Friday, August 29, 2008

Can't believe summer's almost over!

Well, here it is Labour Day weekend. What a fantastic summer it's been! Running, hiking, Death Racing, weddings, parties, friends, family, travel, bear sightings, camping and general mischief.

Yee haw! This has been one of the best summers I've had in a long, long time.

To go hand in hand with that, my thesis work ambles along at a respectable rate. My data have been collected and the interviews have been transcribed. I've conferred with those I've interviewed to ensure they're OK with what was said. I've begun to categorize and analyze the data and I'm enjoying this more than I anticipated, which is a blessing.

I've been reading and actually understanding much of what I read, at least to some extent. That is major progress, let me tell you.

I've been organizing my work and writing like a madwoman. And I love it! Every second of it.

This is the fun part of grad school. Someone said to me (or I read it somewhere, I can't remember) that a thesis is the largest piece of self-indulgent work a person will likely ever do. I confess that I enjoy this aspect of the work.

Every one has different points of challenge on the grad school journey. For some, it is the writing. It can be an agonizing process that never seems to come together. But I kind of feel like I'm finally in my element. The courses, for me, were tough - especially the stats course. The exams were do-able and I felt OK about them. Now I'm into the fun stuff! I feel like I'm gaining momentum, clarity and purpose.

As for running, I had an easy week last week. I finally got back to the gym and started lifting again, so I'm alternating running with cardio work in the gym and weights. It feels like going home.

I helped Karen out at last weekend by volunteering at the Robert Hamilton Memorial Race last weekend. It was a blast! It's a small race and it has a friendly feel about it. I worked the finish line with "old school" timing - no chips! Another volunteer and I worked a computer (looked much like a calculator) to time people as they crossed the finish line.

I've registered for another half marathon, too. I know, I know... I said I was going to take a break from racing. But I've just been having so much fun I thought, "Why not?!" I've scoped out the course... flat for the first 10 K and then continuously rolling bike paths and well-groomed trails for the second half. Because of the hills in the second half, I won't kill myself trying to get a PR on this one. I just want to go run in the beautiful Canadian Rocky Mountains and have some fun.

Besides, on Labour Day Monday I'll take my last dose of Accutane. That is worth celebrating, for sure. It has worked to some extent. I would say that the side effects have been worth it, but I will be happy to be done with it.

Not that I'll need them for the race, as most of it is paved, but guess what I indulged in? My first pair of trail runners! I tested them out last weekend on a hike with my friend, A. God, they're beautiful! They felt like slippers. I tried on a few pairs and these were not as stiff as some of the other models. I liked that my foot still felt connected to the ground and I could feel a lot in them. The other ones I tried on felt a bit heavy and clunky, but these? These are divine.

We plan on doing another hike this weekend. Then I think I'll find a good trail somewhere and go test them on a run.

The days are getting shorter and there's a certain chill in the air that tells us that autumn is edging its way to our doorstep. The freshness is invigorating. I look forward with joy.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

The shedding of shackles

The last two weeks have been nothing but fun and excitement, coupled with a feeling of accomplishment, peace and happiness.

Something happened at that Death Race. Maybe it was the gruelling 22 km leg. Maybe it was being in the woods, often alone, in the dark. Maybe (and I suspect mostly) that I had no idea I was going to do it and I pulled it off with about 24 hours of prep time.

I expected to feel a sense of having done well after it. What I didn't expect was that it would become an experience that would mark my life in a way that only select other experiences have.

In the past two weeks, and particularly this past week, I have smashed so many personal barriers I have astonished myself.

On Monday I went hiking with two co-workers. As we were driving there, we saw a grizzly on the side of the road, which was kind of cool. Then we started on our hike and saw another grizzly on the trail! I've never encountered a bear before. I was more startled than anything. The bear, an adolescent we figured, was enjoying a breakfast of mountain berries. We made noise. The bear ran off. We made more noise and waited, going back up the trail after a few minutes.

The bear had returned. Although it was more interested in Mother Nature's buffet and not us smelly humans, we took it as a sign that it was time to turn around and head back to the car. On the way home we saw two more bears, a cub and a mama, also feeding on berries. Here's a picture (taken from the safety of the car, of course) of one of the bears we saw.

We all agreed that we were probably a little less scared than we really should have been. Despite the noise we made and being a little taken aback, none of us had panicked. I never felt like we were in real danger, though the situation could have turned out very differently if the bear had been spooked or felt threatened. I was amazed by my own sense of calm under the circumstances.

The next day, the first time in over a year of being a member of a local running club, I actually made it out to run with them. This past Tuesday I went for a run with the Calgary Road Runners.

I've never run with them before. Despite loud and emphatic claims to the contrary, I always felt I was never good enough to run with a group; that I'd hold someone back; that people would silently grumble about how I was too slow. Members I knew tried to drag me out, kicking and screaming. I'd never go, opting instead to pound it out on the pavement alone, where I had no one to disappoint but myself.

The block was mental, of course. I went out. I ran mostly with Karen, whose pace is similar to mine. She was high off her first triathlon experience a few days prior and her usual exuberance for life was at full throttle. Running with her was thoroughly enjoyable. We ran. We walked. We chatted. We laughed. I had a spectacular time. I will do it again soon.

I had run from my house to the meet-up spot with the group, which meant I had to run home. On the way back, I had another small victory. To get to my house from Edworthy park involves a choice of hills, either a super steep foot path followed by flat parking lot or a hilly road about a kilometre (0.7 mi) that causes many cyclists and runners alike to pant. I've never been able to run up either without stopping. That night, I ran up the road without stopping to walk once. It was slow. And it was victorious.

Yesterday I went to Canmore to check out the route for a half marathon I'm toying with the idea of doing. I ran with a girl from work who is a varsity track athlete. She offered to run the course with me. I wanted to go with her, as I enjoy her company, but I was intimidated. She's very fast and I didn't want to hold her back. She was nonchalant and said she didn't care if we ran or walked, that it would be fun.

She was right. We did start out way too fast for me, even though it was very slow for her. I ended up with a grumpy gut (solved by a quick trip to an out house along the way) and we walked a lot at the end, but never mind. It was a beautiful day in the mountains and I enjoyed myself immensely.

And so, I topped out the week with record high mileage. I have never been able to make it to a 30-mile /50 km week before, despite sometimes having long runs as much as 15 miles / 24 km. I woud either bonk, miss a run (or two) or just somehow didn't make it. Deep down, I was totally intimidated by such distance, despite the fact that in the distance running world, that's not exactly high mileage and really, if I want to do a marathon one day, I should put in weeks like that on a regular basis.

But mentally, I just had a block. I couldn't. Not capable. I'd get injured. I'd vomit all week. There would be too much pain. Too afraid. No. Couldn't.

I was wrong. I could. I did. I will again.

Yes, my knees are tired. And one Achilles needs a bit more rest than the rest of my body, but I didn't get injured. And I didn't get sick once.

In fact, I can't remember the last time I had a week full of so much fun, socializing and good times during my training. Those barriers were real. And now they're gone, dissolved quietly and unassumingly by confidence that burst forth from somewhere deep inside. Confidence that was not there before the Death Race. I am sure this high will not last forever, but I will ride the wave as long as it lasts.

And in my non-running life, I have hammered through the draft of most of a chapter of my thesis since returning from Grande Cache. It is only a first draft and it needs a lot of work. But it'll be done by the end of next week, ready to send to my supervisor for review. Success in one area feeds success in the other, I have found.

In case you're wondering, I have not let my ego go on a complete rampage. I'll have an easy running week next week, giving the knees and Achilles a chance to rest and allow my body to adapt the demands I placed on it these past couple of weeks. I will spend the extra time focussed on my thesis, polishing it as much as I can.

It would appear that the Death Race gave me somewhat of a new lease on life.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Death Race 2008 - Race report

Canadian Death Race 2008 - Leg 5 - 22 km of trail, with 2500 feet of elevation change, includes crossing a river. All done in the dark of night.

On race day, I headed into town with my brother, who was marshaling on Leg 2 of the race. He met with his team and I headed to the start line to find the team I was subbing in for. I said hello to all of them and watched their Leg 1 runner set off with the gun. I also saw Eric and Terry as they headed off onto their epic solo journeys.

After the start I went for coffee with Michelle. My one regret of the weekend was that I didn't get to run with her. The day after the race I was a bit too tuckered and I'm not crazy enough to go for a supplementary run on race day. So instead we had coffee and went shopping (for running gear, of course!) It felt like chatting with an old friend, as we talked about our families, our bodies (you know... weight, injuries, etc.) our lives and of course, running. Well, in fact, mostly about running!

I have been debating about doing a marathon this year. I really want to. Between weddings and travel, I haven't gotten my long runs in. I could probably do it. The reality is that the chances of injury or re-injury are high and my endurance is not what it should be for a marathon. But I really, really want to.

One thing I have learned about myself is that I have a powerful ego. It needs to be tamed. Wanting to is not enough. At least... not for me. Not any more. I want to do this strong, or not at all.

Talking with Michelle re-assured me that maybe it is OK not to do a marathon in one's second year of running... maybe it is OK to just keep running halfs (or would that be "halves"?)... maybe it is OK to take my time to build a base... maybe it is enough to run for the love of it without being obsessed by an all-encompassing goal.

Many things she said resonated with me deeply. I wished we could have talked all day. But she was on crew duty and I desperately wanted to sleep before my leg of the race started. She drove me back to the camp site and we promised to meet again later.

Aaron came back from marshaling in the late afternoon. This is a helluva guy, let me tell you. He is not a runner and he doesn't "get" running, but he still got out there and volunteered. He had to hike 6 km (almost 4 miles) up a mountain to get to his post. And then it rained most of the day. Cold, mountain rain.

He arrived back at camp in need of a hot shower and some food, both of which were quickly arranged. We ate and he told me about his experiences of seeing people wipe out on a steep drop, with mud flying everywhere, of a solo runner who decided to drop out at that point and surrendered his timing stick to Aaron, of runners who were kind and expressed thanks to the volunteers, of other runners who were cranky and downright rude. I think he had the full meal deal of volunteering in his first time at a race.

As we were eating, Aaron asked me, "So, tell me... Do you honestly think you can do this?" I answered yes, saying that I had run several half marathons already, that I had started training for a marathon and I had done some longer distance runs, that I was strong, uninjured and in decent shape. I would be fine.

At least, that's what I desperately wanted to believe. It's what I had to believe.

Aaron took me at my word, which helped keep me calm, in a bizarre sort of way. He then pulled out his Garmin, which is different from a running Garmin. It's for trekking and plotting courses. Aaron is an experienced outdoors man and he not only knows how to read topographical maps, use a compass and program his GPS device, he can cross-reference the data from all three of those tools to know exactly where he is at any point in time. And failing that, he has a wicked sense of direction and highly developed orienteering skills. His GPS is a high end model that gives all kinds of information. He plugged in some information and promptly announced that there would be no moon that night, so it would be very dark. He wasn't wrong.

After eating, I went back to resting, trying to mentally prepare. I was anxious. I usually take about 2 weeks to prepare for a half marathon, starting with a taper, getting lots of sleep, eating clean and doing lots of mental preparation. I thought that agreeing to run Leg 5, with no preparation was a bit insane, but I had accepted the challenge and wanted to run for this team.

There are times when the previously mentioned ego can actually come in handy.

Besides, I couldn't help thinking about Eric and Terry and the other 200 plus soloists out there on the course, doing the whole thing. I only had to do one leg of it. Who was I to be fretful?

Suddenly, it was time to leave. I found myself in gear I'd never run in before... A head lamp, a second head lamp that would go around my waist (and later be moved up to my chest where it sat at a better angle), and the yellow safety goggles I'd bought on my shopping trip with Michelle.

At a few minutes to 10:00 p.m. we arrived the hand off point for Leg 5 where we ran into my team captain. We also saw Michelle, who was waiting for Eric. I saw Terry pass through the soloist check point and we hollered and waved at him. He was munching on a snack, but found time to smile and wave back.

At about 10:45 the team captain received a phone call from another team member who was watching from a few kilometres away. Our Leg 4 runner was on her way in.

I met her at about 11:00 p.m. where she passed on the timing stick and the coin. Off I went.

The trees were marked with little reflective white dots, as well as orange ribbons. The ribbons were harder to see in the dark. And by then, it was dark.

I am quite ashamed to admit that despite living in one of the most beautiful parts of the world, with a beautiful outdoors, I have failed to really take advantage of that. I have come to appreciate the outdoors through running, but the reality is that I have very little experience in the mountains. I can count on one hand the number of times I have been hiking in my life.

This was my first mountain camping trip and, as Aaron pointed out during our drive, the furthest north I've ever been.

I had never run in a relay race before, except for mandatory sports days in elementary school.

I had never run on a trail before, unless you count the odd park path in the city that is not paved.

And I most certainly had never run in the pitch black with a head lamp before.

I ran. I walked. And I crawled. I slid down muddy hills and fell - numerous times - over tree roots, rocks and trees that had fallen across the path. There was at least one hill that was steep enough and muddy enough that I went up it on all fours.

I tried to run as much as I could, but when I did, I found things to trip on. The "marathon shuffle" doesn't work so well on the trails, at least, not for me. I ended up settling into more of a fast, waddling walk that I told myself was probably a lot like race walking.

I was slow and hence, alone on the trail much of the time, except when I was passed by other, faster runners who actually knew what the hell they were doing. I later found out that Leslie, an experienced trail runner from Banff whom I'd met the day before, had also subbed in as a Leg 5. She told me that there is definitely a technique to trail running and it takes a while to get the hang of it. No kidding.

But the hardest part was definitely what was inside my head. I knew we were in bear country... cougar country... probably even wolf country.

Thoughts of Terry and Eric occupied my mind. They, and the other soloists, would have been out there for hours already, when they got to this mine field of tree roots. How do they do it, I wondered, as I slammed into a hanging bush, suddenly thankful for my safety goggles.

I found myself hooting and hollering along the trail, as much to alert any wildlife as to make myself feel stronger. I remembered someone telling me once that people who study martial arts are instructed to yell as part of their training. Tribal warriors shout and chant. Those who serve in the military learn to use their voices in their training, too. I wanted to feel strong, so bellowed out loudly to whoever was there to hear me.

At the one aid station along that Leg, a volunteer was trying to direct me where to go and said, "Run towards my safety vest!"

I yelled back, "Yaay! A safety vest! Safety vests are sex-ay!" All the volunteers laughed at that one. Their laughter perked me up considerably.

I lost all sense of time and distance. My Garmin cut out periodically and eventually stopped working. Aaron told me later it was due to heavy tree covering. Most of the time I had no idea how far I'd run or how much further there was to go. I was completely disoriented, adding to my anxiety. At the same time, I was grateful for gorgeous weather and clear skies. It was pretty much a roller coaster of emotions.

At about halfway, there's a major river crossing. Runners are given a coin at the beginning of the race. In the relay, the coin, along with the timing chip, are passed from runner to runner. At the "ferry crossing" (a speed boat), you must surrender your coin to the ferryman in order to buy your passage to the other side. I gave him my coin, knowing intellectually that the boat was about 10 km into my 22 km leg. But it didn't feel that long, but I couldn't really tell.

I got to the other side and kept going, not really believing that I'd already done about half of the leg. At another check point, there was a volunteer under a canopy, tucked into a sleeping bag, next to a small fire. He told me that there was 8 km left.

I thought, "5 miles? That can't be right. He must be lying to us to motivate us. I bet there's really 14 km left."

I was told later that he was not lying. My own perception of distance travelled had failed me in terrain I didn't know, with no changing light of day to guide me as to how long I'd been out there.
When I finally got on the road back into down I felt deliriously happy. Finally, a road! I ran with all I had left. And it felt great!

I crossed the finish line to find my brother waiting for me, with long pants and a warm jacket ready for me, bless his heart.

We found Michelle and Leslie and waited for Eric to come in. Not long after, Terry came by, having already finished the race, showered and changed. He wanted to see Eric finish, too.

I felt a deep sense of awe and profound respect when I saw Eric approach the finish line. I spent most of my leg of the race completely and utterly terrified, unexpectedly disoriented and so clumsy on the trails I staggered around like I was drunk. And there was Eric, crossing the finish line looking strong, talking in full sentences and more than ready to accept a celebratory kiss from Michelle. What a guy.

After that Aaron and I headed back to camp. I had a nice, hot shower and crawled into my sleeping bag. The next day we got up in time to volunteer for the kids' 5 km race, where we were both marshaling.

We ran into one of the members of the team I ran for. She seemed really happy with my time, and that made me feel great.

All in all, it was an experience rich with emotions. Mostly terror. But there were some others mixed in there, too, for good measure.

Would I do it again?

Hell, yeah!

In fact, Michelle mentioned something in passing about forming a team for next year...

Monday, August 04, 2008

Death Race 2008 - Pre-race report

This is a long, amazing, thrilling story, so I will divide it into 2 parts.

As you know, I spent the weekend in Grande Cache, Alberta, with my brother, Aaron. Our plan was to do some camping and volunteer at the Canadian Death Race, a 125 km adventure race which involves summitting 3 mountain peaks and crossing a major river. Between us, our job assignments were course marshal, course sweeper, announcer and back-up relay runner, though I really didn't expect to be called on for that.

I was also looking forward to meeting Eric, who was doing the race solo, and his lovely wife, Michelle, both of whom I've known for some time via our blogs, but had never met in person.

We drove almost 7 hours to get there. Along the way, we saw two bears. One was a black bear that, unfortunately for him, was road kill when we spotted him.

Not so with the young grizzly that we saw just a few kilometres outside the town itself. That bear was also heading away from the road towards the bushes as we drove along the highway. We also saw elk and a few deer on our drive, too.

Just before we hit Edson, my cell phone rang. It was the race director, asking if I was still willing to be a back up racer for a team. I answered yes, without even thinking about it.

She told me I'd be running Leg 5 and I was to check in at Command Central for the race upon arriving at Grande Cache. I hadn't really expected to be called upon as a back up racer, and I didn't really know what to expect. All I knew was that after teams had registered, they couldn't add their own substitutes. So if a team member couldn't make it, their choices were for someone else on the team to pick up an extra leg, to forfeit completely or to accept a back-up runner assigned by the race director. I had just been asked to be one such runner.

We stopped at Edson for a quick break. By the time I'd made it through the 30-minute line-up at Tim Horton's, it had all sunk in and I was psyched! We looked through our race materials and figured out that I'd be running the last leg, which was 22 km during the night. I started wondering what it would be like to run at night on a trail and tried to mentally prepare.

We got to Grande Cache and went straight to the municipal camp ground where things went better than we could have dreamed. Not only did they let us camp there, which was a blessing, considering they were full and people were pitching tents any old place, because it was so full, they gave us a proper camp spot that had been booked by a worker who had left for the weekend. They said they were pretty sure he wouldn't be back and all his stuff was gone, so they let us stay there. We ended up with a beautiful camp site with a picnic table; cast iron fire pit with a grill and a hot plate; and on-site running water. Best of all, it was a stone's throw from the camp's bathrooms with hot showers and flush toilets. And there was free firewood included with the price. Score!

We set up camp and headed into town to check it out, find the hockey rink and recreation centre, which were the centre of activity for the weekend. It was also where I had to pick up my race kit.

When we got to Command Central, the race director was on the phone for a long time, pacing the bleachers of the hockey rink. She later told us that the tables and chairs for the runners' pasta dinner had not shown up and she was trying to find out where they were. In a few hours she was going to have about a 1000 hungry runners in the rink, looking for food.

She got things sorted and then turned her attention to me, only to tell me that the team who had requested a back up runner had decided to re-organize and no longer wanted a substitute runner.

Boy, was I disappointed. But oh well... You win some, you lose some. She did ask if another team needed a runner, would I still be willing? I said yes.

My cell phone had lost all reception in the mountains, but my brother's (from a different cell phone provider) still worked. She took his number and off we went.

Aaron looked at the map and just for fun, we went to check out the leg that I was supposed to have run, leg 5. This is an off-road race, so you can't really see much of the course from the highway, but we did see the hand-off point from leg 4 to leg 5. I was interested, but slightly miserable, since I'd gotten myself psyched up to run.

There was a meeting of the volunteers at 5:00 p.m. Aaron was scheduled to be a sweeper and I was scheduled to marshal and we were both slated to help out with the kids' race the day after the adult Death Race. We headed back to town for our meeting.

But before we went there, we drove around looking for the hotel where Eric and Michelle were staying. Couldn't find it, so we decided to head for the Legion, where the volunteer meeting was being held. Lo and behold, there was their hotel, tucked in behind the Legion.

I told Aaron we could just drop in on them for a minute to say hello, since I knew which room they were in. Aaron thought it was a bit weird that I'd call in, unannounced, on people whom I'd never met. He said, "You've never actually met them, right?"

I answered no, but we blogged together and we knew each other. Sort of. In cyber space.

I think he thought I was nuts, but he wasn't going to leave me alone to go into the hotel room of people I'd never met. He's my big brother, after all.

I knocked on their door and they were in! We exchanged greetings and hellos and they invited us in. We chatted for a while and I gave Eric some Canadian beer, saying we could toast to his success as a soloist when he was done.

Aaron was relieved to find out that not only were they normal people (or as normal as ultra runners can be), but they had excellent senses of humour and numerous stories to share. By the end of that visit, he took this picture of us in their room.

While we were there, his cell phone rang. He answered it and then passed it to me. It was the race director again. Another team needed a substitute runner. Was I still interested?

Hell, yeah!

Would I still do Leg 5? Yup!

So, the plan was for us to go to our volunteer meeting and then for me to go pick up my race number. We said quick good-byes to Eric and Michelle, saying we'd see them later on that same night, for the pre-race meeting at 8:30 p.m. and off we went to the volunteer meeting.

Just before it started, Aaron's cell phone rang again. It was the captain of the team I'd been assigned to. They had somehow found out we were at the volunteer meeting and had come over to meet me. They were in the lobby of the legion. I went out to meet, Fred, the team captain and Patty, who would be running Leg 4. It was great she was there, so we could recognize each other at hand-off time. We exchanged phone numbers and said we'd stay in touch.

I was elated. And I also felt a sense of responsibility to this team I'd never met. They paid a lot of money to take part in the Death Race. And it was likely that they'd been training for months. I had found out an hour before that I'd be on their team. It's not a lot of time to mentally prepare, but I wanted to do it.

At the volunteer meeting we found out that Aaron had also been re-assigned. He'd been taken off as a sweeper and given the job of marshaling at the spot where I had originally been slated. My only job during the race was to be a back up runner, which was fine by me!

After that it was off to pick up my race number and ticket for the pasta dinner and go to the pre-race meeting. Aaron and I shared a plate of pasta, and we had dinner with Michelle, Eric and their friend, Terry, who'd also come up to run solo.

After that, it was back to the camp ground to get some shut eye for race day. Stay tuned for Part 2 with details...