Monday, 22 May 2017

The Dreaded Lurgy and New Puppies

I was meant to have raced the Adrenaline 27km Night Race on Saturday evening, but instead I was at the cinema watching the new "Guardians of the Galaxy" movie. It wasn't intentional, but last Tuesday I had a terrible sore throat and by Friday I was snorting out lots of the green stuff and had lost my voice. I was actually feeling ok and went to bed Friday night with every intention of racing but on waking up on Saturday morning, I started to question whether racing would be wise.

Since the Whiskey Basin 88k at the beginning of April, my focus has been on the San Diego Marathon. The Aravaipa races have just been part of my preparation for the marathon and whilst I love to race and be competitive whenever I can, I haven't really been out to win these races but rather used them to gauge my current fitness levels. 

The plan had been to run the Adrenaline race at my marathon pace, or at least as close as possible given that I would be running in the dark on trails, but I wasn't sure what effect a 17 mile all out race would have on my body and it's recovery ready for the marathon. It took a lot of discipline to say, "No, I'm not doing it", but with the support of Andy and coach Adam, I felt much better walking away - better to have a DNS than a DNF, and it also means that - fingers crossed - I can run again this week and get back on track with things for San Diego.

The marathon is just 2 weeks away and training had been going well until the minor blip this past week. My racing had gone well, my tempo runs were giving me confidence every week, and having done a steady 20 miles on the road the previous Sunday at a comfortable 7.26 minute miling, my goal for the marathon changed and I felt capable of an even faster time.

The good news is that even though I haven't ran for the past 3 days and despite missing a run last week, I still believe that I can hit my goal. I wasn't feel great on Thursday or Friday last week but I still did a couple of 6 milers and was surprised at the pace  - even with the heat, the brisk breezes and a throat that felt like sandpaper, and even though I was trying to control things and keep the heart rate low, I was still knocking out 7.30's.

Enjoying an evening run at dusk - my favourite time to run :-)

Normally when I don't run, I'm like a bear with a sore head as the saying goes and I have to keep myself busy doing more mundane things to pass the time of day. However, just over a week or so ago, we had a new addition to the family and she has kept me - and the rest of us! - extremely busy.

We didn't intend to adopt another dog - Wilson and Brandy are absolutely amazing and I love them more than words can ever express. They go everywhere with us and we have a very strong bond with them - we had no reason nor need to change what we already have with these two.

But those that know us will be aware that we also have a little cat named Khayman, and he's now 19 years old. He joined our family as a tiny, stray kitten back in 1998 and he's been in our lives ever since. Although Khayman is in excellent health for his age, we don't know how much longer he will be with us, and we had already discussed that when he departs this crazy world, we would look into having another dog but one of the smaller breeds. 

As a result, we - or rather I - had been keeping an eye on the rescue centres in the Phoenix area, just to see what the more common breeds were and how likely we would be able to find the right dog that would match Wilson and Brandy's personalities, as well as fitting into our lifestyle. 

Arizona seems to see more Pitbulls and Chihuahuas at rescue centres, neither of which we personally felt would fit into our lives, but then I came across a picture of a little Italian Greyhound Mix that was up for adoption with Caring for Canines. I shared the link with Andy whilst he was working in rural Iowa, and on his return a couple of days later, we contacted the rescue centre to see if this little puppy was still up for adoption. She was, and we arranged to head over to the foster home that was caring for her for a meet and greet that evening, not only with us, but also with Wilson and Brandy.

When we saw this little gingery, tanny coloured little pup, our hearts melted. She was so timid and frightened, and she had bite marks all over her forehead from where she had been attacked during meal time at the foster home, but she was such a sweet looking, lovable little girl.

Tillie's first night with us and nervous at the dog park

They knew very little about the puppy - they estimated her to be around 4 months old and came from the very south of Arizona - quite likely originally from Mexico with being so close to the border. She was in a shelter down there but they were bringing in 5 Pitbulls and needed the space - this little Italian Greyhound wouldn't have coped with such large, boisterous dogs and without another shelter taking her in, she would have faced the unfortunate outcome of so many other dogs here in the US - a life that ends far too soon simply because of over-breeding or because people still don't neuter or spay their dogs, which only increasing the problem. The shelter staff had a hard decision - it was either save this little girl and lose 5 others, or save the life of 5 other dogs and .... well, you get the picture. 

Thankfully Caring for Canines were able to take her in and she spent almost 3 weeks in a foster home before we eventually spotted her and were able to welcome her into our home.

The initial meeting with Wilson and Brandy went  really well and whilst it wasn't exactly love at first sight for the 3 of them, they got along absolutely fine even if they just tolerated each other rather than became best buddies straight away.

The little pup had been named Sonia by the rescue centre but it didn't seem to suit her quiet and timid demeanour so Andy and I spent the next couple of days trying to decide what to name her. We eventually agreed on Mathilda - or Tillie for short - taken from the movie Leon. The name stuck and Tillie already responds extremely well to it and knows who she is.

Since Tillie arrived, things have been a little more chaotic than normal. She was terrified of going out on a leashed walk and it has taken a lot of patience from Andy and I, and quite visible reassurance from Wilson and Brandy to get to head out on her morning walk, but she now walks with her head and tail held high and only hesitates occasionally - the 3 of them now walk 3 abreast and look like the heavy mob walking along the street - watch out Phoenix dogs! 

Family Time in Prescott

She also seemed to struggle in controlling her food intake and would literally wolf down her food, perhaps for fear of not knowing when her next meal would come. She now takes her time and even leaves a few chunks of meat at the bottom of her bowl although she does find Wilson and Brandy's dinner far more tasty whilst they have both become huge fans of puppy food again!

The sweetest thing is watching how she tries to play with Wilson and Brandy. She will roll over on her back and try to get their attention right in front of their noses, she will jump on them, she'll even drop a toy on their front paws, but the older pups are playing hard to get, much to the frustration of Tillie. But when they do play, they play, and Brandy is being the most excellent "big sister" - watching carefully as Tillie tries to climb out of the car, keeping tabs on her when around other dogs at the dog park, and nudging her and giving her a gentle nip when she steps out of line.

Trying to get Wilson's attention to play

Following her big sister and learning so much!

The dog park has now become one of Tillie's favourite places along with the park just across the street from our house. She loves rolling in the grass and digging in the sand at the kiddies park and does a little skip and spins around when she wants to play with Wilson and Brandy, both of which she has become somewhat dependent on for reassurance.

The dog park was initially a little overwhelming for her but this past couple of days have seen her trying to initiate play with the other dogs, and last night, she spent a good 20 minutes playing rough and tumble with a 6 month old puppy named Bailey - it was fantastic to see and wonderful to watch :-)

There are a few that have said we are crazy to have taken on another dog, but I have to say it is the most wonderful thing ever. We had 3 dogs many years ago and have experienced it before, so had no doubt that we would be able to cope - the difference this time was having a puppy. But to see Tillie integrate with our family and to watch her grow in confidence everyday is fantastic and even with the daily poops and pees on the carpet, the chewed shoes and shredded kitchen towel, even with the corner of books being chewed off and maps having to be taped back together, the potpourri strewn across the floor and the loosened stitching in the odd pair of shoes, we wouldn't change a thing.

A far more confident and happy Tillie :-)

Of course, we head off to San Diego in the next few weeks and I can't wait to spend time with Andy and the dogs - and of course Khayman will be coming too! I'm looking forward to spending time on the doggy beach and watching how both Brandy and Tillie react when seeing the sea for the first time, I'm looking forward to letting Wilson stretch out his legs properly and have a good sprint across the sand, and of course, I'm looking forward to racing the marathon and getting the result I am looking for.

I may still have a cold as a type this and will once again miss my run today, but life is good and we are all very happy right now :-)

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

A (Very) Happy April :-)

We are now in May and marathon training is in full swing and I have to say that I am very surprised and very happy with how things are going right now and so long as I can avoid injury and I don't overdo things, I am feeling optimistic about a good run in San Diego next month.

Looking back to April, it was a pretty awesome month - not only did I have some good races but I also had some good training sessions which have given me a huge confidence boost. It hasn't been easy with Andy working away so much, but I have managed to fit in some decent quality runs in between walking the dogs and keeping them entertained, and looking after myself.

I recovered surprisingly well from Whiskey Basin and within a couple of days, my legs were back to normal and I was ready to run again - so much so that I sneaked in a little 3-mile run a day earlier than I should have done! But I felt great and having taken it easy, I knew it wasn't going to do any harm. I also got a couple of runs in with Wilson which made exceptionally happy, including an early Sunday morning trail run with the AZ Traileggers. Wilson was so well behaved despite all the new people around him, and it was so nice to see that he was waggy tailed and happy to see Cary and Adam again having met them on previous occasions.

Wilson leads out the AZ Traileggers on a beautiful Sunday Morning :-)
Photo Credit: Jon Christley
That weekend, I decided I wanted to do another marathon and so to help determine a target time, I signed up for the Dam Good Run 13k to see how fast I could run these days when putting in a bit of effort. Being a shorter race than I am accustomed to, I had no idea how I would get on but it would give me a benchmark on which to base my marathon training.

It was unfortunate that Andy was away that weekend so I knew I would have to go to the race on my own. No big deal, but I felt awfully guilty about leaving Wilson and Brandy at home on their own for a few hours. To make up for it, I took them to Prescott on the Saturday and did the loop around Lynx Lake. It was much cooler up there compared to Phoenix that day, and being at around 5,000 ft, the air felt much fresher and cleaner. I love the lakes and pines of Prescott and the dogs had a fabulous time swimming and paddling in the water before sitting down and sharing a picnic with me. It was a beautiful day spent together and after 2 hours at the dog park when we got home, they were suitably tired and spent the remainder of the evening and the following morning fast asleep.

Fun in Prescott at Lynx Lake with the Pups
Photo Credit: Me!
Dam Good Run was on the Sunday morning, and on arriving at Lake Pleasant at around 7am, it was already feeling rather toasty. The forecast called for a high of close to 100 degrees and I was glad that I was only doing 13k rather than one of the longer races.

Lining up at the start, I was still unsure as to how I should run the race and decided that the best plan of action would be to run just outside of my comfort zone so that I was working hard but not going flat out. I had no idea what that meant pace wise and decided to just run based on feel. I knew the first 2 or 3 miles were on road with the remaining 5 miles on trail with a good climb to the finish at the end and I figured that I would just keep the pace going for as long as possible and hopefully avoid fading at the end.

I was extremely surprised when my first mile came in under 7 minutes and when my watch beeped for the second mile, I had somehow done a 6.48 - where the hell did that come from?! I was feeling good too which also came as a surprise considering it was only 2 weeks ago that I had raced an 88k.

When hitting the trails, I looked up and realized I was gaining on the lead lady and a couple of minutes later, I passed her. I hadn't increased my pace, if anything it had slowed slightly, but I was still concentrating on trying to maintain the same level of effort.

I consider the Dam Good Run course to be a fast one - yes there are climbs but they aren't too bad, and apart from some sandy sections through washes, the trails are smooth and non-technical. I was flying along those trails and I was absolutely loving the feeling of pushing harder than normal, and I held onto the lead until around about the 6-mile mark which is when the real climbing started. I slipped back into 2nd place and I found that I did have to alternate between running and walking up the hills over those last couple of miles - I was feeling fine, but I just didn't have the power there to push up. The gap between the lead and myself widened but I knew I was still having a good run and I really didn't mind what position I finished in - this was about something else today.

I crested that final hill and attempted a sprint to the line, finishing 2nd lady in 1 hour 3 minutes and all top 3 ladies finished inside the old course record. I was over the moon with my run - I expected to run anything between 65 and 70 minutes, so to run 63 was extremely satisfying. It made me realise that whilst I likely won't run any sub 6 minute miles these days, I can at least inject a little bit of pace if I want to - yep, I was happy :-)

2nd lady at Dam Good Run 13k and VERY happy :-)
A couple of days after the race, my marathon training kicked in properly and I had a couple of tempo runs to do that week. I knew I was going to find these tough, not just because of having to run a bit quicker but also because unless I'm racing, I find it very difficult to run hard for anything more than a mile or 2 if I don't have company.

The first one was 6 miles and as with the race, I didn't really know how to pace the run. I tried to keep things relaxed and focus more on how I felt rather than hitting a pace but I was happy to say that the legs felt good and whilst the old body resisted the heavy breathing and burning lungs a couple of times which caused me to stop, in the main I kept things going.  I was excited to check my watch post run just to see how I had got on and seeing an average pace of 6.43 miling left me speechless. Had I really just ran that kind of pace for 6 miles?!

The following day saw another tempo, but this time it was only 3 miles with a few miles extra added on at the end at a more steady pace. Once again, I was doing sub 7 minute miling, getting close to 6.40's - what was happening?!

With two days of faster paced workouts behind me, my legs were starting to feel it a little so I was happy to have a nice and easy run scheduled in on the Thursday. I was racing again Saturday and I had been instructed to treat the Sinister Night Trail Run 27km as an easy training run. All day long I felt relaxed about the event, knowing full well there was no pressure and I could just relax and enjoy running in the desert at night.

The Sinister Night Run takes place at the San Tan Mountain Regional Park in Queen Creek south of Phoenix. I hadn’t done this race although I had raced the San Tan Scramble in January - that was a good race despite taking a wrong turn that cost me the lead, but I wasn't about to let past experience affect things today.

I love the Aravaipa Running Night Series Races. The atmosphere is so friendly and relaxed and yet everybody is having such a wonderful time as the music pumps away at the start and finish line. The Sinister Night Race consisted of 3 x 9km loops on twisting, rolling, non-technical trails and it feels like the first half of the loop is all uphill whilst the second half is a gradual descent. I was excited about running this race and was feeling happy because Andy and the dogs would be here this time - they had missed my previous two races and it was so nice to have my little support crew with me even though I wasn't taking the race seriously tonight.

WE arrived at the San Tan Mountains as the sun was going down, and what a beautiful evening it was! The temperature was just nice, and despite a brisk wind which I would come to curse a little mid-race, the conditions were pretty much perfect for running. 

It was great to see so many familiar faces and we had a little fun posing with the dogs on the podium before we set off.

The 27k started at 7.30pm and we needed the head torches pretty much straight away. I started off nice and steady, not bothering to look at my watch and just making sure I stayed nice and relaxed. From the off, I was already with the lead group of men along with another lady who was just a few strides ahead of me. But I wasn't here to race and I let her run her own race, not minding if she pulled away into the distance. 

I wouldn't call this course exactly hilly, but the first few miles are a gradual climb with some short but steep ups and downs through washes as you head out to the aid station at around 3 or 4 miles. I wasn't really putting in any great deal of effort, but by the time we'd reached the first mile or so in the race, I had taken the lead. I really didn't want to get into a race tonight so tried to stay calm and in control, making sure that I didn't go into race mode and avoiding the urge to up the pace.

After the aid station, the trail narrowed and there were a few more climbs with more twisting and turning. By this time, I was running pretty much alone although I could see a couple of head torches ahead whilst a stream of lights was still following behind. It was so peaceful out there in the desert - not a sound except for my own breathing and my footsteps in the sand. I became so entranced with the darkness around me and the trail in my immediate vicinity as I ran along that I started to gain on some of the men. It really wasn't a conscious thing, but I was feeling good and thought that I may as well keep it going.

As I came into to start my second loop, it was so nice to see Andy there for once whist the shouts of support I got as I passed through was tremendous and I felt a little overwhelmed.

Some of the men stopped at the aid station as we came through and I found myself starting lap 2 on my own without anybody nearby. I was still making sure to stay relaxed - OK, I was probably running a little faster than the easy pace I had intended, but my legs were feeling great, I was feeling great, and apart from desperately needing a drink (I'd dropped my handheld as I hate carrying things), I was still managing a good pace.

After passing through the mid-loop aid station for the second time, I started to bump into the 9km runners who were running the same loop. It was great to see so many people out there having so much fun, and although I had reveled in the peace and quiet of the first loop, it was good to hear so much laughing and chatter from people. These folks were amazing and happily moved over when they heard me trotting up behind them even though I'm sure many of them were hoping for PRs out on the course.

I had been leading the ladies race for over 90 minutes now but being dark, I had no idea how much of a lead I had. With just one loop to go, I didn't really want to lose the lead now and so I decided now was the time to up the tempo a bit and put in a little more effort. I tried to work the hills more so than the previous lap whilst I tried to stride out as I came into to finish that loop and start the third and final lap of the course.

End of lap 2 and heading out onto third and final lap
Photo Credit: Aravaipa Running
The third lap was the quietest of them all and it really did feel like I was out there all on my own. I was also noticing that the beam of my torch was starting to fade and I couldn't see the trail as well as before. I stumbled numerous times on rocks but thankfully didn't trip and fall but I was starting to get a little concerned that my torch may well die on me and I would end up running in the complete dark. The dark didn't bother me - the course was well marked and even in the dark I don't think it would be that easy to get lost - but I was still leading the ladies race, and I know I would be gutted if I now lost out simply due to a dodgy head torch!

The final loop did see me walking a couple of sections simply because I couldn't see very well, but these walk breaks were short and swift and I ran whenever I could. The other thing was that my time for the previous two loops had put me on track for a new course record - if I could run this loop at a similar pace as the others, the course record would be mine. 

It's hard to gauge distance in the dark and even with a headtorch I couldn't really see my watch, but with about a mile to go, I knew that the course record was within my reach. There was one last, long climb that I had to contend with but after that, the trail opened up and it would be plain sailing into the finish line.

I stumbled up the climb, spotted the landmark bench at the side of the trail and that was my cue to go. I could see the lights at the finish line, I could hear the music pumping, and I ran as hard as dared in the darkness down the trail, heart rate rocketing, lungs about to explode, but a mind and body so determined that I didn't dare defy myself. I was feeling amazing and didn't allow myself to relax until I had crossed that finish line.

The time on my watch read 2.27 - I had done it by just under 3 minutes - I was VERY happy! 
The wonderful winner's trophy
Photo Credit: Me!

Looking back on the splits for each of my loops, there was barely any difference between them which shows a consistent effort which did surprise me:

Loop 1 - 48.16              Loop 2 - 47.59            Loop 3 - 48.40

For me personally, I felt like I'd had a good run and I couldn't have asked for a better result.

Of course, even though I hadn't raced flat out, I was conscious that maybe I had put in more of an effort than originally planned and therefore come Sunday, I was very careful to make sure that I did a 6-mile recovery run rather than the steady run that was penciled in. A few years ago, when training for the World 50km Championships, I suddenly lost all my energy and for about 6 weeks, it would take me nearly an hour to do just 3 or 4 miles of running. The weakness came from nowhere and I did nothing but sleep and at the time, I had no idea of the cause. Looking back, I now realise that I was likely suffering from over-training syndrome - training too hard in order to succeed at the Worlds - and as a result, the Worlds weren't meant to be that year.

Since then I have been very careful not to overdo things and I try to make sure that recovery means recovery. With doing more faster paced runs this past couple of weeks in preparation for the marathon, I have felt a different type of muscle fatigue that I don't get from trail running, so now more than ever I need to listen to my body and be sure to communicate to my coach if I run into any problems. The good news is that Sunday's easy run was amazing and I was sure to take my time and enjoy the views as I headed over to Deem Hills and the dog park.

So, with 5 weeks to go and another 27km race in 3 weeks’ time, I'm feeling good, I'm feeling faster already and having lost another couple of pounds in weight and being back at what used to be my racing weight I am noticing the difference and feeling far better than I have done for months.

Of course, being in Phoenix in May means that the heat is already starting to increase and today we had our first 100 degrees day of the year. There is more to come this week before things cool off for a few days, but I know that it won't be long before we see triple digits daily for days on end. Early morning runs are going to become the norm again, along with treadmill running but whatever it takes, I am looking forward to what will hopefully be another happy, healthy and successful summer in the desert.

Happy trails - and roads! - my friends :-)

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

A (Temporary) Change of Focus :-)

Hey folks! Just a very quick update here about forthcoming racing places. 

Yep, I've done the dirty deed and have gone and registered for another road marathon - what the hell was I thinking?! Don't I remember my aim of breaking the 3 hour barrier for one last time before I get much older? We know how that turned out! 

I tried in Las Vegas in November 2015 - it was raining and the city was under a severe wind warning - needless to say, I got fed up of battling a ridiculously strong headwind whilst trying to run fast and I pretty much gave up - I finished that marathon in around 3.28. 

Las Vegas Marathon - Windy, windy and windy!!!

Then like a fool, I went back for more, this time at the Phoenix Marathon in February 2016. That was the day I realised I was no longer a road runner and I found no joy whatsoever in trying to maintain a consistent pace on pavement for 26 miles. I got bored half way through and pretty much walked the last 10 miles, eventually finishing in around 3.17.

Phoenix MArathon - bored, bored, bored!!!

After the Phoenix Marathon, I vowed never again and I "retired" from marathon running.

So how come I've signed up for San Diego, and what's the difference this time? Put quite simply, trail running on technical, hilly trails has made me slow.

Speed is of course relative to each individual, but when you consider that I could run a 6 minute mile with ease no less than 12 months ago and now I struggle to do that pace for 400 metres, you kind of get the picture. Even when I do my reps on the roads, I struggle to get under 7's these days and for me personally, that isn't good enough. Sure, I'm older now and no longer have the grace nor speed of a gazelle, and I'm realistic enough to know that running a marathon PR at my age is very unlikely (for those that don't know, my marathon PR is 2.47.41 which I ran in London 10 years ago - trust me, it ain't going to happen!) But I honestly believe that entering a road marathon means that I HAVE to work on my speed again, and more importantly my speed endurance. I can run 26 miles no problem, but having to do it at a half decent pace is going to take effort and it's a completely different kind of effort when compared to running the same distance on the trails.

The San Diego Marathon is on June 4th which means I have just under 7 weeks of preparation time to get some pace back in my legs. If I ran a marathon today, I honestly think that I could still do around 3.15 give or take, based on my current fitness. But I want to do better. I want to push myself and feel that burn of running hard during a rep session, I want to experience that feeling of being out of breath again and knowing that I've had a damn good training session. Don't get me wrong, trail running is far from easy, but it really does take a different kind of effort and a different kind of strength.

So what do I hope to gain by doing a marathon? I'll be up front and say that this time, I will NOT be chasing a specific time - I don't want that pressure and expectation of others. What I DO want is to feel comfortable feeling uncomfortable if that even makes sense. I have got so used to starting off at a steady pace when in a trail race that I've become unsure and frightened about pushing myself and exceeding that pace, unsure about stepping outside of my physical comfort zone, of experiencing that horrid feeling when you're out of breath and your legs are like lead weights from the effort. I finished Whiskey Basin 88km last week with tired legs - they were more tired from all the climbing more so than the pace and distance, but could I have gone faster? In hindsight, I think I could, but I held back because I haven't pushed the pace recently, I  don't know my limits, and I was cautious about going off too fast in case I tired towards the end. I was scared of pushing the pace and failing, concentrating more on keeping my heart rate low and under control so that I could run the distance and finish strong.

Doing a little bit of road running for the next couple of months will help me to gauge where I'm at and hopefully it will improve my leg speed and my VO2 max, if only by a fraction. Road running is easier in terms of terrain so I can really stretch out the legs rather than having to keep an eye out for tree roots or unstable rocks, or critters blocking the path, where you have no choice but to slow down. I'll undoubtedly experience traffic and road junctions, but I can choose less busy areas where I can really focus on hitting a target pace.

So what do I want post San Diego? I'm hoping I can improve on a weakness by making my body and mind to remember what it's like to run fast. I'm hoping that the leg speed I rekindle over the coming weeks will transfer to the trails so that I become not just an efficient trial runner, but a faster trail runner, a stronger trail runner, somebody that is more comfortable taking risks and having that extra kick when needed to get the advantage, having the confidence to pick up the pace rather than maintaining the pace. I'm hoping that my trail running will feel easier, will feel faster and even stronger, and I'm hoping that when it comes to my main goal race of the year  - the Mogollon Monster 100 miler - I really will be at my peak and ready to tackle both the course and the competition.

So the countdown is on - June 4th is the date and I have just 7 weeks to get my act together. I'm excited by the temporary change of focus and direction, I feel motivated to give it absolutely everything I have, and I know that with the support of Andy and under the guidance of my awesome coach Adam, this is going to be a great team effort that will hopefully bring the results that I am looking for.

Monday, 10 April 2017

The Prescott Circle - Whiskey Basin 88km

The Whiskey Basin 88km trail race was one of my goal races for this year and I really wanted to run well. OK, I’d had a niggling ITB issue since the Black Canyon back in February and had eased back on the miles as well as the intensity, but even if I wasn’t 100% physically ready for the race, mentally I was raring to go.

I had registered for the race back in December and since then, I had kept an eye on the entry list to see who my competition would be. There were some familiar names in there and I knew it wouldn’t be a walk in the park, but I honestly felt that if everything gelled on the day, I could quite possibly win.

Two weeks prior to the race, another name appeared on the entry – Kristina Pham – a good friend and a fellow Aravaipa Racing Team member. I was delighted to see that Kristina was entered, but it also meant that even before I toed the line, I had talked myself into no better than 2nd place on the day. You see, Kristina is no sloth, and even though openly admitting that she was just using Whiskey Basin as a training run for her forthcoming 100 miler, she is far faster and a much better climber than I could ever hope to be – even her easy training pace would put her miles ahead of me. 

Of course, nobody knew how the Whiskey Basin would pan out and I figured the best approach was to just go out there and enjoy, and so long as I knew that I had given everything I possibly could, there was nothing else I could do about the end result.

We travelled up to Prescott on the Friday having booked ourselves in to an AirBnB property about a mile from the old downtown Prescott and just 10 minutes from the start line at Watson Lake. The property was ideal for us and the furries – a whole house all to ourselves with tons of land for the dogs to wander around, and we happily chilled out whilst Andy played guitar before watching a few episodes of “The Royale Family” on Netflix before bedtime.

Stone Cottage in Prescott - highly recommended :-)

I usually don’t sleep too well the night before a race but I managed to get a good solid 6 hours this time before waking up around 3.30am and feeling extremely nervous about having to run 55 miles. I’ve been pretty good in recent years in teaching myself not to think about the distance too much but rather think of things in terms of hours on feet – that way, I don’t feel quite so overwhelmed about what lies ahead – and yet for some reason, I couldn’t get this 55 miles out of my head.

Despite the nerves, I still managed a good breakfast even though it was only 4am and by 5am when the race started at Watson Lake, I was feeling far more relaxed and ready to go.

Although Andy had come to Prescott with me, I didn’t have him crewing me this time. He’s been working away a lot and desperately needed some rest and sleep so I knew I was on my own today. It was a little daunting as I didn’t even take my phone, and I started to ponder about what I’d do if something happened and I needed to drop – how would I let him know?! But there were so many familiar faces out there both racing and volunteering that there really was no need for concern and every single volunteer that I encountered at the aid stations was simply amazing!

A 5am start meant that it was still dark and for the first hour we followed the Prescott Circle trail by the beam of our head torches. The first few miles were pretty flat and I was consciously trying to hold back on the pace so that I didn’t burn myself out for later. Within the first mile, Kristina had pulled ahead into the distance along with a few of the men, and so I settled in to 2nd place and just hoped that I could hold onto it for the remainder of the day.

As night turned to day, the sky became a beautiful red as the sun started to rise and by the time we reached the first aid station at 6 miles, I’d got rid of my head torch. My nutrition is somewhat hit and miss in ultras these days – sometimes I feel great, other times I’m throwing my guts up, and I find that I am in desperate need of fuel towards the end because I really don’t feel like eating even though I know I’m hungry. Today I was trying to graze on food as I ran along, a mix of energy gels, cookies and dried mango washed down with plain water – it seemed to be working and my tummy wasn’t complaining at all.

I took some Gatorade at the first aid station – it was already much warmer than I thought it would be – and after a cheery thanks I headed up the trail for a couple of hundred yards before I encountered a junction. There were 3 possible turns – left had lots of pink tape blowing around in the brisk wind, straight ahead was marked with a 10km race marker, and the other direction had absolutely nothing. I had been looking for the orange Whiskey Basin signs but couldn’t see one, the 10k route didn’t seem right, and I seemed to remember reading something in the race instructions advising us to familiarise ourselves with the Prescott Circle Trail logo as this is the trail we would be following for the 88km. Thankfully I knew what it looked like and after wasting an indecisive minute or two, I made the right turn only to see another lady was right on my tail and literally just a minute if that behind me.

We were only 6 miles into the race, but I really didn’t want to get passed by somebody so early on in the race, and from then onwards it really did become a race for me. Every time I found myself walking, I would force myself to start running, knowing full well that too much walking would result in me being caught from behind and it would be far harder for me to keep up, especially on the climbs.

The stretch to the next aid station was mentally the most difficult for me. My mind still didn’t seem to be in the right place and I was having lots of negative thoughts. I kept looking behind me to see if the other lady was anywhere close, but I seemed to have somehow pulled away from her and was running pretty much on my own. Then out of nowhere, a few of the chaps reappeared. I initially thought that they were the 57k runners but they were doing the 88k and I later found out they had somehow taken a wrong turn. I didn’t give it any further thought until about a mile from Aid Station 3 I became aware of somebody else running behind me – it was Kristina, chasing me up the hill to the aid station and yet I don’t recall actually passing her. I figured she must have had to jump in a bush to answer nature's call or something for her to end up behind me.

I didn’t spend too much time at the aid station – I’m trying to become more efficient in races so I don’t waste too much time there – and after restocking my supplies and necking down some coconut water, I headed off down the forest trail into the pine forest.

We were now around 16 miles into the race with another 40 or so miles still to go. I had moved into first place and whilst I didn’t expect to stay there for too much longer, I was ready to work hard for it and to stay there as long as possible.

The run through the forests was beautiful. There were lots of ups but none of them were particularly steep or technical, and there were a few stream crossings. But it was lovely and cool in there and it provided some shelter from the sun as well as the brisk wind that had started to pick up. Occasionally on the switchbacks, I would see Kristina still powering up the hills not too far behind and I knew it wouldn’t be long before we hit a much larger climb where she would come flying past me and I wouldn’t have a chance of catching her again.

By now we were probably at around 20 to 25 miles. I had still been refuelling pretty well and feeling strong, but now my tummy really was starting to grumble a little. I tried to nibble on some dried mango but up it came, along with a few other remnants of food I had been trying to digest for the past couple of hours. I felt so much better after that and started running again, but got stopped in my tracks when my stomach once again tried to reject everything in it. After 5 minutes at the edge of the trail throwing up, I finally felt empty and set off again with a spring in my step, feeling amazing!

The next aid station wasn’t too much further on and unlike my usual throwing up sessions during a race, I was actually ready and able to eat more food and downed some banana and other bits and bobs, along with a couple of tums to help settle the gurgly tummy.

As I was leaving the aid station, Kristina was just running in and that was the last I saw of her until the finish line. For the next 20 miles, I just kept pushing forward knowing that if I could just keep it going, my dream of actually winning the race could come true. But I couldn’t relax until I passed that finish line, and once again, I was forcing myself to run every time my legs protested and slowed to a walk.

Yet strangely enough, I was feeling strong. Strangely enough, I was now feeling far more positive. Strangely enough, I was ready to fight for this win and to give it absolutely everything I had – a far cry from how I had been thinking just a few hours earlier!

A long, rocky downhill stretch meant I could really open up the legs and I was having so much fun heading down. I tried to recall the course profile and seemed to remember some long downhill stretches, but they were inevitable followed by even more uphill, so I tried not to get too carried away for fear of trashing the legs when there was still lots of climbing to do.

The next aid station seemed to come around quickly and Jamil was there videoing the racers, myself included. I really was feeling the urge to slow down and walk, but being on film meant I had to keep running, and I was mumbling and complaining to myself about being such a wuss and had to force myself to look relaxed and focused – I dread to see the footage if and when it’s released!

Refuelling on coke, ginger ale, oranges, watermelon and banana, I left the aid station still in the lead of the ladies race but with no idea how much of a cushion I actually had. More climbing, more twists and turns through the forests, a very steep and rocky downhill which badly bruised my big toe (note to self: buy bigger shoes next time!) and then more short, steep climbs ensued where I power hiked if needed although it was fast becoming more like a shuffle.

We’d left the pine forests by now and in the distance I could see Watson Lake which was both the start and finish of the race. I was trying to do the maths in my head and figured there was only around 10 miles remaining - not too much further to go (it’s all relative in an ultra – you’ve already done 40+ miles – 10 is nowt) but when I saw Marissa at the next aid station, I got all excited! As great as it was to see Marissa and her happy, welcoming smile, I had it in my mind that she was at the 49.9 mile aid station and therefore I had miscalculated and only had 5 miles to go. But nooooooo!!!  It was 44.9 and there WAS another 10 miles!

Oranges, bananas, coke, ginger ale and anything else that contained fluids were swiftly necked down, my stomach was full of gas because I desperately needed to eat but I really didn’t fancy anything, I knew I was running low on calories, and therefore energy, but I kept telling myself it would be ok with just 10 miles to go!

More climbing up the mountain side for at least another couple of miles followed, but I managed to keep going by telling myself only 4 miles to the next aid and then we’re on the home stretch. I passed some of the 57k runners and they offered lots of encouragement, and then we started to make a long decent which took us even closer to Watson Lake.

By now, I had started looking behind me more frequently. I was still holding on to the lead but these last few miles were where I could lose it. I somehow started to pick up the pace thinking that if anybody wanted to pass me, they were going to have to work for it. If I was running a decent pace and they still passed me this late on, they deserved the win and I could handle that – what I couldn’t handle is if they passed me and I was walking – it wasn’t an option and I was being extremely disciplined with myself.

The final aid station couldn’t come soon enough, but even then, we had another climb that took us up and over, before finally… finally!...we hit the old railway track that would take us to the finish. We had walked this stretch with the dogs on numerous occasions so I knew that it was only another 10 or 15 minutes of running. I was still checking behind me every few minutes just in case a lady was closing in on me but even though I couldn’t see anybody, I still didn’t allow myself to relax.

Up ahead I could see the Aravaipa banner and the finish line. I knew there was one final little climb to the finish – my legs were so tired and my toe so bruised and sore, but I tried the best I could to run that final stretch. I got a little emotional as I approached the finish line – I really didn’t think I could win the race, but I had – I had finished 1st lady in a new course record of 10 hours 19 minutes, and 7th overall. 

Andy was there at the finish line with the dogs and I was so happy to see them and Brandy gave me a good wash down as she got rid of all the salt. Meanwhile, it was fabulous to see coach Adam there who had had an outstanding run himself to finish in 9.50 and 5th overall and I was so, so happy for him.

The Whiskey Basin 88km is a race that I would certainly do again. I love forests and mountains and I loved the smell of the pines as we were running through. As expected, the organisation was outstanding and the volunteers were second to none. The weather was pretty much perfect – I did get sunburn, but the brisk wind kept things feeling cooler than they were and I don’t feel like I struggled with the conditions at all.

As ever, I have to say thank you to Andy and pups for being there for me and allowing me to do these races and all the training that goes with it. I moan and groan, I have happy days when I’m feeling confident and not so good days where I doubt my ability, and yet they always perk me up and make me realise that the main thing is to have fun and do my best – nothing else matters and they won’t judge me.

Of course, I must also thank Mr Adam Livingston who has been coaching me in recent months. After Black Canyon, I did have a niggle and I was worried that it would be detrimental to my race in Prescott. Thanks to Adam, my training plan was tailored perfectly to get me to Whiskey Basin in racing shape, but without overdoing things to aggravate the niggle even further. I stick to the plan pretty much religiously and trust in what Adam asks me to do – I feel that the win at the weekend is as much a victory for him as it is for me simply because he knows his athletes and wants to see them succeed – if you don’t have a coach yet, then I can certainly recommend him 😊

So what’s next? Well it’s only April and my next goal race isn’t until mid-September and there are a lot of weeks in between. My next race will likely be the Dam Good Run on April 23rd – one of the things I need to work on is getting some speed back in my legs, so I will likely be doing one of the shorter races there. After that there is a huge possibility that I will be doing a road marathon – gasp in horror! Yes, I am seriously looking at the San Diego Marathon in early June as a way of getting back some of the road speed I used to have which will hopefully transfer back to the trails during the summer. I vowed never to do another road marathon but I think I need a little bit of a change right now to get me running faster and as ever, I’m up for the challenge. Marathon number 40 or something, here I come!

Prizes from the race with shoes courtesy of HIke Shack in Prescott

Monday, 27 March 2017

A Little Update :-)

With just under 2 weeks until my next race, I am feeling ready to race and ready to race hard. It took me a little longer to recover from the Black Canyon Ultra back in February - a minor niggle going into the race was further aggravated by the 30 mile climb back to the finish line which meant a reduction in both mileage and intensity post race whilst I tried to get my right leg feeling something like normal. Lots of stretching and rolling and shorter, slower runs on flatter terrain seems to have helped tremendously, and although my leg isn't 100%, it is far better than it was a few weeks ago.

Despite me taking things a little easier these past few weeks, I have thankfully still been able to make it out on the trails. With all the rain during the winter months followed by glorious sunshine and higher temperatures, the desert looks lush and green and the spring flowers have certainly put on a spectacular blooming show for us all this year. I have never seen so much colour, and the mix of yellows, purples, reds and oranges has been breathtaking, so much so that I've found myself stopping every 100 yards or so to snap photos of the sheer beauty of the Sonoran Desert right now.

Of course with the higher temperatures, the snakes are out and I have already seen 3 rattlesnakes in the past couple of weeks. The first two seemed pretty dormant and half asleep, but the latest one was huge, well fed and angry! With pretty much all of my runs being solo runs, I always try to stay alert when out on the trails, looking and listening for our slithery friends, but on this occasion whilst I had heard him, I didn't see him straight away as he blended in so well on the trail. He stubbornly sat coiled up in the middle of the trail, head raised, tail raised and rattling away, and we had a standoff for almost 10 minutes before I backed away and left him to his business. 

I'm also excited to say that I have managed to get a run in with Wilson and we spent a whopping 8 miles of running together on one of the cooler days last week. We ran mostly on the roads simply because the trails are very rocky and cause sore paws plus Wilson always runs ahead of me and I worry about encountering a snake and him not stopping in time, but we did manage a couple of miles on the trails and he absolutely loved it!

Our other wonderful pup Brandy doesn't like to run so much these days - she's a big girl and running puts far too much pressure on her joints - but not wanting her to miss out, I've taken advantage of cooler temperatures when they've been here and have done quite a few hikes with both Wilson and Brandy, particularly with Andy working away so much at the moment. These two are amazing company and help me to maintain some level of sanity when I'm home alone, and I love it when they snuggle up with me on an evening and make everything seem alright.

My running is also my therapy and it really helps my body, mind and soul to get in their right place. Last week I did my highest mileage week for a few months and although my legs felt tired, I felt great in general. I have recently been trying to lose a bit of weight and have lost half a stone in the past 7 weeks and I am really noticing the difference when I'm running at the moment. I attempted a bit of a speed session earlier in the week - 4 x 1 mile repeats - and although the 6.25 minute miling pace I was managing is nowhere near what I used to be capable of, it certainly gave me a bit of a confidence boost that with a little work and effort, I may just be able to get some of my road speed back.

Feeling positive and confident about my running, rightly or wrongly I put my name forward for consideration for the British Team at the World Trail Championships that take place in June. Despite having ran for GB on numerous occasions in the past, I am still extremely cynical about their selection process and I was under no illusions that I would get the call up. I wasn't able to compete in the trial race as it was in the UK and I wasn't that desperate to get on the team as to hop a plane to run the Haworth Hobble. However, I HAD done several 50km races during the selection period with the same level of ascent and had finished in decent times. However, with just 6 places up for grabs and with the top 3 ladies from the trials being guaranteed selection, I already knew they wouldn't want me on the team even though my 50k times were comparable. I didn't make the team which came as no surprise (I really AM cynical but I do have my reasons!) and within half an hour of receiving the email, I was already planning a summer of racing across Utah, Colorado and Wyoming.

One of the other things I'm trying to get more involved with this year is volunteering at some of the Aravaipa Races (thanks for the nudge Adam!) something that I have missed doing for the past year or so. As a member of Trentham Running Club, I spent several years as a committee member and helping out with the Trentham 10, and then in Canada, I got involved with trail maintenance and volunteered at the Moose Mountain Races a couple of times. I'm always happy to help out and to give something back to the sport I love and being a volunteer gives you a completely different perspective of the race.

My first volunteer stint here in Phoenix came at the Mesquite Canyon Trail Races a couple of weeks ago. These races are held in the White Tank Mountains, and area I hadn't been to before, and it was absolutely beautiful! It was scorching hot that weekend with temperatures in the mid 90's. I had put my name down to do the final sweep of the 50km course - 10 miles of hiking/jogging whilst clearing trail trash and removing course markings. Starting at 2pm, we were out in the heat of the day, but along with my volunteer partner Hollie, we had an amazing few hours chatting and getting to know each other and having a jolly good time. The views were outstanding and Ford Canyon was certainly impressive - this race is sure to be on the cards for me next year! This coming Saturday is the Crown King Scramble and once again, I will be helping out, this time on race day registration which starts at 4.30am! The nice thing is that I put Andy's name down too, so we both get the chance to be involved and being at Lake Pleasant, we can take Wilson and Brandy with us and treat them to a hike and a swim once we've completed our shift :-)

So with summer plans in progress and with the Whiskey Basin 88km race fast approaching, I am getting a little excited. I'm particularly excited about this race as I love Prescott and I'm feeling pretty good about it as things stand. This year I have deliberately chosen races that bring greater competition which will hopefully make me have a better race, and Whiskey Basin is no exception with some quality ladies - and men - registered, including team mates from the Aravaipa Racing Team. I'm just hoping that Andy doesn't get called away for work as we have booked a lovely little stone cottage for the weekend to chill out both before and after the race with the dogs, but otherwise I'm really looking forward to what will hopefully be a great race and a superb weekend with family and friends :-)

The Dreaded Lurgy and New Puppies

I was meant to have raced the Adrenaline 27km Night Race on Saturday evening, but instead I was at the cinema watching the new "Guardi...