Friday, 5 September 2014

Tahoe Rim Trail 50

Having been out of action for the third time in the last year with an injury, I've been sulking too much to want to write about running, but now it comes to it its amazing to remember the miles of the Tahoe Rim Trail, which was an all round incredible running experience.

I flew to the States a week early, heading to Boulder first with the aim of acclimatising then over to Reno four days out from the race. What a town. Framed by the foothills of the Rockies and the beautiful trail heaven of Chataqua Park and the Flatirons, Boulder is a free-thinking haven for outdoorsies, with cycle trails and pedestrianised centre dissimilar to many other American towns. On my first trail run, after a blissful five miles,
trail rash
trail elbow
I hit the deck hard downhill, managing a seemingly impossible scraping of the shoulder, elbow and knee. I thought I'd broken my arm given the bump and bruise that emerged, but reckoned if I could still move it without a lot of pain it must be fine. I was more worried about running the TRT in five days time with a skinless shoulder.

By Friday though it was beginning to heal up and after a few days of fun scoping of the trail with Rick and Dan I was good to go for the start on Saturday. I'd covered up with a dressing and was now more worried about the occasional pain and pulling right in the top of my left quad/groin, which I'd had for a few weeks but which hadn't been bad enough to stop running - actually thought it was a yoga-inflicted niggle. It had started bothering me more in taper week but all I could do was take the race as it came.

The TRT is run mostly on alpine forest trails in the Carson Spur of the Sierra Nevada mountains, above the  'Big Blue' Lake Tahoe and a few other lakes. Total elevation gain is just under 9,000ft, with the highest point at 9,200ft and the lowest just under 6,800. Even though the Tahoe Rim Trail itself is a long distance 165 mile trail around the lake, the race course is a series of out and backs for logistical reasons - starting and finishing at Spooner Lake in the north east of Lake Tahoe.

Hundreds of us set off from Spooner at 6am, for a gentle mile or two until we reached the Marlette Lake Trail which climbs 1500ft through conifer and aspen groves to reach the Tahoe Rim. My sole aims were to run, breathe steady and NOT FALL. Or fall on my left side. The views of Marlette Lake just after sunrise were absolutely spectacular, I wished I'd brought a camera as couldn't stop thinking to myself that I'd never capture that moment again. Soon came the Hobart aid station which I'd read was pretty legendary and it didn't disappoint, with a smoothie bar and a juggler on stilts. I didn't stop and got chatting to a lovely 50k runner - should I be running with the 50k's?- who I disovered was Dan's friend he'd told me about, aiming to place in the 50k. Nope I should not be running with her. I didn't feel like I was pushing but began to hang back.

The next five mile section brought some beautiful single-track trail with panoramic views. I was in a chain gang of runners, mostly guys, one of whom took a bad fall but seemed ok. It was good to have company and pacing. Then into Tunnel Creek - a decent sized a/s that we would come to three times due to the out/back nature of the course. It was great to see Dan and Rick there and I swiftly re-fuelled on something I
can't remember (generally Lara bars/fruit/water/electrolyte/coke throughout race) and headed down for the notorious 6-mile Red House loop. It kicks off with a couple of mile/1,000 ft downhill on sandy trails into the airless depths, another aid station, then back up for the slippy, sandy climb that folk call the 'glimpse of hell' of the course (although I'd seriously contend this now knowing what was to come!).

After passing through Tunnel Creek again came a rolling 6-mile section along the TRT. I hadn't been on these sections before as it is so remote to reach and didn't expect it to be quite so rolling,but the trail landscape was again stunning, soft single-track bordered by alpine wildflowers. A small water stop was ahead 3 miles and I reminded myself that I had to fill up properly here, for the next would be 8 miles away in the heat of midday. I had an idea that I was in fifth lady position since Rick shouted the place through Tunnel Creek but the only 50 mile runners I saw for most of the
Tunnel Creek
race were guys, I got chatting to a few and passed a long string of 100 milers. The 100 had started an hour before us and I was constantly amazed at the pace of the runners, particularly the guy who ended up winning - Bob Shebest - in sub 18 hours, an incredible feat at elevation and on such a course (they run the 50 course twice).

Diamond Peak a/s was a target for me with a plan to reach it in 6 hours. At 30 miles and at the foot of the toughest climb in the race I wanted to be in good condition there. A couple of miles before though I must have lost focus and tripped over a stump, slamming down on the trail, yup - right shoulder first. More annoyed with myself than anything, I kept expecting it to get messy and bleed through the dressing but it didn't happen. I took a dip in a creek at the bottom of the descent to get rid of the trail dust over the skint knees and ran into Diamond Creek. Brilliant again to see Dan & Rick and by this time predictably I wasn't too excited about solid food, instead filling up on coke and taking a bar for the climb.

It was something else. 1,700 feet directly up a sandy pathed ski run in less than two miles. No switchbacks, no shade. It seemed longer than when Dan and I had ventured
up there earlier in the week (when I'd refused to stop and fast hike all the way up, much to Dan's frustration!). It was so steep there wasn't even a chance of fast hiking and I couldn't work out if the struggle was about altitude, fatigue or heat but I had to pause a couple of times on the climb. Chatting to a few 100 milers all I could think was how they had to take this on twice, the next time at 80 miles in.

I'd originally been registered for the 100 and have now developed huge respect for anyone who takes this race on, it is one hell of a 100. I'd say tougher in many respects than Western States, despite the fact temps can be cooler.

The climb shook me a bit and I lost time. At the peak we took a right on the trail to connect again with the trail back in the other direction to Tunnel Creek. I couldn't believe how much I was drinking and worried it was too much - I'd emptied two bottles in two miles up the climb and was still thirsty - plus no toilet stops for the entire race - probably not healthy. I managed to get a bit of pace back slowly and reached Tunnel Creek feeling revived but craving coke.

I struggle to remember the penultimate section back to Hobart circus, just that drinking a smoothie AND coke is not a good combination, and my muddled brain remembering that climb Snow Valley Peak, the highest point of the course, was still to come. I'd hoped I'd be able to run this climb but it just wasn't going to happen so I hiked as hard as I could handle, reaching the beautiful plateau-like summit and a/s run by the boy scout troop. The views were outstandig up here but I was watching the clock by now and keen to get off the summit.

Finishing straight
The home straight: I didn't care about hammering the quads on the 5 mile descent back down to Spooner, although the pain in the top of the muscle was now constantly nagging. I was really hurting after a few miles but I spotted another female runner ahead and tried to focus on leg turnover and form to see if I could maintain speed and catch her. I didn't think she was a 50 miler but found out she was after finishing (she finished a few
seconds ahead of me so I was kicking myself). The downhill seemed like it would never end but eventually we reached level ground and the final (abandoned) aid station, which the kind volunteers had left stocked. By this point the sky was darkening and I sensed the thunder was close - I'd been in Colorado/Nevada for seven days so far and there hadn't been one afternoon without electrical storms, generally starting around 2pm. But I was already back on the final two mile flat around Spooner Lake, and could hear the buzz of the finishing straight for the 50 and the (separate) 50 mile aid station for the 100. I was able to push hard for the last stretch and finished in 10.57 to be met by a couple of volunteers in hot pink micro tutus and fishnets. I was told I was fifth lady but found later it was seventh lady overall and fifth in age group. Happy to squeeze in the top ten and not without a battle with the leg.

Literally no more than 20 minutes after and a monster thunderstorm hit. The finishing area was transformed into an apocalytpic scene with rivers careering past the tents, children crying, drop bags being soaked, lighning and hail. It continued for an age and all we could think about were the 50 milers still out there and worse still, the 100 milers out there without shelter with over 50 miles to go after being absolutely drenched. It turned out that the Snow Valley Peak a/s had to be shut down due to lightning danger and runners had to shelter with volunteers for an hour or so.

Without a doubt, TRT was one of my all time race highs - tendinitis issue aside - for the pure fun and beauty of the trails out there. One special race. Maybe one day I'll try the 100 but it will have to be an injury-free, brave day.

Thank you to Dan and Rick for all your support before and on the day! I'll be back :-)

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Three strikes and out

A friend in the ultra running community told me this week "your ability to tackle the lows as well as the highs is the measure of your worth as a human being". This is good to remember when you are thrown into dealing with injury rather than achieving all of the running ambitions you've planned for the year.

The good news of late is that the fibula stress fracture has healed up nicely. It behaved during a 15 m
Bumped into this colourful crew on Saturday
ile out and back run from Balmaha on Saturday, my longest run since January. In fact I felt no pain with it over the entire weekend. Being back on a trail felt amazing!

The bad news is that my older soft tissue problems are back. I'm not sure they really went away but took a back seat to the fracture. They withstood Saturday's longer run in the sense they didn't stop me running but I can feel them pretty much constantly now, even walking. It's mainly pain and tightness in my right hamstring, an issue that I ignored last year (putting it down to normal post race and training niggles) before it culminated in an IT band injury and stopped me running properly at Glenmore/River Ayr Way.

The most ugly of news is that five miles into Sunday's 'recovery' run, where I took myself off for a fartlek trail run, I had sudden pain all over the middle of my back, like a spasm of all the muscles around my upper spine. This was new. I tried to continue running but couldn't, walking back to Tyndrum was hard enough. A bit of drama and quite a few tears later I got home to Edinburgh. I've since seen my osteopath who thinks it might be inflammation or sprain of a facet joint in my thoracic (upper) spine vertebra, with muscles around it spasming. I'd just last week been told by a biomechanical specialist that my QL muscle in left upper back was in spasm, but weirdly until Sunday hadn't had any pain there.

I'm determined to get to the root of all the injuries but I've had a few opinions over the months and it's fair to say I've been confused. I have confidence in each expert but their approaches sometimes conflict. Last autumn, my physio Guy Van Herp decided the hamstring/ITB problems were due to an SI joint in my pelvis jamming yet un-jamming it didn't seem to improve things, although the ITB inflammation improved after rest from running. Then my osteopath said the issues were being caused by weak glut muscles, outlining the need to work on strengthening (pilates), TRX etc. She also advised transitioning to minimalist footwear. Then in January when I stepped up the marathon training, the hamstring flared and the fibula pain started. When Guy's stress fracture tests pointed to a fibula fracture, I rested from weight-bearing for six weeks (pool running, cycling and Bikram yoga'ing like a demon).

Most recently, I saw Nigel McHollan, a Biomechanical Specialist based in Gullane (one of only five in the UK). He tells me my right glut muscles are overused/not firing in correct sequence, increasing strain on the hamstring. The left QL muscle in my back is also in spasm and left foot isn't functioning properly: the arch is dropping and I have a growth on my navicular bone, possibly related to ligament damage years ago. Either the foot or QL issue are at the heart of the issues down my right side (referred pain) so his treatment is isolating which one it is. 

So the body is in great shape! Is it any wonder I'm super paranoid every time I run a few miles. But saying that, I'm hopeful that we're at least en route to finding the cause of everything.

In any case, the only way forward has been to take away any pressure of racing. Without doing so, I really won't have recovery as the sole priority. I'd already changed race plans in February when I was offered a place in the Scotland team for the Anglo Celtic Plate 100k championship, which I was hopeful of taking on in early May. It's obviously now not an option - the Brighton marathon is out of the question this Sunday what with the back pain, and without being able to finish a marathon I probably shouldn't be comtemplating a race twice as long and punishing: co-codomol is not an acceptable fuel to get me through my first 100k. The Tahoe Rim Trail in July is a wait and see job, if anything it will be the 50 mile distance which I've dropped down to from the 100, but part of me wants to wait and run it in another year where I know I can perform at my peak.

So for now I'll be following advice from another friend - stay positive - as well as that of the right experts, and take each day as it comes with no pressure. Might even formulate a No-Training plan involving copius amounts of pilates, bikram and core work. Hey maybe I'll be biomechanical expert myself at the end of it all. 

**Whilst I am not running Brighton anymore, I'm still trying to raise more for the wonderful work of Marine Conservation Society across Scotland. Please throw a few in the pot if you can!**

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Fibula fail

Fibula stress reaction, possible stress fracture, 10 days of total rest: not words I wanted to hear today.

After what has been a positive January back into running and marathon training proper for Brighton in April, February has brought issues...some familiar, some not so. The hamstring hasn't been perfect, every run over 13 or so miles has brought the familiar nagging pain back and the sciatic nerve pain through my back. I think  the remedial core/strengthening work I'm doing a few times a week is bringing improvement but to be honest its hard to tell. I guess if you ignore an issue for as long as I did with the hamstring (which then turned into an IT band problem) then recovery is equally slow. Then earlier this week a completely new sensation reared its head - a very localised pain deep in my lower outer right leg that throbbed during both running and walking. I debated whether to still go along to the newly-joined Portobello RC for a hill reps session last night and decided to go with it to gauge how it felt. I felt it throughout but it was do-able. Then today just walking a few miles to work was a struggle.

My physio, Guy Van Herp at Meadowbank, thinks its a stress reaction of the fibula, which apparently is one of the most common sites for a stress fracture for ultra runners due to consistent overloading. Having never had any fractures or breaks before, its all new. He thinks it'll be a combination of  stepping up the mileage on the road rather than trail for Brighton (albeit gradually) and minimalist footwear - those lovely Altras. I tried selling a good case to him that they are super cushioned and I'd broken them in gradually - don't want to be ANOTHER of those people who injure themselves going minimalist - but he doesn't think gradual enough. I'd love to trace a trail right back to the heart of the problem but sadly the human body doesn't often let us do that. Probably also a classic case of not taking as long completely out of training as I should have last year with injury no. 1.

It's a game of patience now: wait 10 days with no loading weight on leg at all, see physio again and take it from there. I may or may not have to take further weeks completely off training after. Brighton may or may not be out. I don't want to start any race if I'm not 100% healthy.

Apparently there's ample opportunity to maintain fitness and even speed (of sorts): game plan hatched for the next few weeks involves Bikram yoga, back to the dreaded pool, intervals on the stationary bike. Bizarrely, I asked physio if a weekend of downhill skiing would be allowed, thinking he'd laugh me out the office, but he said yes - if the boot is high enough and I don't have pain when moving. We'll see!

Gutted to have to leave Porty RC after two sessions but hoping to be back soon. Their interval sessions are the perfect example of quality over quantity.

Thursday, 2 January 2014

New Year, New Races

It's a shiny new year, Happy 2014 everyone. A world of opportunity for new running experiences and putting into practice what we learnt in 2013. I still feel so fortunate to have experienced Western States last year, as well as see real improvement in my Highland Fling performance and place first lady in the Devil O' The Highlands, before everything went downhill fast as I struggled with the injury at Glenmore and River Ayr Way - a sure sign that I took on too much throughout the year.

I've just been fun running over the last few months: no training plan but back into the hills, lots of core and strengthening work (following physio orders), and a bit of dreaming about future plans.The hamstring isn't perfect but I've had no IT band pain since September - and the ongoing hamstring niggles are only a positive thing as they keep reminding me to maintain the balance with cross training, core and massage, and not fall back into a routine of just desk work and running.

New Year's Day morning I found out I had entry into the Tahoe Rim Trail 100 miler out in Lake Tahoe (California/Nevada states) in July, their lottery took place on the stroke of midnight US time with 275 gaining entry to the 100 miler, 200 to the 50 miler and 125 to the 50k distances. It will be a key focus for me and I'm massively excited to get back out there and run those beautiful trails.

2014 Plans

Brighton Marathon

I wanted a spring marathon to have as a target for regaining some speed over the winter months, to feed into trail races later in the year. Brighton is poker straight and flat, with the route having being flattened further for 2014 to attract more marathon superstars. I'm running for Marine Conservation Society.

The marathon route

Hoka Highland Fling

I love the Fling. The sun always seems to shine (hope this doesn't jinx the 2014 race), its a great distance and it was one of my first ultras - ample reason to give a fourth outing a shot! And hopefully I've come on from running in Newton road shoes and blowing up at Beinglas, but you can never take a race like this for granted.

Transvulcania....but not the big one

I signed up for a week's holiday in La Palma with the idea of some sun and trails (not much persuasion needed) as well as to cheer on the growing group of folk from Scotland running the Transvulcania ultra - an 80k mountain race up and down one big daddy of a volcano. However I found myself registering for the much shorter marathon distance race as a 'fun' run, which by all accounts still includes the same volcano climb as the big daddy. Eek.

Tahoe Rim Trail 100

The Rim Trail during a training run in June 2013

I spent time up in Lake Tahoe in 2010 at a friend's family cabin, then last year in training for the Western States. The Rim Trail is absolutely stunning and also deceptive - composed of mostly soft, single track forest trails at average elevation of over 9,000 feet, with significant climbs and some beautiful snow fields. The 100 mile course is a repeat of the 50 mile race distance, which is a series of out and backs and loops. It has over 17,000 feet of elevation gain, a quad-busting 20,000 ft of downhill, and a 50% DNF rate. The trails can be pretty steep, including a 2 mile stretch with 1,700 ft of climb. I remember folk at Western States telling me about the race, that it can be tougher than WS. This makes me fearful but also motivates me to work hard, which can only a good thing, can't it?

The elevation profile of the 50 mile race

Glenmore 12 

I got my first taste of the fabulous Glenmore 24 last year when I ran the 12 hour option. I loved everything about the race apart from my struggles running it, with the IT band/hamstring pain plaguing me for most of the 12 hours. It's a special race - top notch race organisation by Bill & Mike, beautiful loch-side setting of Glenmore forest in the Cairngorms, a four-mile loop course on rolling trails (passing the camp ground and support each time) and one big social for the entirety. I really want to give it another shot this year, hopefully on better form, not over-raced or injured.

Happy training & racing folks :-)

The North Face Endurance Challenge: a shortlived high and many lows

4am in a freezing park in Sausalito, Marin County, 12 hours after stepping off a plane in San Francisco, two days after running a work event...