Saturday, 4 February 2017

Happy Trail Running - Stuff and Elephant Mountain

It's only 4th February and I've already done 3 races this year. OK, they haven't been A races and I haven't tapered for them, but the good news is that I am feeling somewhat fitter right now and the races have given me confidence for the Black Canyon 100km which takes place in just 2 weeks time.

The past couple of weeks have been pretty busy and I've had some good solid training runs where I am finally running around 7.30 miling on the roads. I'm nowhere near as quick as I was a couple of years ago (was I really running close to 6 minute miles back then?!), but having a bit of pace again is a good feeling :-)

With all of my races being on trails, I do all my training on the trails whenever I can although it is difficult during the week due to work commitments and not being able to catch the daylight hours. Weekends are much different and I am happily spending a good couple of hours in the company of the cacti.

Last weekend's run was a little different as I joined the Thunderbird Trail Runners for their annual 50km fun run - a free event at Thunderbird Park where the entry fee was just a contribution to the pot luck aid station.

I haven't spent much time with the Thunderbird Trail Runners but there were still some familiar faces from the Arizona Traileggers and Aravaipa and I was fortunate to meet some new people who quickly became friends by the end of the morning.

The run itself covered all the trail at Thunderbird Park, visiting all the peak summits on very technical and rocky trails. It consisted of 7 segments of varying lengths ranging from 3 to 7 miles with 5,000+ ft of climbing over the 31 miles, with a pass through the aid station at the end of each loop.

 Although only a fun run, I wanted to run as many of the hills as possible. My climbing has greatly improved recently simply because I have been trying to be less lazy and run hillier routes, but when it comes to races, I still lose so much time and positions on the ups that there is definitely more room for improvement.

Thunderbird Park
I was really happy to feel strong for the entire run and whilst I did walk some of the steeper climbs towards the end, I was still maintaining a decent pace and feeling good.

I also seemed to have conquered my nutrition again, going back to basics and using energy gels every 5 miles whilst out on the trail and eating half a banana every hour or so at the aid station. I also took onboard some jelly sweets to make sure I had some sugar in me, whilst fluids consisted of Tailwind and a little Gatorade, before switching to just plain, cool, refreshing water.

I was really pleased to complete the run in under 5 1/2 hours (moving time came in at 5.27) and knowing that Black Canyon isn't as technical nor as hilly, it has given me some idea as to the time I will likely be aiming for on race day.

After the early start, I slept most of that afternoon as on the Sunday, I had to be up at 3am as the Aravaipa Racing Team were meeting at 6am in Sedona and we (Suzie and I) had a two hour drive ahead of us to make sure we arrived in time.

It was great to finally meet other members of the team at last and we had lots of fun doing a photo shoot just on the outskirts of town as we watched the sun come up on an extremely chilly but beautiful Sunday morning. Thanks to Melissa and Jubilee, I suspect that the pictures will be amazing and I can't wait to see the finished produce once they've had the chance to go through them all.

Following the 50km run, I had a couple of days where my legs felt a little tired and heavy but thankfully I only had recovery runs scheduled in. By midweek my legs were feeling sufficiently recovered to pick up the pace a little which was reassuring as I was due to run another race on the Saturday.

Elephant Mountain is pretty close to where we live and with the 12km race I had signed up for not starting until 8.30am, it was nice to have a leisurely race day morning where we didn't need to get up in the middle of night to get ready.

I have to say that the thought of racing 12km put the fear of God in to me. I used to knock out 10k on the roads at least once a month when living in the UK and even when first moving to Canada, I was sure to do the occasional shorter race to help with maintaining some speed. But the shortest race I have done in the past couple of years has been 15 miles, and that was at the San Tan Scramble just 2 weeks ago. Racing on trails and racing 50km races and further has meant that I have lost alot of the road speed that I used to have, and whilst I can happily maintain 9 or 10 minute miling for many, many miles, running at 7's for short races is a struggle for me whether it's on road OR trail! Racing short meant going faster. Racing short meant lactic acid and jelly legs. Racing short meant, "I can't bloody breathe! I need oxygen!" Yup, my stomach was churning with nerves and I really didn't know how quick I could go for a 12 km trail race.

The Elephant Mountain race is tough with lots of climbs, the first being the mile long climb up the Go John Trail with a grade of 13%. I was 3rd lady going up but the 2 ladies ahead of me were very good, strong climbers and I watched the gap get wider as I gasped and wheezed my way up the climb, trying desperately to keep them in sight.

A rolling downhill greeted us the other side and my pace increased dramatically as I embraced the downhill and went for it. Downhill running is definitely one of my strengths, and I had so much fun dodging the humps and bumps on the trail as I headed down. I was quickly closing on the other 2 ladies by now, and by the time we reached the aid station, there was just 50 metres or so between me and the leading lady. I grabbed a Gatorade and did the turn on jelly legs (I really DID push that downhill!) before giving chase.

Next thing I know, I was flying through the air straight towards a pile of rocks with a painful landing looking extremely likely. In an attempt to avoid a nasty injury, I somehow managed to twist and fall in a patch of sand but grazing my right knee on a rock as I fell with a huge thud. The fall made me a little dizzy, knocking the stuffing out of me and forcing me to walk for a short while whilst the shock of the fall passed. With yet another climb looming ahead, I got a little annoyed at myself - the gains I had made on the other ladies were starting to slip away again and I was quietly berating myself for being so clumsy and falling over.

I walked and ran the next hill which seemed to be endless and I was feeling a little disappointed that I wasn't feeling as strong on the hills today as I was just a week ago even though I was still making reasonable progress. I could no longer see the leading lady but as I crested the hill, I did see the second placed lady. Unfortunately, although I felt like I could close that gap and perhaps sneak second, my watch was telling me that I only had 3km to go and I really would need to keep it going all the way to the finish if I hoped to move ahead.

I was willing to give it a try, and for the next couple of kilometres, I pushed hard and was running 6.30s on the downhills. It felt incredibly fast,  but whilst my breathing was keeping up for once, my legs were squealing at the unfamiliar feeling of being pushed. My watch beeped to tell me we had done 12km and yet I still couldn't see the finish line, nor even the parking lots close by. Where the hell was it? After another couple of minutes, I ended up having to walk again as my legs began to tighten with the pace, and I reverted back to the run / walk. This continued for a little while longer until at last, I finally saw the Aravaipa signage , and I ran in to the finish line to cheers and applause.

After the finish - Elephant Mountain 12km

The final distance on my watch came in at around 13.3 km - a little further than anticipated but I was extremely pleased to finished 3rd lady. It was a tough race for me but I must admit that it felt good to be pushing so hard and to experience that burn from the effort that I've had in years gone by when running on the roads or doing cross country. To put things into perspective, my average pace today was 9 minute miling for a race of around 8.5 miles - I ran the Coldwater Rumble 20 miler just 2 weeks ago at an average 8..30 ish - I'm clearly built for distance rather than speed!

It's safe to say that today was another pretty awesome day on the trails again and it was fantastic to see so many outstanding performances from friends, whether it be the 12k or the 50k.

Thanks to Aravaipa Running for another awesome race , thanks to all the volunteers, and thanks to the wonderful trail running family I've become a member of since moving to Phoenix. The running community here really is second to none and I find it humbling that despite living in a city with a population of a couple of million or more, the trail running community is so close knit, so friendly and so welcoming. Everybody seems to know your name and if not, they are willing to get to know you and call you a friend. I really do feel at home here and despite the inevitable summer heat that will be knocking on doors in the coming months, I can honestly say that I do love Arizona :-)

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