For a Few Days the World Felt Normal: Cloudsplitter 100 (25K)
I haven't written a blog post since May 19th. In truth, I haven't had any motivation, but also I'm not sure I've had anything to really contribute given the current social-political atmosphere. My very first-world problems of coming back from injury, feeling out of shape, and struggling with the fear of what if I'm never back to normal truly pales in comparison to *waves hand in a giant sweeping motion.*
I mean, writing a blog about a race feels so 2019. Racing doesn't even have the same meaning as it did a year ago. Maybe I'm doing this blog for nostalgia's sake. A few things struck me, though, as I navigated racing in the aftertimes: our economy needs in-person racing; the thrill of seeing how fast you can go and if you can be better than the people around you never goes away; racing has a different emotional significance than it once had.
There's a lot here to unpack.
First, an injury update
For those of you following along at home, I've basically been injured since walking off the course at the Trials (and in truth, probably for a lot longer than that). I've been struggling with a lot of referred pain that moves around in my hamstring, glute-ham insertion, glute med, and low back. A few virtual races early in the summer set me back, so I decided to let my body be my guide throughout the rest of the summer/fall. I've been saying for a long time that I'm "99%" because I truly keep thinking I'm 99%....only that the pain keeps getting marginally better but I'm not 100% so I don't know what else to call it.
The pain was really tough for a while because it was so pervasive. It didn't only affect running, but it affected how I felt sitting on the couch, lying in bed, driving, walking, etc. I definitely got to the point of sadness more than once because I was so tired of my body always having a level of pain. I've been going to PT 2 - 4 times monthly which has definitely helped in both pain management and strengthening. As I sit here writing this, I realize that I haven't actually thought about the pain in a few days and that's the first time I can say that in nearly 8 months.
Many people have asked me in the last few months what my plan is, from a racing perspective. For the first time in years, I don't have a plan. For so long, I have tried to create fitness around certain races on my calendar. It has been a long time since I have allowed the fitness to come first and then choose the race second, building a solid base and then giving myself 6 - 8 weeks to fine tune for a big event once I choose it. I was able to do this for Cloudsplitter, and I forgot how fun short training cycles are.
About 6 weeks ago, Ashley, one of my athletes, texted me the link to Cloudsplitter and asked me if the 25K would be a good option for her. I took a look at the link and said yes, and also that I would really like to do the race as well, if she didn't mind me tagging along. We decided to turn it into a girls weekend and I invited Becki to come along as our race sherpa.
Training for Cloudsplitter
At the time I signed up for the race I hadn't been doing any quality workouts. In fact, I didn't give Ashley a definitive answer until I went out to DePauw and ran 15 miles on the hilly trails to test my glute/ham with climbing. I was no worse for the wear (although nowhere near 100%) and decided to go for it.
People are often surprised when someone who has had success on the roads does a trail race, as if the two are mutually exclusive. What many people don't know about me is that I have run more lifetime miles on trails than I have on roads. In a typical 100 mile week of (road) marathon training, 60 - 70 of those miles are on trails or soft surfaces. Trails have always been my first love, I'm just striking while the iron is hot in road races.
My training for Cloudsplitter had 3 major principles: strides (uphill if possible) after every run; lots of downhill repeats during workouts; technical trails as often as possible, especially for long runs. My long run locations were: DePauw (for elevation), Fort Ben (for technical running), west side of Eagle Creek (for technical running), and Eagle Creek (for variation).
here I am at Eagle Creek, which is only 15 min from my house
I wanted to do strides often because those are such an efficient way to improve your fitness in a short amount of time. I had been base building when I signed up and was around 50 - 55 mpw with no quality workouts. The workouts I chose to do were all with the intent of helping me be more efficient up and down hills, improving my aerobic system, and getting my quads used to the downhill pounding. Some examples:
-16 x 400 alternating up and down hill
-8 x mile on hilly route @ tempo effort w/ 2:00 rest, focusing on strong climbing and smooth descending without braking
-10K of fartlek with a break at 5K for hill repeats
-fartlek on technical trail portions
The longest run I did leading up to the race was 17 miles at Ft. Ben. I had struggled earlier in the summer with long runs because they triggered my hamstring/glute pain the most. Normally if I was training for a 25K I would top out my mileage around 20, but really as long as I got in 15+ miles once I was going to be happy, and I wound up with four 15+ mile runs.
Over those 5 weeks I was impressed with how much fitness I gained in a short amount of time. My week looked like:
Monday: off or easy 5 miles
Tuesday: 8 trail miles + 8 x 100ish m hill strides
Wednesday: 8 miles on tow path + 8 x 100 m grass strides
Thursday: workout Friday: 8 trail miles + strides + 4.5 mile shake out in evening
Sat: 8 - 10 miles on trails
Sun: 15 - 17 miles on trails
On the long run at DePauw, 5 weeks out from race day, I couldn't keep up with Dave on the hills. By my last long run at Ft Ben he couldn't keep up with me. I knew my fitness was coming around when very comfortable tempo effort for the hilly mile repeats wasn't much slower than what I had been doing during my Trials buildup.
Also, I only fell twice during training! One fall was on Bloomington's Rail Trail (an incredibly flat trail with one tree root that I happened to catch with my toe) and the other was in the parking lot near a trail head.
from falling on the rail trail
Prior to leaving for Virginia, I was reaching my breaking point. I love Dave, I love our home, I love our dogs, I love my jobs, but, pandemic stress has been hard. Not being able to work anywhere other than my kitchen table has been hard. Spending 24 hours together in a 2 bed/1 bath 1100 sq ft home when I'm used to Dave traveling 2 - 3 weeks every month has been hard. While traveling to see others and be in an in-person race was obviously a risk, it was a calculated risk with calculated people where the benefits, for me, outweighed the risks. This wouldn't be true for me in every situation and with every group of people, etc., and I do realize that others may have found my trip irresponsible.
My drive to VA was scenic but long. Road construction and accidents turned a 6.5 hour drive into 8 hours in both directions. Honestly, had I known this 6 weeks ago I may not have wanted to do the trip. I am so glad that google maps lied to me. Regardless, 8 hours alone in a car can be tough for me. The drive through Virginia, though, was breathtaking.
The Daniel Boone forest was my favorite part
Virginia, in general, was heaven. Our AirBnB was in a cow pasture with a back porch that overlooked rolling greenery. In the mornings and at night all you could hear were the sounds of the surrounding farms in motion. There was no light pollution. There were stars. We had a fridge full of beer. Even when the nights and mornings dipped into the 30s I spent every moment I could wrapped in a blanket with a warm (or cold) beverage on that back porch.
Heaven is a sunny porch with running shoes drying out from creek crossings, good friends and good coffee
On Friday, we drove to Devil's Bathtub. Truthfully, I was a little on the fence because it was a 40 min drive and it was cold/rainy. OMG I AM SO GLAD WE DID THIS. One, it gave us a chance to get used to the yellow trail markers that were used in the race since that portion of trail was originally part of the 100 mile course. Two, it gave me practice running on rocky trails. Three, it was Becki's first trail run! Four, Devil's Bathtub is GORGEOUS and we had the trail entirely to ourselves. The funny thing about trails is that "difficult" can mean "this trail has one small hill and a 12 m section of sand" or difficult can mean "13 creek crossings in rushing water and people regularly break their legs" - in our case, the trail rating meant the latter. This was definitely one of the most technical runs I've done, and a little under 4 miles took us a little over 1 hour, not including stops for taking in the scenery.
Later that evening we had the technical meeting. As soon as the tech meeting started, I lost it and began to cry. I haven't been to a tech meeting since Feb 28th. Sitting there being told what time to show up to the start line and where the aid stations were going to be located made life feel normal again. A collective of people were being told how to execute a very first-world, privileged event. Am I proud when I put it in those terms that's my normal? Not exactly. Did it feel good to have a sense of normalcy nonetheless? YES.
It also made me realize just how important things like road/trail races are to entire communities. Cloudsplitter is in Norton, VA, which is a town that used to be very prosperous thanks to coal mining. Like Northwest Indiana when the steel mills tanked, Norton hit a major economic decline, which is how the race was born. In the past 5 years, the race has helped revitalize Norton. There were 204 people signed up this year. I asked how many people normally sign up, and they said 130 - 150. You could tell that this race meant a lot to the RD (yay for races with women RDs!), the town manager (who gave us his personal phone number weeks before the race in case we needed anything), and the town's volunteers. Because of this race, the town has a cidery, and a coffee shop, and now an event center that hosts a farmers market. How many other towns rely on this type of race traffic? I'm guessing quite a few.
Tell Us About the Race Already
The funny thing is that the race feels like the least important part of the story. For the past few months I have been reflecting on what racing will feel like when we are back to it. How this past weekend went was exactly how I assumed it would feel: like not that big of a deal. Remember when running 10 seconds slower than goal pace felt like the end of the world and wallowing in self-loathing for weeks was totally justifiable (or at least understood by many)? Ugh, that was so 2018. The thing is - racing didn't feel like that big of a deal anymore. I was excited to be there and excited to test myself, and I was PISSED that I lost (more on that later) but I didn't feel that it had the same importance as it once did....because the world has bigger problems than it used to.
The race itself: I wasn't sure exactly what to expect since I am a flat-lander. The race was 12K up High Knob Mountain and then back down. The first 2K was on roads, then the next 2-3K was on an extremely technical section with an 18% incline and very rocky trails, then through a reservoir before the trail flattened out for a couple miles of switchbacks and mountain bike trails. The final 2.5 - 3 miles was a long, steep, never ending grass fire road where you thought you were almost there, only to take a turn and see more long, steep, never ending grass fire road. I led the entire way to the top. There was a woman behind me at the beginning, but I was the better climber and faster on the road sections. I also led her off-course early in the race which resulted in her yelling at me and telling me that she had been following me because she assumed I knew the course. oops.
at the top! I was so happy to turn around and be done with climbing. Photo cred to becki
I led the entire way down, until about 5K to go. At this point, I missed a turn and kept running straight, up and down a large hill. What threw me off was that I reached a gate that had a yellow dot spray painted on either side. This checked out, since they told us at the tech meeting the old trail markers were yellow spray paint, and not all had been replaced yet. I ran through the gate and came to a parking lot with 5 different trail heads. I was about 2 hours into the race and at that point was not able to fully form thoughts. I turned in circles for what felt like forever trying to figure out if I could determine where to go, since I didn't see trail markers anywhere. I went down a couple trails looking for markers and didn't see any. I stood and turned circles a couple more times before back-tracking. After running up, and back down, the large hill again I saw the turn I was supposed to take. There was spray paint on the gravel indicating the 270 degree turn, which I missed. Womp womp. I definitely lost momentum at this point but kept forging ahead. I knew 2nd place had already come through, but I pushed on in case she also took a wrong turn somewhere. She hadn't, and I finished in 2nd.
There were certain parts about the race that didn't add up to me, though. I'm not super proud of this, but we formed our own little marathon investigation (spoiler: it felt as icky as marathon investigation looks). When I had been at the top of a large hill before getting lost, I saw second place coming from the wrong direction, on a road, around the reservoir instead of through it. We found her Strava and she did indeed do the course incorrectly, running about a half mile on road and bypassing quite a bit of trail. I choose to believe this wasn't on purpose. I also doubt this would have changed whether I won if she had run the entire course, since I was lost for probably 8 - 10 min. I am sure she would have turned around and backtracked had she realized she made a mistake. It's still a bummer that she didn't, and that the trail wasn't better marshalled. [Also, we have made the RD aware so please don't track this woman down and harrass her. I hate that I even have to say that, but I have seen some pretty terrible things happen on the internet] I don't care from the perspective I lost (TBH I did initially), but more than anything I care because this was an incredible race and I want it to succeed.
There are so many takeaways I have from the race:
-I climbed LIKE A BOSS, especially considering I live at 800 ft above sea level
-The race had 3,800 ft of climbing and we topped out around 4,500 ft. My legs handled this so much better than I could have predicted
-I did not fall
-I felt similar to when I ran my PR marathon: my legs felt unstoppable. I had gear changes after every hill. My legs recovered when the inclines evened out.
-I should not have been able to run the way I did on the limited training; this makes me excited
-I HAD FUN
-For the first time in a long time, I didn't have pre-race feelings of hoping the race gets cancelled or hoping for bad weather in case my time was slow
-I felt like me
Next up? I want to do some cross country meets. I have it on the DL (maybe it's posted now?) there is going to be a USATF all-comers meet in December in KY that I am looking forward to. There is a level of fitness you just can't achieve without all-out racing and recovery. My quads are trashed today. I felt like I had track hack after the race. Those are the things that lead to strength. You don't get that from running 16 miles in a marathon and DNF'ing or doing a bunch of races as workouts. I'm on the road back and I want to do it all better this time because there are some goals I'm still chasing and I don't want to stop until I catch them.
a very exciting part of my trip