Tuesday, April 27, 2010


Sometimes a gnarly storm blows in, and you lay awake all night listening to it whip through the forest.

Sometimes, you see a full span, crystal-clear rainbow on your morning commute.

Sometimes, it takes twice as long to get to work because power is out and the street is closed, but you sneak your way in through business parking lots only to arrive and find the playground riddled with tree branches and devoid of students.

Sometimes school gets canceled, and you get to go home.

Sometimes, you get a day off with your husband, with whom you haven’t shared a day off in weeks. You go out to lunch together in your small town, currently empty of tourists, window shop, and walk the dogs in the rain.

Sometimes you take a nap together in the middle of the day, soaking in the sound of the rain on the rooftop, and remember how when you first met you used to do the exact same thing, in a different cabin in a different forest, and you pretend, for a moment, that you are 23 again with no responsibilities.

And maybe, just maybe, God sometimes looks down and notices that your soul is tired, that you’re brought to tears in small moments, and that your measured, above-the-water breathing is occasionally punctuated with wide-eyed seconds beneath the surface.

Sometimes, rarely, you’re gifted a few extra hours with the one you love, hours in which you can breathe deeply and feel blessed. And in those moments, the feel of the gratitude bubbling forth is as powerful as the time itself.

circa 1998

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Leona Divide 50 Mile Run 2010

The first thing you need to know about the Leona Divide 50 Miler is that it takes place in Southern California. Having grown up in that half of the state, it didn’t occur to me that such a location would hold any real significance. But location is always significant, and I guess that’s why people flock to the land of sunshine. Leona Divide delivered all the things you might expect from a classic SoCal mountain event.

The race takes place on the northern edges of the San Gabriels, where the mountains meet the desert. I’d read race reports from former winners Krissy Moehl and Devon Crosby-Helms, so when the opportunity arose to run the race myself, I was excited by the chance.

I arrived early on Friday to visit the poppy fields of Antelope Valley, and here’s where I had the first of many “SoCal is beautiful” moments. If you travel to Leona and don’t make time for the poppies, then you really need to think about rearranging your priorities. I would never have believed the intensity of color if I hadn’t been there myself.

My Aunt, who was playing hostess for the weekend, gave me a tour of the poppy fields. It was breathtaking. I kept imagining how amazing it would be to go on a run through these fields. Truly, heaven.

The race started at 6:00 am at the Lake Hughes Community Center, and it wasn’t until I looked around and saw runners sporting headlamps that I realized that the sun rises later this far south. Crap! Fortunately, by the time we were all gathered on the bridge, the sun was just emitting a glow beneath the blanket of the eastern horizon. It appeared I wouldn’t trip and kill myself in mile-one after all!

Kelly, Olga and I wait for the start.

The first 8.5 miles to aid station #1 were all on a fire road, and a good deal of it was uphill. After much studying of the map and elevation profile in the preceding days, I made a blind guess for myself of a 10 hour finish time. The elevation gain was similar to that of the old TRT course, which would make that a pretty ambitious goal, but based on past Leona results, this was clearly a faster course. I couldn’t figure out why this should be, aside from the lower elevation. After the first two hours, I learned exactly why: The trails of Leona are smooth, with easy footing, and the hills are mostly gradual, allowing much more running than I would have expected. It’s a deceptively fast course for a run on the PCT with 9,000 feet of elevation gain.

As the sun came up, I fell in with two other runners, Mike and Greg, and we climbed contentedly through the chaparral and scrub oak together. As usual in these kinds of situations, good company and conversation made the miles fly, and there looked to be nothing but a perfect day ahead. When the topic veered toward things like “the difference between the words further and farther,” and “correct usage of lie vs. lay,” I knew I was running with the right crowd. We vied for the title of biggest nerd, but as it turns out, Greg is a writer and teacher of the craft, and Mike is a research scientist at Cal State LA, so we were more or less deadlocked on that competition (although, I’m pretty sure Greg’s surfer-boy haircut keeps him out of the running, officially speaking).

Greg and Mike make the turn onto the PCT.

Mike and I take the hills easy. (Photo by Greg Hardesty)

Both men declared their interest in about a 10 hour finish, so I had hopes that we could run together through the day. As the trail evolved into a moderately downhill singletrack, Mike explained the intricacies of his research in proteins and manipulating amino acids. It was fascinating stuff, which I would explain to you here, but it’s top secret, (either that, or I’m incapable of explaining it accurately, but I’m pretty sure he said it was top secret).

After passing through AS#1 at different rates, Greg, Mike and I managed to re-group fairly quickly, and our posse continued on. I wondered if perhaps I was running too fast, as I’m often prone to do when I decide I want to stick with someone. I felt relaxed though, and I knew I would just have to take the day as it came, without stressing. I lost them after another break at AS#3, and wasn’t sure if they were ahead or behind. There was a solid climb out of the aid station, and I finally quit looking up and down the trail and simply settled in, focused on my uphill power-hike. Goodbye, boys, wherever you are. I hope your races go well!

Greg, Mike and the beautiful vistas of the Leona Divide.

This stretch of the course was an out and back to mile 32ish, and most of it was single track. I didn’t have any of the aid stations or any predicted splits written on my bottle since I had no real goal other than to get in some good training, and not further my injury. The aid stations were numbered, not named, so I’d figured even when I’m tired I can count to ten, right? Heh. I forgot about tracking mileage though, and I was essentially guessing about my mileage all day. How far had I run? I had no idea. I could have asked at the aid stations, but that seemed like cheating. This was all part of my laid back, SoCal mindset, right? No knowledge of miles meant no knowledge of pace, and that was just fine. I actually enjoyed not knowing, and I ran with my intended game plan of basing my pace on feel. I’m beginning to think this is the approach that works best for me.

There were a number of aid stations on this out and back stretch that we would also pass through on the return trip. I was grazing on strawberries and jelly beans at one of them when I said something (which, I’m sure, was terribly witty) to the volunteers behind the table. I looked up to see one of them smiling at me, and I just about passed out. This was certainly the most gorgeous man I had ever seen. I mean, I didn’t even realize they made human beings this attractive in real life. I began to think the instability of my legs had nothing to do with the day’s mileage, and I quickly looked away so I could gather my wits and get out of there. (As a side note to all race directors, you really shouldn’t have such good looking people at your aid stations; it’s quite challenging to run 50 miles and deal with surprise swooning!)

As I scampered quickly away, it occurred to me that most of the volunteers at this race were particularly attractive (though none came close to the grinning man at the strawberry table). I had noticed at check-in on Friday that everyone seemed so chic for a group of ultrarunners. At some point through this stretch we also hit an aid station with a 70’s theme, and this was when my theory was proven beyond debate. Even with afro-type wigs and ugly sunglasses, these guys and gals were nothing short of sexy. And I began to wonder – are all ultras in Southern California like this? It seems like such a stereotype, but is this place just teeming with beautiful people? I don’t know, but I’m thinking the matter certainly warrants some further investigation (in the form of more ultras down South, of course).

Jimmy Dean Freeman and his super 70's harem. It was thoroughly awesome to be greeted by this enthusiastic crew!

I was about 2 ½ miles from the turn-around when I saw Michelle Barton hauling ass toward me, not surprisingly with a commanding lead in the women’s race. I then embarked upon a long downhill on a dirt road in the slightly-too-warm-for-the-Tahoe-girl heat. With the opportunity to cheer the runners coming toward me,it might have been an enjoyable downhill if I hadn’t known that I would have to retrace every step back up.

When I was about 5-10 minutes from the aid station turn-around, I finally saw the rest of the women. Three women, including Kelly, were running close together and looking good. We cheered each other briefly, and I headed toward AS#6 at the bottom of the hill.

The day was starting to heat up, and I had a long, shadeless climb ahead of me. The volunteers were awesome, packing my bottles with ice, and handing me cups of icy liquid even though I’d requested nothing. I hated to waste the ice left in my cup, so I decided to take it with me on the climb by stashing it (sans cup) into the front of my sports bra. So cold, but so good! One helpful volunteer (who shall remain nameless) kindly offered to retrieve my “lost” ice for me. Gosh those guys are so darn nice! I had to laugh. Luckily it wasn’t the hottie from the earlier aid station, or I may have found myself accidentally saying yes, I need your help! Get that ice for me, would you?

As it turned out, the return trip wasn’t as bad as I’d expected. I’d run over 30 miles by this point, (although, naturally, I had no idea how far exactly) and now I was allowed to pick up the pace a little since I was feeling good. I surprised myself by running about 80% of that hill, and I almost enjoyed doing it. Before I knew it, the climb was over and I was back on the PCT!

The rest of the race was a blur of beautiful scenery, singletrack trail (with some challenging, head-on passing of the runners still headed out), more beautiful (and incredibly helpful!) volunteers, moderate climbs and descents, and a smile I couldn’t wipe off my face. My injured ankle wasn’t putting up any particularly loud protests, and I could tell by this point that I had paced myself well. Although I never had another glimpse of the women in front of me, I passed quite a few men all the way to the finish.

In this view of the Antelope Valley you can see the poppy fields in the distance. It looked like the desert was on fire!

Beautiful, runnable singletrack on the PCT!

With 7:30 on the watch I finally asked a volunteer what mile we were at. He said we had eight to go, and I found myself wondering if I could break nine hours. This was the first tangible goal I developed for this race, and since everything was feeling great, I knew without contemplation that I was going to go for it. I focused on technique to push both the ups and the downs, and had a blast doing it. I crossed the line in 8:45, 5th woman and 21st overall.

Totally happy with my time. Totally glad I skipped AR50.

RD Keira Henninger was on to hand out medals and congratulations at the finish. I happily drained a fresh bottle of chilled water and sat down in the shade knowing that this day was definitely a keeper. The trails were perfect and the abundance of flowers proved that this is clearly the best time of year for running this dry, shadeless and typically hot terrain. The weather was nearly perfect (mid to upper 70’s, as opposed to the 68 forecast earlier in the week, but nothing compared to the 90+ of Diablo the past two years) and I’d eaten and hydrated well. In fact, I couldn’t think of a single thing that went wrong on this day.

I cheered Greg and Mike, who both beat their sub-ten goals, while I happily refueled on homemade fajitas and Diet Coke. I had to call my family, who were picking me up, because I’d finished so much earlier than expected. But I’d say that’s a good thing.

Thanks so much to Keira and all the amazing volunteers. These folks were rock stars all day long. I’m thinking Leona Divide may have to become a new spring break tradition for me.

This is how I feel about the Leona Divide Trail Run!

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Think More, Run Less

This past weekend was my first big race of the season, the American River 50. When I say “was,” I don’t just mean that the race itself is over. I mean that the idea of it being my first race of the season is also a thing of the past. I was a big, fat DNS at AR50.

My intention for this race was purely to use it as training, to get big miles in the month of April. I’d planned to follow it up with the Diablo Marathon the following weekend to ensure that I indeed wouldn’t take it too seriously. Unfortunately, Diablo got cancelled, and in searching for a replacement race, I came up with the Leona Divide 50. (What’s an additional 24 miles at this point, right?) Although plenty of people have questioned my plan for back-to-back 50’s, I have every confidence in my ability to take “races” as training runs, and I think it would have worked out beautifully. If I had been healthy. (And here’s where “unfortunately” starts to become my repetitive word of the day.)

As it turns out, I seem to be having a posterior tibial tendon issue. (I’d put in the actual, technical term where I have substituted the word “issue,” but I don’t think I could spell it.) To be honest, this is an issue that has plagued me for over two years, and no amount of time off seems to find any improvement. Unfortunately, the past few weeks have seen a marked increase on the pain scale, mostly likely due to increasing my weekly mileage fairly quickly.

It’s been enough to motivate me (at last!) to find an excellent physical therapist, and I’ve learned a whole lot about what is going on with my body. I’ll do my best to spare you the mind-numbing details, because the truth is, I don’t even enjoy trying to wrap my brain around it all. I’ll keep it to the basics so that we don’t all fall asleep here.

First, I love my physical therapist. He came recommended from a wise friend, so I guess it shouldn’t surprise me, but I have a really hard time trusting people in general, and especially when it comes to my running. Because, you see, I know everything. No one knows more than I, and woe to anyone who tries to tell me what to do. But this PT and I, we are on the exact same page. He has a very balanced approach, doesn’t think I’m crazy, and doesn’t necessarily think time off is always the answer. He makes sense out of a complicated picture, and he seems to approach things in much the same way that I do. Obviously he’s brilliant.

Second, I have learned that one of my legs is fully half an inch longer than the other, and this seems to be causing no small number of problems for me. The end result of all of this is that I am currently involved in the process of re-learning how to run. There’s a lot more to it than that, but that’s what it boils down to for me, and I hate it. I have to spend so much time thinking.


Running long distance, and trail running especially, has never been about thinking for me. It’s been the place where I have been the most free, the most at peace. In the past I have always felt in tune with my body while running, and it’s a part of the experience that I really enjoy. Lately though, we’re speaking through translators. It’s time now for me to learn the foreign language of my dysfunctional mechanics.

I know in the end, when I am healthy again, it will be worth it, but right now it’s tedious to think about every little detail of what I am doing when I run. It’s not a fun place to be when the thing that is normally a remedy for stress, becomes its main source. My love affair with running is definitely “on a break.”

So, while I’m grateful to be still running, I’ve taken many days off in an attempt to rest this inflamed tendon. The week before AR, I was out on a 30 mile trail run. At about mile 27, the complaints emanating from my tendon increased sharply in volume. It wasn’t a bad run, but it certainly caused me to question the wisdom of two 50-mile runs in a row, and the subsequent stress of this questioning made for some sleepless nights.

One lesson I learned (and will probably have to relearn many more times) is that it’s generally the indecision itself that causes the most stress. Once I decided running AR would constitute complete idiocy (although I’m fully capable of idiocy, I assure you), it was only a day before I got over the depression of my DNS and started to feel pretty good about the decision.

At this point, I’m looking at this weekend’s upcoming Leona Divide and feeling pretty excited about it. It’s a brand new race for me, and I haven’t run a new ultra in a few years. Unlike AR, it’s all on trail (much more my style), and it’s on the PCT. If you don’t know, I have a long-standing romance with the Pacific Crest Trail. Perhaps one day I’ll spend some time to wax poetic on that topic, but for now just know that I am thoroughly excited about the prospect of my first race on this trail. I’m still not taking a real taper (although the last few weeks of lower mileage have me more rested than I really should be), but without the AR50 teaser, this won’t be the “survival on dead legs” that I’d originally imagined. I’m going in with a conservative mindset, knowing I may have to back off if the tendon flares up, but also knowing that I’m pretty excited to get out there for an early season test of fitness.

Here are a few pictures from my last two weekends of running, and from yesterday’s powder day with Andrew. You can see how I have the best of both worlds in terms of getting both alpine adventures, and still finding dirt within a reasonable drive.


Castle Peak

Climbing Donner Peak

Top of The Lake Run

Preparing to drop in