Monday, September 17, 2012

Sandpoint's Scenic Half

Jayne Anderson turned to me as Bryan Rowe drove us all to Sandpoint. “You know what? Forty weeks from today, we’ll be racing Ironman Coeur d’Alene.”

I sighed. Forty weeks. That’s it. Just over nine months to go and I’ll be bracing myself to conquer the biggest race of my life. I couldn’t think of a better way to spend the day of the fortieth week out, than with two great people heading up to one great town for one of the best half marathons this area has to offer. They don’t call it Sandpoint Scenic Half for nothing. A close second to Coeur d’Alene, it has to be one of my favorite towns to visit, even if most (if not all) of the times I’m in Sandpoint are because of a race or event I’ve entered.

Attempting to will my legs to run again after suffering through a humbling run in Vegas, and encouraging my body to recognize what normal temperatures feel like, my recovery week after Worlds has finally ended. My 6 weeks of marathon training have quickly begun. Last year on this weekend, Mother Nature shrouded Sandpoint in clouds and a cold drizzle. I remember driving up with Rene Guerrero, peering through the windows of my car, begging the rain to stop. By the speed of my windshield wipers, it soon sunk in that getting soaked would be inevitable.

This year, sunshine warmed our faces as Bryan, Jayne, and me walked over to packet pickup, a table surrounded by vendors with coffee, SunRype fruit strips, Clif bars, and Ruby’s Lube (for all your chafing quandaries). Volunteers readied the post-race food table, laden with an assortment of fruit, cheese, bagels, cookies, and pretzels. If this race’s scenic course doesn’t sell you out on a great event, then the food table certainly does!

A handful of familiar faces greeted me as Bryan and I waded into the crowd running the new half marathon course. The national anthem was sung (quite well, actually) and within two minutes, Eric Ewing from Milliseconds Timing had us off and running.

Photo by Sandpoint Scenic Half Marathon.
So here’s the deal. The goal for the day seemed simple enough: start the first four miles at 7:40 pace, ramp up the middle 4 miles to 7:30, and run the final 5 miles at top marathon goal pace of 7:20. Bryan and I—despite our aching bodies (his as a result of being 2 weeks post Ironman Canada and nursing a bruised lung)—did a stellar job of running the first four miles at a consistent 7:20min/mile pace. Well played, Meghan. Well played.

As you may imagine, the plan for the rest of the run changed slightly. Now, it was all about holding that pace, which ended up being a bit of a challenge as the race progressed. Bryan and I just passed mile marker 4 when the first guy flew by us on his way back to town. I can’t remember exactly what Bryan said, but I remember being incredibly surprised that what he did say didn’t include a swear word. What went through my head certainly did.

This was about where it hit me: I'm not even half way done
yet. Photo by Jenny Yoakum. 
Not 6 guys behind the leader, James Richman passed us on his way back, too. I thought it kind of early for people to be looping back so soon, as last year’s turnaround occurred exactly at the halfway mark. You can imagine my surprise when Bryan and I turned back toward Sandpoint just a little over 5 miles into the run. Either those volunteers misjudged the distance and we would be running a short half marathon, or they added something to the end that would make for a serious mental nightmare with 5k left to go. (More about this later.)

Jayne ran alongside Jenny Yoakum and Jessica Fitzpatrick, imparting smiles as Bryan and I busted our butts trying to keep our pace. My legs started screaming by mile 7, so I decided to resort to distractions and noticed the scenery this course is named for. Paved trail. Large, open fields. Grass. Red and yellow leaves. Fall. I was pulled out of my distractions when Bryan and I passed a guy, still on his way to the turnaround, who kindly noted I was 10th woman. Spurred by the comment, Bryan turned to me and said something I don’t remember. I did notice a getup in his stride. Nice comments bring out the girl in all of us, I suppose.

Photo by Jenny Yoakum. What you don't see are the white
caps. What you don't feel is the headwind.
We approached the bridge that spans the river we’d swam across for the Longbridge swim two months ago. The headwind that slowed our pace also did a number on the water. I suddenly felt incredibly grateful to be running across the bridge instead of trying to swim through the waves below it. We gutted out an entire mile (and then some) over the bridge, making a nice barrier for one gentleman who found refuge in our wake. Last year at this point, just one mile remained before the finish line. This year? We hadn’t even made it through 10 miles. And that’s when she passed me.

Craig Thorsen: “So what are you going to do when she passes you?”
Me: “Let her go. I’m not racing tomorrow. Tomorrow is all about training for a bigger day, for a bigger race in Tri Cities 6 weeks from now.”
Craig: “Good.”

I have decided Craig knows me all too well. He asks me all the right questions. He feeds me just enough detail. He imparts knowledge only a seasoned mentor could know. Yesterday, during our bike ride, the topic of the race came up. Of course he wondered how Miss Competitive would tolerate a girl passing me when the aim of this “race” was to serve more as a training “run”. Well, Craig? I let her pass me. I friggin’ let. her. pass. me.

We made that final turn toward the finish line, when volunteers smiled and cheered, only to motion us off to the left on some tangent that was to serve as our final 5k of torture before we could cross the finish line. They had no idea what a mental disaster they caused. Nonetheless, we did as were told and forged ahead on new trail. Again, I needed a diversion from the tiredness in my legs and tried to concentrate on the scenery. The water to my left looked like glass, and a green canoe with two occupants took advantage of the conditions to hang alongside the trail. James again passed us on his way to the finish line, having already made the turnaround. I started counting girls headed back my way. One wore all black, one skimmed along in a bright turquois tutu, and one…

Her. Just ahead. In pink. The girl who passed me at mile 9 ran just 10 yards ahead as I approached the turnaround. We rounded the turn together, and for some reason, I beat her out of it. I ran the same pace I’d approached the turnaround in, and I looked nowhere but forward as I finished that final mile before taking the left turn toward the finish line. Let’s just say she crossed the line after I did, even when I ran a controlled 7:24min/mile pace that final 3k. (All for you, Craig. All for you.)

Scenic, no? How Jenny was able to run and take pictures
totally eludes me, but thank you for capturing all the
scenery, Jenny!
Another Scenic Half Marathon rests in the books; another age group win to my credit. Bryan enthusiastically looks forward to racing the Tri Cities Marathon with me in 6 weeks after having successfully run 13.1 miles without succumbing to a broken lung. The post-race food tasted just as good as it looked before the race. Yet it was the water. I couldn’t take my eyes off the water table, covered by cup after endless cup. It took everything I had to keep myself from grabbing at every one, using several to douse me, drench me. Others I’d use to quench thirst I didn’t really have. Why aren’t people throwing water at me? I’ll never look at water and ice the same way again, not after what I remember from last Sunday, the wave of cool relief water and ice provided from the heat of Vegas. Yet a marathon beckons.

Let the speed work, the tempo runs, the 20-milers begin…

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Embracing the suck: Ironman 70.3 World Championships

“The more you suffer for something, the more you value it, so embrace the moment.” –Chris McCormack, Triathlete Magazine

Acclimating to the heat in the shade at the Ravella. 
My season of 70.3s has been one of variable extremes. I nearly froze in Boise, the race at which I qualified to race the world championships. Lake Stevens wasn’t nearly as cold, but the rain during the bike leg on a hilly course made road conditions extremely treacherous. I guess it seemed only fitting to end this season with a final 70.3—the world championships, no less—in the incinerator they call Lake Henderson, Nevada. For the last two weeks leading up to Sunday’s race I’d been studying the weather via my iPhone app. It didn’t take very long for me to realize that even at 6 o’clock in the morning, I’d be sweating in 90 degrees.

A quick picture with relatives of Sam and Tanya Piccici,
Bryan and Jayne (taking the picture), Russ and Lora, and me. 

I arrived Thursday afternoon, and upon stepping out of the airport, was hit with a wave of heat. Even the hottest summer days of Spokane didn’t compare to this. The hillsides looked parched and ragged, the only greenery found near the Ravella resort I was to call “home” for the next few days. My attempt to acclimatize to the heat may or may not have been successful, but race day arrived sooner than I would have liked, and little did I know just how interesting this last 70.3 of 2012 would turn out to be.

Stay in the moment. Embrace the suck. Be grateful to be here. Enjoy your day.

The water and the carp. Yuck.
I found myself inching closer and closer to the water, standing in one of the last waves to start. I peered out over the “lake”, feeling incredibly tentative to have to dive into what might better be characterized as a glorified swamp, what smelled like sewage, and what looked like mud. When I say the water of Lake Henderson makes Bear and Medical lakes look crystal clean, I’m not exaggerating. When you look through the water of Bear Lake, you can see the bottom 6 feet down. Here? I couldn’t see my hand 6 inches from the surface. Just off the shore, I counted 6 carp the length of my arm eating off the surface of the water. Let’s be honest. I don’t mind swimming in open water with fish. Perch, trout, and bass signify a healthy lake ecosystem. But carp?!?! We used to throw those in the woods after reeling them to shore when I was a kid fishing with my dad.

Without the security of my wetsuit, I felt vulnerable among some pretty strong swimmers from all around the world. Let’s face it: the swim skin Haley Cooper-Scott let me borrow did more for my mind than it would do for my swim time, and I knew that. Following bubbles proved to be a challenge, simply because of the murkiness of the water. After just over 36 minutes, I finally reached the shoreline on the opposite side of the lake to begin a long run to get into transition and finally make my way out. Another long run up a steep hill greeted me as I made my way out of transition, and Craig Thorsen and Merissa Duncan urged me onward.

Photo by Craig Thorsen. Exiting
transition and about ready to
jump on the bike. 
The first half of this bike course is a steady incline. Even upon exiting transition you begin a 2-mile climb just to get out to the main road. From there, you begin another steady climb to make it into Lake Mead National Park, upon which you start a roller coaster ride over asphalt that guides you through endless acres of dirt and dust. I didn’t spot any cacti, but this reminded me of a desert. It took about 15 miles before my legs started to feel a rhythm. I strategically kept a steady 90rpm cadence to conserve my legs for the return trip toward Henderson. It felt like forever and a day to reach that turnaround point. I played a game of leapfrog with another girl in my age group, chasing her on the downhills only to overtake her on the uphills. (My dad would be proud). I never saw her after that last ascent to the turnaround, but her smile reminded me of the friendly athletes of which this sport embraces.

Over the bike leg alone, I consumed 5 bottles of water, which didn’t even include my 21oz of GU Roctane liquid nutrition. At each aid station, the first water bottle was destined for my aero bottle, the second for my roasting skin. Thankfully, it didn’t take nearly as long to exit the park as it took to get in it. My feet had swelled to the point where my toes jammed into the top of my shoes. The bottom of my feet burned as if I had walked over fiery coals for miles. Once into Henderson, I flew by a man who had walked his bike to some shade and laid himself down on the grass. Seeing someone lying in the fetal position, on the side of the road, with a policeman coming to his aid left me feeling incredibly lucky that all I had to complain about was burning feet.
Pretty and scenic, but hot and hilly. This is just one of the
hills leading into Lake Mead National Park.
My Timex read 54 miles, and then “Come ON Lil’ F---er!” came somewhere from my left. I laughed out loud, because while Bryan Rowe claims he didn’t call me what I knew I heard, I’m quite certain it wasn’t until mile 8 of the run that I started feeling delusional. I thought it quite fitting to wait for a big stage like Worlds to finally use my nickname the way everyone anticipates it should be mispronounced. So Lil’ FAULker sucked it up and said a prayer, asking for a run that wouldn’t feel as bad as I had anticipated it might.
Photo by Jayne. Smiling after just being called
a little f---er.
It hurt. Badly. Even my mantra for the day, Embrace the suck, couldn’t quite get me through it. While my quick cadence on the bike propelled me past countless other participants, both male and female alike, even relatively fresh legs couldn’t overcome the heaviness the heat created for the run. Yet my legs followed suit as I exited transition, white with sunscreen, hot with anticipation. I passed Jayne and Bryan as I made my way downhill to the first aid station. I had planned to use the first loop of the run to fill every free space in my tri top and shorts with ice. I succeeded at the first aid station, but came up short on the next two. Great, here goes the downward spiral I feared most.

I could envision no way to surmount the sun that had sent the ambient air temperatures to a torturous 106° (as I was informed of later) without ice. I pressed on up the hill, 
Photo by Jayne. First lap.  
filled with disappointment, and started to count.

Run for one, two, three…25, 26, 27…48, 49, 50 steps, then take a 20 second walk break unless an aid station is within view. I forced myself to run the entire length of each downhill, regardless of the number of steps it took me to do so. If I felt gutsy, I’d push myself to 100+ steps going uphill, especially if it meant I had the opportunity to walk through an aid station just up ahead.

I walked every aid station, taking in as much fluid as volunteers would hand me, drenching myself with cups of water and sponges. It wasn’t until my final loop that the ever-blessed golf carts with more bags of ice finally arrived. I shoved ice where ice has never been before: primarily between boobs and butt cheeks. Ice became the Heaven to my hell.

By the third loop, I felt so tired that I simply pulled down my top and let volunteers stuff it for me. One guy even took the liberty to pour some down my shorts. I didn’t protest. Volunteers stopped shouting “water, water!” and began asking, “Want a splash?” Hell YES! and one boy unleashed three full cups smack upside my face. Holy Heaven.
Photo by Craig. Erica is finishing up her third lap, and I am
suffering through my second.
I’d reached the final 2 miles, ambling up the hill, and I finally let it sink in. Yes, the finish line is within sight. My stomach had held strong, my muscles had kept from cramping. Two. More. Miles. I reached the final turnaround and started down the ¾-mile hill that marked the homestretch. I ran through the last aid station, grabbing at every cup of water held out to me, washing myself free of all the sweat and heat that had restrained me to a dismal 9 minute-per-mile pace.
Photo by Jayne. Attempting to follow
Bryan's instructions, all with a smile
for the final 100 feet.

There stood Bryan. He reminded me to smile, to fix my number, to suck it up. Jayne took pictures, and I had one girl to catch. (Damn my competitive nature.) I found one last drop of energy, enough to pick up speed, inch by her, and cross the finish line before collapsing into two volunteers. It was finished. My day was done.

Stay in the moment. Embrace the suck. Be grateful to be here. Enjoy your day.

Lance Armstrong once said, “Pain is temporary. It may last a minute, or an hour, or a day, or a year, but eventually it will subside and something else will take its place.” It’s Tuesday, and I can hardly walk. Even after the massage Libby gave me at Elements this morning, muscles still ache. The tips of my toes are blistered; a couple of toenails are destined to fall off. While my body aches, my mind is strong. I am excited. I am grateful. I am motivated to train harder. That course kicked my butt and left me physically beaten. I am, however, mentally stronger. That…I will embrace. 

Photo by Craig. 
We enjoyed a post-race celebration at a restaurant on the strip
that night. From left to right: Haley Cooper-Scott, Gretchen
Rose-Wolf and her daughters, me, Lora Jackson, Russ Abrams,
Ben Greenfield, and Ben's Australian friend (can't remember his
name).  Bryan and Jayne joined us after the picture was taken.