The Lithia Loop Trail Marathon was my fifth and most challenging marathon. It was a fabulous race and I’ll say it now: this race report will be long. So bring a GU, get a glass of water, find a comfortable chair and read on. And if you can’t read the entire thing, I’ll go ahead and spoil it by putting the results up front:
Lithia Loop Trail Marathon
Location: Ashland, Oregon
Average: 8:15 min/mile
9th place woman, 24th overall.
Pre-Race: Let’s talk about pre-race jitters. In the weeks before a marathon I get anxious, I doubt my abilities and I make stressing a full-time job. It’s not good. My mission in the days leading up to this race was to NOT freak out. However, I chose a very challenging marathon and decided to forgo tapering so were plenty of reasons to stress. I coped by giving pep talks to my legs in the shower,“Hi calves. Hello hamstrings. Let’s talk about the race coming up. It’s going to be great. I know you might be nervous about the eight miles of uphill and 4,700 feet of elevation climb, but I’m sure you rockstars can handle it. Just take your time and be strong.”
Day Before The Race: I arrived in Ashland in good spirits. My mom (who is fantastic) drove up from California to cheer and to spend the weekend with me. I picked up my bib number at the run shop and my mom and I headed for lunch downtown. We ate, chatted and window-shopped our way through the afternoon (all good ways to keep pre-race anxiety at bay). Soon it was time to organize my affairs for the next day, eat dinner and get some sleep.
Dinner: Why is it so hard for me to figure out what to eat before a marathon? I opted for brown rice, acorn squash and steamed veggies. It sounded good, but maybe I ate too much or too fast, or maybe I needed more protein earlier in the day. Whatever. It made me bloated and I was concerned about how it would play out. When things go wrong for me in races it usually involves my GI track and a porta-potty. I drank some weak chamomile tea to calm my moaning stomach and told it sternly that it had 11 hours to get back on track. While my stomach negotiated with dinner, I organized my running gear and headed to bed.
5:51 AM: My alarm went off 42 minutes ago and I’m still in bed. This is unheard of. Usually I’m awake well before my alarm starts buzzing, but today I snuggle into the covers and doze for a half an hour before stumbling to the shower.
6:01: It’s all about pre-race rituals for me and not a detail can be overlooked. Shower, shave, put on lucky earrings and necklace, decide on clothes, and drink coffee. The weather report says 100% chance of precipitation and that it could get very cold. I stuff extra layers into my bag and hope for the best. I write a quick inspirational note and pin it inside my top: You CAN do this. You will make this happen. Be the person you want to become. Run. Perky. Perky. Perky! I still feel bloated from last night, so I skip my usual breakfast, eat a: small fruit bar and call it good.
7:15: I walk the two blocks from my hotel to the running store where I’ll catch a shuttle to the start line. There are less than 100 runners in the race and the shuttles to the startline turn out to be cars provided by a local car dealership chauffeured by local volunteers. I meet a few people, we jump into a car/shuttle and head to the start line.
7:30 There are 50+ very hydrated and very energized runners in need of some bathrooms – which are locked. You can see the panic in their faces. But soon enough an Ashland City Parks and Rec truck pulls up and a man (who is now the most popular person in the city) unlocks the bathrooms. We are saved and our collective bladders sigh in relief.
8:00: Race time approaches. It’s cold, but the sky is clear. Our group gathers at the start line. It’s about as laid back and relaxed as you can get. There are no pace leaders or start guns. We all mingle and chat it up while the race director talks about aid stations and course directions. Then the director counts down from five and yells “Go, and have fun.” That’s it! The marathon has begun!
We’re off. The course begins on a gravel access road. From the start line I meet a gradual incline that becomes more and more agressive within the first half mile. I’m astounded to see a core group of women spring past me and up the hill. I’m not made of lightning, but these ladies seem EXTREMELY fast and extremely confident as they start their race. Instead of panicking about their pace, I concentrate on feeling out my pace and tell myself not to go out too strong. There are a lot of miles between me and the finish line.
Mile 1: Oh so steep! You can stare at an elevation chart all you want, but until you are out running the thing, it’s hard to appreciate what 8-miles of sustained climbing feels like. I try to not to go out too fast, or be bothered by the speed of other runners. Instead I relax and wait for my muscles to warm up to their uphill task.
Mile 2: I run the second mile in 10:22. It is steep. Very steep. I realize that this could turn out to be a slow and very painful race for me.
Mile 3-5: I run alone. My third mile split shows a 9:54 min/mile pace and the fourth mile hovers at about 10 min/mile. It is slow going. The hill is intense and it takes all my concentration to keep chugging my way up. I’m not a great at speed, but I do OK on hill climbs. I concentrate on keeping a small and economical stride. I don’t try to gun up the hill. I stay measured, calm and purposeful in every step I take. It’s a good strategy and I pass a runner or two.
I pause quickly to peel off my gloves. Despite the weather forecast I opted to run in shorts, a tank top and arm warmers. The steep incline has banished any concerns I had about being cold. The sun is shinning. My heart is pounding. I am overly warm. I pass the first aid station and grab some water. I decide to mentally break up the race by aid stations. Just four more aid stations are left between me and the finish line. Hooray! That’s doable and so much better sounding than “I have 23 miles left to go.” I reach for my first Espresso Love GU and hope for the best as it hits my stomach.
Mile 6-7: The trail veers off the gravel access road and throws me onto a climbing single track (yes, still climbing!). There has been no stop to the unrelenting elevation gain. When the trail gets steep, I shorten my stride and concentrate on moving ahead – no mater how slowly. My stomach isn’t throwing a tantrum. I feel like I’m finally getting into a grove when Mile Marker 7 appears. Only 19 more miles to go I think. I give a little cheer as I pass the sign and keep chugging. The miles creep by slowly at a 10 min/mile pace. There is not much I can do about my speed – moving up and moving forward is the most important thing. I’ll worry about speed in the second half. In the meantime I take in the surrounding forest and the beautiful view. It is gorgeous and the weather continues to be fabulous. You couldn’t ask for better running conditions.
Aid Station 2: A table manned with cheerful volunteers is waiting where the single track rejoins the access road. They clap. They yell. They offer a variety of goodies. I tell them I’m good and give a thumbs up. I’m still going uphill but it’s nowhere as bad as the single track. I feel great and start to open up my pace a bit.
Mile 8-10: Scratch that. I feel dizzy. I realize I haven’t taken any salt tablets and stop briefly to eat a GU and pop a few salt pills. I’m not usually one to get light-headed and I wonder what the deal is – did I not eat enough breakfast? Is it the elevation difference? Is the steep hill to blame? I’m not sure. I drink some more water. Besides the dizziness I feel fantastic and my mile times drop steadily.
Mile 10-13: I’m still running alone. I’m still feeling good. The miles trickle pass.
Aid Station 3: Woo woo! I pass the aid station at mile 13. Someone yells as I run by, “It’s only four and a half miles left… until the next aid station.” I laugh. At mile 13, I feel confident that I’ve passed the worst of the hills. I glance at my watch as I pass the 1/2 marathon sign: 1:58. OKkkkkay. So maybe I should be thinking about finishing in 4 hours? I let myself go and settle into a pace. The miles are clicking by at a much faster pace: 7:43, 8:15, 7:44, 7:24. Shaazam! I feel like a rockstar. A lonely, slightly dizzy and slightly nauseous rockstar, but a rockstar nonetheless.
Mile 14-17: It’s hard to recall what I was thinking in these middle miles. The views, when I remembered to look at them, were fantastic. The gravel road was wide and even. Now that the climbing is behind me, I feel much more comfortable. I don’t want to downplay these middle miles. Marathons are tough and even the relatively flat miles held a challenge. My legs had put in 10 solid miles of climbing and the distance between 13 and 17 stretched into eternity. I try to break up the race anyway I can. I think I only have two more aid stations to pass. I remind myself that I’m more than 1/2 way done.
Mile 18: This mile is notoriously difficult for me. I’m stuck in the teens; I still have 8 miles left and I’m starting to bottom out. I feel foggy, no longer dizzy, but not very sharp either. I zone out. All of a sudden I trip and fall on what must be the smallest, tiniest rock on the road. I land on the ground, shocked but not hurt. I pick myself up, take 30 seconds to walk it off and start shuffling forward. The fall gives me a kick of adrenaline and I snap back into the race – only two more miles until mile 20! I hit the 19 mile marker and check my time. Even with the fall and the walk break I put in a 7:48 mile. I am elated.
Mile 20: I have rarely experienced the joy I felt when I spied the aid station at mile 20. I feel good. As good as one can feel at mile 20. With six miles to go I am confident. Strong. Ready to charge. But before I do, I stop at the aid station to take some GU, drink water and pop an electrolyte tab. The course after mile 20 changes dramatically.
Mile 21-22: Immediately after the aid station, the gravel road descends sharply. It is a steep downhill. Forget about any gentle, flat net downhill. This hill is mean and steep and promises to make your quads weep for mercy. I decide to run this the best I can – I bomb down the hill with a grin on my face. I am feeling oh-so-fine.
Mile 22: Here is where the race course plays a dirty, dirty trick on me. The gravel roads continues to wind its way downhill at an impressive grade. My quads are feeling relatively good despite the crazy downhill punishment. Then at Mile 22 the course does NOT continue downhill. A little chalk arrow and some florescent tape mark the way onto a little winding single track with a gentle, rolling incline. An incline!! What?? I thought we were done with all that uphill crap! My legs are forced to switch gears. I go from bombing my way down a mountain to negotiating a slightly technical single track with a small incline. I hit the beginning of the gentle slope and I feel like I might fall over. It is so difficult. I can’t seem to get my other, non-downhill running muscles to engage. I felt a little silly. On a normal run, this catwalk would have been so much fun. It snaked around trees, it rolled up and down in small hills. It wasn’t overly long or overly difficult, but after all the running up and then all the sprinting downhill the task seemed monumental. I do the best I can and hope that it ends soon.
Mile 23: Did that last section seem difficult? Did I look like I needed more of a challenge? Were the eight miles of uphill torture not enough? The course throws us back onto the ol’ familiar access road before asking us to switch again to a single track. But this time it is tough. And this section is the biggest challenge for me. I am confronted with a series of tight, washed out switchbacks that wind down the side of the hill. It is steep downhill running with lots of little potholes and bumps to watch for. Of course, my mental capacity is about zero at this point. I can’t think clearly. My legs are furious with me. My whole body is ready to stop. I try not to trip. I stay on my toes. The balls of my feet feel achey and tired – I press on and try to think that only 3 miles separate me from the finish line.
Mile 24: The single track levels out for a minute and all of a sudden my left calf decides to throw a last wrench in the race, because apparently my left calf muscle is a drama queen and needed some attention. So here I am at Mile 24. I am wiped out. I am still on this damn single track that seems to be my own personal hell, when it flattens out. My whole entire being rejoices. Except my left calf muscle. She starts to twinge and spasms delicately. The trail continues down and the spasm stops. It flattens out and the spasm returns and this time starts to feel like it might lock up in a cramp. Up to that point I have never in my entire running career dealt with a muscle cramp during a race or during a training run. I try to run as gently as possible and to think about my muscle relaxing. Mile 24, you were the longest, hardest mile I’ve ever done and my left calf does not like you. You suck Mile 24. You really do.
Eventually I finish that section of hell. I couldn’t really think very much at that point. I just wanted to see the marker for mile 25 – or even better yet, the finish line. The course wound back and hit a road leading out of the forest area. We are to run past the start line and into town and finish at Lithia Park. I hit the asphalt around mile 25. There were volunteers there to tell me that I was not hallucinating. I did just need to run 1.5 miles downhill on the pavement and that there would be a finish line. Promise! I nodded and smiled. Yay! But somehow 1.5 miles seems impossibly long. I speed down the road. I feel awkward and slow and I can hear my feet slapping the pavement heavily. I have no energy left. My mind is telling my body to keep putting one foot in front of the other and my body follows reluctantly. There is no style or form. My muscles are past that – all we want is to finish.
Mile 25.5. I round a bend in the road when I spot my mom. She has the big banner (which admittedly was gigantic and hilarious given the size of the race.) There were no supporters on the race course and a few people are gathered on the road leading to the finish line, but mostly they clap and wave quietly. My mom cannot clap and wave like other race supporters. She yells for EVERY runner. She cheers on EVERYONE who passes. She sees me coming down the hill and she starts to jump up and down. She yells, “IS THAT MY DAUGHTER? IS THAT MY HEATHER??? WOOOOOO WOOOOO YOU GO HEATHER. YOU ARE FANTASTIC AND I LOVE YOU. YOU RUN, HEATHER! YOU ARE STRONG AND WOOOO WOOOOOOO!!!” She does this great little jumpy dance as I pass. I yell back, “I love you mom!!” and give her a thumbs up. She keeps yelling and I pick up the pace. The finish line is not far away.
The Finish Line: Mile 26!! I feel like I might start barfing all over the last 200 meters, but I don’t even care. I gut it out. I sprint as much as I can to the finish. My stomach clenches and my systems go into overdrive. I screw up my eyes. I grimace and push even harder. It’s not much, but whatever. Nothing matters to me except following the orange cones to the finish line. I want that finish line. I need that finish line. And within a second I am across that line and I am finished.
It feels dreamlike. I stop my watch and glance down to see a 3:36 staring at me. I register that it’s a new Personal Record but I can’t seem to process it. I take off my hand-held water bottle whose weight has just seemed to get heavier and heavier in the last four miles. I double over and feel faint, exhausted, elated and sick. My legs quiver. I spit and make ugly noises while someone hands me a space blanket. I wrap it around me and wander off. There isn’t really any place to wander. The finish line is in a parking lot and it’s not like there are thousands of other runners to deal with. I stumble in one direction for a few steps and then turn to stumble in another direction. I am totally checked out mentally. I look at my watch again. I smile goofily. I congratulate the other runners who have finished before me. I orbit around the finishline and try to keep moving.
Slowly my brain starts to function again. My smile gets bigger. I look at the watch. Yes. 3:36 is still there. I realize I’ve PR’d on a truly impossible course! Let me say that again. I PR’d on a truly impossible course!! I am all smiles. A few minutes later I spy my mom coming down the street to the finish line. I skip to her, wrapped in my aluminum foil blanket. “Mom! Mom!! 3:36!! Can you believe it? I ran a 3:36!!!” She gives me a hug and her smile is gigantic. She knows my times and I don’t have to tell her what 3:36 means. “You mean you PR’d!?? You ran a 3:36!!!” Awww, Mom! You are the best cheerleader a marathoner could ever ask for.
I drink some soup and chow down on a chocoloate chip cookies. I change shoes and within 15 minutes I feel pretty good -not stellar, but I’m happy and able to walk. My mom is astounded. She later remarks that she’s never see me recover so quickly after a marathon. In the past I’ve been a mess for a couple of hours after the race. I give credit to the chocolate chip cookies and veggie soup.
Soon I discover that I had been racing with truly talented women: Susannah Beck (placed 4th in the 2000 Olympic Marathon Trials) Krissy Moehl (one of the country’s top female ultrarunners) to name only two. I had NO idea there was going to be such an elite field. Actually I was chatting with Krissy after the race when all of sudden I looked at her and said, “You know, you look really familiar…. (stop for second while I put it together). Did I see you on the cover of Trail Running Magazine a few months ago?” I did and she was. It was crazy! It made placing 9th in the women’s category feel like I had won the lottery. I can’t believe I ran that race with so many amazing runners.
In conclusion: I CANNOT wipe this smile off my face! The runners high I’m feeling is ridiculously high. I established a new PR on a difficult course. I ran with a group of incredibly talented runners and did not let it shake me. I overcame pre-race anxiety, potentially difficult GI issues and some crampy muscles. I ran my best. I worked hard. I had fun. I only fell once.