Thursday, October 18, 2007

Josh Ritter... king of cool!

A few of us went to see Josh perform at the Cedar Cultural Center last night. WOW - it was my first time seeing him live having been a fan for a number of years now (thanks to my big sis Marie!) - and he was just phenomenal!!

So full of energy, very funny - with his quirky stories - and he just looked so totally chuffed to be on stage! He performed a good mix of old and new - about 5 songs from his new album which I am still getting used to... I know I will be hooked before long but some of the more country-ish songs take a while to grow on me.

He's back in ireland in late November/early December - which unfortunately is a week later than I am hoping to be home!

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Glacial Trail 50K

A quick recap/brag...

Tanya & I ran this on Sunday last. Great event - excellent organization and a beautiful trail. It was a bit of a drive to get there on Saturday but well worth it. The trail was fairly technical but nowhere near as hilly as my previous two 50k races. I was meant to just use it as a training run for the 50 miler in November... BUT...

I was doing pretty well and feeling great at halfway so I kept up the pace - and won! And I thought I'd finished about 12th overall but just checked the results online and see that I was no.8!! Top ten - now that is a first... and it's my first ever win on a trail (my one other win was the Champlin 10M back in June 2005). So what started out as a training run ended up as a very memorable day!

Place Name State Sex/Age Time
1 Chris Toepfer IL M 44 3:53:00
2 Matt Zak MN M 34 3:56:29
3 Joel Lammers WI M 45 4:19:47
4 Rob Yamry WI M 26 4:21:45
5 Mark Dziedzic WI M 31 4:39:59
6 Ron Bero WI M 46 4:45:06
7 Joseph Sackett IL M 41 4:45:50
8 Helen Lavin MN F 30 4:45:53
9 Joel Dziedzic WI M 29 4:46:55
10 Jason Krezinski WI M 34 4:52:44

Sunday, October 7, 2007


Twin Cities Marathon

Boy was I glad I opted for the 10 miler back in May when registration opened! It should of course be fabulous running conditions this time of year - October in Minnesota - fall colours and cool temps right? Wrong...

It was 95% humidity when we started the 10 miler at 7:10am and even though the dew point dropped, the temperatures rose streadily reaching 80F by the time the marathoners were hitting Summit Ave at mile 21. The average high is 62F!

My race went ok. I was feeling a little tired from the trail run yesterday but my legs felt strong. I probably went out a little too fast and I had to slow down for mile 5-6-7. But I was able pick it up a little towards the end - I think the hills definitely helped me, they just make me want to run stronger - and I finished in 1:14:21. My PR is 1:14 but I am pretty sure that course was short as I ran it back in 2004 when I wasn't anywhere near as trained as I am today. Though to clear it up I really just need to set a new PR under 74 minutes!!

Not anytime soon... it's all about the trails now and building endurance... really looking forward to the Glacial Trail 50k next weekend. Sounds kind of crazy but that distance just suits me so much better than a 10 miler!

Unfortunately Pam didn't have a good day - she was trying for sub-3:30 which she is definitely able for but today just wasn't her day. I expect the heat played a big part in it but she was cramping quite early so it could just have gone that way anyway. Fair play to her she was dealing with it really well and ran a great final 2 miles. I had met her around mile 22 and just after Tanya caught up to us. She was just enjoying being out there! The girls crossed the finish line together while I headed back out to find Karen and Susan. Pretty much the same kind of race for everyone today - just too damn hot and humid. No chance to relax at all and settle into your stride.

I was missing the summer heat but now I think I want the cool autumn air back again. I even got sunburnt on my shoulders today!!

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Loving the Trails...

Just back from an awesome run out in Afton. I LOVE that place. It's a state park about 40 minutes east of the Twin Cities, along the St. Criox River. It probably has 30 miles of trails - both hiking & horse trails. The bike trails are outside of the park in the ski area (will def. need to check them out soon - I haven't gotten on any more bike trails since the day I bought my mountain bike!). It was raining this morning so Kami opted for yoga instead but Tanya was still game for heading out there. And we were so glad we did - it was very humid when we started out but no rain, and the skies cleared as we were running so we had a nice breeze up on the prairie section. Saw a few other runners out there and a group of cross-country high school girls. We decided to do our usual loop - but ran it in the opposite direction - which seemed harder :)

The skies are nice and bright back in the cities now so I'll have to spend some time outdoors today. However, I also need to get packing... I have empty boxes all over my apartment. I got to see my new house again this week as I had a few contractors I wanted to come look at it - I am getting the floorboards re-sanded & varnished and also a few rooms painted. Really looking forward to it now!!

TC10 miler tomorrow morning - yeah, running 11 miles on the trails this morning is not exactly in the taper manual but I figure I need the trail miles more than the 10 miles tomorrow with the 50k next weekend and ultimately the 50m only a month away!! So there won't be a PR tomorrow but it should be fun anyway. And I am looking forward to finding Pam around mile 22. I am sure she will do so brilliant. I will run with her if she wants me to for a mile or two and then I also want to find Susan. It will be great to see everyone out on the course.

OK. Time to start doing some housework...

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

The Devil Came on Horseback

This is a movie I need to go see. It is showing Oct 12-17.

I know what’s happening in Darfur. Just as I knew what was happening in Rwanda in 1994. And yet, for the most part, I choose to ignore it. My excuse in '94 was that I was finishing school that year and heading off to college and I didn't pay much attention to news. It's no excuse at all of course and I have since read a lot about what happened there and it makes me sick. And yet, 13 years later, albeit for different reasons, as the same terrible atrocities are happening again in a forgotten corner of Africa, I find myself reacting much the same way. A cursory read of the newspaper, a brief mention among friends and co-workers. This time I added a subscription to Doctors Without Borders.

But the truth is I don't really need to care about it. It doesn't impact my day-to-day life in any way and it's unlikely to affect anyone I care about. But I have a 4 year old niece and I might one day have kids of my own - and I sometimes wonder about the day they come home from school after a history lesson and ask “where were you during the genocide in Darfur?”

Going to see the movie won't change what I am doing - essentially nothing - it won’t make me give up my job and go work for an NGO. But maybe, just maybe, it will cause me to pause for a moment and appreciate all that I have. Maybe it will remind me of how fragile human life is and that no matter how strong and in control of my life I feel right now, it doesn't take much for it all to disappear. And maybe it will cause me to care just a little bit more about the people around me. And by doing so, spread a little bit of humanity...

I read something the other day that went like this... "Christianity sounds like a great religion. We should try it sometime".

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Into The Wild

Went to see this movie last night at the Uptown Theatre. A fascinating story and a movie well made. A terrible waste of human life and yet, a life that perhaps could not have been lived any other way. One of the last things Chris wrote in the days before he died was "Happiness only real when shared". Many of the scenes thoughtout the movie were building up to this. He had an amazing ability to connect with people when he made the effort. While I don't personally agree with the statement I think it was true for him and something that ultimately he realized too late.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Testing the limits. Or not.

I had a session with my physical therapist this morning - Dr. Wade - a.k.a. The Magician. Seriously, he works wonders on my aches and pains... everything from plantar fasciitis to tight hamstrings to screwed up shoulder. This morning was my second visit since ironman to work on my right inner hamstring that has been a little tight. Nothing too serious, I had the same issue just before Grandma's and 2 or 3 sessions of ART (active release therapy) sorted the problem. He knows I am back training again (I can't remember, did I actually stop??) so he was asking how my legs have been since ironman, were they sore immediately after it, the next morning? And I had to say they've been great - apart from this tight hamstring which isn't a "new" pain - I haven't noticed any signs of fatigue. So he asked if I thought I could have gone faster on the run at ironman. And it got me thinking... I really hadn't questioned it before as I was just so happy with the way the race went. I knew I was capable of a sub-4hr marathon but the closer it got to race day the less I believed it would happen. So finishing it in 3:48 just blew me away.

I remember my first thought after crossing the line at Grandma's in 3:16:45: "I could have run faster" - and then almost immediately saying to myself, HELEN - you just smashed your PR by NINE minutes. BE HAPPY! I got over it pretty quickly but considering how good I felt at the finish line I figured I had to have something more to give. I mean, you look around and see all these people completely smashed - they really did go ALL OUT.

So could I have gone faster at ironman? Could I have squeezed a few more minutes out of the run? I guess so. But would I have felt as amazing as I did crossing the finish line had I been in pain? Not a chance. And at the end of the day, finishing strong and feeling good is more important to me than pushing myself to my absolute limit. And more importantly, it tells me there's another race in me, another challenge, another quest for discovering something new about myself.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Stormy Run!

The plan for this evening's run had been "kenyans" on the Luce Line - a speed workout that goes something like this...

20 min out, 16 back
16 min out, 12 back
12 min out, 8 back
etc etc until we drop….

However, by the time Tanya, Karen and I left the parking lot at 6pm we had abandoned the plan and decided to just head out for a few miles and see how we felt. No need for speed... I am having hamstring issues, Tanya's hip is bothering her - and Karen, well, Karen's job sounds like she does a speed workout every day (before lunch)!

But as luck would have it we got our speed in anyway - just after we turned around at the 4-mile mark the skies opened and we had to race back through a thunderstorm complete with fantastic lightening show - it was getting scarier by the minute. It felt like something out of a movie as the wind was swirling the loose leaves all around us. Eventually we made it to the bridge at around the 1.8 mile mark and stayed put for about 20 minutes. The rain eased off but there was still a lot of thunder, though now further away, and a few flashes of lightening. We arrived back at the cars around 7:30pm completely soaked!! Which reminds me, I left my wet shoes in the car... mmm that'll smell nice tomorrow morning...

Monday, September 24, 2007

In Yan Teopa 10 Mile Trail Run

Frontenac State Park, MN, September 22

This was a late addition to the race diary - I'd heard about it a few weeks ago but decided against it coming so soon after ironman (who knew I'd be feeling so good!). But then Friday evening myself, Kami, Tanya & Pam hit the horse/hiking trails at Carver Park and running through the fabulous fall colours I immediately thought of the race the next morning. And sure enough I had a few willing volunteers... And for our efforts we took the top 3 Open spots!!! (3rd, 4th & 5th female overall but the first 2 ladies were in the Masters division - yes, we will get faster!). It was so much fun - fabulous weather and a great crowd. I love this season for trail running - it just doesn't last long enough...
Trivia: I hit my highest ever heart rate since I started using a HRM - 188bpm!! Whoa...

Tanya, Pam & Helen - celebrating our 'golden leaf' awards!

Ironman Wisconsin

First and foremost I would like to thank everyone who sponsored me for this event. Your generosity resulted in a donation of approximately €1500 for the Irish Heart Foundation and over $1000 for the American Heart Association.

As a reward you get to read my race report. Since there’s a strong possibility it will bore you to tears I’ll give you the short version also – a text message I sent to just about every number in my mobile phone the morning after the race:
“11:59:43 I am an Ironman!!! It was an amazing day. Swim was chaos, bike was brutal and the run was a blast!! Can’t sleep this morning. Legs feel ok, sore but no injuries. A long race report to follow!”


It started like many a mid-week training run with friends. As we set out on the 8-mile loop around Medicine Lake in the middle of last summer little did I know that by the end I would have committed to an ironman. Sure, it was something I’d dreamed about, having done a few short triathlons and having heard stories from others who’d done it. But the ultimate triathlon experience was definitely one of those “someday” goals that I wasn’t sure I’d ever get around to. Kami had other ideas - and this is a girl who didn’t even own a bike at the time. But considering she signed up for a marathon before running a 10k I shouldn’t have expected anything less. A month later we’d survived our first half-ironman and a few weeks later while Kami was running a marathon in Maui I was cursing at my laptop when it told me registration for IM Wisconsin 2007 was full 45 minutes after it opened. Yes, IM places at $450 a pop go as quick as U2 concert tickets. There are all sorts of crazy people in this world. However, for another $550 “charitable donation” additional entry slots would we available later in the week. So sure enough I was back online a few days later and we had our places confirmed. Just the training now...

Fast forward twelve months to a warm September morning in Madison, Wisconsin. The day was finally here. After a summer of pretty intense training broken up by a fun trip home in July that involved lots of non-ironman training activities, I found myself walking down a parking lot helix to the swim start just as the sun was rising over Lake Monona. It was a beautiful sight and I felt surprisingly calm as I passed tons of cheering supporters lined up on each side of the helix, and was delighted to see a few familiar faces among them. We got into the water about 5 minutes before the start, getting comfortable in our wetsuits and moving out towards the center of the start line, staying towards the back of the pack. The swim course was 2 loops of a rectangle with the start line perpendicular to the shore, and the first corner buoy about 300m out from shore. The excellent event organization that would continue all day had everyone in the water by 7am and so with the sound of the cannon we started right on time.

My biggest worry about the swim was that I would get totally bored being out there for so long and would start to drag in the water. No chance. A human blender of elbows and ankles is about the best description I’ve heard. 50 meters into it, just as I was thinking to myself “that wasn’t so bad”. SMACK. One of those elbows hit me square on my nose. I was expecting a few knocks in the head and kicks here and there but this completely stunned me. I honestly thought it was broken for a few seconds. The tears started as a reflex – but I quickly realized that crying while wearing goggles is a really bad idea. The pain eased off pretty soon and I was left with a dull headache for the rest of the swim and was regularly reminded of the incident throughout the day. I have a habit of blowing my nose constantly while biking or running (hence the reason my training partners keep a good 3ft clearance from me) and as the day wore on and my coordination skills failed me, I kept knocking my hand awkwardly against my nose. Ow. That hurt. Again. In any case, it forced me to keep alert for the rest of the swim as I did my best to avoid stray limbs. Not easy with 8800 of them in the water but thankfully no further injuries were sustained. And unlike a few unfortunate souls that I passed I managed not to get my goggles knocked off. Though at one point I got a hit from the right and thought they were going to come off and next thing a hit from the left and they were back in place. Nice one. Lots of swimming under and over people as we all dove towards the buoys, especially the corner ones which had magnetic appeal. I stayed on course reasonably well except for rounding the second corner on the first loop and heading diagonally out from the line. At the end of the first loop I checked my time and was at 37 minutes. I was very pleased with this and figured I’d definitely make my goal of 1hr30m. I swam alongside a guy for the whole length of the rectangle as we headed out on the second loop. This really kept me on a good pace and I was sorry to lose him in the scrum as we rounded the corner buoy. However, I continued to swim pretty strong and focused on pulling while continuing to sight every few strokes. No shoulder aches at all which was great as even the day before in our warm-up swim I’d felt my right shoulder the whole way. I’ve managed to avoid any serious injuries all year but tightness in my shoulders had been a problem most of the summer. On the home straight now, a quick check of the watch, a little sprint towards the end with some strong kicking to get blood flowing to the legs. And I was done. 1:20. WOW – where’d that swim come out of? My best half ironman swim was 41 minutes! No time to analyze it now as I open the zipper of my wetsuit and pull it down halfway. The kind volunteers did the rest - just one of the many quirks at ironman - the swim volunteers have the fun job of helping you pull off your wetsuit as you lie on the ground. The transition area was at the top of the parking lot so I jogged back up the helix with wetsuit across the shoulder. As I look back on the day this was absolutely the most fun part of the whole experience (well ok, apart from crossing the finish line). It was incredibly cool. I felt like I was running on air as I passed the hundreds of supporters who were now cheering at least ten decibels louder than on the way down to the swim.

We’d dropped off our transition bags the day before and had a chance to look through them that morning so I knew the layout of the area but I honestly didn’t have the worry about anything like that as the volunteers were so well organized, calling out numbers as we came through so that someone had grabbed my bag and ran with me into the changing area. Even though I had a change of gear if needed the weather forecast was excellent for the day so I just pulled on my tri top, socks, bike shoes, helmet and sunglasses. Out the door, quick visit to the portaloo (note to self: incorporate into open water swim practice next year) and off to find my bike. Again, a volunteer had it off the rack and waiting for me. Sweet! In the excitement of seeing my swim time I’d stopped my watch by accident and only realized halfway through transition so looking at the clock as I got on the bike I figured it was somewhere around 4 minutes off. This would be important later as I tried to calculate my time over and over again in my head trying to figure out if I would hit 12 hours.

I was familiar with the bike course from a training ride a few weeks before so I knew that I needed to control my speed for the first few hours and save something for the hills towards the end. The course was a 15 mile ride out to the town of Verona followed by 2 loops with a lot of hills on the back end, and then back to Madison. I really had to keep an eye on my speed as I was finding it so easy to stay over 20mph but I knew I would pay for it later so I tried to keep around 18mph. The first two hours seemed to go by pretty quickly. I’d settled into a good pace and was riding with generally the same group of people, trying to avoid illegal drafting which was a bit difficult for most of the first loop given the number of bikers. The big climbs weren’t so bad first time around. In large part due to the support – there were people literally lining the course all the way up the hills. It was very cool to have people screaming all sorts of amusing stuff including one sergeant major roaring “Get up that hill! Your Mama can’t help you now! Move your ass!” OK. Further along myself and a guy I’d been over and back with for a few miles got a great laugh from a girl holding a sign that read “I’d still be swimming”. I thought it was best sign ever.

To keep the energy levels up I’d been munching on cola and cranberry Clif blocks, which I had in a baggie along with an odwalla bar that I’d smushed up. This turned out to be a very smart idea as the blocks got coated in bits of the bar and were very tasty indeed. But as I got close to the halfway mark I was beginning to hallucinate about the iced coffee and banana sandwich waiting for me in my “special needs” bag at around the 60 mile mark. Sticking to the mantra of never try anything new on a race I’d trained with coffee all summer – and have developed a nice habit that I’ll find hard to kick. Before the stop we did a quick tour through Verona, with tons of loudly cheering supporters to greet us. Just after leaving the town the line of volunteers began. They were shouting our numbers as we approached the bags so that the lady had mine in her hand by the time I reached her. COFFEE. Heaven. Followed by an exchange of water bottles and off again. My training partner Tanya had whizzed through while I was enjoying my break so I went in search of her and tried to keep her in my sights for the next several miles. This strategy worked until we ran into some headwind - and I ran out of steam. I was getting really frustrated as I struggled to maintain 13-14mph – on the flat! I so wanted to be off the bike at this stage. Though I realized I was still surrounded by the same, now familiar, faces which that made me feel a little better. It was around this time that I began to rethink my goals. When I first signed up for IM I talked about just finishing within the 17hr limit and feeling relatively good. That quickly got revised to 14hrs and after two good half-ironman races during the summer I figured 13hrs was a definite possibility. But you always have to have a dream goal and for me that was 12hrs with an important part of that being a sub-4hr marathon. I just knew that no matter how the rest of it went I wanted to feel good on the run. But now, with legs that felt like lead and another 40 miles ahead of me, including a few big climbs, I was quickly revising upwards. I figured if my legs were this tired on the bike there was no way they could recover for the run. My quads were screaming at me from the bottom to the top of each of the big climbs. I was so glad to see the last of them. The ride back to town wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. I think all of that cursing on the hills cleared my mind a little. It was much quieter now as most of the supporters had headed into town to watch the run. I tried to keep a pretty steady pace, saving my legs as best I could but trying not to drop my pace below 17mph. My spirits improved with every mile and soon I was back in the city, along the waterfront and up the helix to the transition area. I was so happy when the volunteer took my bike from me right at the line and told me I didn’t need to rack it myself. I was okay with not seeing it again for a long long time!

Not knowing exactly what time I’d started the bike at I figured I’d done it in around 6:40 so I was happy enough with that. I would definitely like to have felt stronger on the second loop but I know that it is just down to training. And having gained some time on the swim I knew that 12hrs was still a possibility. I zipped through this transition much quicker than T1, just ditching the helmet and exchanging bike shoes for running shoes. Stuffed a few energy gels in my pockets, quick drink of water and off I went. Man it felt sooooo good to be on two feet again. I hope to someday enjoy biking as much as running but I don’t see it happening anytime soon! I passed the first water stop without stopping as it was quite close to the start but thereafter I walked though each one making sure I got enough fluids and food. Amazingly I didn’t consume a single energy gel the entire day. I would normally take 4 or 5 during a marathon but today the array of grub at each water stop including pretzels, grapes, oranges and bananas was much more appealing (just missing gummi bears…). I had water at each stop and a little Gatorade every second one. And I took a cup of ice from each stop to carry with me which is a great way to keep cool and I find it just gives me something to focus on, chomping on ice-cubes. The run course was pretty nice. I was familiar with most of it from our training weekend here. I wasn’t too keen on the circuit around the college stadium (it would have been okay if the seats were filled with supporters!), nor the many sections of pavement but of course I loved the section of trail and also quite enjoyed the few hills as they required different muscles which felt pretty good. And the support was fantastic. There wasn’t more than a few hundred meters stretch every now and then that didn’t have a band of supporters. And with our names printed on our bibs I made sure to have move my race belt so it was visible every time we came to the busier areas. There’s nothing quite as motivating as complete strangers yelling your name! Except friends yelling your name… it was a real boost to see a familiar face every couple of miles along the course. I am so grateful to them all for traveling to the race and I hope to repay the favour in the future.

Mile 15 - Having fun on the run!

I tried to keep a pretty even pace for the first half of the run and was happy with around 8 minute miles followed by 30-40 seconds walking through the water stops. I figured if I could keep this up I would comfortably hit 4 hours. Which led to calculations and re-calculations as to whether or not I’d hit 12hrs! But halfway is early in a regular marathon so it was certainly too early to be thinking about the finish line just yet. I had another caffeine fix at mile 14 where we had our special needs run bag. Not sure it made much difference but I was able keep up the same pace for a few more miles before slowing down towards mile 18. Still my legs felt ok and thankfully no stomach issues at all. While it sounds sort of cruel I can’t deny it felt incredible to be running strong and passing people all the way. My little sister who was following me online in Sydney summed it up in a text message later that night… “Well done helen you did so class can’t believe your run time…you passed bout 600 people since the cycle ya lunatic! Congrats il ring u soon xx”. I laughed so much. It was just one of many text messages that night and the next day that made every moment worthwhile. I do all of this for myself, for reasons I can’t quite explain. But knowing that so many friends and family are supporting me is a real help during these longer events.

In a previous race report I wrote that I didn’t believe I had any natural running talent. I meant that at the time. And I absolutely believed it five years ago when running 5km on the treadmill was a struggle. But having run a 3:17 marathon earlier this summer it’s probably time to ditch the modesty. And while it mostly comes down to training I am definitely blessed with an endurance (stubbornness, some might say) that seems to be improving each year. And this certainly kicked in for the last few miles. Knowing I was risking the 12hr mark I made a quick pit stop at the portaloo at mile 22 and emerged knowing it was worth the 30 seconds. I was able to pick it up for the next 2 miles. But I knew I couldn’t keep this pace for much longer. Part of me wanted to walk so badly. But that was not an option and so I tried to focus on just getting closer to the finish line. Around endless corners and then finally the Capitol building was in view. Trying to remember how many sides of the square I had to go around, was it 2 or 3 or 4… huge crowds now… I knew that I’d given everything I had on this day and whatever my final time I would be immensely proud of this achievement. Of course, I can say that now… remembering how I felt rounding that final corner and seeing 11:59:35 on the clock. Woo Hoo!! I sped down the home straight. Crossing the finish line to the sound of the announcer screaming “YOU ARE AN IRONMAN”. It was the best feeling in the world. The crowd was amazing. I felt like a rock star.

A huge thank you to Kami for convincing me to do this. And to Tanya for her dedication to training, some of which rubbed off on me.

Make today your someday.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Into the West

Connemara International Marathon 2007: 26.2 miles of rugged beauty, surprisingly decent weather and brutal hills in the West of Ireland. On April Fool’s Day…

I’ll keep this one short - it was a road marathon after all. No real adventure then, right? Well, not quite – the location alone equals adventure! Three years ago I ran my first half marathon on this course and promised I would be back one day to do the full one. Dublin 2004 kicked off my marathon running and then a move to the US the following year opened up a whole new realm of running opportunities. So when I looked at the Connemara website last autumn, with six road marathons and a few trail odysseys under my belt, I decided it was time to tackle this amazingly scenic but decidedly tough course once again.

I’d been feeling really good about my running this year and was confident that in the right conditions (nice course, good weather) I could probably beat my 3:35 PR but this was an event where the race pack tells you to prepare for wet and windy conditions and the two mile climb at mile 22 is fondly named the “Hell of the West”. This combined with a mile long climb at halfway and other shorter up and downs throughout had me telling myself that running a good race and feeling strong at the end should be my main goal. Did it work? Not quite, I set my watch for a 3:30 finish…

After a light breakfast and a 20 minute drive out to Oughterard I hopped on a bus to the start and milled around with 600 others waiting for race start at 10:30am while munching on a banana and jelly beans. The Ultra had kicked off just after 9am with around 100 runners (or lunatics depending on your perspective) and the Half would start 13.1 miles further along the course at noon with over 3000 entrants. I liked the staggered starts because it meant I would catch the middle-back of pack Half runners from around mile 15 which I (rather selfishly) knew would help me finish stronger. Aid stations were every 3 miles and the kids handing out water bottles were so full of energy they made me smile every time. I took a gu every 5-6 miles along with a few electrolyte tablets. It got pretty warm by half way but I felt comfortable with my long sleeve over a vest. And it was so good to finally run in shorts after months of winter running in freezing Minnesota!

The first few miles passed easily. I chatted to a few runners and just settled into it, taking in the beautiful surroundings on a quiet Sunday morning along the shores of Lough Inagh. There wasn’t any climbing to speak of until about mile 7 when we rounded a sharp turn onto the N59 and caught a headwind as we trekked up a relatively steep incline. A few miles of rolling hills followed as the late morning sun started to shine in earnest. Good thing I’d been optimistic enough to pack the sunscreen. I was averaging just under 8 minute miles though my splits were a bit all over the place. One mile I’d feel like I’d picked up the pace but the watch would read 8:30 and then I’d feel like the wind was completely slowing my progress and I’d see 7:20! I suppose I was adjusting to the ever changing incline and wind without really thinking about it. Despite this I felt really good through 10 miles and focused on enjoying the next few miles of downhill to the half way point in the village of Leenane which I reached in about 1:44. And then the fun started. The hill from mile 13.5 through 15 came as a bit of shock and I tried to remember how this had felt a few years earlier right at the start of the Half. If anything it was probably a little easier being warmed up already. And just before mile 13 a guy had called out I was sixth female so that was a great motivator. I thought about the $25 bet one of my friends had made with me that I would finish in the top ten - I guess this was one bet I wouldn’t mind losing!

But still I continued to worry that I had started out too fast and memories of Twin Cities ’05 were never too far away (my one and only experience of hitting the wall – at around mile 16 after a 1:45 first half). I couldn’t decide if I should slow down and conserve my energy or just keep plugging away. Upon seeing 8:45 for mile 15 and my watch telling me I was about a minute off pace I felt a little disappointment and also frustration that I might not reach my goal (what I didn’t realize until I finished is that I’d set my watch for 3:28 instead of 3:30!). But my legs still felt very strong and knowing that the next few miles were pretty easy rolling hills I decided there was only one thing for it… pick up the pace and get the endomorphins flowing again! So I put in a few sub-8:00 miles and began to pass a lot of half marathoners. A few short sharp hills towards the end of this section and then we came to a pretty steep downhill around mile 19 and another one just after mile 20. I had been focusing mostly on my mile splits so it was a real boost when I checked my watch at mile 20 and saw 2:38. I had never run this fast before and was feeling strong albeit a little nervous that I still had to contend with the “Hell of the West”. We passed through Maum village around mile 22 where there was great support and then there it was… the long climb winding its way up through the Maumturk range. I figured that even at a 9 minute pace for the next two miles I would still sneak in under 3:30 so I just relaxed and tried to keep a steady pace all the way up. There were crowds of half marathon runners at this stage and a great atmosphere as people genially cursed the hill! The supporters who had walked out the few miles from the finish line were most welcome at this point. I was pleasantly surprised to record 8:15 for mile 23 and 8:27 for mile 24 which came just before the crest of the hill… and then beautiful downhill for about a mile and a half before it flattened out for the homestretch. I was certainly ready to be done but was thrilled to be able to finish strong and ran 7:06 for mile 26 crossing the line in just over 3:26. Wow – way beyond my dreams! To cap off a great day some friends and family had come along to support me and were there to cheer me on close to the finish line. A truly special occasion and without doubt my most memorable marathon experience to date.

My goals for 2007 were to run a PR and complete an Ironman (September all going well – now, that will be a long story!). However, the PR plan was for Grandma’s Marathon in June which is a relatively flat course and where I’d run my previous best two years ago. So now I suppose I need to run 3:25 at that. Damn…

end of post

Monday, March 12, 2007

Trail Adventure in Utah

After two trail marathons on northern Minnesota's Superior Hiking Trail it was time to seek out new dirt. That and knowing I would need to escape the mid-west's sub-zero temperatures led me to check out spring races in warmers climates a few months back. I found myself with a long list of marathons, 50k's and a few more ambitious events in the western and south western states but it didn't take long to decide on the Moab Red Hot 50k+. Utah, challenging and fifty degree weather all in the one paragraph… the check was in the mail before I finished reading the race description! It wasn't until a week before the race that I realized what they meant by challenging when Kami (who didn't take much convincing to join me) pointed out the 4500/3500ft elevation gain/loss. And it wasn't until we landed in Moab that I realized the entire state of Utah is at least 4000ft above sea level. Oh well, it's not like altitude training would have been an option around here. 50k+ translates into 55k (34mi) for those of you wondering. At least this was one piece of info we did know in advance!

But the fun started way before we reached Utah. We decided to fly to Denver (cheap flights) and hire a car for the 6 hour drive (according to mapquest) to Moab. I knew Colorado had mountains but I guess it didn't register that we would be driving through, and across, them until a week before the trip. So we watched the weather every day and it was looking good right up until the moment the lady at the car rental desk asked where we were traveling to (in our little red Chevy Cobalt) and then proceeded to tell us about the storm watch up in the mountains. Oh well, no turning back now. We were on the road at 8:30am and by 12:30pm, when we were eventually forced off the road, we had traveled all of 100 miles, the last hour stop and go through snow and whiteouts somehow managing to stay on the road and not end up in the ditch like so many others. So when they finally closed the road ahead of us (just east of Vail), along with all the other roads we could potentially have taken, we found ourselves sat in a Starbucks for the afternoon. I guess it could have been worse (Caribou) but as the hours ticked by we were beginning to wonder if we'd even make the race which started at 8am the next morning. We agreed that so long as we got there we would run - sleep was not a requirement at this stage. Gallons of coffee, lots of text messages, a few chapters of my book, and 4 hours later we heard those glorious words… "road is open". Despite having just struck up a conversation with three very cute Italians we were out that door faster than we planned on moving our legs the next day. And back on the road… Woo hoo! It wasn't all plain sailing though. After a quick food stop in Grand Junction around 7pm we were headed for the Utah border. Checked the gas level and figured we'd fill up at the next exit. And then we crossed the border and suddenly there were no exits every 10 miles with gas/Starbucks/McDonalds. After driving for 40 miles with the gas light on, at 45mph and with the heat off, and with higher heart rates than we'd experience the next day, we finally rolled into a lonely gas station in the middle of nowhere. That Shell sign was more welcome that the Citgo sign on the Boston marathon course ever could be! Finally made it to Moab at 10pm and fell into bed shortly thereafter, though not before ringing Kami's hubby Chris to have him check the race website to find out where it started… so much for my organization skills.

Saturday morning we were up bright and early and at the Gemini Bridges trailhead a little before 7am. We signed in and got our numbers (I was number 4 – guess I was pretty enthusiastic with that entry form!). We had drop-bags for three of the aid stations, which included everything from gu to socks to sunscreen, so we dropped them off and then back to our warm car. It was just around freezing at that time in the morning but we knew it would warm up before long so we dressed pretty light with long pants over our shorts which we left at the first aid station. There was a race briefing at 7.30am during which the race director confirmed our suspicions - the high rims we could see all around us… oh yes, we would be on top of them several times during the race. There were about 100 runners, probably a 3:1 ratio of guys to girls. 8am and off we went. There was a climb to start with and it sort of winded us a little – probably the altitude though once we settled in we really weren't affected by it at all. Which surprised just about everyone we met as most people were from Utah or Colorado and the surrounding high in the sky states – with just us two lowly sea level residents. Perhaps the 8 hours above 8,000 feet on Friday got us acclimatized. After the initial climb the next few miles were mostly flat. The terrain was a mix of sand, rock and scrub and made for pretty easy running at this stage. Sand, I was later to learn is a tired runner's no. 1 enemy! We got chatting to Kristen from Boulder, CO, a few miles into it and ended up running together for most of the race. I had overheard her talking about her journey which was pretty similar to ours – turns out many of our fellow runners had got held up along I-70 and a few people didn't make it to Moab until after midnight so I guess we didn't do so badly after all. Kristen's friend Larry, a pretty serious mountain biker, rode alongside us for the early part of the race. I have to say as hard as some of the running was I was happier keeping my 2 feet on the ground. We were pretty relaxed through the first and second aid station, at approximately miles 6 and 13, chatting to these guys and a few others including Wayne who we also ran with for a lot of the race. Wayne is training for his first 100 mile event so we chatted about training plans for the summer and the different events we are doing… our planned Ironman in September pales in comparison to 100 miles through the Utah desert! Somehow Wayne managed to carry a digital camera/camcorder the entire way so we will have evidence of the amazing beauty all around us. It really was very scenic and several times throughout the race, mostly while climbing bare rock inclines at a moderate walking pace, we stopped to take it all in. You could see for miles with huge canyons in every direction, views across to Arches National Park and farther away the snowcapped peaks of the La Sal range. We had arrived at the first aid station in about 55 minutes and as planned took off our outer layer so we just had shorts and a short and long sleeve top. It got pretty warm at times and I could probably have taken off the long sleeve but every so often there were gusts of cold wind when we rounded corners and were exposed on the upper rims. The aid stations were very well stocked as is the case at all trail races – gu, chips, trail mix, bananas, chocolate, nuts, pretzels and flat coke – which we both loved even though we wouldn't normally drink it! From aid station 1 we completed a loop that started with a climb up to the first rim at around mile 10. The view from here across to Arches NP was spectacular but with a couple hundred meter drop off we didn't get too close to the edge. This was followed by a quick descent towards aid station 2 which was manned by a few guys from the Moab 4x4 Jeep club (the course was a mix of Jeep, ATV and mountain bike trails) who clearly thought we were nuts to be traversing these trails on 2 legs. But they happily served us up flat coke and salty chips and we were on our way again. After a mile of up and down the next part of the course was the flattest we would encounter and we picked up the pace a few times along here to stretch out our legs. The surface was a mix of scrub and sand but the sand was only an inch or two in depth and made for a nice soft running surface without feeling like we were sinking with every step. We completed the loop and arrived back at aid station 1 which also served as number 3 (mile 17) at exactly 3 hours which was well under our planned pace. Although we really had no idea what to expect we had figured about 8 hours would get us home. So while we knew the second half of the course had much tougher climbs we were very pleased with progress so far. After filling up on snacks we took a few more goodies from our drop-bag and put on sunscreen. This turned out to be a great idea (thanks Kami!) except that I missed the line along the top of my forehead which resulted in a lot of funny looks the following week at work. Must remember the mirror next time. Or not.

From aid station 3 we retraced about a mile of trail and then crossed to the southern part of the course. A lot of descent here and we encountered our first ATVs. Being a holiday weekend we expected some traffic but for the most part it didn't bother us at all. Most of the Jeeps and ATVs pulled over or drove very slowly to avoid blowing up the dust. It wasn't long before we were climbing again. Kristen was familiar with the trails from mountain biking trips so she was able tell us about the remaining 15 miles. This was both good and bad – good because we could pace ourselves accordingly but bad because we knew how much climbing we had yet to do! It was around noon by now and the sun was shining straight down on us from a bright blue sky. So even though it was probably still in the 40's it got pretty hot running across the huge expanses of rock that covered most of this section of the course. There was 4-7 miles between the aid stations but because we were drinking more than usual, as people had advised us it would counter some of the altitude effects, our water bottles were empty every time. We arrived at aid station 4, which was at mile 21 and perched atop a rim with a clear view across to Arches NP, happy to replenish and even happier that the worst of the climbing was behind us. As usual we took our time devouring all manner of goodies and chatting to the aid station crew while taking in the view.

By now there were five of us running together and we left the aid station taking turns leading the way through the next section of the course. We started out with some fun downhill which called for quick footwork and intense concentration while trying not to go all out since we would need our quads for whatever climbing was left. The next few miles were pretty relaxed, a mix of up and down, mostly over rock. And then we hit what I found to be the hardest section of the course. We were at about mile 25 now and even though my legs felt much stronger than they typically would at this stage of a road marathon we encountered a lot of sand for a few miles and all I can say is I will never be entering any of those crazy treks across the Sahara! As soon as we came to a section of rock my legs felt instantly refreshed even if it was at a 45 degree angle. But I can't deny the surroundings made it worthwhile, we were running through a canyon with walls a few hundred feet high and it felt like a million miles from civilization. Then came a section of pretty steep climbs followed by similarly steep descents over rock to get to the final aid station. Lots of walking here but it just felt good to be out of the sand. It seemed longer than 7 miles by the time we reached the aid station at mile 28. I would guess it was closer to mile 29 as the final section of the course seemed shorter than 6 miles. We were long out of water and it had gotten warmer. Kami had felt a twinge in her calf so she opted for the electrolyte drink mixed with water. Salt tablets was the one thing I forgot for this race but they did have little sachets of table salt at the aid stations so I got in the habit of pouring one over a few chips. I think this helped keep things balanced – it's easy to forget how much salt you're losing when not actually sweating intensely.

We left the aid station at just under 6 hours and had some uphill initially but Kristen assured us we would soon be going down. I ran part of the next section with a guy from Utah who runs a trail marathon or ultra every month and has tried a few hundred milers but not yet completed one. He made it to 87 miles the last time - how painful to get to within 13 miles of the finish and have to drop out after all that work. We talked a little about the Bighorn Trail 50 in Wyoming which he has ran a few times and is on my to do list for next year as well as a few others which might have to wait a while longer. I guess I won't be going back to Ireland any time soon! I was feeling much stronger than expected at this stage and decided I would continue to push along this nice flat stretch with soft but not sandy trail underfoot. I guess I picked up the pace fairly well as I was soon on my own and passing a few people I had seen leave the last aid station as we were arriving. This section of the course was definitely the least technical and allowed me to look around and enjoy the scenery while not having to worry about my footing. And it was beautiful. Not to sound too soppy but I felt truly privileged to be fit and healthy enough to take part in something like this, running through as scenic a landscape you're likely to find anywhere. And then my thoughts were broken by a friendly cheer. Larry had taken a different route and was biking back up to meet Kristen for the final section. It was such a boost to have someone call my name and cheer me on out here in the middle of nowhere when I least expected it.

The real downhill soon started and I was flying around the switchbacks trying my best to pick what looked like a solid footing and avoid a twisted ankle. I passed a few more people and then I hit a flat section of sand which caused a barrage of swear words. But at this stage I knew it had to be less than 3 miles to go so I continued crashing down the trail not really knowing how much longer I could keep going at this pace. And then all of a sudden around a few more turns and there was the river. I knew the finish had to be very near now and sure enough another half mile, around a turn and there it was! I raced down the final fifty meters with a big smile on my face and across the finish line in 6:37. The race director was on hand to greet all the finishers and I thanked him for an amazing experience. I felt on top of the world. Every trail is different and there's always some quirky twist that makes comparing races difficult (like when a 50k race becomes 55k!) but I won't pretend I'm not competitive so finishing 7th female and in the top half overall felt pretty good. Most of all finishing strong is a real buzz and those last five miles running downhill to the finish were intense - I have never felt so alive in all my life. Kristen, Kami and Wayne finished a few minutes later with smiles all around. Although Kristen was not quite finished. A popular idea among thirty something and above runners is to "run your age" so at 37 Kristen actually kept going and ran 3 more miles. And you thought I was crazy.