Travel

I Feel So Far Away

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Spring is the most overrated season. Those were my husband, Jesse's words, not mine, but I couldn't agree more. He made that profound statement as I sat on the floor in the mudroom lacing up my running shoes. Moments earlier I told Jesse that everything would be better if only it wasn't so windy and rainy. And why the hell was I being such a baby? I had just trained hard through the bitterness of December and January. I've always had high hopes for this hopeful season but spring just doesn't work out for me. Each year I have more maturity and self-awareness about the ebbs and flows of trying to push myself to new levels as a runner, but that doesn't take away the sting of setbacks. It's actually gotten harder for me to accept that taking downtime is the right thing to do.

I've had a good February race for the last 4 years - that's every single year that I have been a serious runner. I have a 50 mile win, marathon and 50k podium finishes and a top five finish in a Western States Golden Ticket 100k. Then I back up those strong results with absolute flops in the spring. I've DNF-ed (did not finish) twice and, will have DNS-ed (did not start) twice counting this year. Between February and May, I ride a super wild roller coaster of physical and emotional drama.

I was really hoping that this spring I could break the cycle by following up a late winter race with consistent training and a decent spring race. I felt recovered two weeks after my February 100k and I started to build on my speed and took my time layering on the volume. By mid-March I could feel that my body was slipping into the dreaded spring pit of despair. I got one cold after another, I became agitated by crummy weather, and I was increasingly stressed about my sleep. With a 5 year old who regularly stays up past 10pm and a 3 year old who doesn't sleep through the night, it's hard not to have a death grip on nighttime hours. The farm schedule shifted to start an hour earlier which meant waking up at 5:15am to get my run in before getting the kids to pre-school on days that we had evening commitments - which is a lot during the spring. With each internal moan and gripe I hated myself for not loving the process. I was supposed to thrive on the grind, not have foreboding feelings about my training.

A theory I have about my springtime melancholy is that I am withdrawing from our big winter vacation. For the past few years, we've spent the better part of February traveling around the American West, running, exploring, and soaking in sun, before the farming season kicks off. We build up to our trip from November to January and I never have a plan for how I am going to transition back into the rest of winter when I got home. Our vegetable farming life is really polarized - we work hard 9 months of the year then have absolute flexibility in the winter to travel in between our winter projects. It's a cold, jarring return to reality after we get home from our winter adventures, no matter how wonderful our trip was. I get let down every single year.

By the middle of April I knew I should withdraw from the 50mile race that was scheduled for May. My training wasn't coming together and new health issues were surfacing that made it clear that I was about to dig myself into to a deep hole that would take months to get out of. On a gorgeous Saturday afternoon, I ran up to the state park near our house. After a half mile on the trail I caught a rock with my toe and my body hurled forward, rolling my left foot under as I landed on the trail. My first response was to inspect the moss and rocks stuck into my palm. Blood dripped down to my elbow from two wounds on my right hand. I rocked back onto my feet and screamed FUCK! I knew I had done damage to my ankle - my bad ankle. The ankle that I had been trying to heal all winter. On a cold, windy day back in November as I was coming down from Clingman's Dome, the highest point in the Smokey Mountains, I suffered my first traumatic running injury, a second degree lateral sprain. At the time it felt like a rite of passage, but that fateful moment followed me all the way through my 100k race in February. My winter training was stunted by my fears of re-injury and a lot of focus in my race was directed towards not landing wrong on my left foot. As I sat on the side of the trail I asked myself what I was accomplishing if I continued training with a bum ankle and a weak system. I struggled through a few more days of regular runs before I decided a real break was in order. My coach agreed that working past my issues would only lead to burn out and he gave me the support I needed to tune out from running for a few weeks.

At the doctors office, I went through my list of current woes and told her that I hated feeling so high maintenance. You can't just wing this stuff. You're asking your body to do a lot for you. You should be MORE high maintenance. If you want to your body to preform on a high level, you need to make taking care of yourself a top priority. Your sleep, your nutrition, your stress levels, your well-being all needs to be a focus. She was so right. Just because I want to be able to train and race month after month doesn't mean my body will allow it if I am not healthy in every way. I have a disproportionate amount of motivation for my amount of natural patience. I need to use my obsessive discipline in all areas of my training, including self-care.

For me the hardest part about running isn't actually running, it's the suffering I go through when I'm not running. To commit myself to the schedule and process, I have to make space for the sport, and when it's gone I feel a dark void. I am trying to make the most of the down time by giving Jesse more space to work on projects, I go to yoga more, and I do extra fun stuff with the kids. But always in the back of my mind is that I am drifting farther and farther away from what I am working towards. My mom has been really supportive over the past few weeks as I rest my body. After we picked up some hogs from another farm, we stood under the blooming apple tree in the pigs pasture and talked about how we want our summers to be. I feel so far away. Far away from running how I want to run, I told her. How do you want to run? she asked. I just want to run wild and free on trails and not have to worry about being tired, or hurt, or sick. I don't want to wonder if I'm doing the right thing. She didn't even need to tie my thoughts together for me. I knew that stepping back from my training and dropping a race off my schedule was the only way to run how I want to run. I have hopes that 2018 will hold more continuity and I need to work toward consistent overall wellness to make that happen. And if it doesn't, a nice long recovery after my February adventures is just as well, because spring sucks.

Staying Present While Running Toward the Sun

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I've done it for the past 5 years. It just makes sense with the farm calendar. Training through winter months in Wisconsin for warmer weather races in the southwestern corner of the country is all I have every really known, actually. My family's farm is a large CSA (community supported agriculture) which produces 50 different kinds of vegetables that are distributed to families in the greater Madison WI area throughout the spring, summer, fall, and into early winter. The farm keeps us tied down late February through mid November. Our schedule lightens up dramatically for December, January, and February so this is when I we have time to travel. I race regionally for most of the year and choose one or two more competitive events to focus on during our farming off-season. My winter race this year was Sean O'Brien 100k which traverses the Santa Monica Mountains in Malibu CA. I have run Sean O'Brien events for the past 3 years. I raced the 50k and the 50mile, so I decided to give the 100k a shot for 2017. This would be one of the most competitive races I had ever competed in, so needed to work hard if I wanted to have a strong finish. Snow covered with sand. This was a typical winter running day for me. A strip sand for traction down the center line.

Ultrarunning has an amnesiatic effect. Why does the epicness of the races and glory of strong training surface in my memory and the struggles get suppressed? Every winter I tell myself how hard it is to get deep into training while managing the uncooperative weather, risks of winter viruses, shorter days, and challenges of managing little kids. Yet when the farming season tappers off I'm salivating at the thought of grinding it out through the icy landscape of the Wisconsin winter. I developed an actionable plan to stay focused and happy during frozen training months because, after all, running isn't my entire life, it's just one of the many awesome things I have going.

Don't be snobby about running surfaces This winter was particularly brutal. I usually run trails year round. The state park up the road from our house has 10 hilly miles of mountain bike trails that get beautifully groomed by fat bikes in the winter. Trail running was not an option for me early in the season because I sprained my ankle on the Appalachian Trail in November and re-injury was too big of a risk. By the time I had strength and stability back, our winter had hit a disappointing freezing and thawing pattern that turned the trails into pure ice. Running on the road is a reality most cold-weather trail runners contend with. It's a great way to keep your training going in between periods of poor trail conditions. I, however, didn't run more than 5 miles of trails in December and January. Every single run I did was on the road except for two. The conditions of the road were often snowy or icy as well. I decided that this was better than only running on dry pavement because the mixed textures kept my core engaged and my footwork nimble.

Sean O'Brien 100k sunrise. 5th female overall. With 13,000+ ft of elevation gain and miles and miles of mud, I am happy with how my winter training panned out for this awesome event.

Compartmentalize the training My work schedule is relaxed in the winter, but I am also home with the kids a lot more. I did my best to create firm divisions between my running, recovery, work, and time with my kids. An unstructured day can get really sloppy and have huge chunks of wasted time, so I tried to plan a schedule the day before that included a run, an outing with the kids, time in the office, and specific time for stretching and strength exercises. There were days when these areas bled into each other and that felt stressful, so I worked hard to avoid them. To compliment my running, I joined a yoga studio with hot classes and childcare. This was a great way for me to clear my head, get warm, and work on my body while giving the kids a new, fun place to play.

Embrace the suck Unless injured or sick, I run 6 days a week. Gearing up for my target race, we had days on end when temperatures didn't creep over 5 degrees. Running in snow, on ice, leaning into polar vortex winds, and dodging snowplows excited me in a gnarly, wild way because the conditions made me feel like I was toughening up for the 100k on the horizon. From past experience, I knew that winter training would be hard and I needed to find joy in the challenges otherwise it would take too much happiness from other areas of life. It's amazing how a positive mindset can change the entire experience.

Ice, snow, and biting cold don't give me race specific training but they do empower me mentally.

Be resilient in the face of adversity In mid January I set out on the longest run in my training block for my target race. We were in our second week of single digit temperatures and I had 26 miles on my schedule. 5 miles into the run I went to take a swig of my electrolyte concoction and was met with a frozen waterbottle nozzle. I screwed off the top and sucked down a few mouthfuls of slush. All of my liquid was frozen solid by mile 10. I finished the run desperately thirsty but exhilarated by pushing through the setback. In running there are many variables we can control but twice as many that we can't - trail conditions, training weather, struggles with work or family. The single most important aspect I can control is my attitude toward the process. Making a conscious decision to laugh instead of whine this winter kept my stress levels low which is the most important part of staying healthy.

Prioritize sleep and nutrition This is ALWAYS important no matter what time of year, but it feels extra critical in the winter. Cold weather running burns more energy and is harder my body. Lack of sun takes a toll on my emotional health but when I buffer myself with a lot of sleep and restful activities (reading, yoga, writing, cooking) I feel much more stable and grounded. I spend a lot of time in the kitchen in the winter cooking hearty meals for me and my family. Keeping a lot of meat, vegetables, and healthy grains in my diet helps me recover from my runs faster and ward of evil viruses that have plagued me in the past. I'm a local food advocate and encourage everyone to eat food that is grown close to home but I believe there is nothing wrong with buying foods produced in far away places if we cannot grow them here. We buy a lot of oranges, avocados, and bananas and these fruits are a big part of my diet. This year I started drinking green tea every single day and I will continue this until I die. Green tea is such a powerful antioxidant which is important for controlling inflammation in athletes (and everyone).

Second breakfast. Post run meals are so important for recovery and health.

Ultimately, my training wasn't ideal - the best way to train is to replicate race conditions. But I did the most with the situation I had on hand. The Sean O'Brien 100k was extremely muddy from the huge amount of rain California has been pummeled with this winter. Part of the course was re-routed because the trail conditions were so bad. I feel that the challenges of my winter training prepared me well for smiling through the exhausting mud and rolling with the punches. With my survival strategies in place, I can stay happy and strong while working hard towards my winter races. Ice, snow and subzero temperatures aren't going to hold me back. Our wild, little farm family will be taking western running adventures forever.

The Takeaways: What I learned in 2016

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As I come into the new year, I find myself reflecting on my accomplishments, challenges and lessons from the year I left behind. 2016 was a very high/low year for me. We built a new house, I had some strong race finishes, we took two awesome road trips, and I made a bunch of new friends. But, I also had some really low points in my struggle to be healthy. I wasn't able to race much and enjoying the beauty of my life was not always easy. Last year was filled with ups and downs that have shaped who I am as a runner and who I strive to be as a person. Here are my 2016 lessons in no particular order: Stress is stress My body doesn't differentiate the source. Stress is one big mass of energy that needs to be doled out in strategic ways to stay healthy and become a stronger runner. I am 33 years old and I am just realizing this for the first time. Busy season on the farm, wild kids, poor sleep, too many commitments, and running are some of my stressors. When I first started running ultramarathons in 2014, I had a 2 year old and a 7 month old. I was burning the candle at both ends with intense enthusiasm. As the months rolled on I found myself living on adrenaline to accomplish all of my goals. I finally ran myself into the ground in the summer of 2015 when I was diagnosed with mono (Epstein Barr virus) and I have been fighting to find an equilibrium ever since. Fitness is a matter of putting microstresses on your body and then healing and adapting. If I want my body to benefit from the stress of my training, I need to minimize the other stimuli. It doesn't mean that I can quit taking care of my kids or stop working, but I do have control over how I react when life gets real and can choose to remove myself from situations that will bring me unnecessary stress.

On the deck of our new house with Mischa. Now we live only a mile from Blue Mound State Park with has great trails!

Time management is an art We all spend our time on things that are important to us. The most common question I get from people when the topic of running comes up is How do you find the time? Running is a very efficient endurance sport, in terms of time spent in training - especially if you don't care about bathing on a daily basis. I am currently in a flexible time of the vegetable farming year. However, in the summer months, it takes a lot of organization and discipline to fit in two running schedules (mine and my husband, Jesse's) along with the farm and the kids. I have learned that if I do less, time is easier to manage. To help me prioritize, I wrote a list of my most important things: family, the farm, running, food, a peaceful home, creative projects, community involvement. There are a lot of other things I like doing but only if I have extra time. I have strategically separated myself from most popular entertainment which makes my time so much more manageable. Anyways, I don't want Netflix cluttering my life when I can't even keep up with my laundry!

I MUST eat food - a lot. To stay healthy as a runner, food and sleep are critical.

I am only as healthy as my nutrition You would think that a vegetable farmer who has a freezers full of beef and pork would have no problem with proper nutrition, but this is not always the case for me. I eat amazing, beautiful, colorful meals but I have been known to skip breakfast, forego eating after a challenging run, or do fasted long runs (gasp!!). This year my body shut down on me for being such a dumbass. Running is a high impact sport that takes a huge amount of energy. Even if I were able to run on empty, I wouldn't be able to train on the level that will get me faster results. I used to think that endurance running was a purely natural pursuit, I suppose I still do in many ways. But I need to treat my body like an extra special machine if I want to keep getting stronger. Here are my rules: always have a big breakfast (bread, nut butter, jelly, coffee), green tea every day, no running on a full or empty stomach, always eat protein after a run (Organic Valley Chocolate Organic Fuel is my favorite - and Organic Valley is my sponsor!), eat colorful fruits and vegetables, eat meat multiple times per week (preferably our meat), never go to bed feeling too full (it makes for poor sleep). With high quality nutrition I can conquer my dreams!

Sleep: at least 8 hours - otherwise no point training hard Some people need more sleep than others. I fall into the category of people who don't need much sleep to feel rested. For years I stretched my days out late into the night. My kids naturally stay up late and I would stay up even later trying to get the alone time that I wanted. Since I have been recovering from mono, I have lost about 20% of my weekly productivity because I am committing much more of my time to sleep. I have learned that I don't get tired, I get sick. My immune system becomes weak when I am sleep deprived. Since I have made it a point to get more rest, I have been sick a fraction of the time. And it is also improving my training capacity. I am not always able to get as much sleep as I should, but my efforts are going a long way. What a great time investment.

First female overall and 5th overall at Sean O'Brien 50 mile. This was my biggest running achievement of 2016!

Embrace the process I'm just a farm mom with a huge amount of stoke and determination for exploring my running limits over long distances. Up until this year I have not been terribly interested in anatomy or physiology - I just want to run! After several weeks off from illness and injury I have realized that I will keep repeating the same mistakes if I ignore the sources of what ails me. So, I have turned my attention to learning more about how and why I get injured and what I can do to stay healthy. Running, by nature, is a slow process that is wrought with setbacks and disappointment. If I can't accept that, I should just quit right now. Learning to roll with the punches will make me a happier runner who can withstand the game for the long haul. Patience, persistence, determination, and listening to my body are what will bring me closer to my true potential.

See the truth I started analyzing my running with a GPS watch in August. Up until then I just estimated my weekly mileage by having a rough idea of the distance of the routes I was running. I had no idea how much vertical gain I was getting, what effort I was putting out or how many hours I was on my feet running. My only confirmed metrics were race results. This is crazy talk now that I know the power of the tools that are available to me. I used to run with an older Garmin during races to know what mile I was in and what time the clock was at. Now that I am fully tethered to the analytical world I wish I could look back and see my past figures. Was I getting more or less miles/vertical/time than I thought? I joined Strava in October and I love the data analysis plus the community support is awesome. Knowing exactly what I am doing in training makes me a more self aware runner.

Blue Mound State Park in November. The beauty of the trail is at the center of my desire to run.

Run for running sake I could say that my racing season was a flop or I could see it as a great year. I had a 50 mile win in February, a 50k podium in July, and two top 5 sub-ultra distance trail race finishes in June then October. On the other hand, I DNF-ed (did not finish) a 100k in April and DNS-ed (did not start) two 50 mile races in May and September. There was a handful of other races that I never registered for but intended to run. But here I am, healthy and ready to race into 2017. What is racing if I can't run? What is the point of running if I'm not happy? If I hadn't sat out much of my year, I would never have been able to feel the joy of running the way I am now. I will always want to test myself in a race setting but most of running is made up of the vastness of the hours in between. Podium finishes are great but not the only measure of success. Being out on my trails, exploring new ones, the colors of the trees and sky, splashing through mud and bounding off of rocks - these are the things that bring me pure happiness. In running we spend so much time alone, so our solitude needs to add value to our lives, not take it away.

Jesse, Paavo and Mischa in Moab at Red Hot 55k. We drove from WI to CA in February and explored awesome races and trails along the way. Including the kids in these adventures is the best part.

Seek the help of a professional In August I almost quit running. I lay in bed one night and asked Jesse if he thought I should just give it up. I had been in a downward spiral for a few weeks - extreme body weakness, shortness of breath, vertigo, sensitivity to noise and light, and confusion. My mono symptoms were coming back as strong as the initial infection. I couldn't run let alone be an adult. Jesse told me no. You are a good runner, naturally. With no running background and with no formal training you have gotten solid results. Just focus on getting better then we will make a plan. It would be stupid for you quit now. Plus you love it...that's the most import part. With that, I decided that I needed a professional coach. I reached out to David Roche and he offered to train me back to health and beyond. David is an elite trail runner with amazing results and an infectious zeal and humor for running. He told me that results don't matter, it's about how much fun I'm having. This shift in my mind away from results-driven motivation to pure love of the sport has been one of my biggest takeaways. Being part of his team, Some Work, All Play, initially was a last resort, but now it feels like the best decision I have made other than to start running in the first place. My training is purposeful and never comes before health. Running injured or sick is a thing of the past. It takes an objective expert to pull me back when I need a break and to lay out a challenging plan for me to rise up toward my potential.

Running is pursuit that never ends. I'll never be at my peak - there will always be improvements and margins to investigate. That's why I love running as a sport and as a lifestyle. For this year I am going to see how hard I can push myself in training and what that brings on the race course. I learned a lot from my ups and downs - there's no point in celebrating what I got right if I'm not going to continue to build on those achievements and there is no such thing as a mistake if the experience makes me a stronger, wiser person. 2017 might just be my best year yet!

Deep in training for Sean O'Brien 100k coming up on February 4, my first race of the year!

FOMO and the Quest for Longevity

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In the sport of ultrarunning, many of the great races take a very deliberate effort to gain entry. There are lotteries, qualifying races, waiting lists, and lightning fast sell-out times. My most recent race, Gorge Waterfalls 100k, is the latter category. This race is sought after for it's stunning course which traverses mossy old growth forests in Oregon's Columbia River Gorge featuring, as the name would suggest, several on-course waterfalls and river crossings. It's also a highly competitive race that qualifies the top two men and women for Western States 100 Mile, arguably the most competitive 100mile American race, drawing an elite group of athletes. Coordinating my ultramarathon schedule takes a lot of forethought and chance, especially when balancing the demands of the farm and my family while accounting for potential injury and illness. Back in October, when I was in a mononucleosis-induced stupor, I had a beautiful fantasy of racing Gorge 100k. I was long overdue for a visit to my brother and his family, who live south of Portland, so I would make a great weekend out of this event. My husband, Jesse, warned me that I needed to sign up the day registration opened if I wanted to race. The excitement of not knowing if I would be healthy yet, made the decision even more intoxicating. I knew it was a gamble but I just wanted to be out there, healthy, trying really hard for the sport that I love.

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Following a win in February at Sean O'Brien 50mile, I took a week off before I began training. After a few long runs I started to develop a burning pain in my right Achilles area. Both my chiropractor and physical therapist confirmed that poor pelvic alignment was skewing my running mechanics causing several points of concern on the entire right side of my body, from my neck down to the joint of my big toe. A lack of core strength combined with carrying children on my left hip while cocking my right hip out had perpetuated these imbalances. Training on the country roads around my house also contributed to my misalignment - the road peaks in the middle and drops down into the shoulders so one leg is always reaching farther to strike the ground. I stopped running on the road and only ran trails for the month leading up to Gorge. My training volume was low but I was still feeling hopeful that I was at least maintaining my fitness.

The week before the race our entire house was infected with the flu. I knew there was a strong chance that I wouldn't even toe the starting line if I had a fever. Combined with my injury, running the race sick seemed irresponsible and destined for failure. But something inside was aching with curiosity - what if the race actually worked out for me? And by working out, I had a specific goal in mind. I wanted to finish in the top 10 ten females with a sub-13 hour finishing time. The Gorge elevation profile is slightly less vertical than Sean O'Brien 50mile, mile for mile, and the Gorge 100k competition was far greater than SOB 50mile. Based on my SOB 50mile time in February, and compared to the previous years Gorge 100k times, this should have been feasible if I could hold my mechanics together.

The coiled energy before the start.

Once I was on the way to the airport I felt determined to start the race. During my travel day from Madison WI to Portland, I checked the weather forecast obsessively, trolled social media channels for nuggets of chatter about the race, and planned out every detail of my life until the race morning. My mom and I previewed a few miles of the course the day before the event and I was buzzing with anticipation to to sink my teeth into the race the next morning.

This was the first ultramarathon I had ever raced that I slept in a bed without at least one of my kids, so I woke up feeling super rested. Predawn race starts have a special electricity - the headlamps, steamy breath, bright colored running gear with light-catching reflectors - it all makes me so belligerent with excitement that I want to jump up and down. I huddled my forearms to my chest and trembled inside as the race director gave his pre-race announcements. Then we were off! The leaders went out fast and I trotted along about a third of the way from the front.

Ultrarunning must seem like the world's most boring sport to outsiders. Running for hours and hours and hours. But there is quite a bit of risk taking and calculation to be made. For me, I decided to be conservative in the first quarter of the race and assess my body before developing my race strategy to meet my goal. I was feeling solid at mile 17 so I began to move a little faster. The course has 12,000 feet of elevation gain in the form of several medium climbs and descents so I knew I needed to keep myself in check in the fast sections if I was going to stay strong for the duration.

Feeling great around mile 9.

The course is an out and back so we ran 31 miles away from the race start and then turned around and ran back. I love out and back courses for strategic reasons. It puts you face to face with everyone on the course which is a great way to know where you stand in the race while scoping out the second half of the course. It is also cool to see the fastest runners in their zone of awesomeness. As I approached the 50k turnaround point, I counted 10 women - which meant my goal of top 10 was possible. I made quick work of the aid station and set back out to start chipping away at my position.

Around mile 34 I felt a familiar pain in my big toe joint and Achilles. I carried on hoping it would loosen up with more running - famous last thoughts before blowing up. In mile 36 I took one step on my left leg and with the subsequent right step, my right groin muscle was gone. It is a painless but uncanny sensation that I have a hard time describing. Over my next few strides I could feel my quad and glute compensate for the muscular void. I thought Ok, I can run like this, I am more than halfway through the course. But as the miles dragged on, other areas of my leg began degrading: a stinging pinch in the back of my pelvis, shards of glass in my knee, inability to roll off of my big toe joint. All of this was causing an obvious change in my gate which I knew was the sign that it was time to throw in the towel to prevent further damage.

For me there is acceptable pain in running like toe nail issues, blisters, chaffing, cramping, scratches, cuts, nausea/vomiting, and general exhaustion. Then there is unproductive stubbornness that hinders future running. It took me about a dozen miles to answer a simple question: what do I want from ultrarunning? I want to be competitive on a high level, I want to race and train in beautiful places, I want to meet amazing people, I want to keep doing this sport that connects me so deeply and wildly to myself and nature, but most of all, I want to do this sport forever. One of my favorite things about running is that it transcends age. I want to be a tenacious old woman finishing 100mile races. I realized that running couldn't be any of these things if I didn't know when I've had enough and I will never get better at running if I am chronically sick and injured.

I called Jesse about 3 miles from the 49mile aid station where I dropped out. I sobbed into the phone, stammering about how terrible this was and I was so sorry I left him at home with the kids for the race that shouldn't have happened in the first place. So what was likely going to happen, did. But now you got inside the 100k distance and you will take this experience into your next race. He was right. I don't regret starting the race because I learned so much about myself and got to meet a lot of cool people on the course. One of the guys I talked with when I was trying to make my decision said, Sadly, you learn more from your bad races than you do from your good ones. My mom and brother picked me up at the aid station and I cried some more. Not only for the abandonment of the race but also because I was completely exhausted by the pain I had been running through. I had a desperate fear of missing out on this race and I am glad for it. My curiosity compelled me to start and my focus on the future told me to stop when there was nothing left to be gained.

With my mom and nieces at my brothers house in Corvallis. The support of my family was so important.

 

Band of Gypsies

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I smashed the rest of my peanut butter toast into my mouth as I the headed into the bedroom to start dressing the sleeping children. It was 4:45am and I had one hour to be at the starting line of the Sean O'Brien 50mile. Before our crew piled into the car, Paavo (4) and Mischa (2), would both demand Chocolate Clif bars and milk, despite our best attempts to keep them asleep. Attending to the kids' needs both tempered and contributed to the nervousness swelling up inside me. It was 34° when we arrived at Malibu Creek State Park. Jesse carried the kids a quarter mile to the starting line so I could keep my puffy coat on until the last minute. He never wants me to loose energy before the race by carrying children or shivering. Running in the lead.

Our voyage to the starting line of SOB started 9 days earlier. For the 3rd year, we packed up the car and drove our brood across the American west for running, racing, and wild adventures in the sun. Our western expeditions last about 2.5 weeks and we spend time in Colorado, Arizona, California, and Utah. We tent camp, rent rustic cabins, stay with friends, and take up residence in hotels. Over the years, our travels have gotten easier in some ways and harder in others. The constant is that it takes an incredible amount of energy and dedication from Jesse and I to cooperate in supporting each others racing needs while keeping the kids safe and entertained. Paavo and Mischa are gregarious adventure-seekers who are sometimes difficult to keep close by. Getting from Wisconsin to California with these two rascals was not an ideal way to prepare for my first ultra in half a year.

Once I was in the SOB course, thoughts of the kids spun in and out of my head - were they going to watch me finish?, would Mischa get a nap?, I hope they were having fun at the zoo. The night before the race I told Jesse that I would text him when I was coming through the mile 36 aid station to tell him how I was doing with time - At Kanen, out front (meaning that I was at the Kanen aid station and I was winning). Then again after the last aid station I texted 6.5 miles to finish (this was his cue to drive to the finishing area). The logistical challenge going into this race was that I had no idea how fast I could run it. The course had much more vertical gain than anything I had ever done (11,000 feet) and I was coming off of a terrible stretch of illness that took me away from an entire season of racing. Going in, I had no time goal and I was so scared of not being able to finish. I decided to set aside trivial matters like fear and pain to focus instead on efficiency. When I came into the finishing chute with Paavo running behind me, all of the challenges of healing from my viral infections evaporated. Winning was icing on the cake.

Paavo sleeping in the back of the truck on a futon in the early morning hours of my first 50 mile

It must seem like running ultras with little kids in tow is a hassle - but it's all I know. I ran my first ultra, a local 50k, 8 months after Mischa, my second baby, was born. Looking back, that race was extra challenging because of nursing logistics. Anyone who has breastfed a baby can imagine that running for 5+ hours without nursing can be messy and painful. Or my first 50 mile, The North Face Endurance Challenge Wisconsin, when Jesse decided that he and the kids would crew for me. It was adorable to come into each aid station with Jesse saying things like there's only a few girls ahead of you, are you eating enough?, do you want your lip stuff?. Paavo would cheer and run with me as I set out back onto the trail and poor Mischa was in tears, every time. That race took me 9 hours and 2 minutes to finish. Jesse and the kids met me at every station and were waiting for me when I finished. What a long day with a 3 year old and 10 month old! My family no longer crews for me but they are always there to see me finish. Paavo loves to chase me and Jesse through the chute and when he sees us coming he is filled with so much pride and excitement for his parents. I hope that our racing inspires the kids to try really hard for a sport they care about.

Lunch at Canyonlands National Park.

The hardest part of racing away from home with kids is recovery. When we are out of town we are away from all of our regular support systems (grandparents, babysitters, familiar favorite place to play). When Jesse or I are out on the race course all day, the other parent has to work extra hard to fill the day with fun activities. Then when the race is over both of us are exhausted. It feels selfish to ask for more alone time to recover. Starting about two hours after I finish a race, every system in my body needs something. My eyes are dry, my skin is chaffed and burned, I'm dehydrated and nauseous, I have hot flashes and cold sweats, my toe nails are throbbing, my muscles fill with stiffness, and I am sensitive to loud noises and bright lights. The worst though, is the mental and emotional instability I feel. After focusing for so many hours, I have drained hormones and chemicals from my brain causing me to feel fragile. When I close my eyes all I can see is the trail ahead of me. It takes me 36 hours to restore my systems - going through this with Paavo and Mischa is super challenging.

Shortly after winning Sean O'Brien 50 mile - dreading the exhausting recovery ahead. Toddlers and recovery are like water and oil.

As farmers, we have a lot of flexible time in the winter but are very tied down 9 months of the year. We make the most of our lifestyle by racing close to home during the spring, summer and fall then choosing destination races in the farming off-season. Bringing the kids along allows us to travel for long stretches and we get to explore amazing places together. Paavo and Mischa are scrappy farm kids who thrive when playing with dirt, rocks, trees, and water. Our road trips are as much for their well-being as they are for our racing pursuits.

Finding rocks to throw off the cliffs in Moab

This year we rounded out our trip with Jesse's race, Red Hot 55k, in Moab, UT. This a point-to-point course which means it starts and ends in two different places. Spectators take a shuttle bus to the finish line which is perched on a canyon wall offering plenty of rock climbing and rock throwing opportunities for the kids. I was recovered from SOB and had plenty of energy to scamper around with the kids while still keeping an eye out for Jesse coming in. Paavo was off playing with some other kids when I spotted Jesse. I yelled Here comes Daddy! Paavo leaped off of his rock and came running through the scratchy vegetation just in time to follow his dad through the finish.

The Hunter and the Hunted

I spend 5 to 9 hours a week training. Whether I'm running, spinning, or doing other conditioning, I have this solitary time alone to think, and I use these hours to prepare myself mentally for racing. I enter some races just for the training opportunity - mostly shorter distances, but for longer events - marathon and above, the plan is to try to win. I have yet to take 1st place in any race, but I have quite a few 2nd and 3rd place finishes. I have been trying to decide for the past few months whether it is more stressful to be pursued by runners from behind or to be in the agonizing position of trying to catch the girls ahead of me. On the top of the mountain - it took me over an hour to make it to mile 6.

Last week I took 3rd place in the Sean O'Brien 50k in Malibu Creek State Park. This is a more competitive race than I have ever been part of, the course has a lot of elevation gain and is more technical than anything I had ever run. I was confident that I could finish the race, but I wanted to know if I could compete on a higher level. Going into it I decided that I was going to place top 5 - winning was ideal but not likely since I had no experience with the course and was coming off of an injury.

I spend a lot of time running alone in long races. The runners fan out and I can really dig in and do my own thing. When I hear foot steps on my tail I am always relieved to see a guy. In competitive running, the boys race the boys and the girls race the girls. That means that men are my friendly, supportive allies. In all of the ultra marathons I have raced, male runners have helped me stay focused and kept me company. In a 50k last July, once I knew I was in second place, I asked for help from a group of dudes to keep me going strong. Two ran ahead of me and three ran behind to keep my pace faster than I would have done alone. At Sean O'Brien, one of my racing fellows even cued me into how close the girls were behind me.

The Sean O'Brien 50k course is an out and back - we ran 15.5 miles and turned around and ran back to the start/finish line. This means that the entire first half of the race was a reconnaissance mission for the second half, when the race really started. From a strategic point of view this was great. I could see which parts of the course would challenge me and plan accordingly. It also put me face to face with my competition. I counted how many girls were ahead of me (2) and saw how close the girls were behind me, and if they looked like they were hurting or not. But it was soul crushing to fly down big descents only to know that I would be climbing those same hills on my way out.

SOB 50k course and elevation profile

Going into the race, I had no idea how my legs would hold up to the elevation gain - with 6200 feet of gain and loss, my quads and hamstrings would work harder than they ever had. Two miles into the course, I knew there was a hill that would take me all the way up the mountain - about 1500 feet in 3 miles. Climbing is not a strength of mine, so I planned to speed hike a lot of this. I had my new Ultimate Direction running pack so I would carve off time at aid stations - all I did at each of the six stops was eat a few potato chips, drink mountain dew/coke, restock water, and get the hell out of there. The week before the race I outlined a strategy and mostly stuck to it:

  • Run my own race until I get to the first aid station on the top of the big climb (mile 6.8) - prioritize efficiency over speed getting up the hill. Keep my head down and don't worry about anyone ahead of me.
  • Once I pass the first aid station, move fast to establish myself as a leader.
  • Get to the turn around at mile 15.5 in 2hrs and 40min or less (if I ran even splits, this would bring me across the finish at the same time as the 2014 winner).
  • After the mile 20 aid station, focus on catching girls ahead of me - if possible.
  • Save some energy in case of an emergency.
  • Finish in the top 5 girls.
  • Complete the above without needing medical attention.

Climbing alone.

I followed through with almost all of my plans. I ran and hiked that first big climb several girls back from the front, but I put myself in third place at the first aid station. I stayed in 3rd for the rest of the race - I wasn't able to catch anyone ahead of me, but holding onto 3rd felt like enough of a challenge. The oppressive fear of the pack of girls coming up from behind me felt stronger than the hunger for chasing down the competition ahead of me. I made it to the turn around point in 2 hours and 32 minutes but my splits were not even. This was a good pacing guideline though because it helped me get a good lead. I planned on bombing down the big descent at the end of the race but my quads were gone, my left hamstring was cramping, and my right leg wasn't lifting off the ground very well. I went down at a humble 9 minute mile pace. While I was polishing off the final up-hill switch backs with two miles left in the race, I spotted a girl a few hundred feet back. I could feel my blood pressure rise and goose bumps covered my skin - I ran for the finish faster than my half marathon pace - right around 7 minute miles.

Racing makes me feel alive like an animal in nature. Although I am not running for my life, I feel a primal drive to evade my competition and a deep longing to run down those who are faster than me. Once we come across the finish line, we are friendly and compare stories from the course, but within the parameters of the race I am a hunter and I am prey.

Off the Trail

Living in Wisconsin, the trails I run are either through woods or prairie - or the boulder fields at Devil's Lake State Park. It's pretty hard to loose the trail without noticing. For the last three years I have been coming to the Sedona area to escape winter, and do some warm weather running. One of my most underdeveloped trail running skills is having a sense of direction, so it's no surprise that every year I get completely lost on at least one of my runs. Trail or dried creek bed? Trail.

The terrain in the Coconino National Forest around Sedona is strikingly different from the thick woods and open prairies of southern Wisconsin. Much of it is bare and exposed with cacti and low, scrubby bushes. Pines and oak grow thick in the canyons. But that's the problem - it all starts to look the same after a few miles. A creek bed looks an awful lot like a trail and so do paths stomped out by local runners and hikers. If you are looking down at the rocks or up at the view, it's easy to wander off of charted trails.

Three years ago, Jesse and I drove out west for the first time. We were both getting into trail running and I had a marathon in Death Valley National Park so we decided to check out the area. We camped in the cold Oak Creek Canyon, and spent days running trails and playing with Paavo. I was completely unprepared for the labyrinth of unmarked trails and dry creek beds. On my first  run, I relied on verbal directions from Jesse and ended up miles off course. I left for my run in early afternoon with plenty of time to get back before dark. At the top of Brins Mesa I trotted along the edge of a rock out cropping that had clear foot prints and mountain bike tire tracks. A half hour later I was wandering down a chilly creek bed and the sun was going down really fast. I only had a hand held water bottle with no room for a phone. I kept thinking I saw a trail just ahead only to find more of the same looking rocks. Eventually I turned around and made it back to the truck just before sunset - I was scared and cold.

Trail or dried creek bed?  Dried creek bed.

Last year my mom brought my 3 month old daughter and me to Sedona for a long weekend. We needed some quiet time and sunshine after a bitter cold winter in Wisconsin. I was out of shape and dying to get back on the trail. My first run out I took a wrong turn and headed up a dead end trail. As the path narrowed I kept thinking if I could just get up a little higher I could see where I was. Eventually I was using both hands to climb a canyon wall. When I reached the top, it had been over two hours since I left Mischa and I really needed to get back to her. All I could see was another tier of canyon that looked the same. Climbing down, I was shaky and anxious to get out of there, not sure I could remember which rock and dirt and path to take. That run lasted twice as long as planned - I got back to our apartment exhausted and stressed from being away from my baby for so much longer than I had planned.

Jesse got me an Ultimate Direction running pack for Christmas. Now I can carry my phone, maps, snacks, and extra water. I was sure this year I would not get lost - I would understand my course and pay attention to the trail. I even took a picture of the map with my phone to reference if I felt turned around. First day out, I was on the last leg of my run when I took a direction from a chatty hiker who told me about a pass that would give me some cool views. Yeah, sure. Let's do it! I headed up Cibola Pass and found the landmark barbed wire fence she told me to watch for. Then the trail went cold - where did it go? I followed a narrow path that went up to a plateau then another. I decided that if my legs are getting scratched by cactus and brush or I need to use my hands to climb or my butt to scoot down on, I'm off the trail. For some reason I kept going. I came out onto a beautiful, flat rock that dropped away on three sides. I knew I would be late getting back to the trail head to meet Jesse and the kids so I had to check in.

I held out as long as I could before calling Jesse. When he answered, there was a long silence. I could see him rolling his eyes and holding back his playful annoyance. 'You ran this exact stretch two years ago. Just take Jordan Trail back to Soldiers Pass - it's just over a mile.' Jesse has an incredible memory for maps, trails, and geographical details that most people wouldn't remember for more than a few minutes. 'Yeah, I'll just backtrack and get back to the last place I remember, cool. See you in about 15 minutes.' I feigned confidence that I would be able to differentiate one dusty path from another.

As I stood there on the edge of that rock, I waited for my fear of heights to kick in - it never did. I sat down and dangled my feet over the edge and looked at my watch. I would give myself three minutes to enjoy the silence before racing back to the truck. I know that I will go off the trail again, but now I appreciate the experience of being lost. Part of the adventure of trail running far away from home is finding your way back.

The Humility of Dropping Down

Every serious runner has to face the reality of not being ready for a race. It happened to me for the first time last month. I plan my training around races so I register as far out as I can - this keeps me motivated and inspired. In September I ran my first 50 mile and it was awesome. I went into the event hoping to finish and I came out 6th female overall. I went home and found my next 50 mile - Sean O'Brien 50 in Malibu Creek State Park on February 7. Our family was planning a road trip out to California anyway so this was my chance to run an ultra outside of Wisconsin. Jonnah on Appalachian Trail

In November, Jesse and I drove the kids down to North Carolina to stay in a cabin near Asheville. After the farm season wraps up we like to get away and enjoy full days of no work, and a lot time with the kids and on the trail. The Appalachian mountains are AMAZING to run. If you get the chance, I highly recommend you give it a try. With hundreds of miles of single track just minutes from our cabin, Jesse and I took turns running while the other hung out with Paavo and Mischa. I ended up running over 40 super vertical miles in 4 days. During my runs, I felt some strain in my calves but I attributed this to not running very many hills leading up to the trip. Turns out, my calf muscle was pulling way from my shin bone - medial tibial stress or more commonly known as shin splints. What!? I had just come off of a season of good races - how could I get shin splints now?

The trail crosses a river in the Pisgah National Forest.

After exhaustive internet research I concluded the following: I needed to rest until the soreness went away. When I returned to running I should increase mileage gradually. That is not what a runner training for a 50 wants to hear. I was planning on being competitive and I needed to get my miles way up. Upon the advice of my chiropractor (completely amazing man - you know who you are:)) and physical therapist, I started doing runs longer than 5 miles a few weeks ago.

This last week I ran over 40 miles pain free so I think this means I'm back in the game but my race is in 12 days. This is about the time I am supposed to start my taper, not the when I should be putting miles on. I don't know why it took me so long to realize that 50 miles is not in the cards for right now. I guess as a runner I am hungry for challenges and this ambition can blind me from seeing the obvious right choice. The cool folks at Sean O'Brien dropped me into the 50k event. When I whined about it to my husband he reminded me that 50k is still over 30 miles and that the course is super challenging. I guess I can look at this as a lesson in listening to my body. But that's hard when so much of running hurts.

Just because it'ts not 50 miles doesn't mean it's not really, really hard.

We are heading out west in a few days and I will have glorious trails and tons of free time. I am going to skip my taper and indulge in the trails outside of Sedona - keeping in mind to back off if it feels wrong.