20, 7:30 miles, too. Walking. Sheesh.

It took a few miles to get to the real waterfalls. I was beginning to think that this race was some sort of hoax and the waterfalls were totally lame. But then: bam! There they were! And they were spectacular. Big cascades coming down from rock ledges. Huge drops. In a few places, the trail cut behind the falls and into the cavernous overhangs they came off of, which is an unusual experience to say the least. I have to give it to these guys for finding a unique and beautiful venue for the race.

Let’s see, blah blah blah. Eventually we started going downhill. When I thought about this race, I thought my strength would be the uphills. But instead, it turned out to be the downhills. All of that skier training – running on the Appalachian Trail, darting down singletrack – has made me relatively fearless. I would pass men and women who were daintily picking their way through the mud and wet leaves, afraid of slipping and falling. Me? I know that running downhill is simply a matter of channeling your momentum, so I just rolled along. It was fun! A friend later told me she thought it was my giant quads that made me good at the technical downhills, and I guess she probably isn’t wrong.

Even early in the race, I began rationalizing the distances. When I had run three miles, I thought to myself, hey, you only have ten miles left! That’s not so bad! Then when I thought about it, I realized that I’d only run ten miles a few times in the last six months, and that was actually still quite a task. Five miles in, I thought, hey, you only have eight miles left! That’s only, like, another hour.

And that’s where things started getting good. My least favorite training as a skier was the long run at a fast pace, or at a pace that’s just below threshold. Pepa would have us do these workouts to prepare for marathons where the entire point was to deplete your energy stores and force your body to metabolize differently. They would be two, two and a half hours of this pretty fast pace, but not fast enough to actually be fun. Just fast enough that two hours later you were amazed that you could keep it up for two hours.

Anyway, that was the best mental toughness training I could ask for. If you tell most people, oh, just run for another hour with your heart rate averaging, say, in the low 180s, they would say, holy shit, that sounds impossible. I thought that too, in half my brain, but in the other half my brain, I was thinking, I’ve got this.

And I did. I may not have maintained an even pace, but I maintained a hard effort. I pushed myself for another hour. Then after another couple miles I could change my mantra to, all you have to do is keep running for another forty five minutes. Why, that was even easier than before! Until I got to the climbs, that is.

From looking at the course profile, I knew that at about eight miles I would start climbing again and the fun would be over. I had it a bit off – the eighth mile was actually pretty easy. It was the ninth one that killed me. And the tenth. And the eleventh. As I said, I wasn’t expecting to feel so sluggish on the uphills, but it was really tough. The clincher was that after mile nine, the really big climb came as a series of stone steps. I was not expecting this. Running up steps is different than running up a hill because you can’t set your own rhythm or cadence – you are bound to take steps exactly as big as the stairs. It was the only time in the whole race where I walked, because after a while I just couldn’t find the right rhythm for those darn steps. And there were a lot of them.

From then on, it was ugly. With two miles to go I tried to pick it up, telling myself that I only had to run for another fifteen minutes, so how bad could it be? The worst of the climbing was over, but there was still plenty of gradual, rolling terrain, and I was beat. My strides had shortened and I felt awkward, like I was hobbling along as fast as I could. Still, I pushed it and I saw my mile splits come back down towards 7 after being up over 9 for the last really steep sections. With one mile to go I thought I could make it. I was so close. Just seven more minutes, I told myself. You can push really hard for seven minutes. Think of all the things you’ve done that are harder than that.

Then I came around a corner and saw a mountain.

No, it wasn’t a mountain. It reminded me a little bit of a hill at the Thetford High School course back in Vermont, actually. It was just that it was quite steep, and not short, and 3/4 of a mile from the finish of a half marathon. That’s a lot different than being two miles into a 5k. When I finally got to the top of that hill – and several people had passed me during the process – I was faced with an equally steep downhill. Maybe even more steep. I’ve already told you I’m good at running downhill, but this was too much. My legs were jelly and I was afraid that they were just going to give out. It was muddy. I was sure I was going to fall, but the finish was so close that I tried to roll along anyway.

When I finally made it across the line, I just wanted to lie down. It feels so good to feel so tired, but it feels bad too. Honestly, I was proud of myself not so much for my time or place but because I had really pushed hard the whole time, harder than in most ski races. I didn’t have any mental issues to deal with, and I didn’t have any pressure: those were the two things that wrecked my ski career. At the half marathon, I didn’t have anything else to think about except working hard, and boy did I work hard.

There wasn’t time to lounge, though. I needed dry clothes, and more of them. I needed something hot to drink. Something hot to eat. I found some of my friends who finished before and after me and we ate chili provided by the race staff. It was great. We drank beer. After the awards we had a party and drank more beer.

And that’s the story of the half marathon. My leg is back to being all messed up, and it’s November, so I don’t think I’ll be doing any more running races in the near future – when I get back in action, I’ll be focusing on skiing – but it was an amazing way to cap off an awesome fall. I beat my half marathon demons and some of my more general racing demons, too. I’m ready to ski!

The most grueling all-night party.

This past weekend I had the chance to do something totally amazing: the Hood to Coast relay. I literally cannot believe, still, that after only two months in Oregon I managed to get on a team – there is a lottery system for teams to get entered, and it’s a huge deal. I didn’t know everyone on my team, far from it, but a few of my good friends were there, and I drove up to Portland with one of them to meet up with our van. Neither of us had ever done a big relay before, and we didn’t know what to expect. The trunk of Heather’s car was stuffed with sleeping bags and pads and more food than we could possibly consume (so we thought).

Hood to Coast is a 200-mile race, where teams of twelve people run three legs each. The event starts at the Timberline Lodge on Mount Hood. As we drove up the road we were quiet with anticipation, and occasionally gasped as the mountains revealed themselves. We weren’t in 24-hour race mode yet, and we hadn’t opened up; it was still hitting us that we would be spending more than a day in this very van, pretty much nonstop except for running.

The scenery was beautiful but on the other side of the road, we could see runners already streaming down the road. With 1200 teams participating, waves of runners start their downward journey in waves throughout the day on Friday. And most of them didn’t look comfortable. Leg one descends two thousand feet in five miles.

Up on the mountain, we scurried around grabbing Clif bars from the promo tent and lacing up our running shoes as confused (and stoned) snowboarders wandered through the parking lot. We decorated our van with paint, put our costumes on, and snapped a team picture:

So I guess I should tell you a little bit about our team. We were the Red Dress Express Too, the rejects from an older team which has been doing Hood to Coast since about 2001. It’s made up of people from Eugene, and everyone wears red dresses and accessories, even the guys. This year, Red Dress Express was trying for a top-six finish in the sub-masters category, which would guarantee them an entry into next year’s race, bypassing the lottery. I’m a newcomer and well below the sub-masters age limit, so I was stuck on the second team… which turned out to be the best thing anyway. I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

Because, can I say that we had a good time? We had a good time, a better time than any other team, I’m sure of that. Each of us was only serious when we were actually running, which meant that the other five members of our van were goofing off the whole time. We had a photo contest with the other Red Dress vans which ensured a lot of shenanigans. For instance, we had an actual horn which one of my teammates occasionally blew through, and with which we repeatedly chased some members of the Run Oregon team:

This was the fourth runner we terrorized, and she was psyched. She had watched us take pictures of our other team members running after her other team members, and as soon as she saw me in my red dress on the side of the road she started smiling. She really hammed it up for the camera.

Anyway, back to the running. Once we got down off the mountain, it got hot. Our second leg runner finished as a shell of his former self. Even though he had two water bottles during his race, he was speaking unintelligibly and had trouble walking in a straight line. We ran ahead to get him more water and gave him an ice pack to hunker down with in a van. I began to get a little bit nervous for my own leg.

I had told the team organizer that I would take any leg, no matter how hard, as long as it wasn’t that first steeply downhill one. I’m good at running up hills, I said. I do it a lot. And so they stuck me with leg 5, the hardest in the entire race. It’s a third of a mile shorter than leg 9, which my friend Mike was running, but there’s much more terrain. That’s why I was nervous. I had basically acted very cocky, and if I didn’t deliver on my bragging, I was going to be ashamed. More than that, I was afraid that if I went too hard in my first leg, the rest of the race would be really, really unpleasant.

So off I went on leg 5, four miles along the highway in the sun and then a turn into the shade and up a big hill. Almost as soon as I started, my competitive juices got flowing and I took off. At first, I felt great. Then, I felt hot. Next, I felt a little shaky. I had stopped sweating and was almost cold. I knew I was in trouble as I ran along the highway in the full sun, but I also knew that sometime, I’d be turning into the shade. I didn’t know when that sometime would arrive, and wavered back and forth about whether I should slow down, or just try to get to the shade as quickly as possible. Luckily, I had my drinkbelt with some gatorade, and tried to take in as many electrolytes as possible without making myself sick in a different way.

When I finally made it to the turn it was a huge relief. Almost immediately, I felt better. My teammates had stopped the van to cheer for me, and as I went by they dumped water over my head. Whew! I began passing people again instead of lagging. A volunteer promised me that there was a sprinkler coming up, but it turned out that she was kind of lying. I commiserated with another runner as we ran up the hill – which wasn’t that big, just 400 feet or so, but after a long hot run on the highway, it seemed to go on forever. At one point I knew I had only a mile to go, and I started looking for the finish line around every corner.

I also started looking at my watch. I had submitted 45 minutes for my 10k time, and a teammate had estimated how long it would take everyone to run their legs. I was nervous about this. I haven’t done any workouts, really, since March: just perhaps three sets of intervals and one 5k race. I haven’t even been running that much. I didn’t think that I’d have any speed left, just slow-twitch fitness. So I glanced at my watch, subtracting the time from 45 minutes to see how long I thought I had to keep running. Which was discouraging.

But when I finally saw the finish, it was not discouraging. I was ahead of my seed time, and more importantly, I was done running. For now. I snapped our bracelet onto my teammate Brian’s wrist and sat down on the pavement. My teammates ran up to me and gave me hugs. Then we piled into the van and drove toward the middle of Brian’s leg so we could cheer him on and give him water.

Because this is the thing about Hood to Coast: there’s no warming up. There’s no cooling down. Maybe if you’re serious and you manage everything perfectly, you might be able to do it on some of the legs. But there’s bigger issues. You have to get to the next exchange, and there’s six of you to keep track of. After two years of micromanaged warmup routines and making sure I ate exactly the right thing at the right time, the concept of just jumping in a race cold terrified me.

After Brian finished, we handed our clipboard off to the other van of six runners and headed into Portland, where we crashed at my teammate Nice’s house. We changed into new, dry red dresses and walked to a nearby (excellent) Mexican restaurant, where we got a LOT of strange looks as we ate our tacos. Heather and I split a margarita. It was delicious. We tried to nap on Nice’s floors and sofas, but it was only 7 p.m., and we couldn’t sleep; soon enough it was time to head to the next exchange to switch off with the other van.

By the time we got there – a big concrete road exchange under a bridge in Portland – it was dark, and everyone was wearing headlamps, reflective vests, and blinking red lights. There were runners everywhere and we had to push our way through the crowd to the actual exchange zone. It was great to be reunited with the other van, and we had a good time hanging out. I felt lucky not to have been stuck with the first leg – not only would I have had to run down Mount Hood, but I wouldn’t have been able to enjoy the van exchanges as much.

Leg two for our van turned out to be one of the more grim sections of the race. Heather got to run through downtown, along the river, but after that it was out through the industrial edges of the city. Especially in the dark, it wasn’t fun. Just gray, lonely, and a little bit dirty. We would still stop along the side of the road to cheer for each other, but it became impossible to tell which blinking red light was our actual runner. Many of the legs were on the long side, too, so it felt like the night was going on forever.

It was finally my turn to run, and I embarked on a seven-mile journey along pancake-flat Highway 30. I have never run in the middle of the night before, really; it was disorienting. Even with my headlamp to guide me, I only roughly knew where the edge of the road was. I followed the river of blinking lights in front of me, but unlike on my first leg, there weren’t many people to pass; everyone was my speed or faster. But I could see them, so I was tempted into running harder and harder to try to catch up.

“I feel like I’m being chased by an army of fireflies,” one runner said as four of us ran past in a pack.

When my teammates greeted me at the halfway point with a waterbottle holding a mix of coca cola and coffee, I said to myself, shit. I glanced at my watch and knew that I had been running much too fast. I shouldn’t have covered three and a half miles so quickly, especially in the (non)-shape that I was.

How long could three more miles be? I told myself that everything would be fine, that the caffeine would do its job and wake me up, that I should just keep going. But after another mile, I began to drag. I’d pick a runner and match their pace, and then I’d slow down, unable to keep at it. I actually caught a guy in an orange shirt who I had also passed on my first leg, but after running with him for about 30 seconds, he pulled away and over the last mile but 20 or so seconds on me.

By the time I was turning onto the road towards the high school for our exchange, I was suffering bigtime. Not only had I started out too fast, but I was wearing racing flats, a questionable move after 13 miles. It had seemed like a good idea at the time, but my calves were seizing up in a serious way. As soon as I handed off to Brian, I lay down and didn’t get up for a few minutes.

But soon, I was standing up and joking with the orange shirt guy’s team. They were from Seattle and in one of the masters’ divisions. Honestly, I was a little pissed that orange shirt guy had run away from me; he was just a guy, how was he so fast? But they were great and we had seen them so many times at the exchanges already that we fell into a long conversation.

Heather broke some bad news to me. “Everyone else is kind of falling apart,” she said.

What? Falling apart more than me? With my cement-like calves, I hobbled back to the van and surveyed the damage. Nice was passed out across the driver and passenger seats, face down. Leah and Kathryn were semi-comatose in the back. Uh oh. Brian’s leg was only five miles, and we had wasted time talking to the other team; we needed to get to the next exchange.

Then Heather confessed that she had a terrible sense of direction.

“Do you want me to drive?” I asked.

“No, no, I feel terrible doing that,” she replied. “You just finished racing. I’m sure I can find my way.”

But I thought about it and decided that me driving would be better. We moved Nice into the back and took over the front. After taking a long time to figure out how to move the seat forward, we were off. Heather fed me Clif ShotBloks one at a time as I drove.

And…… we immediately missed our first turn. The sign for the road was after the actual intersection, and it was dark, and there were runners on the road! What do you expect? So we had to keep driving and circle back. We eventually made it to the van exchange at a county fairgrounds. It was a designated sleeping area, so between the rows of vans there were runners sacked out in sleeping bags and tents. I gave Heather the clipboard to take to the exchange and tried to do a really easy run around the grounds to loosen up my calves, which were cramping worse than ever.

Two things happened on my little jaunt through the parking lot. First of all, I heard some team refer to us as transvestites (don’t buy a Balance Bar; they also opened the door of their van and shouted “fa**ot” at Brian as he raced along). Secondly, I just happened to come across our other van as they packed up from their brief night’s sleep.

“Mike!” I said.

“What are you doing?” He asked.

“I need a hug,” I said, and stopped running.

“Why aren’t you wearing a shirt?”

Oops, yeah, that’s right. My red dress had gotten very hot and sweaty on my run – which had turned out to be a personal best for 10k, the first few miles at sub-seven minute pace making up for the later ones at over-eight – and I had wanted it off. Luckily I had managed to put shorts on, but I was jogging around in the night cold in my sports bra and heart rate monitor (coincidentally, the first time I’d worn it since leaving Craftsbury in March).

Ever the gentleman, Mike walked me back to my van where I found some more clothes, and then we went over to watch the exchange. After saying goodbye to our groggy other van, I got back in the driver’s seat and headed towards the next van exchange, where we would sleep until it was our turn to run.

Things went well for a while. I had a sip of coffee and Heather chatted away to keep me awake. It was only supposed to be an hour or so drive. But as we got close to the exchange, traffic got really bad, and we were at a standstill. I can do this, I thought to myself, inching along at a snail’s pace. Then an hour and a half had passed. I was tired. I was sleepy. Was I going to make it?

I finally decided that it was Brian’s van, and so he should drive, because if any of us fell asleep at the wheel, at least he’d be wrecking his own car. Luckily he was pretty awake. As soon as I switched places with him I fell asleep, and woke up an hour later in a very uncomfortable position. It was a good call to give up driving. I was not fit to drive, not even close.

We parked and unfurled our sleeping pads and bags. It was about four thirty in the morning, and I didn’t even have the energy to take my contacts out. If you looked at us, curled up on a tarp, you would have thought we were having some sort of snuggle-fest, but I don’t think a single person moved an inch or even rolled over between the time we fell asleep and when our alarm woke us up the next morning. We were too exhausted.

Van number two found us again, and it was off to the races. By this time, racing didn’t seem so intimidating. I didn’t even worry about how I couldn’t warm up. It seemed like it would never be my turn to run. Nothing seemed important except enjoying the morning sunshine.

But when Kathryn started running, I knew I had less than an hour before I was faced with my hardest task yet: leg 29. It was six miles, just like my first leg, but gained and then lost 600 feet of elevation. Thinking about the numbers, that didn’t seem like so much, but then again, I was pretty tired and my calves were still wrecked. So I tried to stop thinking about it entirely.

When the handoff came, Kathryn slapped my butt and sent me off. The beginning was actually quite flat and in the shade, and after a quite painful first two minutes, I started feeling good. I fell in with a guy from Portland and we ran together, striding easily along a creek. We’d trade off leading and were even chatting away. That’s how easy it was. I felt like everything was going to be fine, just fine.

That’s me, with Portland dude:

Then I got to the hill.

It was not fine.

“Go on,” I told the Portland guy. “I can’t keep up with you.”

“No, I need to slow down too,” he said. “We’ll help each other out.”

That lasted about 20 seconds.

“No, really,” I insisted. “You should just go.”

In the first leg, I had run up the hill like it ain’t no thang. I’m not actually sure I was going much slower than I had been on the flat. But this time around, my calved complained loudly and I was just plain tired. My form disintegrated and I felt like I was shuffling. People kept cheering for me, but I am pretty sure it was just because I was a girl and usually teams don’t have women run leg 5 because it’s so hard. I got a few cheers for my red dress, too, which kept me going, and the Nike France team cheered for me in French as they drove by because I had told them to “Allez, allez!”

On top of it all, we had run out of the shade and into the sun, and it was getting hot again. The hill became a real slog.

I couldn’t have been happier when I reached the top of the “pass”. My teammates were there and held up a roll of toilet paper for me to run through like a finish banner.

In my mind, I was thinking, woohoo, I’m done! But I still had a long way to go… what I thought was two miles of downhill was really two and a half, and after taking off and working it for the first mile I began to question how long I could keep it up. My calves hurt! I was tired! This was stupid! There was nobody around me for the first time in the entire race, so I didn’t even have a chase to keep me motivated. Still, I pushed on to where I knew Brian was waiting for me.

And there he was. I was done! I was free! It was a strange feeling, after 19 miles of running, not to have to run any farther. I climbed into the van and we encountered more terrible traffic. With two and half miles to go before the exchange, we were at a dead stop. Heather and Leah got out of the van and began running down the road; even walking, they could have gotten there faster than we did. In the end, we arrived just about the time that Brian finished. So we handed off the clipboard to the second van and headed for Seaside and finish line.

We met up with the original Red Dress team, who had finished eighth, just missing a guaranteed entry for next year, which was pretty disappointing for them. Their time was fast enough to make the cut most years, but this year was a fast year, and also Coco had left his shoes in Eugene and racked up some huge blisters running in a teammate’s sneakers. Not to blame it all on Coco or anything. Brian, Leah and I ran into the ocean, cooled our legs very briefly, and then got out of there because it was cold. There was beer, and the beach, and much rejoicing as we waited for van number two to make it to the finish.

Unfortunately the second van encountered more terrible traffic coming into Seaside, so their runner actually beat them there. We hung out with her and drank more beer as we waited quite a bit longer for the last of our teammates to arrive. Then, finally, it was back to the finish for our official team picture. I got to hold our race number!

Later that night, we had a bonfire on the beach, and then passed out four or five to a hotel room. It was lovely. Amazing. So much fun. Sunday morning, we got breakfast at a diner. Biscuits and gravy and eggs and bacon hoo yeah. For once I didn’t feel guilty eating a ridiculous amount of calories. I had earned them, bigtime.

Hood to Coast was even more fun than I thought it could be. Part of it was rediscovering a way to race that didn’t stress me out, and realizing that it could be fun. And perhaps it’s better to be fun than to be serious: both my second and third legs were faster than any 10k I had ever run before, something which still puzzles me. Does that mean that I just wasted the last two years of my life? What the hell? But that doesn’t matter now, it’s water under the bridge. What matters is that I had a great time and look at how cool my friends are. I have the best friends. The best teammates. These are good people and we are going to have more fun together. If I don’t get back on this team next year, I’m going to be devastated.

Thanks to Brian and Christina for the photos.

Over and out.