Monday, August 6, 2018

"Celebrate what you have accomplished but raise the bar a little higher each time you succeed." - Mia Hamm

Ragnar Trail Relay: Vermont Edition

So, for those of you with short attention spans, here's the TL:DR version:
It rained the entire time, rendering trails wet and slippery AF. Ragnar has some amends to make with the Ascutney Trail association for the devastation (due to poor course-flow management), for sure. However, I felt solid, capable and prepared, and despite the insane terrain conditions, made it out without any falls or injuries! My team was fantastic, and I'll definitely give this another try!

Read on for the details...

Going into this event, I was definitely concerned. The elevation promised to be rough, the distance would be long, and due to some early spring injury set backs, I was concerned I wasn't as prepared as I needed to be. I was also having a bit of a anxiety issue about being the super-slowest person on the team, and not really knowing how slow I would be in conditions like this. But I showed up.

The sprawling campsite!
When we arrived on Saturday morning, the main camping area was full up, forcing us out to a grassy area, as far as possible from the festival/transition area. While the distance was frustrating, this turned out to be a blessing in disguise with the weather that we had. Anyone in the main camping area was camping in a dirt/gravel parking lot that quickly turned to mud (causing people to literally have to dig little moats around their campsites), and they were confined to 17'x17' areas, strictly. Getting forced out into the back 40 allowed us to sprawl quite a bit more than that, be camped on GRASS and not have to smell the port-a-potties the whole time. Overall, a win, if an accidental one!

We had just enough of a break in the rain that it allowed us to set up our campsite dry... and that was the last time I would be not-damp for the next 24 hours. (Seriously, you have no idea how much you take being dry for granted, until you're not. And nothing is.)

Our team gathered and trekked (what seemed like) the 40 miles uphill to the transition area to send off our first runner and begin the clock ticking. The day was still just cloudy with intermittent sprinkling, with everyone hoping for it to clear off in a few hours. Our first couple of runners, Yvette and Tom, were of the speedy-gazelle faction of our team, and before I knew it my time up at bat was imminent. I had chosen to run the hardest loop (7.5ish miles with a ton of elevation) first, hoping to get it out of the way and have everything be easier from there.

Leaving the Transition Area, to Begin the Red Loop
Around 2pm on Friday, butterflies in my stomach and some serious "WTF did I get myself into?!" questions in my head, I set out on the Red Loop. The sky was grey and threatening, but off I went.

The course began with 3/4 of a mile of uphill switchbacks, which - although I hated them at the time - allowed me to get really warmed up. I couldn't run them straight through, because there's a lot of me and that's a lot of uphill, but I did my best to run the straights, walk the uphill to the next level, run the straight and so on. I was definitely working (pretty hard), and starting to worry that I was barely into this long trek of a loop and this was feeling HARD. Runners were passing me, but there was one that really stuck out (and I'm convinced was sent by the Running Gods to help me out). He was an older gentleman (maybe 60's?), who passed me by, going slowly, but super consistently. Same pace on the flats, up the hills, just consistent left, right, left, right. He passed me, gave me some kudos then reminded me, 'Never judge a runner by their first mile!" before slowly fading off into the distance. For some reason, that reminder helped. This was only the first mile, I was still warming up, and I knew I had the endurance to just keep going. Who cares how long it took?

The switchbacks transitioned into wooded single-track, where we'd spend the majority of the rest of this loop. Uphill we climbed. And climbed. And climbed. My Garmin is reporting in at 1500 feet of elevation gain, almost exclusively in the first 5K of this course.

To add to the drama, as I was leaving the switchbacks for the quiet of the woods, I heard the announcer in the distance say something about Thunderstorms, and a 2 hour hold....

The wooded area turned out to be quite peaceful, as I was totally alone. From an event production and safety perspective, I was a little concerned that I literally didn't see another human being for 7 miles, and there seemed to be no runners coming behind me, potentially because of the 2 hour hold. However, the aloneness didn't bother me too much, as I was left to just get through those hills however I needed to, without the pressure of another runner behind me, or passing me, etc.

The light drizzle became downpours... the downpours became a raging thunderstorm overhead. There was no way "out" but forward for me, so I just kept moving in the relative safety of the thick trees, while the thunder boomed overhead. (I dubbed this loop the THUNDERLOOP, later...)

Soaked to the bone and pretty convinced the uphill sections would never end, The Wood Elf (is what I'm calling him), ran by me and stopped to chat, "Is there a race going on?" he says. I'm thinking he must be being sarcastic, as why would anyone else be running around this mountain in this weather? As it turns out, he was just out for a jaunty trail run. He left me with some great words of encouragement, a high five and he disappeared over the mountain as quickly as he had appeared. Weird, I tell you, but it was a nice splash of positivity when I definitely needed it. 

Finally, it seemed like I'd topped the mountain. Looking at my Garmin, it was mile 3.5ish - which seemed right to me, based on the elevation map I'd seen before I left. Theoretically, it should literally be all downhill from here...... for 4ish miles. I ate some fuel, drank some more electolytes and had a quick regroup. I did a few standing star-fishes to stretch out my shoulders (apparently I need to look UP more when I trail run), and off I went.

The woods were beautiful, wet and misty. I was lucky enough that since it was the beginning of all the rain, the trails were still in good shape, as long as you were careful on the wet roots and rocks. Amazingly, I found myself more than capable of running at this point - running DOWNHILL on a TRAIL, something I never thought I'd see myself doing. I wasn't afraid of busting an ankle (Thank you RehabGym!), and I felt like I had some trail-running tips (Thanks to Mirna Valerio!), that kept me feeling in control of the momentum. (Lateral movement! Keep your toes pointed forward! Don't lean back!).

So I ran. As I checked the pace, I saw that I was clocking in way behind the time I was anticipating finishing this loop, as I definitely had not accounted for the incredible hill-death. Somehow sensing that my team was a little worried (Yes. They checked the Med Tent.), I resolved to push and pick up the pace as much as I could - barreling through the woods with all the coordination I could muster.

As I took a quick walk break to grab a few sips of electrolytes, a deer and I had a face to face, from about 20 feet away. I wish I could've grabbed a picture, but you'll have to believe me when I say it was super scenic, in the misty washed-green woods.

The longest field
Just when I thought the trail wouldn't ever end, it opened out into a huge field, overlooking the mountains, with the storm rolling over them. The picture doesn't do it justice (also, photo credit, not mine - I apparently didn't take any pictures.), but the sigh of relief I had upon seeing that field was immense. I (wrongly) thought that this must be close to the end, if we'd come out of the woods... right?

The good news is, although I was tired, it's not terribly difficult to run downhill on a mowed path through a field. So I ran some more. And ran, and ran through the field that never ended.

The signs pointed me back into the woods (!!!!), where I came upon a road-crossing volunteer who told me I was a half mile out (YESSSS), and quarter-mile out timing mat.

I was almost there. Tired. Drained.... but still moving forward and able to run (slowly), which I hadn't thought would be possible after close to 8 miles.

Finally, I could see it in the distance - the Ragnar village, the transition tent.... I could do this. I even heard my team screaming my name in the distance - which, for me, was an incredible pick me up. Although I had done just under 8 miles of demon-fighting all alone in the woods, I knew I was running back to the support of my team. So I ran with whatever I had left..... which was of course UPHILL to the finish/transition area. UPHILL. These Ragnar people sure have a sense of humor.

Uphill Finish of the Red loop - looking alive!
BUT... I did not die, I crossed the line - finishing out the longest trail run I've ever done, and the longest run I've done in quite some time, in a slow, but proud 3 hours and 20 minutes. I was still able to run at the end, my ankles were solid, my lungs hadn't exploded (contrary to my belief somewhere in that uphill section), and oddly, I think I could've kept going. WIN all around.

Although, upon the glorious moment of stopping, thank god for my hubs, who was waiting there with a banana and some plain water (Nuun Melon is not my flavor of choice, especially for 8 miles... blehhh...).

After that, it was back to camp for some dinner and COFFEE.

For real awesome perspective though, check out this 3D replay of the run from the Relive App:

Relive 'Ragnar Trail Red Loop (the ThunderLoop)'

After "eating the frog" and getting the hard one out of the way, I was feeling pretty good about my ability to complete the rest, but the rain just wasn't stopping. People started coming off the mountain muddier and muddier, reporting tougher trails, as the rain made them slick and soupy. Nonetheless, Team Herd of Nerds persevered, heading out on loop after loop well into the evening.

At 1:30am I was up again, feeling good (still wet...) and ready to head out to my Yellow Loop, promising to be "only" 4.5 miles or so. I'm definitely a night owl, and was anticipating a good loop, as my body functions pretty well in the wee hours of the night. Armed with an extra headlamp and a hand flashlight (just in case!), I left the transition area..... and the difficulty of what was going to happen became abundantly clear.

The yellow loop headed up the switchbacks, just like the red loop had.... only this time, after 8 more hours of steady rain and who knows how many more footsteps, the single track switch back had turned into a muddy slip and slide, with widening sides as racers tried to evade the mud by stepping on the grass. I (carefully) plodded forward, resolving that I'd exercise caution and run when I could, but not take too many risks in the dark and muddy conditions. I hoped that maybe the trail was just extra beat up on these switchbacks, as they were the start funnel for two of the loops.

Sadly... that was not the case. The entire yellow loop was either the consistency of shin-deep chocolate pudding-sludge, or a thin, deceptive slip and slide. Treacherous is the only word that comes to mind. I was sporting my favorite Inov-8's for just this purpose, but there's not a lot you can do, when the rain has made the trails into tiny rivers of water, with mud slides, down branches and a myriad of other hazards. Further, headlamps were near useless, as the constant rain/fog in the woods just reflected the light and didn't allow you to see anything. It was....tough.

20 minutes into this slog, my light attracted a moth, which I prompted (accidentally...) inhaled, resulting in me coughing and heaving on the side of the trail for a good 5 minutes. I had to reassure several people that it was just a bug, and the fat kid was not dying on the side of the trail!

Carefully pressing forward, I was passed by several 20-somethings, still in their "invincible" stage, slip sliding and falling through the mud, oblivious to the potential for injury.

In retrospect, I think this yellow loop might've been fun under different circumstances (I'm looking forward to going back in the fall and running it dry!), as it shared some of the neat woodsy paths from the red loop, without quite so much elevation, and broke out into the same mile long field (which allowed you to finally stretch your legs!).

Although trekking in the dark was a bit unnerving, I was more worried about my footing so that I forgot to be worried about the darkness! Before I knew it, I was back through the timing mat, and running to the finish, to pass off to the next victim.

For funzies, here's the Yellow Loop in 3D:

Relive 'Ragnar Trail Yellow Loop (The mud hike)'

As our next few runners went on course and day broke over Ragnar camp, word had spread that all teams (even the fast ones), were adding hours to their times, due to the conditions. Many teams had no hope of finishing before their cut offs, when even the 5K loop was taking 50+ minutes for a fast runner. Ragnar announced that teams could start doubling/tripling up their runners - instead of sending them out one at a time, several runners could be out on course at once, if needed. Huge waves of runners headed out on course, contributing to the declining trail conditions.

Our team finished out two full loops each, and early on Saturday morning decided to withdraw from the race - electing not to go out on the rapidly degrading trails in the (still) pouring rain and risk injuries that we had escaped thus far, or contribute to the irreparable damage that the mountain was taking from the muddy foot traffic.

Ragnar did the right thing here, allowing teams to withdraw, but receive their medals for continuous effort given the conditions. In my opinion, Ragnar should've been the ones to make the tough call and stop ALL the teams on Saturday morning, given the state of the trail damage and injury risk, but (based on the current results published) it looks like more than half the teams made the good decision and pulled themselves without finishing, regardless.

It was frustrating to have to make that decision, but the team as a whole felt that it was the right call. The constant wetness had dampened (haha!) the fun a bit, preventing us from enjoying the festival, feeling comfortable and dry at any point, or feeling safe on the trails. At the end of the day, this was for FUN.... so, why continue on, if it was not fun?

Further, I'm happy to report that every single member of our team felt that they absolutely could've finished their remaining third loop, if given the opportunity. As for me, I only had the 3ish mile green loop to go, and amazingly, my legs felt pretty good even though my sleep total amounted to about 20 minutes!

The day got dicey after that, as the parking field had become impassable, causing Ragnar to have to have gravel trucked in and basically rebuild a road/driveway for cars to get out. Even with that, cars had to get towed out of lower portions of the field. We sat in our car for over an hour, waiting to be released from the parking area... and from what I understand, we had one of the more pleasant experiences.

While waiting in the car, Hans tells me I kept falling asleep (...passing out...) for about three seconds at a time, before jerking back awake. Why was I jerking awake? Because in my mind, my feet were slipping out from under me in the mud....... Oh. Man. #traumatized

So, all things considered, I think I was ready for this race - despite what my anxious brain wanted me to believe. I felt strong up the hills and had the endurance to truck on through the hard sections and longer loops. I'm not fast, but I need to have something to work on, right? My nutrition felt good - fuel up every hour while moving, and keep that Nuun flowing in the backpack! - and I showed no signs of bonking. It's almost as if regular training is a good plan....!! Huge thanks to Hart Strength and Endurance Coaching for the run coaching, and Hendrik @ the RehabGym for programming the strength training. Never could've done it without the expert guidance I've had!

I have to give a shout out to my SLOW AF Trail Retreat ladies that I met a few weeks ago. Without that jolt of confidence, and learning to run on trails with all of you, I'm not sure that I could've been as successful here as I was. At a few low points, where I was getting on myself about being fat and slow, I kept thinking about all you #SLOWAF ladies out there running half marathons, triathlons and everything in between, regardless of your size or speed. It kept me moving and in a much more positive frame of mind. I'm a FGR, and SLOW AF... but I'm also STRONG AF and DETERMINED AF.

And... in true crazy-people fashion... it was less than 6 hours after we'd all parted ways, when the comments from the team started trickling in... "When's the next one....?"