Sunday, June 17, 2012

Fifty Miles is LONG Way!

It turns out, 50 miles is a long run!   Running fifty miles is fabulously fun, I learned, for about thirty-five miles.  And then, it gets ugly.  Really, really ugly.


But let’s start at the beginning, or, more precisely, the day before the race.  As we drove from our hotel in Northern Virginia to the packet pickup site, the North Face store in Georgetown, Holly remarked “I cannot see a thing!”  Neither could I: it was pouring so hard that her windshield wipers could not keep up. 

“I’m glad we trained in mud!” I noted.  This downpour, expected to last till 2 am, would saturate the ground, yet again.  Some people dance and cause rain.  I just think about doing a trail race, and the skies open up in anger. 

We got to the North Face store and picked up our packets, and I asked some sales assistants where I could find their gaiters.  Gaiters are a great thing to wear in trail runs: they are pieces of fabric that fit over the top of your shoes and the bottom of your socks, preventing rocks and other debris from getting inside your shoes.  I wanted to see if North Face had some cute gaiters.  I was shocked to learn that they carried NO gaiters!

Holly had brought her gluten free dinner with her from home, but I of course can eat anything, so we stopped at Chipotle and I got a dinner of chicken, rice and black beans.  Yummy.

The next morning, we awoke at 3 am to eat and get ready for the day.  Two eggs, two wasa crackers, jelly: my usual breakfast.  Plus, my race day bowl of oatmeal.  Once we arrived at the race site, I ate a banana and a Greek yogurt.  Those of you who think that’s a lot of breakfast, recall that I proposed to expend 5000 calories exercising on this day, so I needed a head start.

We gathered with the other runners planning to run this fifty mile race.  Later I looked at the statistics.  Holly and I were among the 320 people (including 72 women) who started the 50 miler that day.  About three out of four of these ultra runners were men.  There were relatively few runners under 30, and there were plenty people older than I.  I noticed a few Ironman tattoos.  But the atmosphere was casual and laid-back, unlike the atmosphere you find before a triathlon. 


The race began at 5:00 am, in the pitch dark.  A man shouted “Only 49.9 miles to go!” and we all replied “WOO HOO!”  We wore headlamps to guide our way forward.  I wore a new headlamp for the first time.  It shone much more brightly than my old headlamp.  And it squished my brains in, I realized, as we took off. Yowww.  I would look forward to handing this off to Denise and Emma, our crew, at mile 21.7.

I was grateful that this race did NOT start with a climb up a giant mountain.  Instead, it started flat, through muddy trails.  From time to time, we’d hear the crowd ahead of us roar as someone slipped and fell into a bed of mud.  It was then that I heard a man say something strange. 

“This mud is awful!  It really messes up your gait!” Gait is not something trail runners contemplate, unless, I suppose, you are Mr. Gaiter. Gait is something you focus on when you run on a steady surface, such as asphalt.  On trails, you run side to side to avoid slamming into rocks and sticks and doing a face-plant.  And you either hop around mud puddles, or you plow right on through them.

In response to the gait comment, another runner said, “Dude, have you done a lot of trail races?”

“Actually,” said the man who liked to monitor his gait, “this is my first trail run ever.  I’ve been meaning to get out on the trails.  I trained for hills, not mud!  I wish we could trade this for hills.”

The total elevation gain and loss for this race was supposed to be 4656 (combined), NOTHING in comparison to the 8000 up, plus 8000 down we had encountered at Promise Land.  However, I really did not want to encounter hills just yet.

“Mr. Gaiter,” I said, “Be careful what you ask for.  Muddy hills are NOT fun.” 

And, wouldn’t you know it, we came to a climb, where we had to turn our feet sideways and scramble up.  At some point I had to grab onto a tree, bringing back memories of grabbing hold of “devil’s club” in Alaska.  And Mr. Gaiter was sad. Oh, the race was going to be long for Mr. Gaiter (who had no gaiters).  We, on the other hand, were ideally suited for this challenge!  “Holly!” I shouted, “we’re expert mud runners!  We got this!”

She agreed heartily.  It was about a mile later--less than five miles into our fifty mile race, that Holly encountered a gigantic mud puddle and seemingly could not decide whether to plow right through it or tiptoe around it.  Indecision will get you every time.  I saw her slip-sliding away, attempting to right herself.  But it was no good.  PLOP, down she went, on her backside in the wet, sloppy mud.  She got up and looked at herself.  I knew what she was thinking.  “For 45 miles, people will see me and think I could not make it to a porto-potty.” 

99900.07938 EMF_US 40669558v1
The truth was, I saw more people covered in filth during this race then I’ve seen in any other.  About this time, a man passed us wearing what appeared at one time to have been a white shirt and white shorts.  “I thought I was going to play tennis today!” he shouted. 

The First Cut-off

The course consisted of a 14 mile section from the start to an area called Great Falls.  This section is thought to be the easiest.  And on a dry day, it would not have been difficult at all: relatively few climbs and few roots and rocks to trip you up.  Of course, today it was muddy, which slowed progress.  We were so glad to see Denise, Holly’s mom, and Emma, Holly’s daughter, at mile 14.  We refueled and said hello.  I shoved food into my face and Emma asked me a question.  I tried to answer and sprayed food all around.  “Do not emulate me!  This is not lady-like!” I told her, and she laughed.  Every time I saw Emma and Denise, and at each aid station (generally about an hour apart), I ate like a fiend.  I refilled my water bottle with sports drink and engulfed whatever food was there--peanut butter sandwiches, boiled and salted potatoes, Lance crackers with peanut butter on them, Fritos, cookies, whatever they had.  I shoved it in my face and chewed as quickly as possible.  It was hard to eat enough to keep up with the calorie deficit we created with our long run.  I was still shoving food in my face when Holly said we had to go: we could not dilly-dally because a cut-off was looming.  It was about half a mile before we realized that we'd forgotten to drop off our headlamps.  We both had headaches from wearing them.

After the fourteen mile section, we were to take three loops of the Great Falls Park.  This loop contained hills, roots and rocks to keep your run interesting, rocks that actually required you to “scramble” over them, and some absolutely gorgeous views.  

From the days of early planning, we had been most worried about the very first cut-off, at about mile 21.7, at the completion of the first Great Falls loop.  To finish in time, we would have to keep up a pace that was faster than our training runs generally had been, faster than we had run any of our trail races.  That was daunting, but we took comfort in the weeks leading up to the race that  the first fourteen miles were neither hilly nor technical.  We could “bank” some time, and then it would be okay if the technical loop was slower.  Of course, we didn’t account for the mud.  So on race day, I worried that our 50 mile race might be less than a marathon!

The loop was beautiful, and difficult.  I kept an eye on my garmin for time, and I worried.  We got to the end of the loop, where you had to scramble on rocks.  I got mixed in with runners who were completing their second loop.

“This is so gorgeous; I didn’t take time to look at this last time!  I won’t win anyway, so I’m going to take it easy through here.”

I got very concerned that I was going to be stuck behind tourists with race numbers on their shirts, but fortunately their chatter was nothing but chatter.  They scrambled quickly through the rocks, and I followed close behind.  When we got to the cut-off at mile 21.7, we had been running for 5 hours and 36 minutes.  We made the cut-off with six minutes to spare! 

I celebrated by asking Emma to roll my legs using a special “stick” designed for that purpose.  At this point, my hip, which had been giving me trouble, seemed to be doing fine.  Before too long, Holly said, “Amy, we need to go to make sure we make the next cut-off.”

Our First Scraper

Off we went for our second loop.  Before long, we were greeted by a young man, wearing sandals.  He announced that he was a volunteer named Matt and that he was going to join us for this second loop. 

“What, are we last?” I asked. 

“Oh, no, you are pretty far up the field,” he replied.  “You are doing great!”

“But you are a sweeper, right?” 

“Yes.  There are a lot of us, though.  I’m just going to stick with you.”

“I like to call you ‘scrapers,’ by the way, because by the time you usually roll around I need to be scraped off the ground.  But Holly and I are doing great!”

During this loop I learned that Matt had just finished his freshman year at college and worked at Passages, an adventure camp in Richmond.  He is more of a kayaker, which explained his sandals.  Apparently, though they weren’t Jesus sandals, because at some point, he kicked a rock and barely recovered from taking a header.  (I am sure that Bedrock Sandals, which I have dubbed Jesus sandals--see my prior post--would not cause you to trip on a trail run.)

“Don’t fall, Matt, it looks bad when the caboose runner has to scrape up the scraper.  It just ain’t right.” 

A little later he told me they had marked the course on their mountain bikes at 2 am that same day.  “It’s hard, actually, to run in bike shorts  It’s starting to hurt.”

“What?  Are you complaining about chafing?  I will not hear one word about chafing!  I am running 50 miles and so far, no chafing. No more of this talk!  You’ve nearly taken a header and now your speak of chafing.  You are going in the race report, young man! What else would you like to say for posterity?”

Matt was pretty quiet then, till he wished us well at the end of the second loop.  We made it to 28.6 miles in 7 hours and 27 minutes, four minutes before the theoretical “last runner” was supposed to come through. 

The Third Loop: Calm Before the Storm.

The third loop was tough.  This was the loop on which Tyler was supposed to have joined us, as our official pacer, to get our mind off whatever ailed us.  He’d ended up with strep throat, holed up in bed in Connecticut.  I’d made a last ditch effort to pour him onto a train so he could be at the crew stops as additional moral support, but he was too sick.  He had instructed us, though, to cuss him out whenever the going got tough.  “Make a game out of cursing me.  It will help.” 

And it was on this third loop that we began cussing him out.  “Damn that Tyler! If he were here he’d get our mind off this hell!”

Truth be told, though, we were doing pretty well at this point.  My legs were starting to get sore.  If you have run a marathon, you will know what I mean--my calves were tight, my hamstrings were sore, and I felt a twinge in my knee.  Strangely, it was my left knee that was talking to me, even though it had been my left hip and knee that had given me trouble leading up to the race.

Holly said she thought she was getting blisters and that her toenails were probably going to fall off.  Her feet started hurting too, and she resolved that if we made the cut-off after the third loop, she was going to change her shoes and socks.  She began to talk brightly of new shoes, in the way my sister used to speak growing up when we went shoe shopping just before the school year started. “New shoes! new shoes!  If I run fast enough I can put on new shoes!”

Eventually we got to the rock scramble, which had been infiltrated with tourists.  This time, they really were tourists--families enjoying the view.  Holly scrambled ahead, in search of shoes.  A family of tiny people began their way toward me and threatened to make me wait. 

“STOP THERE!” I commanded in an authoritarian voice, pointing at a four-year old girl. 

She looked at me in fear.  “I am passing!” I announced.  “you stay right there.”

Her mother said, “Are you in a race?”  and when I said yes, she asked, “what is this race?

“I am running fifty miles!”

“Oh, my Lord in heaven!  Please pass on by!  Goodness.  Fifty miles in one day?”

Finally, I got to the last “hard” cut-off, the last official time that they could make us stop running.  It was mile 35.5, and we had taken 9 hours and 30 minutes to get there.  The cut-off was 9:59.  Miraculously, we were now 29 minutes ahead of the fictional “last runner.” 

By now, we had heard on the scrapers’ walkie talkies that many runners had missed cut-offs, and others had dropped out of the race.  I was so happy to have made it!

Now, we had only 14.5 miles to go, and Holly had on new shoes.

The Pit of Despair.

Almost as soon as we began the 14 mile trek back to the start, bad things started to happen.  My left knee began to stab me with a sharp pain, particularly going down hill.  I reminded myself that I had resolved to finish this race “unless going on would result in long-lasting or permanent damage.”  Holly’s feet were hurting.  She was developing signs of arthritis in her feet, according to a recent diagnosis.  Running 50 miles is not ideal for a person with arthritis, and her feet were reminding her of that.  We were in despair. We cursed Tyler.  He would have been pacing us at that point, had he not been lying in bed.  The big baby!  And then we cried.  Both of us.  Big babies.

Holly said, “I think I’m going to have to stop when we get to Fraser,” the stop at mile 42.2.  “I don’t think I can go on.” 

“I feel terrible too.  At this point, we are not going to make it to the finish in 13 hours.  We will be officially DNF. Let’s see how we feel at Fraser.”

Finally, we got to Fraser.  The volunteers asked what we planned to do.

“She won’t let me quit,” said Holly.

“What?  I didn’t say that,” I replied.

“We’re going on,” she explained to the volunteers.

So, on we went, to run (more like walk) the last 8 miles of the race, even though we knew we could not get an official finishing time.  By this point, the scrapers (a/k/a sweepers) were following us on mountain bikes, removing trash and directional flags from the route behind us.  They listed to a message on the walkie talkies and gave us some bad news. 

“Um, they want you to be off the course by 7pm, one hour after the cut-off, for insurance purposes.  Um, when you get to Sugarland, they may just drive you to the end, or they may say you can finish but not do the two mile Sugarland loop.”

“What?  We won’t be able to do the whole 50?”

“Well, let’s talk again at Sugarland.”

I felt awful. I really wanted to finish the 50 miles.  I picked up my pace a bit.  The pain in my knee pierced me like a knife. 

And then I realized I could not breathe well at all. I was getting asthma, which sometimes happens when I run.  I took out my albuterol rescue inhaler and took a puff.  A couple minutes later my breathing was worse, so I took another squirt.  I repeated this a couple more times, taking four doses of albuterol.  My heart was racing because the medicine has the side effect of increasing your blood pressure.

At this point, the terrain changed.  We had to climb up hills that I did not remember descending on the way out early that morning.  My heart rate soared as I climbed, and I found that not only did I need to walk slowly, but I had to stop from time to time to catch my breath and let my heart rate fall.  And then I would descend a hill, and the invisible devil would get his knife out and stab my knee.  Oh, oh, oh!  I prayed for flat land.

Holly was just ahead of me, her feet hurting.  I tried to remember what I had said about when I would quit this race.  “Not unless I am facing long-lasting or permanent damage.”  The knee would be fine, but what about this inability to breathe and this heart racing like a greyhound? Could that actually kill me?  I began to wonder. 

When you are really exhausted, physically, your mind works very hard to get you to stop working.  It is a defense mechanism: your brain will convince you that you must stop long, long before you actually could do damage to yourself.  Part of the key to endurance sports is to train your brain to stop acting like a big baby.  Well, try that after you’ve run 43 miles.  Imagine my brain as a giant infant, crying so loudly that he gasps for air and his face gets red as a beat.  That was my brain.  The truth is, I did have asthma, but it was not a full-blown attack.  My body was just exhausted. 

Holly was exhausted too, and as we came down a hill together we saw a road.  “Look!  There’s a road.  Maybe we should ask them to get someone to come get us.”  At this point, we didn’t think they’d let us finish anyway, so why not get a ride now?  The kids on the mountain bikes used their walkie talkies.  One said “these two runners want to throw in the towel.”  As soon as he said that, I knew I had to go on.  I could not “throw in the towel.”  And, as it turns out, I was given no choice but to pick up the towel and keep going.  This road was a private country club road--nobody could drive it. 

“You will need to keep going to Sugarland,” they told us.

Sugarland.  That was our goal.  By this point, Holly and I were walking like a couple of Grandmas.  I came to a steep hill and paused at the bottom.  I was not sure I could climb it.  Tears rolled down my face.  Four kids on mountain bikers waited patiently behind me.  One of them said, “you can do it!”  I took a deep breath and started the climb.  It felt like Mount Everest. 

The descents were killing my knee, and Holly went on ahead of me, no doubt looking forward to sitting down at Sugarland.  “Perhaps they will let her sit in the front seat of the car that will drive us to the finish while she waits for me,” I contemplated.   I imagined the plush leather seats, the breeze from the air conditioning.  And then I looked up to see Holly, not sitting, but standing, at Sugarland.  There was a truck parked there, but she was not sitting in it.  I was dazed. 

“Are we getting in the truck?”

“No room.  You have only 1.7 miles to go.  Nothing in comparison to what you’ve done already.”

I looked at him to see if he was wearing a red devil costume.  No, he was disguised as a fit-looking runner type.  I looked at my Garmin, which reflected that I had travelled just shy of 47 miles.

“What?  There are three miles to go to finish the 50 miler.”

“They won’t let us do the Sugarland loop,” Holly explained.

“We can’t do the Sugarland loop, nor can we get in the truck?”

When this was confirmed, I began to cry.  “I don’t think I can do it.  I am sick.  I have asthma; my heart rate is through the roof.” 

“We’ll be right here with you.”  I looked again, and I think he was wearing a red devil costume, for just an instant, and then he changed back into his disguise.

I spied a porto-potty and said, “Well, I’m going in there first.”

After I got inside, the truck drove up beside the porto-potty and the porto-potty began to shake.  I began to fear that they were lifting the porto-potty up with me inside it to transport it.  I banged on the door, “I’m in here!”  Then I began to pray that they would take the porto-potty to the finish line.  Then I wouldn’t have to go any farther on my legs!  But the truck was lifting up a trash can next to the porto-potty, so I emerged and Holly and I began the long, long journey to the finish line.

Along the way, I chatted with Kevin Tobin, the owner of Passages (and the boss of all the volunteer scrapers I’d met along the way), who regaled me with stories of running ultras all over the place.  I walked with him for over a mile, and it wasn’t till we got near the finish that I realized he was wearing a cast on his leg.  Apparently he hurt himself not on some crazy adventure, but doing something like flag football at the company picnic. 

Holly went on ahead, so she could sit down, no doubt.  When I finally caught up to her, she was sitting on a fence, crying.  “What’s wrong?” I asked.

“The finish line is there,” she said, pointing 100 yards to the left, “and the car is there,” pointing 100 yards to the right.  “They want me to go to the finish line, but I just want to go to my car.”

“Y’all need to finish!” Tobin said.  “You are going to get a medal!”

I gathered Holly up, put my arm around her shoulder, and said, “LET’S GO!”

We hobbled the 100 yards to the finish, even managing a little jog at the end.  The volunteers cheered loudly, and created a bridge with their arms on the other side of the finish line. 

The Aftermath.

After crossing the finish line (48.5 miles and more than 14 hours from the start) and getting my medal, I proceeded to the medical tent.  They tested my oxygen, listened to my breathing and my heart, and took my blood pressure.  By this time, my breathing was fine, but my blood pressure was quite elevated.  I decided, though, that I did not need further medical attention.  I just needed to stop moving.  And I needed to eat!

The volunteers had saved a plate of food for Holly and me.  I ate it, voraciously.  It was barbecue, cous cous, salad, and I don’t know what else.  It was great, and I worried that Holly would decide it was enough of a dinner and would want to cancel our steak dinner reservations.  Fortunately, she did not, and after a shower, she, Denise, Emma and I set off to dinner.  I called ahead to find out where to park. 

“No, no, that’s too far.  I cannot walk very well, Sonny.” 

“Do you have a handicap sticker?”

“Uh, no.”  (By the way, for future reference, does anyone know if you can get a temporary handicap sticker before you run an ultra?”

The dinner of steak, french fries, red wine and dessert was great!   Who cares if it was the second dinner of the evening--I had run far!  And at 3 am, I awoke, starving.  I had two bowls of oatmeal.  At 7:00 am, I had three eggs and toast.  At 9am, we had Hobbit’s “second breakfast” in the hotel lobby.  And by noon, I was ready for lunch.   Not only had I expended 5000 calories on the run, but after a long endurance race like that, your metabolism is pumped up for several days.

I felt sad knowing that we did not finish the race in the allotted 13 hours, and that we were only permitted to run 48.5. 

Some Statistics.

Very few people ever think about running 50 miles.  On our race day:

320 people (including 72 women) started the 50 miler, but only
277 people (including 54 women) finished before the final time cutoff.

This means 43 people (more than 13% of the field), including 72 women (25% of the women) failed to finish in 13 hours.  We had a lot of company.  Some of them might have gotten a ride when they gave up, too.  : )

The race ranked everyone, including those who didn't finish in 13 hours (based on the interim cutoff times). 

Holly and I ranked 57/58 out of 72 women.  In other words, 14 out of 72 women (19% of the women) did worse (quit or ran slower up till the last interim cutoff) than Holly and me.

We ranked 290/291 out of the entire field of 320. There were 29 people (about 9% of the entire field of men and women) who did worse than we did.  Some dropped out; others just ran slower to the interim cutoffs.

Holly ranked 19 out of 24 in her age group.  (She did better than 20% of her age group).

I ranked 6 out of 8 in my age group. (I did better than 25% of my age group).

Not too shabby!

What’s Next

The 50 mile run was the fourth of five events of this season for me.  The last is the Philly Triathlon, this coming weekend.  In it, I will swim 1500 meters, cycle 24 miles, and run 6.2 miles.  I am not too worried about the 6.2 mile run, but the swim and bike ride will be tough--I have been doing very little swimming and cycling of late.  I finished my fastest triathlon of this distance in 3:18:58. I will be happy if I finish this one in 3:45. 

The main thing is that I will be doing it in honor of my Dad: the race is on his 75th birthday.  Happy Birthday, DAD!

I have raised over $10,000 to fight cancer this year.  Amazing!  I thank everyone for their support and encouragement all along the way!

Monday, May 14, 2012

Yaba Daba Doo!

Last Saturday, Holly and I drove to Charlottesville to run the Bedrock Trail Marathon.  Yaba Daba Doo!

Although I expected to see Fred and Wilma, Barney and Betty, when we arrived at the start of this trail marathon, all I saw was a sea of Pebbles.

Apparently this race would consist almost entirely of college girls.  They chatted and giggled as we waited in the porto-potty line.  “I’m doing the half, are you?” they asked one another. "Yes, me too! He He!"  All were doing the half marathon.  For many, it would be their first.  They were bubbly. One asked me, politely, to confirm that I was doing the half?  “Oh no, not the half.  I plan to stay all day and do the full marathon.”

“WOW! You go! You are amazing!”   I tried to ignore the sub-text.  “Wow, a full marathon, and you don’t even look like a runner.  Like, you’re as old as my Mom!”  I resisted the urge to say “oh, this is really just a supported training run for us: We’re training for a 50 miler, three weeks from today.”  I just smiled and said, “Thanks, dear, this should be fun!”

There were some guys, too, including the co-race directors, who were also the co-owners of Bedrock Sandals.  Both were wearing their signature footwear, of course.  They had promised a prize to the fastest runner who wore the sandals, but I couldn’t figure out how I would get my orthotic inserts to stay put in those sandals. And then, of course, would I beat anyone else whose toes were uncovered?  Probably not.  One of the young sandal entrepreneurs sported a beard.

 “Look at that guy,” I said to Holly.  “He looks like Jesus.”

“I agree, he really does” she remarked.

"Well, he looks like Jesus, if Jesus were from Norway,” I clarified.

Nordic Jesus announced that it was time to start the race, and we were off.  The first mile was, of course, up an asphalt hill. Why do trail races so often start this way?  I guess this kind of start is a good way to thin out the crowd before the single-track starts.  By the time we got to the trailhead, I was sweating buckets because of the heat and humidity.  All the Pebbles and Bamm-Bamms were way ahead.  All that were left were my companion and me.  Let us abandon Holly and Amy as our handles.  Let's call us Greta Gravel and Ann-Margrock.

The trails were rocky and full or roots, much like the Buttermilk Trail near my house, but much hillier.  Still, nothing seems hilly after doing Promise Land!  Holly (oops, Greta) and I got into a rhythm.  We crossed a stream, ankle deep.  These stream crossings used to scare me, but now I look forward to dousing my feet in the brisk water.  Eventually we popped out of the forest to an aid station along a service road.  There was Nordic Jesus again, telling us how great we looked.

We popped quickly back into the trees and continued running.  As I went downhill, my toe caught a root and I pitched forward.  My left knee landed on some bedrock. Yaba Daba Doo!  Strangely, as I hurled through the air, the calves on both my legs cramped up.  I yelped and then I recalled what I do when I get a calf cramp at 2 am.  Sure enough, as soon as I stood and began walking, I was better.

As we came toward the finish line for the half marathon, knowing we’d need to do another loop, we saw Nordic Jesus again.  “You’re doing great, and you’re almost done!” he announced.  “I’m afraid not, my friend.  This is going to be a longer day than you had planned because we’re doing this loop again!”   I expected him to break down and cry, but it was as though "he didn't hear it, didn't see it."  Maybe I really was Ann-Margrock, and Nordic Jesus was Tommy.

We re-entered the forest, and I let Greta Gravel lead for a while, and suddenly she screamed “SNAKE!”  I looked down and next to my left foot was a giant Black Snake.  Once again, I was glad to be wearing enclosed shoes!  Just a few feet farther I saw something and it was my turn to shout.  “SQUIRREL!” I shouted.  Greta Gravel laughed, and said one of her favorite movies was “UP.”  I didn’t even realize I was quoting from that movie.  We kept seeing creatures--a yellow snake, a big centipede, spiders.  She told me “Be sure to check for ticks when you get home.”   uggh.   I think maybe I prefer trail running in the winter!

A bit farther along, as we mounted a hill, I tripped again; this time I scraped up my wrist and my leg landed on a protruding stick.  It jabbed my calf, though I was wearing calf sleeves, thank heavens.  OUCH!  Once she realized I would not need ambulatory care, Holly roared in laughter and said “if you are going to fall, fall UP hill.  It’s not as far of a fall when you fall UP!”

Finally, we reached the end of the second loop, exited the trails and ran down an asphalt hill.  A tune began to blossom in my head:

If I told you what it takes 
to reach the highest high, 
You'd laugh and say 'nothing's that simple' 
But you've been told many times before 
Messiahs pointed to the door 
And no one had the guts to leave the temple! 

I'm free-I'm free 
And freedom tastes of reality 
I'm free-I'm free 
And I'm waiting for you to follow me!

As we approached the finish, the crowd roared.  Well, it was really just a half a dozen hippies wearing Jesus sandals who cheered, but it felt great.  I WAS FREE!  And then we learned something truly remarkable.

Second Place Woman Marathoner:  Ann-Margrock (a/k/a Amy Williams)
Third Place Woman Marathoner:  Greta Gravel (a/k/a Holly McFeely)

PODIUM FINISH!  HA HA!  (Never mind that nobody was behind us.  Those who finished behind us were at home, sitting on their sofas, eating Rocky Road ice cream.)

Less than three weeks till the 50 miler!

Monday, May 7, 2012

Promise Land: 8000 Feet of Ascents and Descents, Throw in Thunderstorms with Hail and Sleet!

“Is this your first time racing Promise Land?” asked a friendly stranger.

“Yes, and, actually, it is my first ultramarathon,” I replied.

“What? Are you crazy? What are you thinking? This is no ordinary 50K,” he retorted.

Well, I knew it was supposed to be hard, but to hear this from a veteran ultramarathoner was, let’s just say, discouraging.. The course was reported to be extremely hilly (with 8000 feet of ascent and 8000 feet of descent) and longer than an actual 50K (which is supposed to be 31 miles). Holly and I got our race T-shirts the night before the race. I began to panic. They showed nothing but hills, or shall I say, mountains, for 34.5 mile! Everyone around us looked so fit. I had this sick feeling in the pit of my stomach.

The race director announced “everyone who is here can finish this race. You just gotta keep going.” The race included one hard cutoff, he explained. You had to get to the 26 mile aid station in 8 hours. If you did, you should finish in the course limit of 10 hours, though you would be recorded as having finished no matter how long it took you to do the last 8 miles, as long as you got to the eight hour cut off on time. Someone asked about the weather, and the race director reported that the forecast was for perfect weather. It would be cold to start, but the high was predicted in the lower 70s. Thank goodness, no rain! I’d had enough of mud runs.

When the alarm went off at 3:45 am the next morning, I knew there was nothing to be done but go run. Or, put more precisely, “to keep moving.” Holly and I started near the back of the pack. We wore headlamps because it was just 5:30 am and pitch dark. After about a quarter of a mile of running, we began the day’s first ascent. For five miles, we climbed up a steep mountain. He could hear a rushing creek beside us--it would be gorgeous at the end of the day to come back down this hill and admire the waterfall that we could hear on the way up. There was no way we could run up this hill; it was a hike. And that is not because we were less fit than others: everyone was walking. Well, we figured at the front of this train there were probably a handful of folks--freaks of nature--running. How they did it was a mystery. About halfway up was our first aid station, where a friendly volunteer offered to take our headlamps, as it was starting to dawn. We ditched them, and Holly ditched her gloves, but I kept mine because my hands get cold when I run even if it is in the 60s.

At the top of the mountain, the trees parted and we glimpsed the mountains across from us. Gorgeous. I said a prayer for Olene, the mother of a friend who just learned that her breast cancer has come back, two years after her first diagnosis. A reminder of why I do these crazy events. Holly said, “do you think we have to climb that mountain over there?” “Surely not!” I replied.

And then we began the descent. If you are not a runner, you might think running down a really steep mountain would be easy. This, alas, is not so. Running down a steep slope is very hard on your quad muscles. I called this part of the race “The Quad Thrasher Descent.” It was hard, and I worried about how it would affect us later in the day.

But the scenery was amazing. I remember saying "well, we couldn't have asked for better weather! At least the trails aren't muddy like they were at Seneca Creek." About 15 minutes later Holly said, "what was that noise?" I said, "thunder!" And suddenly it poured and poured, rained sideways, pelted hail on us. Holly said, "well at least if it's lightening, we're near all these big trees." I don't know if she was kidding.

The rained slacked off after an hour or so. We had about 8 miles to make the only hard cutoff of the race--we had to be at mile 26 in eight hours. We thought we could make it if we pushed. I remarked, "well, at least the trails aren't very technical. I mean, they are steep, but there aren't a lot of rocks and roots." We turned the corner and began a very technical descent, full not only of rocks and roots, but loose rocks about four to seven inches in diameter. It was a rock slide! Holly said, "well, you cannot run down these. You have to walk." And a man, flew past us, doing some five minute per mile pace. Why he was there we weren't sure. We finally concluded he must be a volunteer running from aid station to aid station. I said "follow his lead Holly!" And she said, "I ain't breaking my nose out here. I'm not busting out my two front teeth. NOPE."

Eventually we got to the end of the rock slide, and began climbing up a muddy mountain. Slip, sliding away. We caught up with a woman who was wearing red arm warmers with the word "bacon" on them. She was having trouble with cramping legs. Bacon Lady remarked, "well, at least it's not raining super hard like before. This light rain is not so horrible, I guess." She stopped to take an S cap, and we got ahead of her. The thunder started again, and it was raining hard. NO, it was SLEETING. And Holly had no gloves. At some point, we came to raging creek and she thought we'd have to cross through the water. That's when she started sobbing. Thankfully there was a bridge, but it was too late. The water kept rushing. Down her face.

We were approaching an aid station, though, and she consoled herself that they would have paper towels there and she could rub her fingers on the paper towels. Perhaps she would not get frostbite. I said, “you already declared that you didn’t want to break your nose or lose some teeth. I take it you want to keep all your fingers, too?” I kept cracking jokes, but she was not laughing. We finally arrived at the aid station. and they had no paper towels. She announced, "I am not having fun!" Her fingers were so cold that she could not eat, so I had to get food out for her and feed her, like she was a baby bird. She wasn't getting warmer. I asked if they had anything at all for her hands. They realized they had styrofoam cups (but nothing warm to drink out of them). They took two stacks of the cups out of the plastic bags that hold them and gave the thin plastic bags to Holly. She wore plastic baggies over her hands after that.

We made the 8 hour cut off with 45 minutes to spare. A volunteer explained that we had only to climb a steep 3.2 miles and then run downhill five miles to the finish. We had 2 hours and 45 minutes to do it in order to finish in 10 hours. The race director had said, however, that even if we didn't finish in 10 hours, he'd still record our time. We just wouldn't get the shorts. Well, I like skirts anyway, and had already decided give any shorts I got to my Coach, Kyle. But I mean, really, surely we could hike up 3.2 miles in an hour or so, and then run 5 miles downhill in an hour or so. We might get the shorts!

Hard to believe, but it took us two hours to climb those 3.2 miles. How is that even possible? It was nearly straight up half the time, and very technical. I used my hands quite a bit. And this stretch of the race presented my turn to cry. My quads were totally trashed from running down hills, and the climbs up the hills had done a number on my calves. Holly kept getting ahead of me and waiting for me at turns. I tried to tell her to go ahead because she was still so cold, but she wouldn't leave me. I had to keep reminding myself that this would pass, that it was not as bad as the cancer treatments some must endure.

Eventually a very fit man flitted up behind us. "How are you doing, 196?" he asked me, calling me not by my name, but by my race number. "Never better," I replied, "I am just putting one foot in front of the other." He was the sweeper, and he told me that I was the last runner on the course. “I think the word ‘scraper’ might be more apt,” I suggested. He laughed, pointed to the summit and said, "Look, it's not very far. You've got this! And after this it's just five miles downhill."

At the top of the hill, Holly arrived at the aid station ahead of me, exhausted. The volunteers offered to drive her the five miles to the finish. "You want to do that?" they said. "YES!" she said, "but I can guarantee you she will not let me,” pointing down the hill. "Well, let's see what she says when she gets here. She will probably want a ride too. You only have 45 minutes till the 10 hour time cutoff, and it's five miles, so you will not make it. You cannot win the shorts."

As soon as I got to the summit, I felt so much better. I felt a smile coming back to my face, having done that horrible climb. The volunteers said, "what would you like to do?" I said, "top off my water bottle and have whatever food you have to offer before we do this last stretch!" "But we are offering to drive you the rest of the way. You are not going to make it in time for the shorts."


Holly, said, “well, guys, I told you so!”

We began the five mile downhill journey to the finish. The first few miles were muddy and slippery. After all, it had thunder stormed for hours, and over 300 people had run through the mud before us. The final 2.4 miles were on a gravel road, but it was SO STEEP. At this point, my quads were screaming, and my knee began to scream as my IT band inflamed. I actually had to walk a little down the gravel road because of the sharp pain in my knee. Every muscle in my body was aching. You'd think we could go fast down these hills, but it hurt so much! Every step was horrible. I don't think we did much better than 15 minute miles these last couple miles.

I was so glad when we finally saw the sign "PROMISE LAND." We were finished. My finish time was 10:48:32. We were the last two runners. We did it! The race director encouraged us to come back next year. "But when you come back, finish in under 10 hours! I know you can do it!"

Later, the race director emailed the results to runners and said:

“Are you warm yet? I felt sorry for many of you who finished in the middle to the back of the pack on Saturday. It was an epic event. We had one other year that it rained a lot, but with getting sleet and hail, we have never had anything like that before at Promise Land. I am impressed with how some of you were bordering on hypothermia but still made it to the finish line.”

It was the hardest race I’ve ever done. Yes, it was harder than the Ironman, I do believe, even though it took less time.  I had quite a blood blister to show for all the hard work, too.  OWWWW.

What’s next? Well, Holly and I have a little trail marathon this week. Just a long supported run, we figure.  Shouldn’t bee too mountainous. It is in Charlottesville. It’s hilly up there, isn’t it? Can't be too bad, though.  Our next "main" race is our 50 mile trail race on June 2nd. I’m a little nervous about that one!

Monday, March 19, 2012

Chewing Tobacco and Ice

This past weekend, I traveled to Virginia Beach to take part in the Shamrock Half Marathon and to take part in a Polar Plunge in the icy waters of the ocean.  I stayed with my friend Holly, who planned to run the half with me, and another friend Virginia, who was running the full marathon. We stayed in a cabin that Holly's daughter declared was "creepy," but I agreed with Holly's assessment that it was merely "rustic."  Rustic, but with running water and electricity.  There was a bed in the loft, but Holly and Virginia told me I wasn't allowed up there for fear I would knock my head on the ceiling and get a concussion. We'd packed for 80 degree temperatures, but the weather changed, with a new forecast of a chilly and windy start of the race.  So we went to Rite-Aid and bought  matching black velour jackets studded with rhinestones.  They were actually for children--I bought a size 2XL and it fit perfectly.  I've appended a photo so you can see how Goth the three of us look.  The original plan was to throw these youth jackets away once we warmed up during the race, but they were so nice that we ran the races with velour jackets tied around our waists.

During the run I spotted a shirt that said, "I'm an Ultra Runner.  This is My SHORT Run!"   It made me giggle because it was definitely a short run for Holly and me!  We'd hoped to maintain a 10:30 pace throughout, and maybe even pick it up at the end. This would result in a finish somewhere around 2:15 to 2:17.  Last year, my finish time was something like 2:14.  But training for an ultra does not make you faster.  Plus, as someone very dear to me reminded me after this race, I've been through a lot since I last ran the Shamrock Half Marathon.

Chewing Tobacco

Experts tell you not to try anything new on race day.  But for me this was a short run, so I decided to try some new food.  I usually eat Cliff Bars and Gu brand gels.  (Gels, for those of you who aren't runners, are little squirts of mainly sugar in a liquid form.  They are easy to digest when you are running and your body does not have to work to convert the food into sugar, which is what fuels you when you run).  Someone had told me about a product called Vega Sport.  So I bought a gel and a bar in this brand.  Around mile 7 I felt great, and we were maintaining the 10:30 pace, as planned.  I tried the new orange-flavored gel.  It tasted like what your dog might throw up if you forced him to eat oranges.  BLECH.  Around mile 9, I was tired and started to slow. Holly went on with another friend, Judy.  I decided to eat the new bar.  It tasted like chewing tobacco!  And the more I chewed, the bigger it got.  Apparently these bars are not for runners, but for baseball players!

After the chewing tobacco incident, I could not get my mojo back.  My pace slowed considerably. Thankfully, my knee wasn't hurting and I didn't experience any boob zingers. I was just tired and hungry! Finally, about three miles from the finish, I spotted by teammate Jack Martin, who was walking.  Jack was coming off an injury and had planned to walk a good bit of the race because he'd only run about 6 miles in recent training.  When he does run, though, Jack is faster than I am.  In fact, he'd run the first couple miles with his son at a pace quicker than 9:00, after which he'd started walking, except when he saw someone he knew. He must be a fast walker because, here I was, not able to catch him till almost mile 10!  He said he was happy to do a bit more running, so I asked him to run some with me and keep me sane.  We had a blast in those last few miles.  Somewhere along that stretch, I saw Holly's mother, aunt and daughter, and handed them my beautiful velour rhinestone-studded jacket. I will wear that again! When we finally got to the finish line, I was very happy that this run was so short!  My finish time was 2:22, resulting from an average pace of 10:51 . It was slower than I had hoped, and for a moment I felt like a turtle.  Not that I mind being a turtle: they are green and it was a Shamrock race!  But later, the race organizers sent me an email that showed that I ran faster than 40% of the entire field, and faster than 49% of the women in the race.  Among the 45-49 year old ladies, I ranked 245 out of 532--that's the TOP HALF.  Not a turtle!  Maybe not a cheetah, but not a turtle.

Ice Bath Challenge

A few days before the Shamrock, I began talking about taking a dip in the ocean after the race WITHOUT  A WETSUIT.  The plan was to go all the way in and get my head completely wet.  And to see how long it might take before I came running out of the water, screaming at the top of my lungs!

You see, the water temperature was only 54 degrees.  Now air temperatures of 54 are not so bad, but water temperatures of 54 are cold!  The water temperature at Ironman Coeur d'Alene was actually a few degrees warmer, yet for that swim I wore a long-sleeved wetsuit and two swim caps.  I found a website describing how to avoid hypothermia in 50-something degree water.  It suggested that you should "climb aboard the wreckage."  A surfing website described the water temperature on that particular day in Virginia Beach and suggested that you should wear not only a wetsuit, but also "neoprene booties and a cap."  And I was going to go in the water with a skirt and a sports bra, nothing else.  After finishing my race alongside Jack Martin, Jack introduced me to his son, an avid surfer.  He mentioned that he had stuck his toe in the water and "if you can stay in for a full minute, I will greatly admire you!"   I began to get a little worried,

But I couldn't quit!  I had promised people that if they made donations to my fundraising site I'd go in.  A friend, Brian Lilley, who was running the full marathon publicized the stunt too, and for that I am ever grateful to Brian!  During this little "polar plunge" campaign, I received $250 in donations, to which people had added 13 cents (for my half marathon) or 26 cents (for my friend Brian's marathon).

So, I had to go in.  Despite of the warnings from Jack's surfer son, I braved the elements.  I ran out in the waves, and they knocked against me.   I screamed!  It was so, so cold. I recalled the cold water at my Ironman CDA race, and I was so happy I wasn't expected to stay in for 2.4 miles of swimming!  I dunked my head under, only to be whipsawed by a tsunami-like wave.  Wow it was bracingly cold!

It was tough going, but I'm sure immersing myself in that cold water was good for me.  My muscles are not sore now, and I'm ready to hit the trails again!

Monday, March 5, 2012

Pain is Inevitable; Suffering is Optional

We got a t-shirt at the Willis River 35K that said "Pain is Inevitable; Suffering is Optional."  Since that race, two painful things have happened to me.

The Pains
First, I continue to get zingers when I run.  These are like electrical shocks to my breast, and I am told they are a side effect of radiation treatment, though my treatments have been complete for two months.  Sometimes the pain is debilitating, shooting pains in me and throbbing, and usually once the pain starts, it does not stop until I take a warm shower. I checked with my radiation oncologist, Dr. Arthur, who said I was not damaging anything to run through this pain.  "Pain is Inevitable; Suffering is Optional."  Some of it is a head game, of course.  Whenever the pains started, I figured it was God saying to me, "you did say you wanted to keep this boob, didn't you?"  And He was reminding me that I am alive!

Second, I began to develop some knee discomfort, which I know from experience results from something called IT band syndrome.  Now, this pain was not as great as the breast zingers, but it was more threatening because it could get worse.  I went to Dr. Green of Active Chiropractic as soon as I noticed the pain, which was after a 22 mile trail run, and I cut back on the mileage.  Three weeks later, I wondered if I would be able to run the Seneca Creek Greenway trail marathon?  Coach Kyle, taking a conservative approach, suggested I skip it so that my March and April would be pain free for sure.  I went back to Dr. Green for a second opinion, though.  He examined me and said, "Go for it!"  He did advise me to take a one minute walk break after every nine minutes of running, to reduce the chance of injury.

Holly did a little jig when she learned I would join her for the all-day race. Our friend Susan Ann had to drop out at the last minute, but we kept her and her family in our thoughts during the run.  We drove to Gaithersburg the night before the race, and it rained so hard it was difficult to see the highway.  I looked on the weather channel and learned of a flash flood warning in Gaithersburg lasting until 7am.  The race was to begin at 8am.  I said, "Holly, we had a good excuse to skip this race, and we BLEW IT!"

Race Morning.
Race morning was surreal.  We parked at the race finish and rode a bus to the start with all these ultra runners. I thought Holly and I were crazy.  These folks were talking about the 50 milers they did before and the 100 milers they were planning in the months ahead.  They talked about running long but not very fast.  They talked about running in the rain and falling in the mud, and noted that we would be doing both today.  And they talked about food. Lots of it.   I loved it! When we arrived at the start it was pouring buckets, and we shivered with everyone else under a small shelter.  Holly whispered to me, "What do you notice in common about all these people's legs?"
"No," she replied.  "Scarred."
The race director announced that the race was delayed by 10 minutes because a bus was late.  "But don't worry," he said when some moaned.  "We won't let them go to the bathroom when they arrive."

The Muddy Race

By the time the late bus arrived, it had stopped raining.  After the first half mile, on asphalt, we entered the trail.  By then, Holly and I were near the back, so hundreds had tromped through the mud before us.  We could see their footsteps and the places where they had slipped and fallen.  Sometimes the mud was just wet and icky.  Other times the trails were absolute "shoe suckers," meaning you weren't sure if you lifted your foot whether your shoe would come with it or no.  Mud caked on the bottoms of our shoes, making them heavy and covering up the treads so we had no traction.  I kept slipping and shouting "Oh, Camille's been telling me to stretch that inner thigh!"  I used to be petrified of creek crossings--irrationally so.  On Saturday, we actually looked forward to creek crossings. They represented opportunities to get the mud off our shoes.  Sometimes if we had a choice of stepping on stones or walking through the water, we chose the water.

At mile 3 of the race, we arrived at a creek crossing.  Maybe I can say river crossing.  I've posted a photo.  There was a rope across the water to prevent people from being swept down stream.  I switched my hand held to my left hand so I could use my right hand to hold on.  The water did get up to my knees.  It was exhilarating!  Later in the race, I wished I could cross this stream again.  I would have sat my butt down in the water!

At about mile 10 the trail look horrible. We saw slippery mud on the outside with signs people had slipped, surrounding a huge puddle of water in the middle. Holly said, "well at least the middle doesn't look muddy.". So I pranced across the middle and immediately felt my self slipping, slipping, ohhhhhh!  I fell right on my behind.  My left hand was submerged in the muddy water puddle.  My right hand held my hand held water bottle, which was caked with mud.  Holly laughed so hard and I started to giggle as I got myself up.  She said, "it looks like you have  Montezuma's revenge!"   She offered to spray water on me, but it was hopeless.  I did let her spray water on my water bottle.  It turns out that even though I like to eat most anything, mud is not my favorite.  At least not when I am expecting a cool sip of water.  I kept shouting at people who came upon us, "this is mud!  It isn't what you think!".  They would laugh and shake their heads.  I think someone shouted back "try going gluten free!"

Later in the race I tripped on a root and fell forward onto hard ground. My left knee looks horrible! Had to walk some till it loosened up.  Given the choice, I recommend falling on your butt in soft oozy mud!

We met some incredible people during this race.  For a long while we ran with a woman named Lois, who is 70 years old.  Sometimes we got ahead of her, but then she would keep coming.  We spoke with her and learned that she does many marathons.  In fact, she planned to do a marathon the very next day!  This 70 year old finished the race before we did, by the way!  WOW

We also ran a good bit with a Retired navy guy who started in September on a quest to run 52 marathons in 52 weeks. He is ahead of schedule, having run 9 in 9 days at Christmas. See, there are people crazier than I!  At some point he mentioned that his wife had undergone treatment for breast cancer recently, but she was doing great.  HOORAY!

At mile marker 15, most racers were given the choice of running an additional four miles around a lake.  This was the choice of "marathon" or "50K."  Holly and I had contemplated doing the 50K, but we weren't sure we would make the time cut-off to be permitted to do so.  And, indeed, we missed it. For one thing, they did not extend it for the ten minutes delay for the start.  But we would have missed it anyway.  We would not be permitted to run around the lake, but would have to content ourselves with what this race called a "marathon."  We responded in a stoical manner.  Life goes on.

For those of you who are marathon runners, you might remember telling non-running friends that you were going to run a marathon.  Someone said "Wow.  That's great.  How long is your marathon?"  And you explained that all marathons are 26.2 miles.  They would be 25 miles but for a desire to finish in front of Windsor Palace.  Not that many marathons finish at Windsor Palace, but we must uphold tradition.  So you think asking how long a marathon is might be a dumb question.  Not necessarily.

We finished and a finish line volunteer asked if we had just completed the marathon or the 50K.. I looked at my Garmin and replied, "well, my gps says 31 miles." She said, "great, congratulations for finishing the marathon!"  Ordinarily marathons are 26.2 miles and a 50K is 31 miles. This marathon was 31 miles and the  50k was 35 miles!  Were we disappointed, in the end, that we didn't get to run around the lake?  Heck no: once again, God was looking out for us.  Oh, sure, we prayed that we'd make the cutoff.  God heard our prayers and said, "um, no, I know better."  Because in the end, I couldn't run another yard!  

Our time was 8:29.  Yep, eight hours and 29 minutes. Why rush through it--you might miss something! Once again, we got our money's worth.  By the way, most people pay through the NOSE for a mud bath.  Ours was only $20, the entry fee for this race. Plus we got food.  Not sushi and red wine, but cookies and red Gatorade.  Worth every penny!

I met so many nice people during this race.  On the way back to our hotel, I stopped at a grocery store for ice (for an ice bath), and some neosporin and band-aids for my bleeding knee.  I was still caked in mud, including the mud on my backside that looked, um, odd.  I was catching quite a number of stares.  The line for the express lane was long, so I stood in a regular lane behind two people with large baskets.  A woman from nowhere said, "EXCUSE ME!  I WAS HERE FIRST!"  I looked from her buggy to her face and concluded that she was Alice from the Brady Bunch doing the monthly shopping.  Really?  I am holding a box of band-aids and neosporin and looking like  Swamp Thing, but she has her rights. Dorothy, we're not in the South any more!  I figure she was rude because she's never certain whether it might take her 10 minutes or three hours to get home, due to the high traffic in those DC suburbs.  Poor thing, bless her heart.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Red Lipstick

Monday evening, I met Geralyn Lucas, author of "Why I Wore Lipstick to My Mastectomy."  She was diagnosed with cancer at age 27 and is funny and engaging.  She asked if I would wear red lipstick to the luncheon the next day.  I am more of an earth tone, blend into the crowd kind of gal, but I said, "sure!"  She offered to lend me some, but I said I had red lipstick.  The next morning I realized I  had none, so I stopped at the drug store and bought some.  Sure enough, at the end of her speech to several hundred people, Geralyn called my name and asked if I was wearing red lipstick, and if so, to come on stage.  So I stood on stage because I was wearing red lipstick!  And because I was alive!

Bear Creek and Beyond


Egg Nog!

These were the sounds of my friends and me announcing obstacles along the Bear Creek course to one another.  We sang Little Bunny Foo Foo. Trail running is so different from running on the streets.  You cannot shuffle, you cannot lose your focus.  If you do, you’re going down!  And when I found myself tripping over a little log, I stretched my arms out wide, "SUPERMAN!"  But, alas, it was Underdog who fell to the ground in a THUMP.  

But up I popped again. The ten-mile run was an out and back, and around mile 4.5 I thought, “what were you thinking?”  I didn’t know how I could go on.  But I dragged myself to the turnaround, where the volunteers said, "oh, you must be the gigglers!"  Apparently, we had gotten a reputation.  This buoyed me up, and the rest of the run was so fun!

I am ever so thankful for all my friends who joined me on this trail run.  Many had never run on trails before, especially not in a race.  Many went outside their comfort zone to support me, to celebrate my successful surgery and what appeared to be ongoing successful radiation treatments.

At the finish, I got a bear!  The race director, Barry Kreisa (Barry the Teddy Bear) arranged to have the guy who makes prizes for the winners make a prize for me too.  Take a look at my bear prize.   He’s so cute!

I LOVED THIS RACE.  As a result, I decided to keep running on trails.  In January, Holly and I ran the Willis River Wilderness Race--a 35K (or 21 mile) run in the woods.  We got lost twice, ran through creeks, got stuck in muddy fields.  It was a hoot!  We decided to keep going.

So, as I mentioned, here is my schedule for this spring:

  •  March 3rd.  Seneca Creek Greenway "Marathon."  The race director suggests that the Marathon is more than 26.2 miles, but instead "more like 31 miles." All on trails with creek crossings, hills, etc.
  • March 18th.  Shamrock Half Marathon.  This is a more traditional road race.
  • April 28th.  Promise Land 50K.  A 31+ mile race in the mountains that involves 8,000 feet of ascent and 8,000 of corresponding descent in the mountains in the western part of Virginia.
  • June 2nd.  Fifty MILE TRAIL RACE.  North Face Challenge.  And we signed up for a 10K in the same race series on June 3rd.  Just for good measure.
  • June 24th.  The Philadelphia Triathlon--my race for Liberty from Cancer, Making Cancer a Sprint!  It's on my Dad's Birthday, and I am racing in his honor!

Tattoos, Tanning Booths, Sunscreen and Zingers


My husband hates tattoos.  They are so popular now that he admonished me not to long ago “Never get a tattoo!”  Now I have two!  As a breast cancer patient receiving radiation, I got a tattoo on either side of my breast, to help the technicians make sure the radiation is going to the same place each time.

Getting the tattoos was hilarious.  I went to Massey Cancer Center downtown and put on a dressing gown.  A nurse came and got me.

“Are you going to give me my tattoos?”  I asked.

“Yes, I give you prison tattoos!” she said in a thick Russian accent.  I trembled.

“Prison tattoo?  I was hoping you would do this,” I said, showing her a picture of an “Ironman” tattoo that many of my friends have gotten.  It is called an “M-dot.”

She looked at it admiringly.  “Pretty!” she said.  I was hopeful.

“NO!  You get prison tattoo!”  she concluded.

And so I got the standard issue prison tattoo.  No colors, no liveliness.  And symbolizing something a lot harder, I’ve got to tell you, than an Ironman.

Tanning Booths

Radiation isn’t nearly as bad as chemo, though.  I was told the main side effects would be sunburn and fatigue.  Both side effects would get worse and worse during my six weeks of treatment, and subside a few weeks afterward.  I told the doctor about my fitness level, and he said this would mean I wouldn’t have any trouble with the fatigue getting in the way of my work and day-to-day living.  “But you will have a crummy run one day,” Dr. Arthur said, “and you will blame me.”  He is a marathoner himself, so he knew how to make me laugh.  “I’ll do that!” I promised.

I got my radiation treatments every weekday at 6 pm at the Stony Point location of Massey Cancer Center.  Dr. Arthur admonished me that I could not miss a single appointment.  “Don’t be telling me you’re busy at work and you can’t get here.” he said.  I think he’s met lawyers before!  I did manage to get to all my appointments on time, often telling folks that I had to go to my tanning booth appointments.

Going to radiation is, in some ways, like going to the gym.  Or the tanning booth. I go through the main entrance and sign in with the same guard every night. Then I say hi to the receptionist in radiation oncology and she buzzes me inside.  From there I go to a dressing room and change, and then I sit and wait my turn, with ladies who become my friends over our weeks together. A technician gets me and I go into a gigantic room with a huge machine in the middle. There is a second technician helps me lie on a table. There is a block under my butt so I don't slide down, and then I lift my arm over my head and rest it on some padded armrests. After they get me all adjusted they step out of the room. A big screen thing begins to lift up, slowly, tracing from left to right, in an arc, across my chest. As it goes I can feel the progression as tingles that move along. It is really strange feeling. The treatment only lasts a few minutes.


After a few weeks, my breast became bright pink,.  The scar under my arm where they took the sample lymph nodes was the worst because my bra rubbed there.  OUCH.  After a month, everything began to peel.  OWWW  Worst sunburn EVER.  And I’ve had some doozies.  I still remember wearning zinc oxide and a t-shirt and staying inside mid-day during our vacations in Florida when I was a little girl.  By contrast, my olive-complexioned sister could run around outside all day.

A friend of mine asked me why I didn’t wear sunscreen.  I repeated this to the nurse, who was HORRIFIED.  Apparently last summer, a patient did wear sunscreen, despite repeated warnings not to use anything on your skin before treatment.  She told the nurse, “well, I put on sunscreen right before coming because I didn’t want to burn.”  Oh dear.  You see, sunscreen does block something or other, and they actually want to torture us with this radiation.  This is war, and it’s a war we want to win.  The radiation is designed to kill the cancer cells, and unfortunately there’s collateral damage, like in any war.  I surely didn’t want to spend an hour every day getting shot with nothing but blanks!

Fatigue was the other expected side effect.  The ladies who sat with me each evening were experiencing fatigue.  I was tired during Thanksgiving weekend, but decided in the end that the turkey did it.  I kept running and cycling during radiation.  I also swam.  Sometimes I wondered if people noticed my “glow.”  My shoulder hurt quite a bit during this time because I used it so little right after surgery.


So, fatigue was nothing.  Zingers, on the other hand, were terrible.  I was warned that I might be standing there, minding my own business, when I would be struck with something that felt like a lightening bolt in my breast.  I felt these--it was as though a nerve was hit errantly.  This, they said, was a side effect of radiation.  “They only last thirty seconds or a minute,” they promised.

Not so.  Turns out if you run for hours and experience a zinger mid-run, it will not go away for hours!  I took to wearing four bras again, and taking four ibuprofen.  Sometimes I would still be shot with a zinger.  I asked Dr. Arthur what people had done in the past.  He confessed that he’d never had a patient who trained as much as I did.  If you ask the average woman doing her thirty minutes three days a week exercises what she’d do if she were struck with a pain in her breast that felt like a lightening bolt, I think she’d say she would get off the treadmill and go have a glass of wine.  But I kept at it.  In the end I found the winning combination was four bras and four ibuprofen.

Post-Surgery and Humpty Dumpty PR

I asked the doctor whether I could go back to work the day after my surgery.  He said, “absolutely not!  You will be loopy!  I don’t think you will want to go back to work for a full week.”

 “When can I run again?” I asked.  “Not for three or four weeks,” he said.

I thought these predictions were a bit crazy before the surgery.  In the recovery room, the nurse told me that the anesthesia would keep the pain away till evening, when she admonished me to take the prescribed oxycondin (yes, the addictive stuff) before nightfall “whether you think you need it or not.  Otherwise, the anesthesia will wear off in the middle of the night and you’ll wake up screaming in pain!”

That sounded pretty awful.  I imagined myself morphing into Edvard Munch’s famous painting.  It was not pretty.  So I took the drug.  I don’t think drugs work on me the same way as normal people.  Before long, I was totally hopped up.  Instead of spending all night sleeping, I spent all night wide awake and thinking crazy thoughts.  It was terrible.  All in all, I wished I’d taken advil!

And just as the doctor suggested, I did not go back to work all week.  I was totally wiped out.  I always get daily emails suggesting a workout, and respond to them by posting my actual workout.  I had not bothered to get this adjusted due to the surgery.  So I would get something like “run three miles” and I would write "went to the beauty parlor, which wiped me out!"   Getting my hair done on Wednesday after surgery was exhausting!

But what about the doctor’s prediction that I would not run for three weeks?  I thought this was crazy too.  But one week after surgery, I started “fitness walking” again.  Jiggle, jiggle, OWWWW!  Running would be painful, I realized.  But I missed running!

Two weeks and five days after surgery, my friend Holly said she was going to run 9 miles.  I joined her, after taking four ibuprofen and wearing four bras.  No way was there any jiggling possible. In fact, it was a bit hard to breath with all that compression going on.  But it was a  glorious run!  The following weekend was the Richmond half marathon.  I had assumed I could not run a half marathon only four weeks after breast cancer surgery.  But the day before the race, I said, "what the heck!"

I dressed as the white rabbit from Alice in Wonderland and kept telling everyone I was late. The best part was when little kids in strollers noticed me. One set of twins kept yelling, "Bunny! Daddy, Bunny!" Daddy was looking at his iPhone and never got to see Bunny. Poor Daddy, letting the good things in life fly by!

Truth be told, I was Humpty Dumpty, if the King’s Horses and King’s Men had done a better job!  I was put together again.  No Personal Record (PR), but I got a HUMPTY DUMPTY PR--fastest half marathon I’ve done four weeks after a surgery!

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

My Genomic Score

After surgery, I learned that my "margins were clear" and that there was no evidence of cancer in my lymph nodes.  Excellent news.  In the old days, the doctors still wouldn't know whether to recommend chemotherapy.  Chemotherapy is a horrible thing--it can cause all sorts of medical problems, and even death.  And of course, the hair loss.  But at the same time, if can prevent a recurrence of cancer.  But until recently, deciding on chemotherapy or not when there was no indication of metastasis was a crap shoot.

Now, they have a test called the oncotype dx.  They send off your tissue after surgery to do this test.  It must be enormously expensive because they actually called me to get me to authorize it.  They said, "your insurance company has approved the expenditure.  You have met your deductible, so you will not have a co-pay.  Your doctor recommends the test.  Would you like it?"  umm, yes!  And then I had to wait, and wait, and wait.

On this test, a high score is over 31, and any doctor would recommend chemo.  Under 18 and the doctors do not recommend chemo.  In between, once again, it's a crap shoot.  You have to make a difficult decision whether to undergo chemo or not.  The doctor does not know what to tell you. As I waited for my results, I wondered about my score.

"I know what my score will be," I told Steve.

"You think it's in the middle. Because you cannot stand uncertainty and that would be uncertain."

So true.  I was absolutely convinced that my test results would fall into the grey zone.  And then I would opt for chemo.

Despite this decision, I was on pins and needles waiting for the results.  I called the lab, which indicated that the  doctor would have them by Friday.  I called the office and tried to change my appointment to Friday, but they said he isn't in the office then, nor on Mondays.  My blood started to boil.  Where the heck was he, playing golf?  Then I remembered that on Mondays and Fridays he does something other than golf.  Like, um, surgeries?  Oh, yeah.  I was all ready to be mad as a wet hen, but I guess a surgeon has got to do surgeries....

But, miraculously, the results were back Thursday. My score is 9!  HOORAY! Far under 18.  This means the risk of recurrence in 10 years if very low. The average rate of distant recurrence (meaning recurrence of cancer in your lungs, liver, bones or brain) for someone like me is only 7%. So chemotherapy is not recommended.  Radiation yes, Chemo no.  This is good--chemo can kill you and makes your hair fall out.  Radiation causes sunburn.

I am a redhead who grew up in Alabama.  I am an expert on sunburns.

My Health Score

At work every year, we march down to the break room, where a nurse weighs us, measures us, and gives us a flu shot. Then we answer a series of questions about our health, diet and exercise. We receive a “health score” in various categories, of: Excellent, Good, Needs Improvement or Houston, we have a Problem!

With my Type A personality, I strive to receive an “Excellent” score on each topic. This year, as you know, I have cancer. Nevertheless, I got weighed and measured and answered all the questions. To the question “Do you have cancer,” I checked “yes.” What was my ranking on the cancer question? Good. HA HA HA. What do you have to do to get a score of “Houston, we have a Problem”? Apparently, you have to smoke, drink to excess, eat Ding Dongs and exercise only if somebody’s chasing you with a carving knife! Or maybe all those, plus actually have cancer.

When I told my husband this story, he said, “you answered the question incorrectly.” Say, what? “You do not have cancer. You had cancer. The doctor removed it.”

Surgery: No Hamburgers

On my day of surgery, I was told to fast. Thank goodness I was scheduled for an early surgery because I was starving!  I told the nurses to bring me a hamburger when I came to.  I ask people to bring me hamburgers during races and they don't believe me.  The nurses didn't believe me either.  Sigh.

I was given some sort of painkiller by a needle that just about killed me and then they knocked me out cold.  Next thing I knew, I was coming too and it was over.  But no hamburger.  Truth be told, I was okay with the crackers and ginger ale.  I told Steve I actually thought I might vomit.  I am never nauseated.  What a horrible feeling.  I feel for all of you and thank God for my iron stomach.

Patience in the DMV

I was very happy with my treatment at Massey Cancer Center, but sometimes it was a study in patience.  

First, they  ask me all kinds of questions such as "Can you walk a block without running out of breath? Do you do street drugs?" And, for some reason, they repeatedly ask me, "have you fallen down today?" 

There is a room at MCV that looks like a cramped version of the DMV. As I waited, I realized they use the same call out numbers randomly with no pattern scheme that was perfected by the DMV. The room was filled with the same cast of characters you'd find at the DMV, including the woman wearing all purple, including an eye-catching wide-rimmed purple hat with a plume.

 The man next to me was carrying a book covered in something that announced it was a book banned in 47 countries. He looked at me wondering if I knew what it was. I knew it was not Huckleberry Finn. He offered me something from his suitcase of religious tracts as he was called back to see the doctors.

Picasso and Scarves

How do you reconcile these two seemingly contradictory instructions:

1. Do raise your right arm any higher than your head.

2. Wear a sports bra with the maximum compression?

I guess I need to buy one with a fastener because the pullover sessions are tough. I made Steve help me when I first got back from the surgery and was all bandaged up. But now the bandages are gone, yet I am not quite ready to test the sickness and health thing. So I have been wearing two crummy bras instead of one good one.

I am hoping the Frankenstein monster look is temporary. I recall quite clearly my surgeon looking at my chest as though he were an artist looking at a nude model and declaring that the surgery would result in something "cosmetically pleasing.". After I sent my blog out, many people sang Dr Bear's praises. I was convinced I had found, through happenstance, quite an artist. A Rembrandt. I should have asked one more question, I think. It appears I got a Picasso.

And there is a hidden scar under my arm too. Hidden, but it appears to have exacerbated that fat roll between my boob and arm. I should have asked for that to be liposuctioned while he was in there. Insurance would not have noticed. I think that would be the only way to get it gone. I am convinced that just before Karen Carpenter died she noticed such a fat roll and it sent her over the edge. Bless her heart.

I always have to read about things a lot before I attempt them. I hope I do not need chemo, but I might, so I am reading. I read something suggesting that you should decide whether to wear a wig or a scarf or a bare head, or some combination depending on the circumstances. Like a scarf to work and a bare head to worship. I think that was an example for Buddhists, maybe. I have never bought one of those expensive Hermes scarves. They seem so extravagant. Have you seen those pictures of Queen Noor in her collection? Sheer beauty. But then I wonder if the TSA would assume I was a terrorist and do a pat down? Demand that I remove it? He he, serve them right!

So now I have been thinking about this scarf so much that I want one, even if I don't have to undergo chemo. Yes, yes!
I wrote this not long after my surgery, and I did get a scarf. A gorgeous one from my friend Lilo of Lilo Collections.