Sean O'Brien 100k

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 theΒ 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!

A Moving Target

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I realized it when I was carrying groceries in from the car; I was so weak that I was out of breath walking the five steps up to the house. Once I start running again, I need help, I thought, feeling one part relief, three parts disappointment. My bright flash of self-awareness came to me in August, but it was long overdue. I had lost all touch with what feeling good, sick, tired or healthy even felt like. Over the last year I had two states of being: can-run or can't-run. On the can-run days, I was a wild animal making up for all of the can't-run days. In August 2015 I was diagnosed with mono (Epstein Barr virus) and I haven't been the same since. I have had some decent results, a 50 mile win and a 50k podium, and some glorious weeks of running. But I haven't been able to sustain training for more than two months at a time. Viral relapses knock me down so hard that I have considered quitting running altogether, but the thought of not having an intense sport in my life keeps me coming back for more.

Finishing up my favorite road/trail/road combo run.

My training has always been intuitive and unrestrained. I have done my best to avoid scientific and analytical considerations. Not that I feel I can outsmart numbers, I just prefer a more natural approach to suffering for speed. My running has consisted of setting a goal peak mileage that crests three weeks before the race, then tapers off for the event. The content of those miles has been a mix of perceived low intensity with a mix of tempo and fartlek-style intervals. Running, trail running in particular, brings me to a primal place of survival. I get so energized by my runs that I loose track of what effort I am putting out and can't sense how much recovery I need following training sessions. Being forced to take breaks from running only perpetuates my excitement for pushing myself. This behavior is dangerous for someone recovering from a serious illness.

My post-mono running had become more of an expression of my moods and emotions than an organized effort to reach my running potential. Excited, frustrated, inspired, bored, pissed off, content - my running was a way to indulge all of my feelings. What I really needed was to separate running from my internal discourse, and the only way I could do that was to get some structure from an expert. I found my coach, David Roche, through Trail Runner Magazine, where he is a regular contributor. He is also an elite trail runner with incredible race results. I remember reading a column of his about running easy to increase aerobic strength. In that story he discussed how his wife had mono last year and he trained her past the infection and how she is faster than ever now. In my most recent episode of fatigue I had reached a new level of desperation and finally got over my commitment to my unstructured running style.

Resting and sleeping are now more important to me than my running schedule. This was one of the most difficult things for me to change.

I was excited when David told me that I would be actively recovering from my recent bout of malaise. My first assignment was to get a GPS watch with a heart rate monitor. I have an old Garmin that I used in races to know where I was on the course and how long I had been running. A new and improved watch was definitely in store to celebrate my adventure into structured training. I settled on the Suunto Ambit 3 Sapphire. When I started my new running program with David, I was healing a sprained pubis in addition to being recently very sick. I decided to stick to a flat, soft railroad corridor turned bike path a few miles from our house. On the first day I was supposed to run for 30 minutes at or below 135 heart beats per minute (bpm). While I trotted down the gravel path I got familiar with all of the data reading out on my watch. As I settled into a comfortable clip, I saw the bpm figure rising up to 150. What the fuck is this shit! I whispered loudly. I stopped in my tracks and waited for the number to fall back down to 130bpm then started running again. I knew that I would be starting easy, but this painfully slow pace made my entire body boil with frustration.

My pace quickened as the weeks rolled on and David raised my easy-effort heart rate threshold and started to add in intensity intervals. I was running real miles again - and my pelvis was healed so I was cleared to run on my beloved trails. But I still felt unsatisfied, like I wasn't working hard enough and I didn't feel my runs deep down inside. One night over dinner I told my husband, Jesse, that I wasn't excited by my new, responsible training. He looked me dead in the eyes, You want daily excitement? You're in the wrong sport. You know what's exciting? Doing more than two ultras a year. Being able to train for more than two months in a row. Not constantly being in physical therapy. You know what's exciting? Running down the last descent at mile 57 at Sean O'Brien [100k]. You're not even going to get to that race if you need excitement every day. You want excitement? Go get a mountain bike. Dammit, he was right. In my low times I had conjured healthy running into something it isn't - an action packed thrill. Sure, there's some of that, but there are a lot of days where it's just calm running. A peaceful process that I need to accept in order to get to the exciting stuff.

On the trail in "my park" - Blue Mound State Park

As I continue my training plan, a loud conversation is constantly rolling in my head: have discipline, commit to the process, embrace the grind, stronger each day, zero limits. All of the inspirational endurance phrases that I had come to think of as fuel for pushing super hard are just as meaningful for grinding out the boring, unremarkable days. Each week that passes that I am healthy and injury free are like winning little races. My instinctual running style and disregard for pain will bode well for me when I put my training to the test in real races. If I can be honest with myself about my limitations in training I should be able to keep building my strength without making detours for illness. Now I have goals that aren't just about my next race, I have goals that are about being healthy this week, being fast 10 years from now, and all of the moving targets in between.

I am so happy to begin my new approach to running during such a beautiful time of year.

Trail Fever

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I spread my fingers wide to let the full force of the warm summer air strike my hand as we drove down the highway. The bright sun made me narrow my gaze behind my sunglasses while I watched the farm fields and hedge rows speed past my view. I glanced back and saw that my 2 year old had fallen asleep in her car seat. Lovely, when we get home I'll take advantage of Mischa's nap and get out for an hour on the trail, I thought to myself. Wait, what? I said out loud. My husband, Jesse, turned his head away from the road to look at me, I didn't say anything. I furrowed my brow. Did I race today? I asked. Yeah, you just did a 50k. You need to eat something. We had raced that day. Jesse and I ran a local 50k, Dances with Dirt, at Devil's Lake State Park, a half hour from our house. This race series holds a special place in my heart. The 2014 50k was my first ultramarathon and the 2015 50mile was the first race I had ever won. This year's 50k landed on a cool July day, relatively speaking - the previous two years had been ghastly hot and humid. It was my first time racing anything shorter than 50 miles and longer than 12 miles in over a year and half. I was really unsure what I could do with those 31 miles.

Getting solid miles on my favorite trails at Blue Mound State Park

The weeks leading up to the race I was on my first good stretch of training in 10 months. The second half of last year and the first half of this year had been riddled with injuries and serious illness. A mononucleosis infection that started in August plagued my entire fall and kept me fragile and weak up until June. I forced my way through a training block in December and January while suffering from chronic sinus issues, hip and foot injuries, and regular flareups of my mono symptoms. Those training efforts were rewarded with a win at Sean O'Brien 50mile in the Santa Monica Mountains, but the work leading up to that race was stressful and exhausting for me. Following a DNF at Gorge Waterfalls 100k in April, I decided to take a real break from running and pay full attention to my health. As I eased back in a month later, I noticed myself feeling amazing and more on fire than I had felt in almost a year.

My training was in full bloom by the middle of June. I couldn't get enough. I lapped up the miles like a thirsty puppy. This was the most low-maintenance, spontaneous version of my running self I had ever known. My behavior bordered on reckless - adding miles and hill-repeats onto already long runs, skimping on sleep, forgetting to do my daily physical therapy exercises. This was the running I had been searching for all year. When my Dance with Dirt 50k taper week rolled around I didn't want it, I felt like I was just getting started. I even considered training right up to the race and using it as training for a 50 mile in September. Ultimately, I decided that if I was going to go out to the race, I might as well try for a podium position.

Pre-race excitement at Dances with Dirt. Photo: Kelly Tyrrell

At 5:30am on July 9, I toed the starting line at Dances with Dirt in the front row, next to Jesse. The fast guys formed a pack and ran ahead. I found myself leading the women with a few chattering girls voices behind me. Although being out front from the beginning was not my plan, the pace felt comfortable, so I decided to go with it. I climbed the first of 4 major hills alone and settled into a sustainable clip at the top of the bluff. The course brought me along the edge of the cliffs where the cool, morning breeze invigorated my entire body. I know these trails so well and was certain that if I held steady in my pace that I would have a strong finish. Several miles later I heard the jangling of a running pack and quick footsteps come up behind me. I waiting for a runner to pass but the breathing hovered inches from my back. We ran like this for miles and miles. I had a shadow that was very well matched with my fitness.

Other than a few surges in speed on my female competitors part, we ran in tandem for much of the race. I held my pace smooth and calm, minding my own abilities while reveling in the competitive spirit of the circumstances we found ourselves in. Coming up a long climb around mile 23, my foot failed to clear a root and my momentum threw my weight forward. When my body braced for impact, my muscles seized in cramps. The knuckles on my left hand, holding my handheld waterbottle, broke the fall on hard-packed dirt trail. My first recovery stride was met with a non-functioning leg. Every muscled in my right leg was locked, from my arch up to my groin. Same thing in the left - arch, calf, quad, hamstring, groin. Then my obliques cramped. I doubled over in pain wondering what had gone wrong. As I sat breathing deeply and massaging my legs, I felt the minutes ticking past. I had not replaced any salt except for a few drinks of Gatorade. The weather was so mild and the distance wasn't that far, that I didn't think I needed to eat any additional salt. In 50 mile events I eat potato chips at aid stations to replace what I have lost through sweat. In retrospect, I should have treated this distance the same.

At the mile 25 aid station I poured a mound of table salt into the palm of my hand and licked it clean. The salt made my mouth gush with saliva. I threw back a cup of Mountain Dew and marched off toward the last climb and final miles of the race. My muscles were firing properly and I was moving quickly but the first place female was nowhere to be found. In my final 2 miles I was really happy because the time I was shooting for was happening. I crossed the finish line at 4:57 in 2nd place - just at my sub 5hour goal! First place was 3 minutes ahead, which is about how much time I lost when I sat on the side of the trail. I was so relieved that my injuries didn't surface and that I had the strength to recover after I blew up. My biggest disappointment was that, because of the close competition, I wasn't able to slip into the familiar dreamlike trance I experience during ultra distance events. I usually spend a lot of races running alone. Time and space blend together into a beautiful tunnel of trees, rocks, and the trail ahead. I didn't reach this place at DWD50k but it was an important exercise in competitive clarity and focus.

With Jesse and Mischa after Dances with Dirt 50k

As I lay in bed trying to fall asleep that night, I could feel my muscles repairing - adapting to the stress I had put on them. All of the magic happening under the surface of my skin was intoxicating. I got out of bed and went downstairs to research other races to add to my schedule. In the morning I told Jesse that I wanted to go to Tennessee in October for some running adventures. I also asked him if he thought I could get away from the farm next summer to run the Tahoe Rim Trail 100. You're just coming back from a hard year. Focus on getting fast first, then let's talk about more destination races. Not the response I wanted. That day we ended up working on our plan for some running and racing in Colorado and Utah in November. Jesse talked me down from getting ahead of myself, reminding me that my major focus race is in February 2017, Sean O'Brien 100k, and not to waver from my goals at that event.

I still feel a compulsion to be out on the trail building strength and speed. I drew myself back this past week remembering that I am prone to over-training. I had a childhood friend visiting from MN where she and her husband are starting a farm. She came to work with us to get ideas for her own operation (check out her great blog - Little Big Sky). Her time here was refreshing and grounding and she gave me a great perspective on work, motherhood, and what it means to push hard towards your dreams. I finally feel like my health matches my motivation but I need to be mindful of not ruining what I have patiently waited for. The trails call on me to go farther and faster - I will use this drive to get stronger but need to keep a close eye on my trail fever.

At the farm with Jenny at the end of a long day

Standing at the Edge of Time

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Endurance running is a game of planning and execution. Much of the strategy comes in the weeks and months leading up to the race event. Once in the game, the runner uses the fitness gained during the training period to get their strongest result. But what if planning isn't possible? For me, I have been trying to get into a solid training block while balancing a frustrating illness. With a challenging race just a month and a half out, my strategic plan changes every week. Sean O'Brien 100k course map and elevation profile

On February 6th I'm racing the Sean O'Brien 100k in Calabasas, CA. This race dwarfs anything I have ever done in distance, vertical gain/loss and depth of the competitive field. We will be climbing and descending 14,000 feet over 62 miles - and by we I mean me and a stacked field of experienced ultrarunners, many of whom live and race in mountains. Last February, shortly after coming off of injury, I raced the Sean O'Brien 50k event and took 3rd place in the female division. But that podium-finishing performance was a bloodbath of a race for me. Doubling that distance on my level of training seems almost impossible.

I am on my 5th month of Epstein Barr virus (EBV) related illness. This virus that causes mono, has turned out to be far more mysterious and complex than I initially thought. I have gone for weeks thinking that I am fully recovered only to be knocked back with a period of aches, fatigue, cold/hot spells, and general hopelessness.

Western medicine offers not treatment for EBV other than rest and a healthy diet so I am trying to heal myself through natural remedies. My army in the war against the virus. Most of the remedies taste pretty bad which makes me feel like they are working.

At the end of November, during a recent bout of sickness, my frustration reached fever pitch. Late one gloomy afternoon, Jesse came home from the farm to find me dressed for a run. Are you feeling better? he asked. No, I feel like absolute shit. But I'm running. Fuck it, I'm running. I left the house full of determination to hammer out some miles in the damp wind. When I got home I felt energized, alert, and my body aches were gone. At that moment I decided my new plan was not to back off of running when sick, but to lean into the illness, doing what makes me happy. After months of logging my symptoms, I was convinced that running does not make me worse. That day I decided that my intentions for the race were to show up, learn what it feels like to run 62 miles, and take some lessons from the race. Finishing near the front at Sean O'Brien is out of the question at this point.

Training has been decent considering my unstable health. My mileage volume is almost where it was going into my most recent ultramarathon in July (Dances with Dirt 50 Mile). I really should be logging 25% or 30% more miles a week than I am, and I should be doing much more hill training. With each passing day, I am running out of time to get this built into my training plan. Preparing for an ultramarthon is all about managing the stress on your body by challenging your system at a sustainable rate that allows adaptation instead of over-training. In the middle of January, I will need to stop building training volume, and start tapering off for the race. I am filled with so much doubt for even completing the course. But I have never felt ready for any of my races - and I've had good results despite that. The only race I felt confident going into, I ended up dropping out of (Ice Age 50 mile). Maybe self doubt and humility are a practical defense mechanism to protect ourselves against disappointment.

So with that doubt I decided to conjure up some courage. I went on a long trail run this past weekend - the farthest I have gone on the trail since August. I didn't feel overly thirsty, hungry, or tired in the hours following the run which is a good indicator if I am pushing myself too hard. The next day I barely felt the effects of the miles - also a good way to gauge how the run challenged my body. I still have a little time to put my weekly mileage together with some long runs, and continued hill training to add up to an acceptable level of training for the 100k race.

Devils lake run

The weather in southern Wisconsin has been so mild that I have lucked out with good trail conditions. I can get real miles on in between my sicknesses. I now have a finishing time goal for Sean O'Brien 100k - it feels good to go into the event with a focus beyond just completing it. When I registered for this race back in October, it was little more than a feverish dream. Now that the race date is closing in, I am eager to be somewhere deep into the course, lost in the wilderness of my mind. I have 6 weeks to get my body ready for the tough 62 mile race and I am sure my strategy will continue to evolve.