Tuesday, March 4, 2014

USA-TF 50k Nationals: Caumsett Park, LI, NY 3/2/14

Photo by Enrique Sallent

This is one of the longest periods of time I have gone between racing and posting reports.  This is because I have been feeling very unwell and trying to not stress my immune system any more than necessary.

Thoughts about the Impact of Rocky Raccoon
I should have never attempted to Rocky Raccoon.  I do not fully regret my decision.  I was trained well enough to justify the attempt. I have run good 100-24 hour races in the past.  I took a year away from long efforts to give my body a chance to get stronger and possibly become better able to manage the stress of the long race on my system.  It was the 100 Mile Nationals on a fast course in what I hoped would be ideal weather for me. If there was ever a 100 mile race for me to try to run, I decided it should be the 100 Mile Nationals so if I had a great day, it could have resulted in something quite meaningful to me.

Photo by Donna Sajulga-Tabios
Had the race gone well, I would not reflect back on my decision to go as such a big mistake.  Unfortunately that race was not successful and it left me needing a week to recover at a crucial time in my 50K training. I anticipated that would happen. Due to some lingering mild achilles tendon ache, I must have begun over compensating with my right side because my right piriformis became chronically tight over the last month.  But those recovery issues were the least of my concern and they will resolve.

My Autoimmune System 
The real trouble for me is that after Rocky,  I experienced a crash of my immune system that left me feeling exhausted with achy inflamed joints everywhere.  My entire body has been struggling. The joint in my hands now hurt.  The muscles across my chest are tight and painful. It hurts to take deep breaths. My right shoulder through my armpit is painful and I can't lift my arm up to change my shirt.  My fingernails have gotten brittle and all have split.  My skin has broken out in raised patches of skin (mostly on my face and legs) that feels like a sunburn and a few days later it even peels. Each issue on its own is minor and tolerable, but collectively I feel like I am 100 years old. Running fast has started to become really hard to do. This is what happens to me about 3-4 times per year.  I am lucky that since running higher mileage regularly, I have no longer needed to visit the emergency room for the swelling and hives. (I really have no idea about whether the higher volume helps me stay well or whether I am getting stronger each year beyond my treatment and able to tolerate higher mileage?).

I am not looking for opinions about what is wrong.  I am just documenting my experience.  I know what is wrong.  I have an autoimmune system disorder that manifested after my cancer treatment and is likely a result of the chemotherapy and immunotherapy I received for 1.5 years to treat my cancer.  I have gone to 8 years worth of doctors.  I know that when I feel unwell, I need to simply rest more until symptoms resolve or get so bad that I need medication to treat them.  Running hard does not trigger the immune system crash as long as I run regularly and stay on a routine. Running hard after the symptoms start, feels impossible.  Haphazard running (with no regularity) at lower mileage is more likely to trigger a reaction than regularly running high miles.  I can run 100 miles per week and feel better than I do if I run 30 miles per week, as long as I build up to 100 carefully and my body tolerates its well.

In my experience and observation, my immune system crashes when additional stress is added to my life that throws off my sleep schedule or increases my fatigue. This hard winter, with lost of shoveling snow, with lot of stress about how to get to work on dangerous roads, with regular exposure to really cold temperatures, and also the addition of some life stressors have contributed to my immune system melt down.  My sleep has been horrible for the past 3 weeks.

Poor sleep in the most common factor I see related to when my immune system falls apart.  This is part of the reason I have stayed away from longer races, that go on over the course of the night.  Not only do they throw off my sleep for the night of the race, the next few days in a row are also disrupted and I tend to have an immune system melt down a week or so later.

This is exactly what happened after Rocky. I build my mileage carefully back up to 105+ miles prior to Rocky.  I tapered a bit and felt prepared to at least finish.  I ended up have a bad day.  After a few days of recovering from a 60 mile run, I was feeling strong enough to run far. I managed an impromptu 21 miler, but my immune system started to crash and that last run was the best run I had for the past 3 weeks.

Two weeks leading up to the race:
I simply wasn't able to get my mileage back up.  I tried to rest more to stop the fatigue from getting worse.  I tried to find a balance between maintaining a training schedule and resting.  I stopped doubling.  I lowered my peak mileage goal.  I drastically tapered as the race approached, knowing that training hard the week before would do nothing, but extreme rest could help.

Caumsett 50k:
The weather reports were making people crazy.  The crazy cold snowy winter had resulted in reports of another major storm heading in our direction for the weekend. Thanks to Sidney's flying, I learned that the most (only) reliable weather report is what you get when you step outside and look up.  As a rule, I never check the weather until the night before. People tend to either freak out about it or get excited then disappointed because it changed. It always changes.  I know it is winter.  I own a wide range running gear that can handle any condition.  I can guess what it will be like in 10 days as good as the 10 day forecast can. I find that I avoid a significant amount of distress and disappointment by not watching the weather until I absolutely need to check it (- either when I am packing for a trip to a race, or the night before/morning of the event).

The weather was significantly better than last year.  The temperatures were in the mid-30's from the start and stayed that way.  The wind was predicted to remain about 6 mph.  Precipitation (wintry mix) was predicted for the afternoon, hopefully not falling until after I was done running and hopefully after I got home.  It was easy to over dress.

Photo by Donna Sajulga-Tabios
What to Wear:
I chose a long sleeve tech shirt with a t-shirt over the top, capri pants with calf sleeves, and my T7 racing flats.  I added a hat, gloves, and neck warmer to start. I had a jacket over the shirts, but knew better than to start with it so I left behind just before lining up.  I pinned two gels to my shorts (flipping the over the waste band to allow them to stay put).  I carried nothing.  I drank water and gatorade while on the run.

The Race:
I was concerned about how the race would go, but I knew I would try my best no matter what the outcome.  I truly did not want two DNF's in a row and figured I would just do what I needed to do to finish, unless I felt I was doing some significant damage.

When I arrived at the race, I was thrown off because they changed the course.  It was still 10x 5k, but run backwards with a change to the side-spur. This threw me off a bit, but it was really no big deal.  I liked the old course.  It was good to me.  But I knew this year, I was not going to run great, so clean slate make it feel like I was starting over and I was ok with the.  I liked the idea that I could no longer directly compare my present self to my past performances.  I think that helped.

Even knowing I felt horrible, I still planned to start off at a competitive pace. I rarely show up and start a race slowly.  Today I started about 7:45 pace.  I came through the first lap in 24 minutes even.  That was just where I wanted to be if I wanted a PR… but I knew today was not that day. There is just no way I should run any where near a PR, when I consider how hard I trained to run a 4:03 last year.  I knew I would fade and it started in lap 2.  I was ok with that.  I was just trying to find a comfortable niche.  The truth is, today, nothing felt comfortable.  I felt sore and tight from the start and nothing loosened up.

At 3 laps out of 10 laps I was afraid I would not make it to 5 laps.  My achilles was tight as was my piriformis. I hoped they would loosen or at least not get worse. I know myself well enough to know that if I am feeling horrible by the half way mark, I am likely to drop by 2/3rd's into the race. But if I can get to 2/3rds feeling decent, no matter how crappy I feel in the last 1/3 I will likely finish it off.  Since I was already worried about dropping at lap 3 of 10, the DNF was looking more likely to happen.

I took a gel when I started to feel concerned about getting to 5 laps and it did help me refocus.  I like to try to trick myself at time.  When I take Gels I try to imagine them being like little magical packets of turbo fuel that will absolutely give me renewed strength and energy.  I know I get a good placebo effect from this, because I can convince myself I feel better as soon as I take it (knowing that nothing has actually digested).

Photo by Donna Sajulga-Tabios

Once I got to 5 laps, I started doing bad math on purpose, again thriving off tricking myself.  I focused on thinking "4 to go!…. after this one" just to make it sound like I had less left that I did.  At this point, I was doing anything I could to do stay in this mentally when physically I was falling apart.

At the start of lap 6, I got more confident that I could finish. I am just hoping to keep it under 4:30. I had no pep and the tightness I felt limited my stride length. When I try to pick up the pace, my chest hurt and that concerns me. (I have a leaky heart value, but it really doesn't impact my running)  I realized that I had forgot my inhaler in my bag. (I have asthma, but I don't find this to be an issue until I try to run faster than 7 minute miles in hot humid weather).  I just move as fast as I can without risking a DNF by pushing too hard.

With 3 laps to go I can't stop the fade.  My feet are starting to get tired and a little sore.  This is also to be expected. This is the first long race in just racing flats without my orthotics.  I was afraid I could do some damage out there, but I am so happy to report that I did not and my feet feel good!

I mentally check my "systems." Even thought I have a few aches, nothing is truly hurting me to a level of concern except my chest when I tried to pick up the pace, so I don't pick it up.  I know if I just stay steady, I will finish this off. As the laps passed I started to become so grateful that I fought to stay in it.  

As I start lap 10, I have a conversation with my grandmother.  This is unusual form.  I don't pray, but I do talk to my grandmother some times.  I don't often ask for anything.  Even when I had cancer I did not "ask" for divine help. I have a weird sense of guilt about asking for things.

As I started to reach the end of the loop, I reflect upon my prior 8th place and then two 7th place finishes at this race.  I thought about how happy I would be to finish today, but how it will feel a little bitter sweet to no longer be in the top 10 at a distance I considered "my event".  I remember saying to my grandmother, "I tried really hard today.  I know I didn't run my best race, but I worked harder than ever to not give up on myself.  I just want you to be proud of me... Any chance for a 10th place finish today to remind me why it is important to stick it out when I want to quit? How about you hook me up, Grandma? Ok?  LOL!"

But I knew that was a joke.  There were fast ladies here and I was sure the top 10 and more were already done.  I was over 20 minutes slower than last year, when I took 7th.  I was truly just grateful to finish it and not have to drive home heartbroken with my tail between my legs!

I crossed the line, saw Dave (and congratulated him for being awesome) and we went to get some soup.  I stopped with him for a photo and we started to walk back to the heated tent.  As I walked pasted the timing tent, a woman called out "Shannon, don't go anywhere.  Make sure you get your medal.  You were 10th Female!"

I turned to Dave and said, "OMG, I think I might actually cry!"  I believe he initially thought I was disappointed and saying I might cry because I didn't feel that 10th was good enough.  I quickly clarified that this meant so much to me.  I felt so sick and had no faith I could actually finish, I really fought hard for this. I told him that I was really proud that I stayed in this, even at a slower pace than last year, and that I talked to my grandmother and jokingly asked if there was shot at me getting a medal for sticking it out and not giving up…. and here it is!  That medal is a gift from my grandmother!"

I know a 4:25 is not an amazingly fast 50k in comparison to what the best ladies can do or what I have done.  I also know an 8:31 paced 31 mile run is still a really good race, feeling sick or not.  This is not a statement about what is good for all people, but rather a statement about what is good for me based upon my history of performances and personal abilities.  I would have liked to have been much more competitive at this race than I was this year.  I also know that because I was sick, I was really not competing with anyone else out there but my own perception of what I am capable of doing when I feel broken.

Even though I have run faster and placed higher, this medal is meaningful to me.  When I look at it, I don't have same feelings I get when I reflect on the times I trained smart and hard and then showed up to perform and pulled it off! Those medals will always remind me of what I can do at my best and I am very proud of those performances.

This medal is different and will remind me that even at my perceived worst, I am actually better than I think I am. It will remind me to remember to have faith in myself, to forget the ego and slow down so that I can just stay in the game… because sometimes even on a "bad day" the universe and possibly those who occupy the heavens above (or in my heart) might find a way to show me they are paying attention to what I do and they might even find a way to remind me that they are proud of me.

Time: 4:25
Place 10th Place Overall Female