Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Trail running glory (and agony)

Today was a rest day, which means I ate everything in sight. Luckily we don't keep much unhealthy food in the house, but we do have this:

It's SO good. Plus it was on sale at Fred's, which makes it even better.

It was a rest day because MM and I crammed a week's worth of running into four days, since we were both sick the beginning of last week. We ran eight hilly (hilly!) trail miles Thursday, a nine-miler over the Coastal Trail Friday and a grueling 18-mile trail run with over 2,000 feet elevation gain on Sunday.

The shorter runs were great. The weather was warm, the pace steady. The 18-miler, no so much.

We ran the Powerline Pass Trail, starting from Prospect Heights trailhead, to give us extra hills. This was my idea. I often have such ideas; I don't know where they come from.

The first 3.5 miles were straight up, with no respite. Well, okay, there was one place that dipped downward for a small space before relentlessly heading back up again. It's one of my favorite trails, very open and vast, and I love running over each crest and encountering yet another hill spreading out before us.

The trail levels off near the Glenn Alps trailhead, which leads to Flattop Peak in one direction and Powerline Pass in another.

Near the Glenn Alps trailhead. See the powerlines? They stretch all the way over the pass and to Indian.

After a slight mile downhill, the trail climbs gradually and then more aggressively until it hits the pass. The clouds increased in as we hit higher elevations and soon we were walking in fog. Everything looked gray and dreary and I was tired and my legs felt like lead and even though it was incredibly beautiful, it was a cold and aloof beauty. I felt small and vulnerable and alone, even though MM was with me.

So of course we fought. Well, I fought. I argued and whined and complained and MM ran alongside of me and wisely kept his mouth shut until finally I shouted, "Say something."

I was bonking, not so much from lack of nutrition but lack of mental focus. I kept running but it was a dispirited motion; there was no joy in my steps. And we were still running uphill.

But finally we reached the pass. We power hiked up through heavy scree until we reached the snowfield and then we turned around and looked out over the valley and the immense views. And we saw nothing. The cloud cover was so low that we could barely see in front of us.

There are mountains in the background, trust me.

I perked up on the way back. It was mostly downhill and we were running toward the light. Toward the sun! It feel like a mild redemption. (Did I mention we were running mainly downhill?) The cloud cover lifted and the light opened up and I felt happy again.

It's funny how many moods I shift through during a long run, how my ego slowly drops away (though rarely without a battle), how I lose myself in the cadence of my body, in myself.

Still, I'd like to learn to handle the messier emotions more tactfully, especially for poor MM's sake. I'd like to be able to stay mentally strong, even when I'm feeling weak. I'd like to realize, while caught in the moment, that that's okay to give in to my emotions, that in a few minutes or a few miles, it will be over, another mood will strike and I'll be lost inside whatever it brings.

What this run brought was a chance meeting with a cow moose around mile 16. We could hear one of her calves grunting in the brush and knew to keep our distance. The mosquitoes feasted on our sweaty arms and legs but still, it was nice standing there in the sunlight, the mountains stretching out around us as we waited for a moose to lumber off the trail.

I have two races scheduled for this week: The Anchorage Running Club's Master 10K on Wednesday (reserved solely for "mature" runners, and one of the perks of getting older) and the Her Tern Half Marathon on Sunday. More about each later. Right now I'm going to sleep.

Hope you are all dreaming of fast feet and mountain trails.

Friday, July 12, 2013

More Mount Marathon reflections

This ran in the Anchorage Press this week.

Steep Ascents

Cinthia Ritchie                                                            
Anchorage Press
Each year at the start of the Mount Marathon Race, before the gun goes off and the madness begins, I stare up at the peak for a long and silent moment. It always looks so green and shadowed and immense, and I feel so pale and thin and small, that I experience the urge to genuflect or make the sign of the cross—not because I’m especially religious, which I’m not, but because it strikes me as such a solemn undertaking, to race up a mountain, to sweat and bleed, curse and pray over its aloof yet welcoming surface. 
I started running the Mount Marathon Race five years ago, not because I thought the race looked fun or challenging but because it fell on the Fourth of July, the same day my second oldest sister died of complications from an eating disorder. I suppose I was seeking penance. I wanted to hurt and suffer, yes, but I also wanted my suffering to lead toward redemption.
And it did. It does. The race is a beast, a dragon. It flays me flat, kicks my butt, leaves me bloody and torn and defenseless.
I think this is why many of us race, not the elite runners who finish in front but the rest of us, the middle- and back-of-the-packers who have no hope of winning, who don’t care much about our time, who struggle up the mountain with our heads lowered and our hands tight on our knees. We do it not for the pain so much as for the transcendence that comes with the pain, for the moment when we become lost in the brutality of it all, when our muscles scream and our legs shake and everything in us cries for us to stop. We race for the exhilaration of being up on the mountain in the morning, the wind in our hair and sweat against our lips, the glorious thud of our hearts reminding us that we are alive and nothing else matters but this moment, this pain, this feeling of our bodies moving and bending.
Read the rest here.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Grizzly attacks family dog

This heartbreaking story was in the Redoubt Reporter and reminded me of the time Beebs took off after a sow and her two cubs during a trail run a few years ago. The bear turned around the charged Beebs; I don't think I was ever so scared in my life. I actually peed my running shorts a bit. I was sure that Beebs was a goner. I was sure I was a goner, too. Luckily it turned out to be a fake charge.

Beebs, dreaming of the lunchmeat she knows she's gonna get at the end of the hike.

This one wasn't.

Gretzky, a cute little French bulldog, took off after a grizzly sow and two cubs that were browsing through the family's yard out in the Soldotna area.

How can you not love a face like this? The fierce Gretzky. Source: Redoubt Reporter

Gretzky was indoors with his family at the time, and after the bears reportedly were unable to open the bearproof trash cans out in the yard, they stepped up on the porch and peered in the sliding glass door windows (imagine looking up from the dinner table and seeing that!).

Gretzky went crazy and escaped out the pet door.

“He got loose and shot out the door. It all happened so fast. He was defending us and the house. He ran right in the middle of the bears barking,” said owner Ryan Kapp.

The sow went after Gretzky who, at just 22-lbs., didn't stand much of a chance.

“She swatted him and knocked him down, then picked him up in her jaws. Then she stood on her hind legs and snapped her head back and forth,” Kapp said.

I love what happened next: Kapp stepped out of the house and yelled and waved his arms at the bear, startling it enough that it let go of the dog and retreated. (The dog risked his life to protect the family and the head of the family risked his life to protect his dog--full circle, folks.)

Kapp initially thought Gretzky would make it but he died of internal injuries on the way to the vet.

“He died doing his best to protect the family,” Kapp said.

Read the full story here.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Mount Marathon Race recap

Oh, what an agonizingly glorious Mount Marathon Race!

Or at least that's how I feel now, sitting on the comfy couch and stuffing my face with pretzels. Twenty-four hours ago as I was struggling up the mountain, I felt quite a bit differently.

The Mount Marathon Race takes place down in Seward, my old stomping ground. It's a steep and obstinate climb, with grades up to 60%, and yesterday it was raining so that the bottom half of the course was muddy and slick.

Mt. Marathon as seen from the starting area 15 minutes before the start of the women's race. Note how everyone has on heavy coats.

That's my bright pink arm warmer peeking out of my down jacket.
I did no mountain work to prepare for the race. It wasn't on my A-list. Well, I don't really have an A-list but I'm concentrating on the Her Term Half Marathon later this month and the Big Wildlife Marathon in August.

My goal? To complete the race without injury. Sounds simple? Umm, not so much.

It was raining and about 49 degrees when we reached Seward. I picked up my bib and race chip and stood on the sidelines watching the last of the Junior racers finish. I refused to take off my winter coat until the last minute. (Yes, a winter coat in July. Welcome to Alaska, people.)

Notice the clenched hands against the cold, and this was at the bottom of the mountain.

I finally peeled off my coat five minutes before the gun went off. I was in the first-wave again, with the fast women, and man, some of those racers were fierce (!!). The first half mile of the race weaves uphill on paved roads to the foot of the mountain. My aim was to run fast and keep some of the top tier women in sight. According to my Garmin, I ran this at about a 7:31 pace (thank you, speedwork).

Then we hit the mountain and the root section, where you basically scramble straight up, with nothing to grasp but wet roots and slippery rock, and the top women slipped out of sight. Still, it was glorious to see the backs of their heads for a bit.

Root section on a dry race day. Imagine it wet, muddy and slick.

I got stuck on a rock and couldn't reach the next handhold so I yelled to the woman behind me, "Please boost me up by the rear, okay?" And that woman, bless her heart, cupped my behind in her strong and capable hands and gave me a big shove to the next hold.

From then on it was an uphill slog through the mud. We slipped and fell, slipped and fell and trudged on. I loved this part. I love the mud, love getting dirty. And because we were sheltered by trees, the weather was warmish enough that I began to sweat.

Then we hit the halfway point and popped out of the trees. Below us, Resurrection Bay stretched out, and above us, the second half of the mountain waited.

The wind also waited, and it was strong enough to practically knock us off the trail at points. It was also cold, so cold that my teeth chattered. This was when I began to wonder what in the hell I was doing racing up a mountain when I could be home lying on the couch reading a good book.

That's me, fourth from the top of the photo, in the green shorts and bright pink arm warmers. See how most of us are leaning over in agony? Photo Credit: Alaska Dispatch/Loren Holmes

Surprisingly, I made it to the top in just over 59 minutes, my fastest time ever (the women's winner finished the whole race in about 53 minutes). I rounded the rock and headed back down. Sadly, there was no snow to slide in; we had to run the whole long and steep and brutal way.

Racers sliding down the snow slope in previous years: Wheeee! It is SO much fun.

I took it really easy on the downhill, since I didn't want to fall or hurt myself; I have an 18-miler this weekend on my marathon schedule. Many, many women passed me (about 35) and I just sucked it up and yelled "Go for it," after each one flew by.

Women racers head down the mountain. Source: Alaska Dispatch/Loren Holmes

Women racers running through screen. Source: Alaska Dispatch/Loren Holmes

Racers heading through the lower section of The Gut, a slippery area of trail that runs through a stream and includes slippery footing and rock jumps. Source: Alaska Dispatch/Loren Holmes

Still, even with running the downhill conservatively I finished with a 40 second PR.

About four blocks from the finish. Note that even though I'm exhausted, I'm still not heel striking. After a year of concentrating, my body has adapted to a midsole striker.

Crossing the finish line: Yippee! Photo Source: Wolfgang Kurtz

I was a muddy mess, so I changed my clothes in the bakery bathroom and MM and I took a five mile hike over the Lost Lake Trail.

Hope everyone had a great Fourth of July.