Thursday, September 17, 2015

Pine Creek Challenge

After a fabulous vacation in Ireland, during my “taper,” I returned to the office for a couple days and then headed to Wellsboro, Pennsylvania for the Pine Creek Challenge, the 100 kilometer (62 mile) race I have been training for all year.  While training for this race, I have been raising funds for, and awareness of VCU Massey Cancer Center, where I was treated for breast cancer four years ago.


My health. The first bad sign was that, on the drive to Pennsylvania, I noticed my throat was hurting.  Was I getting sick?  Maybe I shouldn’t have risked the plane travel just before the race: those airplanes are germ factories. On the other hand, I wasn’t having any pain in my hips or knees; whatever nagging injuries I had were gone.  When I told my friend Holly about my sore throat, she reminded me that when her daughter Emma, 9 weeks old at the time, had chemo, her throat and mouth were so covered in sores that the baby could not suckle.  She couldn’t keep a pacifier in her mouth.  I said, thank you, no matter how bad it gets out there, I will remember “I can still suck!”


100 Names.  On the ride up to Pennsylvania, I rehearsed my recitation of those to whom I would dedicate a kilometer.  I had 100 names and “fun facts” for each of them.  I was still working on memorizing the list, so I had Coach Dave hold the list and prompt me as I endeavored to recite them.  It took an hour to read the list, and in the end, I couldn’t talk at all.  We checked the forecast for the race:  COLD AND RAINY. 


Quickly my crew decided for me that I would not be able to talk for an hour in the rain and pitch dark after the race with my sore throat.  So we came up with an alternative strategy: Denise would film me with her “go pro” camera at each aid station with crew access, and SHE would read the names of the folks for whom that segment of the race was dedicated.


My Crew.  My crew was nothing short of amazing.  Coach Dave Luscan came to support me, and brought his family.  Dave is not a long-distance runner, and he was having some issues with his calf, but a month before the race, I asked him if he would pace me during the race, maybe 15 miles or so.  He said “I’m trying to get healthy enough to actually run the race with you.”  I took this to mean that he would run the entire 62 miles with me, and I registered him for the race.  It wasn’t until we were actually running it that he confessed he did not mean he would run the WHOLE race with me, but that I had been so enthusiastic about his apparent offer that he decided to go for it.  Susan Ann Glass planned to start running with me at the halfway point of the race, for 12 miles.  Holly McFeely, who was my running buddy for ultras in the past, would take over after Susan Ann to run 16 miles, which was on her training plan.  Then there would just be 3.5 miles to go.  Logan Harte, my massage therapist, was part of the crew.  And Denise, Holly’s mother, who has been part of my crew for many a race, was there too.


The first half.  The race started at 9:00 am, approximately ten minutes after the rain began.  The temperatures were in the upper 50s.  It was great running weather.  For a healthy person.  There were about 40 determined looking runners at the start line.  Dave, used to running fast in short-distance races, started with me at my slow pace. 


Dave seemed surprised when fellow runners chatted with us, I think because he’s used to running so fast nobody can eek out more than a word. One woman said she had done the 100 MILER last year.  “Wow! What made you decide to drop back to do the 100K this year?”  She said, “well, I was running and was having terrible pain but ignored it.  In June, running another 100 mile race, I found out that my foot was broken.  So I had to stop running for a while and I’m just getting back into it.”  My jaw dropped, and she waved good-bye and took off ahead of me. She broke her foot, and three months later she’s running a 100k.  Because more than that would be crazy.


As we went along, it was great to get to know this little band of runners. Runners in ultras will slow to chat with someone for a while before heading off.  It’s an all-day affair, so a few minutes here or there really does not matter.


As we came upon the first aid station, Dave mentioned that we might not want to spend too much time at aid stations if we wanted to keep our time goal in mind.  I realized then that he did not know how completely wonderful aid stations are at ultras, or how we would end up feeling about them later in the race. At this one, Dave’s daughter surprised him by showing up.  She spotted him, shouted “DADDY!” and gave him a huge hug. They ran a 50 yard dash together.  At the next aid station, which our crew couldn’t access, we stopped and ate a whole banquet.  Chicken soup, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, ham and cheese sandwiches, cookies, pretzels, boiled potatoes with salt.


We ran along a “rail trail,” which used to be a railroad track.  The surface was packed dirt.  The scenery was gorgeous, with the leaves just starting to turn for the fall.  A creek ran parallel to the course the whole way, so we saw waterfalls mixed in with the changing leaves. As the day wore on, the rain got heavier and the temperature dropped. We pulled into the next aid station, at mile 20, where our crew was waiting for us.  I reported that this was just mile 20, but my body thought it was mile 30.  Already our running pace had slowed.  I announced that my hope of finishing in thirteen and a half hours (my stretch goal) was not in the cards.  My new goal was to finish in 15 hours, or by midnight.  I lay on a plastic poncho on the group and Logan massaged my leg and assisted me in some stretches. 


Dave was starting to fall apart.  He said his feet were on fire.  He was undertrained for the race, but he had originally planned to be my coach, not run the race with me.  He told me he had run for three hours the previous Monday, or about 19 miles, so I didn’t worry too much.  It was after the race that he confessed that his three hour run was cut short to 90 minutes because of the heat.  He thought that telling me that before the race would have discouraged me.  Anyway, by this point in the race, Dave knew he couldn’t continue beyond the halfway point.  “But you’ll still be an ultra-marathoner.  The halfway point is 31 miles, a 50 K.” What an awesome feat: to run a 50K on a long run of 90 minutes.  (NOTE: Dave does not recommend this strategy).


We set off, knowing that the turn-around was another 10 miles away.  There was an aid station in five miles, but our crew couldn’t access it.  By the time we arrived there, Dave and I were stretching out our walk breaks and running very slowly.  And we noticed that we had to go about a tenth of a mile off the course to get to the aid station.  I said, “Dave, I hate to make the run longer, but we are definitely stopping!”  This was the best aid station, and I was later to spend a long time there.


We set off again.  Dave was hunched over like an old man.  He remarked that he could tell that his run form was about the worst he’d ever seen. Two runners who were doing the 100 miler passed us.  The man noticed Dave’s form and asked if this was our first 100K.  He began to dish out running advice.  I tried a couple times to interject Dave’s role as a coach, but the guy didn’t listen. “Be sure to eat at the aid stations: nutrition is the key to a long race.”  “Relax while you are running.  Getting all tense just wastes energy.”  And, mysteriously, “you hurt now but the good news is the hurt doesn’t get any worse.”  I thought Dave might strike the man, and I think if he ever sees him again he might.  But on this day all he could do was say “ugh” and shuffle along like Tim Conway.


When we were at mile 30, we passed a runner, Mike, whom we’d seen many times along the course.  He said, “it’s only two miles to the turn-around!”  What the heck?  The turn-around was supposed to be at mile 31.  31+31=62. Mike must have misspoken.  Later, at mile 31, with the turn-around nowhere in sight, we realized Mike was right.  I thought Dave might cry.  We saw a woman ahead of us with a large golf-style umbrella.  “Dave, I’ll punch her in the mouth and you yank on her legs, and when she falls down, let’s steal her umbrella!”  Dave readily agreed, but before we could muster any violence, we realized the lady was our friend Holly.  She shared her umbrella with us.  I was sopping wet, shivering and miserable.


Finally at the aid station, I lay on a blanket in the back of my car while Logan took off my shoes and socks and gave me a foot and leg massage. “You are so inflamed!” he said.  The foot massage hurt, but I knew I couldn’t keep  going without it.  After he was finished, I put on new socks and shoes, changed my dress and put on a long-sleeved shirt, a dry jacket and a dry hat.  I felt better, though still pretty terrible. 


Dave decided to stop at this point and declared, “this ultra-running is horrible.  It’s the worst idea ever.  You people who do this kind of running are totally nuts.  Really, it should be ILLEGAL!” It made me giggle.


Deciding to Stop. Heading back, I was joined by Susan Ann, who became my pacer.  She was chirpy and chatty.  “Let’s GO‼!” she said.  “Hold your horses,” I retorted.  It was really hard to get running again, but after some false starts, I could run a little.  Susan Ann began to whip off story after story to distract my mind.  I listened to only about half of them.  She didn’t mind. After a mile or so, the relief that Logan’s foot massage had given me began to wear off.  My feet hurt.  My knees hurt.  My hips hurt.  I began to notice that my back was wracked with pain. I wasn’t standing up straight.  I couldn’t.  I soldiered on.  It began to get dark, and Susan Ann and I turned on our headlamps.  Soon thereafter I ran a step and experienced a sharp pain in my left foot.  “OWWWWWW!” I screamed.  We walked a bit and she worried that I had broken my metatarsal bone.  Then she examined my foot again, and though she isn’t a doctor, she decided it was not broken but merely sprained. 


This isn’t going to make any sense to many of you, but when she decided I didn’t have a broken bone, I was disappointed.  I wished I had a bone sticking out of my leg. Then I could stop with no questions asked. I could lie in the rain until an ambulance came to take me away, where I could eat as much ice cream as I wanted. But my foot was not broken.  Still, break or no break, I couldn’t run.  I couldn’t even walk fast without the sharp pain coming back, and I couldn’t tolerate that for more than a few paces.  I had to walk without flexing my left foot at all: a sort of “Frankenstein’s monster” walk.  So we walked slowly.  For the next four miles, we set a 30 minute per mile pace.  It took us nearly three hours to cover seven miles, with the last four or five miles being the slowest.


At this pace, in theory I could still finish the race.  It would just take me about twelve more hours of walking through cold rain while wracked with pain and a sore throat.   I had already been running (or walking) for 11 hours.  I thought of the reason I was doing this race: to raise funds for and awareness of Massey Cancer Center.  To honor and remember those touched by cancer.  Surely this pain was easier than chemo. I thought of all the people I knew who would be able to keep going.  I remembered the mantra: “I can still suck.”    


We were arriving at the aid station that was off the trail, in a location with minimal parking, so my crew would not be there.  I considered whether I could walk the next segment, six more miles, to meet them.  That would be three more hours of pain, in the pouring rain. I was pretty sure that I could not do that.  And if I did, I was absolutely sure that I could not continue after that. I cried and asked Susan Ann to call the crew.  There was a momentary panic when we realized that nobody had cell coverage, but of course the aid station had walkie-talkies.  My crew was already worried and had called back to see if we had made it through the aid station. 


I officially pulled out of the race and sat in a chair and ate chicken soup.  Several runners stopped for 10 minutes or longer at this aid station. One woman, doing the 100 mile race, changed her shoes.  She had huge bunions that had deformed her feet.  I was amazed that these feet could walk to the coffee machine, much less run 100 miles.  What was it that made these people so tough? Whatever it was, I didn’t have any of it left.  I left all my mojo out there that night.  It was just shy of 40 miles into the race.


As we pulled away from the aid station in the car, two runners approached, Mark Willis and Grandison Burnside.  They were running the 100 mile race.  (They, Som Sombati and Richard Nelson, all of Richmond, finished that next morning).  Grandison looked radiant.  When she heard my story she didn’t miss a beat to say that I had gone far and should be proud, and in any event it was all about the fundraising, so I should be very proud indeed.


Amy’s Army Finishes the Job.  The next day my friends decided we should “finish the race” symbolically. Holly started running where I stopped the night before. Holly is training for the Richmond marathon and had a 16 mile run on her schedule (and that is what she was supposed to run with me the day before).  She’s tough, but she’s a bit afraid of being alone in the woods.  She carried mace in her hand and set off. She was afraid she might encounter a creepy man, a rabid animal, or some other unknown danger. She told me an animal scared her to death and she almost sprayed it with mace.  Turned out to be a deer! 


The rest of my crew (sans Dave, who had had to return to Richmond) parked the car about 3.5 miles from the finish.  Logan and Susan Ann walked toward Holly, and when they found her they walked back with her to mile 3.5 from the end, where Denise and I joined the group.  By this time, 15 hours and a lot of ice after I stopped, I could walk fairly normally.  Together, Amy’s Army walked the last 3.5 miles together.  Holly ran and walked nearly a marathon by the end, and of course I told her she needed to finish her job too.  So, off she went, to run around the parking lot till her Garmin said 26.2. 


What’s Next?  Before I started this race, I thought my next race would be another ultra, this time in Africa, where I wouldn’t have my crew.  I don’t know what I was thinking.  Amy needs Amy’s Army! 


I have been trying to wrap my mind around getting a DNF (did not finish) for this race I trained so hard to finish.  I’ve been wondering if I should try this distance again, and if so, when.  Or should I go back to something “easier,” like triathlon.  (My tri friends will laugh at that: triathlon is hard, too, but in a different way). 


I don’t know what I will do next.  But whatever it is, I know all my friends and family will support me.  I am blessed.  And I can still suck.

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