2008 ULTRA RUNNING ADVENTURES

 

   
 
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  DEFINING SUCCESS:
SOME POST-RACE THOUGHTS

SUNDAY, DECEMBER 7

 
"Life isn't about waiting for the storm to pass;
it's about learning to dance in the rain."
 
- from a post to the internet ultra list by Marv Skagerberg (who will soon turn 85)
 

Running often brings clarity to my mind. I joke (?) about running for the endorphin high that comes after an hour or two of exerted effort on my feet, but I also love the thoughts that bubble to the surface and the problems I'm able to solve when my mind is released from the more sedentary routines of daily life.

As often as not, however, I forget the brilliant phrases or solutions when the run or hike is over! One of the smartest things I did on my Appalachian Trail Adventure Run was to take a little notebook and pen with me each day so I could record my thoughts as they surfaced. It also helped that I was forced to write my web journal entries within a couple hours of getting off the Trail each day (most times). Too often since, I've written entries after several days or weeks have elapsed and some of the here-and-now thoughts and feelings have escaped.


Mist over Lake Raven on Sunmart race morning

What I'd define as a "break-through" thought occurred to me about two miles from the finish of the Sunmart 50K. I was laughing about it when a chatty runner named Nancy caught up to me and we walked together to the finish. (I know she could have run, but she said she was enjoying our  conversation too much -- and she had to wait for slower friends to finish, anyway.)

So what was my brilliant realization?

It was the irony of my reaction at the end of the New River Trail 50K two months ago compared to my response at the end of Sunmart.

"SUCCESS" IN CONTEXT

If you remember, I trained very hard for four months to run fast enough to finish the NRT race under 7 hours so I'd have an official finish and get the nice finishers' shirt. I ran harder-for-longer than I was trained, got leg cramps that prevented any running the last five miles, and came in DFL in 7:09, getting a finish but not the shirt. I was so frustrated about my diminishing abilities as a runner that I was in tears and vowed never, ever to enter another race with cut-offs that are too tight for slower and/or older runners to have a decent chance of finishing on time.


Waiting for the Sunmart 50K to start

With two miles to go at Sunmart, I knew my time would be my slowest-ever 50K. Gosh, at the end of the second loop at 19+ miles my 4:41 time about equaled my PR for 31+ miles!! And I walked most of the last 12+ miles, making my finish time all the slower. Yet I was grinning broadly, enjoying the warm sunshine and peaceful woods (now that the runners were all strung out), and happy as all get out to even be finishing this race.

What gives?? Why the disparity in reactions to these two races? I'm disgusted and embarrassed by a 7:09 at NRT and totally thrilled to finish in 8:26 at Sunmart??

Yes. It's all in how I perceive "success."


50K runners on the Chinquapin Trail

I knew there was a good chance at NRT that I wouldn't finish on time. I took the risk, trained hard, and came up just a little short of my expectations. But it was one DNF too many for my psyche.

It was too much for my body, too. On a hilly training run a week later, I injured one of my over-used hamstrings. At my age, injuries happen more easily and take longer to heal than they used to. Hamstring injuries are notorious at any age for the time they take to heal. So I've been babying it for two months -- walking and cycling more than running, using various techniques to help it heal faster, readjusting my expectations for both Sunmart and Across the Years based on my reduced level of training.

I went into Sunmart having no clue if that hamstring would hold up for 31 miles even if I walked the entire distance. I figured if I could run any of it, that would be a bonus. The pressure of time limits was totally removed. I knew I had over 11 hours to finish the race. I took a big risk by running the first four hours, but it paid off in a faster time than walking the whole thing. I never felt the hamstring during or after the race and it gave me hope that I can at least equal my 2007 distance at ATY this year.

In that context, Sunmart was indeed a "success" and I'm very happy that I finished 31 miles of running and walking with absolutely NO hamstring pain. I drank enough fluids and took in enough calories and electrolytes that I had plenty of energy the whole race and had no leg or foot cramping or GI tract problems. For me, that's another measure of success considering the problems I've had in those regards previously.

The only thing that hurt after Sunmart was my knees. The discomfort wasn't what I feel when I go down a steep slope or stairs, just muscle-tendon soreness from more miles than they've been allowed to run and walk for two months. It was gone within 24 hours. Now I just have to be careful to let my joints and body systems recover adequately for my goal race: ATY.

DANCING IN THE RAIN

I've written several times before about the frustrations of being an aging, slowing runner. Argue all you want that those concepts aren't mutually exclusive, but at some point in a veteran runner's "career" he or she is going to slow down simply because of the aging process.


Our friend Don Adolf, age 71, isn't as fast as he used to be but he's still out there running ultras!

My physical deterioration is not a "storm that will pass." I choose to adapt to the aging process as gracefully and positively as I can by "learning to dance in the rain." The quote at the top of this entry is similar to a metaphor I've used previously about turning life's lemons into lemonade. It's all about adaptation (another one of my favorite themes) and making the best of whatever happens in your life.

I reserve the right to whine occasionally, however. <grin>

There have been several discussion threads about aging runners recently on the internet ultra list to which I belong (the long-running one, pun intended, that Dave Combs and Joe Jurzyk own, not Matt Mahoney's more recent list). Sometimes I jump in and comment publicly, but mostly I read and save the posts for future reference or correspond privately with other listers. I value the thoughts of these running veterans and feel better about my own diminishing abilities when I realize I'm in such good company.

As you'd expect, there is wide variation between the speed of aging ultra runners and their longevity in the sport. There are bionic wonders like Hans-Dieter Weisshaar who has cranked out one or two dozen difficult trail 100-milers a year throughout his 60s. Helen Klein, who was in her late 50s before she even began running, continues to amaze us in her mid- to late-80s. That's awesome!

Folks like these are truly inspiring to the rest of us but it's important to keep in mind that they are anomalies, not the norm. The rest of us can aspire to be like them all we want but without the genetic gifts they received, we aren't likely to reach the bar they've set. But we can set our own, realistic bars to stretch ourselves without reaching the breaking point and still achieve personal success and gratification.


Sunmart runners come and go at a busy intersection near the nature center.

It's been a frustrating process for me to train as hard as I ever did but find my pace getting slower and slower. It sure feels like I'm running as fast or hard as I used to! It's also been frustrating for at least a decade to accept reality and have to lower my self-expectations. I'm not completely "there" yet psychologically. It's my hope that writing about it occasionally in this journal will be therapeutic for me and perhaps helpful for others experiencing similar age-related issues. Maybe it will even help younger runners in some way -- like not putting off what you really want to do while you're young enough to do it or, more optimistically, realizing that you can do more than you might think as you enter your "golden" years.


The first aid station is still busy on Loop 2 of the 50K

When I have more time I'll write an entry about the increasingly lower percentage of female ultra runners compared to male ultra runners as they enter their 50s, 60s, 70s, and beyond  There have been some very interesting discussions on the ultra list and privately with friends about the reasons for this phenomenon.

RECOGNITION FOR OLDER FINISHERS

It has become obvious to me as I get close to the 60-year age group that there are some races that simply don't recognize the efforts of older finishers, particularly females, in their awards categories. That really bugs me.


AS #2 had less runner traffic when I passed it.

Not all ultras have age-group awards. It's fine with me if there are no awards, period, or awards only for the overall male and female winners. Just completing an ultra marathon is reward enough for many of us. I haven't run for tangible awards since I began doing ultras in 1992. I did that for too many years when I was a competitive road runner in the 1980s and early 1990s.

My problem is with the races that DO give 5- or 10-year age group awards but stop at 40+ or 50+ when there are finishers in the decades older than that. The usual excuse is that "there aren't enough older runners to justify the expense of an award." That smacks of ageism to me. I've read that runners over 50 lose about 1% of their speed every year for the next ten years, then about 2% after age 60. I don't know how accurate that is, but anyone looking at enough age group results for enough years at enough races can see very clearly that runners slow down as they age. How can most of them possibly compete for awards against much younger runners? (Some can for a while, but not the majority.)

Even worse in my mind are races that have categories for men 60+ or 70+ but not women "because there aren't enough of them." From my vantage point that's sexism. How much do one or two more awards cost when you consider how many others are given out?

I feel strongly that if there are going to be any age-group awards at all, they should be distributed fairly by age and sex. Like I said earlier, I don't run for awards, but the recognition (and sometimes the awards themselves, like high-quality clothing items) are a nice incentive for us older folks to get out there and try. 


This was the most enthusiastic volunteer (or crew person?) at Sunmart!
The young lady finished before me in the 50K.

I especially like the recognition for the runners that is exemplified by the Across the Years (ATY) 72-, 48-, and 24-hour races:

  • Each finisher in each race receives an engraved glass mug at the awards ceremony. Since these are fixed-time races and not fixed-distance races, everyone present gets recognition for the distance he or she completed.
  • The overall male and female winners in each race are also recognized (among other things, they receive nice merchandise awards from the sponsors)
  • Each person running at least 100, 200, or 300 miles during the race receives a beautiful custom silver and brass buckle. (If you think about it, your odds of receiving a buckle are best in the 72-hour race.) There is also a progressive award for veteran participants of the race in the year they reach a total of 1,000 or 2,000 ATY miles.
  • Best of all, course records are updated each year and kept on the race web site for every single-year age (e.g., age 58, not just 50-59) for both men and women in all three races. I found that to be great incentive last year to reach (and exceed) a certain distance. When you're at the high end of a traditional 5- or 10-year age group you've got a lot better chance of beating the old record if you're competing against someone who is within a year of your age than someone who is four or nine years younger. I'm 59 so you can see why this matters to me.

Sunmart is another race that clearly values both older and slower runners, even walkers. Although the 12-hour time limit in the 50-miler is too tight now for me, it is reasonable for a rolling course with relatively good footing (compare it to the extra-long and difficult Mountain Masochist race, for example). The 11:15 hour cut-off for the 50K is downright generous and allows for a leisurely pace.


One of many large inflatable Christmas decorations at the Sunmart finish area.

In addition, Sunmart offers five-year age groups through 70-74 for both men and women. There were no runners over 75 this year. I'm guessing there would be a 75-9 year AG even if there was only one man or woman who finished. No age or sex discrimination here!

NOW WHAT??

ATY and Sunmart are the kinds of races that will get my business for as long as I can continue running and walking ultra distances. I have to be very choosy now, with slower times and knees that are about to give out. I'm looking for opportunities to challenge myself that take into consideration my physical limitations -- dirt trail races that have relatively good footing, are flat to rolling, are well-organized, and do not discriminate against older and/or slower runners. If they are scenic, all the better!

Jim's and my plan for the day after Sunmart was to do a long-ish training run at Huntsville State Park so we'd have a good "double" to help prepare for ATY. Jim wanted to run and walk about twenty miles; I wanted to walk four to five hours (14-16 miles).

That didn't happen. We tried, but I quit after four miles because my knees started hurting again and Jim didn't have the energy or leg strength to go more than 8+ miles. We've learned to listen to our bodies in cases like these. We know how easy it is to get injured by pushing ourselves too hard, too soon after a race, speed workout, or long training run.


The gauntlet of canopies and cheering crew members is gone Sunday morning.

It was interesting this morning to walk through the race finish area. It sure looked different than yesterday! We had the place to ourselves. Food, awards, and other items had been removed but the tents and other structures still stood, looking abandoned. Crews apparently get today (Sunday) off and will be back tomorrow to clear everything away.


Finish banner and Santa paper are stripped from the "arch."

Aid stations are similarly forlorn. Jim said some supplies were still out at one of the stations on the Triple C Trail: some park visitors were helping themselves to the remaining edibles when Jim ran by! The volunteers at the aid station near our camper left only the equipment and trash. Course markers were removed on the trail near us by early afternoon. We both picked up some obvious runner trash like gel packs on the trails we ran today but they were mostly clean.

The campground quickly cleared out by mid-afternoon today. Although it was great to see so many families with their kids enjoying a weekend in the woods (many of them weren't involved in the race), it's nice to have the place to ourselves again tonight.


The inflatables were gone Sunday morning but the large ornaments
and some other decorations remained in the kitchen area.

We've really enjoyed our week at Huntsville State Park. I'm sorry I didn't get to ride our bike on any of the trails (I ran on all of them, though). I did one road ride in the park but simply ran out of time and energy for any trail rides. That's something I want to do on our next visit to the park in February when I won't be tapering for or recovering from a race

Tomorrow we're heading to San Antonio to enjoy the holiday light spectacular along River Walk. Hope I get some good pictures to show you!

Happy trails,

Sue
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, Cody, and Tater (in spirit)

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2008 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil

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