Wednesday, June 6, 2018

The Good, The Bad, and The Lucky

It’s been a month since I completed the Isle of Wight Challenge, a major fitness goal I set for myself for 2018. I discussed the event itself, a 106-km circumnavigation of the island, in a previous blog. Now that I’ve had time to digest the experience and its aftermath, I thought I’d share what I did right, what I did wrong, and where luck fell my way. I hope it’s helpful for those who participate in one of the UK’s Action Challenge events or a similar ultramarathon in the future.

The Good Decisions

I’ll start here, because I’m all about the good stuff.

The Website: When I decided to tackle the Isle of Wight Challenge, I read all the material on the Action Challenge event website and registered to be notified of site updates by email. This was an immense help, as the organizers provided tips on training, travel to the event, what to pack, and what to expect. It seems like a no-brainer to read the website prior an event, but it was apparent to me early on in my training that not all participants do so, or that they don’t register to be notified when new information is posted.

Training and Tapering: With the training plan suggested by Action Challenge in mind, I searched out similar plans online and cobbled together a schedule that fit my daily routine. I trained consistently for several months prior to the event, gradually adding in longer training runs once a week in order to build my endurance. Rather than focusing on speed during the long runs, I concentrated on duration. Most training plans for ultras emphasize the need to move for the length of time necessary to complete an ultra, and I took that to heart. I ran over different terrain—trails, pavement, and hills—and at different times of day. Against every instinct, I also followed the advice of experts and tapered off my runs in the ten days or so before the event. I woke up craving a long training run two days before my flight to England, but I’m glad I resisted the urge and did a short, easy run instead. Thanks to that advice, I had plenty of energy come race day.

Testing: Consistent training does more than work muscles. It offers the opportunity to test what clothing, backpack, and other equipment work best, first on shorter runs, then on longer ones. I ran wearing the same backpack I planned to wear for the Challenge, played with the straps to get it adjusted to what was most comfortable, and packed it exactly as I planned to do for the Challenge, even if I didn’t need those items for training runs near my home. I wanted to know if anything chafed, if I needed to adjust the load, and if there were items I woulda/shoulda/coulda carried, given variations in the weather and terrain. I learned what foods gave me the most energy and least digestive problems. Big discovery: I need to carry tissue on longer runs because I inevitably have to blow my nose somewhere around mile ten and then again every mile or two afterward. Who knew?

Finally, I altered my schedule during the last month of training so that I could fit in two long runs in hot weather, since I’d primarily trained in the cold. I needed to know which shorts worked best in the heat and which layers were easiest to shed or add. This was how I knew at the Challenge’s first rest stop that I’d be okay when I needed to strip off the crops I’d trained in for most of the prior six weeks and switch to the shorts I carried as backup gear. I was grateful I’d done a couple of long training runs in them.

I hadn’t practiced changing in a porta-potty, let alone while wearing a backpack, but all went well.

Geared up!
Equipment: Most people on the Challenge walked at a steady clip and wore hiking boots. For most participants, hiking boots are the right call. While I did walk some sections, particularly when there was mud to my ankles or a steep uphill, I ran most of it. I learned from training that I was better off with running shoes. My day one shoes were Brooks Ghost 10 GTX and my day two shoes were Saucony Freedom ISO. (More on why I needed two pairs of shoes below.) On both days I wore Feetures Elite Light Quarter Socks and carried a backup pair. These aren’t cheap socks, but wearing them saved my feet. I’ve run in Feetures No Show Socks for a few years with no issues. I switched to the quarter socks about a month before the Challenge because they offer better ankle protection on trail runs and help keep mud and debris out of my shoes. On the Challenge, I developed one small blister the first day, but that was it. Many people had to drop out due to blisters, particularly with the heat on the second day causing an increase in foot friction. I credit the socks with keeping me in the race. I didn’t need my backup pair on the first day, but on the second day I changed socks at the 80km rest area, which helped cool my feet following a long section over hot pavement.

Other wins on the equipment front: a few Band-Aids and a stick of Body Glide in case of chafing or blisters, easy to digest mini protein bars, water in a bottle that fit the side pocket of my bag, a breathable running hat, backup clothing, sunglasses, ChapStick, and sport sunscreen that wouldn’t drift into my eyes once I started to sweat. Everything went into an Osprey Daylite backpack, which was big enough to hold what I needed, but lightweight and adjustable so it wouldn’t shift when I ran.

As required by the event, I also carried a headlamp and a smartphone with the Action Challenge app preloaded.

My MacAir: I waffled about taking my laptop, because I traveled to England for the race and two days in London with only a carry-on bag and the Osprey. Event gear, toiletries, clothes for London, and my massage stick were all must-haves, which didn’t leave room for much else. I feared that taking the laptop with the goal of writing in the evenings was overly optimistic. In the end, I packed it, and not only did I work on my current manuscript during both flights, two solid days of running gave me the opportunity to work out a long term story problem that had plagued me for weeks. When I returned to my bed and breakfast each night, I typed like mad to capture those ideas.

I’ve long known that the more I move, the better my creative brain functions and vice versa. The move/create cycle is happy one, and having my laptop let me capitalize on it. My days in England were stellar writing days.

The Bad Decisions

My overall experience was fantastic because the Action Challenge site gave me the tools I needed to succeed. However, I did have a few fails, all of which were my fault.
Day Two View

Staying On Course: First, as indicated in my previous blog, I had a reading comprehension issue near the end of the race. Lesson learned: when you discover that you’re off the course, retrace your steps until you see an actual sign. Don’t get partway and make a guess based on where you spotted other participants, because they could’ve made the same mistake. (Yes, the AC website said this. As I said, my fault.)

Nutrition and Hydration: I didn’t realize it until the day after the Challenge, but I didn’t consume enough water during the race. I should have had a clue during the second day, when I drank a cup of fruit juice offered at one of the rest stops and felt completely refreshed afterward, because I am not a fruit juice person. Or at the 66km or 93km rest stops, when I didn't have to use the porta-potty but forced myself to give it a go (so to speak.) I thought I was drinking plenty along the way, but the day following the Challenge, I woke up thirsty and stayed that way, despite going through bottle after bottle the entire day. Ditto for the next two days in London, then on my flight home. Next time, I’ll drink earlier in the event and include at least one sport drink with electrolytes.

St. James's Park
Running in London: After completing the Challenge, I treated myself to two days in London to enjoy a couple shows and to tour sites that I’ve always wanted to see, but that didn't interest my previous travel companions. I spent nearly four hours walking through Kew Gardens, toured the National Gallery, and walked from Covent Garden to Borough Market and back twice. On top of that, I went for runs both mornings. I’ve wanted to run through London’s parks and along the Thames for years. Though I knew I’d be tired, I didn’t want to miss the opportunity. It was simultaneously a bad decision and a good one. I fully expected to go slowly, so I didn’t judge my time. It was all about the experience of running in central London in gorgeous spring weather. On the other hand, I went further than I should have. This is especially true given that it had finally started to sink in that I was dehydrated. As beautiful as the runs were—through Hyde Park and St. James’s Park, across multiple bridges, past the London Eye, and around Westminster—I felt like I was running through molasses. Every step took effort. Even my arm swing took effort. I’d do it again, but I’d cut the distance of the runs, plan the rest of my time in London to minimize walking, or both. A body can only do so much.

Recovery Time: I anticipated fatigue and muscle aches post-race. Fortunately, I wasn’t sore at all, which I attribute to both the training plan and using The Stick after each day of the Challenge. Fatigue, however, was another matter. I never thought it’d last as long as it did. I was perfectly fine doing normal activities, but the moment I started exercise, even simple movements with dumbbells, it was as if someone tapped my internal energy tank and siphoned it down to zero.

Seven days after I returned home, my CrossFit gym did a benchmark workout known as Jerry. Jerry consists of a timed one mile run, a 2,000 meter row, then a one mile run. It’s the type of workout that’s right in my wheelhouse. I wasn’t certain of my 2,000 meter row time, but overall I’d hoped to finish in under 25 minutes. Maybe 26 or 26:30 tops, given the rowing fuzziness. It took me 31:20. Worse, I wanted to puke at the half-mile mark and it was all I could do to keep from toppling off the rowing machine. The final mile was the slowest mile I think I’ve ever run. Afterward, I sat on the rear stairs of the gym sucking wind, exhausted and frustrated…what the heck happened to me?

A shower and a lunch later, I decided to cut myself some slack. Yes, it’d been more than a week since I’d completed the Isle of Wight Challenge, but maybe that wasn’t enough. I wasn’t being lazy; I was tired. For the next few days, I decided to focus on eating well, going to bed at a reasonable time, and taking each workout as it came, with zero expectations. I was slower than my normal pace for 3-4 mile runs for another full week before I started feeling like myself again. It wasn’t until June 3 that I hit my typical time for a 10K.   

Lesson learned: it can take longer than expected to refill the energy tank, particularly when you don’t realize you’re running on empty and place unrealistic demands on yourself. Roll with it.

Heating Pad: As far as bad decisions go, this counts as minor. To ease post-race aches, I packed my heating pad without checking its compatibility. It didn’t work in the UK. It wasn’t a plug issue, but a current issue. If I do another event outside the US, I’ll double check electrical items before packing so I don’t waste limited space. Or I’ll stick to my Stick.

The Lucky Decisions

Day One Shoes, Postrace and Precleaning
Brooks Ghost GTX: As I’ve noted, common wisdom says not to change up your equipment in the days before a race. You don’t want ugly surprises, like a shirt that chafes your underarms or socks that slip inside your shoes when you run. However, about a month before the Challenge, I noted that participants who lived in England were posting about training in rainy, slick conditions. One runner even posted photos taken on the course itself, showing deep mud. I knew my running shoes wouldn’t handle that. I watched the weather, and when it looked like it’d still be muddy come race day, I did a quick online search and found a pair of Gore-Tex running shoes similar to a regular pair I already owned and trained in, my Brooks Glycerins. When they arrived, a mere fifteen days before the race, I laced up and found a muddy trail. A three-mile run went well. A few days later, I did a seven-mile run in them. No problems. For the next few days, I wore them as much as possible, though that seven miler was the longest distance I managed before race day. As it turned out, the course was very muddy on day one--as in, over the shoes, grab a tree branch so you don't face plant muddy--so I wore the Brooks, packed my favorite Sauconys in my backpack, and hoped for the best. The Brooks were filthy at the end of the day, but my feet stayed dry. It was a last minute call, one that went against some very good advice, but I was fortunate and it worked out. On day two, where the issue was heat rather than mud, I was able to wear the Sauconys, which are lighter weight and better ventilated.

Haribo: I am not a gummy bear person. I mean, they’re okay, but they don’t tempt me. On the first day of the Challenge, as I approached the 25km rest area, smiling volunteers stood at the side of the trail, proffering sugar-coated bears from buckets painted in jaunty colors. I thanked them and took a bear as I ran by, not thinking much about it. Holy smokes. I’d felt good beforehand, but that single hit of sugar made me feel like I could conquer the world. That afternoon, at the 52km stop, I grabbed one of the giveaway bags of Haribo and tossed it in with my protein bars to have close at hand for day two, just in case. Whenever the heat started to get to me the next day, I ate a single mini Haribo. It was like having an adrenaline shot, giving me extra zip to carry through the toughest, hottest stretches of the race. 

B&B: One final stroke of luck was picking the right B&B on the Isle of Wight. I went to TripAdvisor to look for a a place that was close to the day one finish line/day two start line in West Cowes and had good reviews. The Caledon Guest House fit the bill, so I booked. It was my good fortune to discover that Mark, one of the owners, also planned to run the Challenge (though he did it in one day instead of two, because Mark’s a beast.) As an island resident and previous Challenge participant, he had great transportation advice. Best of all, the guest house was absolutely wonderful. At the end of the race, I appreciated solitude and a comfy bed rather than a tent at the race campground.

That’s it…the good, the bad, and the lucky. As I approached the finish line in a fog of elation and exhaustion, I told myself to savor the moment. I doubted I’d do another Challenge. I’d accomplished what I’d set out to do and enjoyed it. On the other hand, knowing what I know now, I’m already dipping into the Action Challenge website to check out next year’s events. So who knows? You may see me at another starting line soon. In the meantime, if you’re considering a future Action Challenge event or tackling an ultra, I hope you find this useful.

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