Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Homecoming: Free State Trail Marathon 2012

This race started at the end. Well, two miles from the finish. It started when I heard a feminine voice say, “Thanks,” as she passed the male runner who had been following me. Up until then, I was trotting and walking along, accepting the pain that came with each step, and telling myself that each pace took me closer to the finish line. I lulled myself into a sense of contentment, and wanted nothing more at that moment than to be finished.

But when I heard her voice, a jolt shot through me and I involuntarily fought for whatever position in the order of finish I might have—third, fourth, fifth, sixth… I wasn’t really sure. After telling myself for days before and hours during the run that this was not a race—no, just a training run—I wanted nothing more at that moment than to avoid being passed.

She made friendly chitchat and then she stepped around me with about a mile to go. I admired her strength as she disappeared around the next switchback; then my motivation collapsed and I became aware of the cramps in my lower back and legs. I fumbled for the baggie of Endurolytes in my waist belt, but abandoned the effort, telling myself they wouldn’t do me any good because the finish line was too close. At last I spotted the gravel road to the finish line, greeted my daughter at the top of the hill, and strode into the finish area. David Wakefield struggled to drape the finisher’s medal over my big head, and I laughed. Hugged Adrian.

“It’s been neat seeing all your posts on Daily Mile—how things have been getting better for you,” said Chris Wristen, volunteering at the start/finish aid station. “How’s your IT band?”

“Terrible,” I answered with a smile.

Illiotibial band syndrome. I struggled through it some time around 2005 in my right leg. Then, in August 2011, I started feeling that familiar twinge on the left leg. I tried all manner of training through the pain, but it became evident that I would not be able to run long distances pain-free unless I used more specific methods of addressing the problem. Ice. Ibuprofen. Foam roller. Active release. Rest. Gentle running. Pain. Rest. Gentle running. Pain. Rest.

I turned my attention to birding, skulking about lakes and woods under gray November skies. Gained a little weight. Probably got a little depressed. Came a realization that I needed running at this point in my life—for the goals, the freedom, the trail… and for a journey with a recognizable end.

Through the winter, I would run on the treadmill until it hurt. In the beginning the pain came at 1.6 miles. Then 2. By the end of January I could cover 3 miles with minimal discomfort. In February things started to get better and by the beginning of March I regularly covered a 5-mile loop on weekday runs with recognizable “long” runs of 8 and 11 miles mixed in on the weekends. Somewhere in there, Indika McCampbell turned me onto an ITB strengthening routine that really seemed to help. I liked where this was going, so at the end of March I signed up for the Free State Trail Marathon (April 21) and War Eagle 50k (June 2).  Since my first 50k attempt was the primary goal, I trained straight through April to Free State, getting in weekend long runs of 13 and 15 miles, and posting my first-ever 30-mile weeks.

Somewhere between January and April, a thing broke open inside of me that wanted to run. That I toed the line at Free State feeling confident and even marginally prepared was a major victory coming from those gray days in November, and the faltering runs in February when it felt like my body would never allow me to achieve my goals.

So really, the race was already won before it began.

“I’m not going to let myself try to race,” I told Travis as we completed the second of two 2.5-mile loops on paved/gravel/singletrack surface. The marathoners took this bonus route at the beginning of the race before heading onto the same 20-something-mile loop utilized by the 40-mile and 100k runners. It was fairly flat and fast, and Travis and I kept checking ourselves when we’d catch ourselves trucking along at a flat 8-minute pace.

At last we filed into the woods onto the rocky, undulating trails. I tucked myself in with other runners moving at a comfortable 10- to 11-minute pace and focused on the basics: running within myself, drinking regularly, and eating every 30 to 45 minutes. We circled through the rocky Cactus Ridge section (there really are prickly pears growing around there), popped out near the shoreline with a beautiful view of Clinton Lake, and then tucked back into the woods for a few miles of runnable, smooth trail.

Around the 10-mile mark I was running mostly alone, with the occasional person coming up behind me, matching my pace for a while. Then, either the person’s footsteps would fade back into the woods or he would step around me with a word of encouragement.

On the Red Trail—skirting the shoreline over large slabs and chunks of rock—I maintained a trot and caught up to a group of runners that had slowed to walk the more technical parts. The trail zagged uphill to the Land’s End aid station, which I bypassed with a quick “Thanks” to the volunteers. This temporarily put some distance between me and the group of runners I’d caught up with on the Red Trail. Some of them came around me a few miles later, and then I was mostly alone again.

By the time the trail emerged beside Lake Henry, I still held a fairly steady 10- to 11-minute pace, but it was also at this point that it began to register in my consciousness that my IT band was not cooperating. The trail spat us out onto a long, steep paved road that led to the Kansas Ultrarunners’ Society (KUS) aid station at mile 16. I powered up the hill at what should have resembled a run (at this point I had only broken down to a walk for one or two short, steep hills) and emerged onto the grass in view of the KUS aid station where my husband greeted me. Perhaps it was because I knew I’d have Rick there…or maybe it was because the KUS aid station is a turning point before you head back toward the finish line on the White Trail…but this is where I fully acknowledged the pain I had in my left leg. It was intense, white-hot pain, both at the knee and the hip. Rick handed me some fresh gels and I leaned on him while I briefly stretched out the ITB. Then I gruffly headed back out to finish my run.

Running that steep paved downhill back to the singletrack was excruciating. Tears welled in my eyes. I resolved to distance myself from the pain, walk or jog the rocky sections, and run the flat, non-technical sections as hard as I could. About half way between the KUS and the Land’s End aid stations I caught up to another runner who was moving at about a 13 minute pace and fell in behind him. We talked for quite a while, until the trail opened up at Land’s End. I met the volunteers with the lid off my bottle, asked for a refill, dug out a GU Brew tab, dropped it in the bottle, and took off alone with a sudden surge of energy.

At this point, I acknowledged that the tongue of my right shoe had slipped and was causing some serious pain across the top of my foot. This had been going on for miles, but it was only now, three miles from the finish, that I started to think that perhaps I should stop to do something about it. The pain was actually so acute that it distracted me from my IT band—sort of a nice switch. But leaving Land’s End, I was moving pretty well, so I let the adrenaline from the aid station transition carry me over another mile before I finally crouched at the side of the trail, untied, adjusted, and retied my right shoe. This didn’t really alleviate any of the pain, but at least it took away the cause of the pain.

After allowing myself to stop, getting moving again was incredibly difficult. I walked a while. Stumbled over a rock while walking and cussed myself out loud for being so clumsy. And not long after that, I heard the woman coming up behind me and found myself running again. My reluctance to be passed was silly and entirely in vain. But now, I really wish I could have had the chance to thank her for pushing me those last two miles. Looking back at my splits, I ran the final section at 12-minute miles versus the 13-minute miles I’d been managing for the past six. Without her encouragement, I probably would have continued to slow down and been much closer to my time from 2011. Instead, I finished in 4:29:45, seven minutes faster on a slightly longer course.

I reveled in the euphoric hours following the finish line. This was my first trail race in a year, and it felt like a homecoming. I watched my “shy” 5-year-old baby—who first crossed this finish line with me at age 3—play with other trail babies, interact openly with the adult members of her tribe, and stake out her own independence and place in this community. I talked with some friends, cheered on others, and refueled on some very excellent food. For the first time since August, this part of me felt whole.

And that, upon reflection, is really where this race begins…and ends.

Photo by Dick Ross,

1 comment:

Julie said...

I have to tell you, you write beautifully! Loved your race report and feel your pain on the ITB syndrome stuff. It's been a long 3 year battle with it for me. Great job on the race and great finish time too!