2020, a very "special" year

    A few people asked me about my training as a mother of younger kids, working full-time, etc.  Races are an exciting part of training, but they certainly don’t comprise the majority of the journey.  Good thing since most of them were canceled this year, right? Part of my training process is extremely creative. How can I integrate specificity, adventure, comradery, variety, and still balance having energy and time for family, relationships, and work?  


    First, I am a weekend warrior and a co-parent - my schedule is less familiar to nuclear families and more familiar to blended or single-parents.  With the current custody schedule, my children are with their father on alternating weekends, and while in the early years of my separation and divorce I struggled to strike a balance with running and babysitters, I’ve made it a point to rarely sign up for races or go on long trail runs when my kids are with me.  Actually, it was out of the separation and the deeply lonely weekends that shook my identity as a mother that spurred an interest in ultrarunning.  The weekends were so long, and I’d find myself running, then trying to sleep through them. I was new to the area and didn’t have many friends yet, so I wasn’t really motivated to do anything but run, eat, and sleep through the depression I was experiencing.  Ultimately, my counselor (who regularly hikes sections of the AT) suggested I start making plans for my weekends without my daughters, do all the things I was unable to do when I’d been married, yet still basically a single parent. At first it was difficult, but I soon started looking forward to my weekend adventures instead of dreading them. Those weekend adventures became a part of my creative training process.  Those weekend adventures actually led me to my now amazing husband!  So you really never know what gifts adventure may have in store for you if you don’t take them!


    Currently, I work full-time as a reading specialist, primarily working with kindergarten through 2nd graders.  I have spent the past 8 years in education! In this COVID year, I’ve taught 1st grade in-person and virtually, then interventions and class B teacher roles.  To say teachers are tired is an understatement, but we sure do love the kids.  I will say that being home, running became essential, to the fullest extent of that word’s meaning in 2020.  I’d sleep until 6:30, record a morning message for my students, feed my children, do some morning work and check in with students, then take my own children out for a 5 mile bike ride (AKA P.E.), weather permitting.  The afternoon would be spent checking activities and reviewing student work.  Screen time went way up, and we bought the blue light blocking glasses.


    So training!  One caveat I will mention here is that physically taxing activities obviously count as training, but so do the restorative practices, and some would argue that balancing and prioritizing the latter is the game changer in peak performance.


    Restorative Practices


    I have spent a moderate amount of time at Valley Cryo, though none initially during the pandemic.  If I had plenty of time, I’d sit in the Normatec boots, then sit in the sauna for 25-40 minutes, and then stand in the cryosauna at -210 degrees F* for 3 minutes.  This is around a 2 hour commitment.


    After every hard workout or long run, I will take my protein coffee (Bone Broth protein by Ancient Nutrition) and soak in a steamy epsom salt bath.  This is bliss BTW, and one day I’ll have a soaking tub of my dreams.


    Multiple times a week, I am foam rolling, stretching, and going through my Excel Rocktown Maintenance Routine.


    This winter, I invested in Faster EFT with Nicola, and that was a worthy investment!


    Finally, nourishment and sleep are a must.  Because I have attained remission for multiple tick-borne illnesses (Lyme, Babesia, Bartonella) and Epstein Barr Virus and strive to keep HPA Axis dysfunction to a minimum, I supplement with between 10-15 minerals, herbs, and vitamins daily.  Furthermore, my body recovers slower from workouts and feels stress more easily, so eating well and prioritizing sleep are a must.  You will not catch me hardly ever staying up past 10 PM, and if I haven’t consumed 5 servings of vegetables in a day, it’s an off day.   


    Training Runs and Milestones


    2020 began with Boston Marathon training.  Actually, Boston training began in early December with speed work (alternating intervals and threshold workouts) and a building series of long, tempo runs. I’d be waiting at the gym on alternating Tuesday/Thursday mornings waiting for the doors to open at 5:15 AM.  Mike led track workouts for JMU ROTC cadets, but my hands could not survive the combination of winter cold with the fluctuations in my circulation during speed workouts, so I hit the treadmill. Anyway, it was during these track workouts that I first began to take notice of the Corona Virus, and initially, it was a joke in daily phone calls with a training partner as we commuted to work.


    Speed workouts usually included mile, 1000m, or 2-3x2-3 mile repeats.  With my first self-trained marathon (Marine Corps 2015), I referred to Hansons as a training manual, but ultimately, I felt in my future training that 3 hard workouts in a week was too much, and I wanted more confidence with Marathon pace than 10 miles offered, so I was working toward 14 mile tempos (I ran a 12 mile tempo at 7:40 pace prior to my BQ at Shamrock and soon after, 6:33 at Promise Land, and the flow of that effort was amazing). I really appreciated the progressive build of the speed and strength workouts, but also wanted their “strength” workouts to be longer and faster. 


    I did race a 5K, Cardinal Point Wine Lovers 5K, and won the whole women’s race! It was not my fastest 5K, but a win is a win!  I am guessing most of the competition in the area was at the Olympic marathon trials the next week in Atlanta, and I’m okay with that!


    While in this Boston training segment, I ran my long runs early and mid morning, depending on the weekend, and in all conditions.  I did not run on the trails at this time, but I ran around 70 miles/week in my peak weeks, with a couple of two a days! That was very exciting.  The two a days occurred on speed work days (where I ran speed in the morning and slogged in the afternoon - that was really challenging!). 


    We were 5 weeks out from the race when schools closed down due to Corona Virus.  All of the research I’d done to support my personal health, and that of my clients indicated that endurance efforts longer than 2 hours would increasingly interfere with optimal immune function, and a couple of days after schools were dismissed for 2 weeks, the Boston Marathon was postponed, which did not come as a surprise, although it was quite disappointing.  I had hoped to run around a 3:18 at Boston and then run around a 3:13 at Chicago this fall. So during this time, I decided to truncate my long runs, stay off the over-crowded trails, and hit the track to learn pacing off the treadmill.  I’d focus on a 5K time trial.  I’d been chasing sub 20 for quite some time, and now seemed the right time to go for it!


    Not only was Boston postponed (initially), but also was my surgery in late April intended to alleviate my toxin load, which was disrupting my endocrine system.  I was much more upset about that, as I had timed it to occur about a week and a half after Boston, to allow for my immune system to recover.  I was in touch with my surgeon in Richmond frequently to see about the wait list (it had been scheduled since early October).  They resumed “elective” surgery shortly after my original date. My new surgery date was scheduled for early June, which was definitely starting to encroach on Boston training.  But I wasn’t going to complain. I wanted to feel better!


    Back to the 5K. By now I had had two failed attempts at the 5K.  Oh man, they were UGLY.  The first attempt was with Mike in a pace car out on Dry River Road.  It had just started to rain and the wind was blowing in my face. .62 miles into the time trial, I was well above goal pace and struggling. I stopped, screamed, threw my shoes into the grass, and started walking in the other direction. Running is stupid.  Poor Mike, also. I felt like such a failure; how can I coach people if I can’t do the darn thing?  Yeah, so many demons.


    Attempt number 2 was better, but still failed.  I devised a new course up near Turner Ashby High School that would spit me out on 42 and take me to the road by the river adjacent to the Bridgewater football stadium. I was doing pretty well, passed by Mike at this intersection at 2.32 miles and suddenly I just locked up, body and mind.  I buckled down to the ground, threw my watch into the grass, and cried again. So close - why did I bail? Running is stupid.  Also, I think Mike was done (with good reason) helping me push my brain to the limit of blowing up.


    Then within a week, I received a phone call from the surgeon’s office, and they offered me a spot on the surgery schedule for May 11th because someone wasn’t pre-approved for surgery. I took it immediately, figured out child care so we could be in Richmond by 7 AM.  But what about the 5K??? One more attempt.  It was a morning when my girls were with their dad, and Mike was getting ready for work.  I was quiet, stretching, methodically preparing myself for a last attempt at this endeavor.  Later, Mike said he sensed I was getting in the zone and took off for work.


    I grabbed my racing shoes and two pairs of easy running shoes.  I’d drop a pair at the finish line (right past the gate to enter Bridgewater track) and warm up in the other pair.  I moved my start line back further than before so that I’d be well past 2.32 when I reached my quitting spot from last time.  All the brain tricks.  I acquired GPS on my watch, started the carefully selected jams on my headphones/phone, and took off.  My first mile was a 6:14 with around 40 feet of climbing and 90 feet of descent.  The remaining miles were mostly flat, and I ran off the sidewalk for the majority of it, as the sidewalks were not even.  2nd mile, 6:18, this was going well. Stick with it.  I was turning onto the riverside road, past the point where I quit, running towards the incline at the end of the street, knowing I’d U-turn instead of going back up that.  My body was screaming, but my brain was aware of how I was going to break 20.  Reestablishing speed after that was so hard, but I hauled a$$ until my watch read 3.11 miles, 19:32 5K! I was so incredibly happy!  I called Mike, I called Bill, I called Caroline, as I was cooling down. Victory!!!!


    So then a few days later I had surgery, which came with some unexpected complications including Candida and an adverse reaction to surgical tape.  I was allowed to run after 3 weeks, and I ran my first mile time trial at 5 weeks post surgery in 5:55.  I began reintegrating some speedwork into my training, my proudest workout being the following:


    1x800 @ 2 mile pace, equal distance recoveries

    2x400 @ 1 mile pace, equal distance recoveries

    3x200 @ 800m pace, equal distance recoveries

    5 minute jogging recovery

    1x800 @ 2 mile pace, equal distance recoveries

    2x400 @ 1 mile pace, equal distance recoveries

    3x200 @ 800m pace, equal distance recoveries


    Woof! This was awful and awesome, if that’s possible!


    My final mile time trial was 5:34, at like 4:15 in the morning, before we headed out of town for a rock crawling event and socially responsible vacation, just Mike and I.  The high after these time trial pursuits, doing it all on your own, it feels very good.  My mental strength was becoming evident.


    Side note: Unfortunately, some people really cannot tolerate others’ success. I was told by someone I used to consider a friend that I was disingenuous and arrogant in my running performances, that my 5K didn’t have enough elevation to count, and my mile times were misleading.  Ultimately, I believe she felt threatened by my success, and her insecurity and poor behavior cost her a friendship.  Initially, I doubted and questioned myself, but in the end, her remarks had more to do with what’s going inside her head than with me.  For so long, I’d ventured into ultras and longer distances because of the adventure of it, as well as the reduced pressure to focus on speed (because I simply did not have it), and during that time, a natural pecking order for who is faster than whom had formed.  My improved speed derailed that status quo, I guess.  Clearly, I’m still working on letting this go.  Tapping is a great practice for this!


    Back to training: Before the time trials, I decided to get on the wait list for Jarmans Invitational Marathon in mid August. This race is dumb. I’d already finished it once (4th female).  Yet, it was 2020, and I was guessing Boston would get canceled, and ultimately, it was moved to virtual. So during our travels, Mike and I ran daily: 10 miles around Mt. Monadnock, which was highly technical, rocky, and gorgeous, 10 miles at Hamilton Falls, 6 miles in some God-forsaken black fly riddled trail (we bailed after being repeatedly bitten), and 6 miles around the Bed & Breakfast where we were staying.  Not long after we returned, I ran a Super Jarmans with John Andersen and Sophie Speidel (that was so cool), a 3x Jarmans (18 miles, ~5000 feet) with John and Sophie joining me later (that was so hard), and finally, a Jarmans descent for time (5K in 18:30) and a long run where poor Michelle Andersen dragged me along for 12 more miles.  


    Then I headed to Alabama and the beach with my girls for a trip to visit family that had seemed so terribly delayed.  A couple of weeks out from the JIM, the hay was in the barn, and so I enjoyed short to moderate runs in the southern humidity, then recovered happily on the beach during the day, soaking in the sun and playing in the water with my girls.  When race day was upon me, however, I did not feel great.  Something about summer weather cumulatively stresses my body too much, and something felt off. What in the??? Anyway, the 12:01 PM start of the JIM on the first Saturday in August was hot and humid.  After one climb (at a fair pace), my legs were protesting.  Oh boy… by the 3rd lap, I knew I’d be dropping, and I’m actually very glad I did, because I did need to finish the Boston Virtual Marathon the next month in order to “finish Boston” for the first time. I also scored a $50 Crozet Running gift card for being the first person to drop (haha!) and I got to hang out at the aid station and cheer for other people, which personally I love more than anything else about this sport. Becca Weast, John Andersen, and David Horton were at the aid station, and it felt so good to be around cool people again.  


    I asked Horton then about Hellgate, whether he thought it would happen, and he seemed optimistic.  A bold move, but I shared that I’d like to train for it; he looked at me and smiled, and I assured him that I wouldn’t drop like I did today.  I don’t think he believed me! 


    Onto the Boston Virtual Marathon: I ran an 18 miler and a 20 miler in Bridgewater, and my easy runs were on the faster side of easy.  I felt pretty alright, which was weird after I felt so off at the JIM.  The day of the marathon arrived, and Brittany, Liz, Aaron, and I got a 6:30 start to our 3 loop course.  We had pacers, pace cars, and an amazing celebration at the end, plus a beautiful chalked finish line, mimosas, and 3D printer medals from Corinne. Mike made an amazing street sign to signify the “right on Hereford, left on Boylston” we all so desperately had wanted to experience (Brittany, Aaron, and I were to be 1st timers at Boston). We wore our Boston 2020 bibs and Vinyl Cricut shirt designs I’d made to unite us.  Aside from walking a couple times in the final 4 miles, it was a pretty great event. 


    I had a couple of workouts and a moderate trail run at Rockfish Gap after this event, and then my body shut down suddenly.  Exhausted from custody tribulations that began in April and were continued to September, only to be continued until December 21, my body was responding physically to the emotional stress of co-parenting with someone who doesn’t honor co-parenting practices.  Labwork was ordered, and boom, I had a raging relapse of EBV.  I was with my dear friend Caroline when I realized I was possibly going into prolonged treatment again, and in spite of COVID, she enveloped me in a hug as I cried a few, fat tears. September and October consisted of 20 mile weeks.  I ran some speedwork, but I gave myself a prolonged recovery.  I was, to be frank, exhausted.  Given my high emotional sensitivity (remembering the mind/body connection) to environmental factors, I decided counseling (aka talk therapy) wasn’t enough.  I had the validation I needed.  What I needed were tools to make my emotional defenses so rock solid, that if I didn’t want you to hurt me, you couldn’t no matter how hard you tried.  


    It was then that I discovered Faster EFT, and I invested in 7 hours worth of sessions (plus a bonus session).  Nicola is powerful with language, validating, dynamic, and flexible. I highly recommend this if you struggle with mental toughness, past traumas, toxic relationships, or peak performance.  My most profound takeaway from working with her is that growth does not have to occur out of hardship (even though it can), and that I can release myself of creating hardship so that I can grow.  Pretty powerful!  Furthermore, we discussed my energy deficit, my desire for serenity, peace, and accessing my balanced, constant flow of energy.  This work, I believe, allowed for me to have such an incredible race at Hellgate.


    TRIGGER WARNING: Shortly after I had my initial consultation with Nicola, I, alongside many JMU ROTC cadets, survived a major gas explosion in downtown Harrisonburg, one that shook the nearby cities for miles and miles.  Never in my life have I had to respond to a catastrophic event in such a way, and the aftermath luckily was less damaging than it very well could have been.  I ran without looking back, with adrenaline pulsing through my veins, with holes in my jacket.  Luckily the injuries of the cadets were easy enough to treat at the local hospital, but others were airlifted to UVA.  I was taken aback by all of the concern community members expressed for us, for the running shop, but it was the invisible aftermath of this event that left me with severe concussions, fatigue, jumpiness, and most importantly, depression. I started wondering, what if I had just died instead?  Given the custody situation, my chronic illnesses, how horrible the explosion had been, I wondered if the world would be better without me in it.  Nicola met with me for a complimentary session to help me get through the trauma of the event, to let me process these awful feelings, to allow myself to re-engage in my gratitude for life, and so when several people reached out to me and said “I’m glad you’re alive”, it resonated in a way I imagine they couldn’t even understand.


    And so, having survived that explosion, I decided to seize the day and explore my options.


    On October 21st, I contacted Horton to inquire about the Hellgate application.  Initially, I had written the race off because of my relapse, but I wanted to see if I could get ready.  My determination to bounce back quickly by giving my body EVERYTHING IT NEEDED, including sauna, rest, meds, epsom salt baths, massage.  He said I needed to get my application in ASAP because November 4th they’d be selecting 100 runners to enter. I printed out the application, filled it out, wrote a special note saying that I believed I would finish because I’ve overcome so much already, and overnighted that puppy to Lynchburg University.  I was among the first 100 runners accepted, thank goodness!


    On October 31st, I turned 32.  An intmitate group of friends and I headed to Waynesboro to race a wine 5K.  I was strong, but I wasn’t as strong as I had been. The course was a hard one, but we had a great race.  I ran a 20:32 5K there (6:15, 6:38, 7:04 - I died on the last, very hilly mile).  I had committed to focusing on one race at a time, though I knew Hellgate was most definitely an A race.


    November 1st, though, belonged to Hellgate. It was a full moon, and I really wanted a moonlight run without staying up late to do it. Unfortunately, the moon was blocked by dense clouds -boooo!  A small group of friends plus Mike drove to the trail head for The Wild Oak Trail (TWOT, for short).  We ran up to Little Bald (7 miles and ~3000 feet of climbing) and returned the same way, at least mostly.  Liz found her flow and took off down the wrong trail, and when we realized she was missing, that was very scary. She had no water, no light, and no phone. In our haste to get back to our cars, we missed the turn onto TWOT from the dirt/grass road and went down, down, down until we realized we were off trail, which means we had re-ascend probably around 1000 feet of elevation in an additional 2 miles.  Luckily, as we approached the trailhead, we could hear Liz yelling out for us, and she came in from Tillman Road, unscathed.  Very scary, very grateful she was safe.  After we were all reunited, we celebrated 16 miles and nearly 5000 feet of vert.  A great first training run for Hellgate!


    The next weekend was one of those rare weekends where I go for a long run when I have the kids.  I didn’t love doing this, but I was invited to the event and therefore, couldn’t adjust the date to one that suited me.  This was the Mountain Masochist Underground 50K! I was supposed to run it this year, but along with Boston, Chicago, and a slew of other races, the 50 miler was canceled.  But I knew I needed some long runs and some vert, so Mike agreed that I should go.  


    This event was awesome!  Lots of leaves, single track, and challenging road climbs, plus beautiful sunrises and vistas.  Going out, the pace was an easy one, but going back, I decided I would chase after Bethany Patterson, who was in a hurry to get back to her own family.  I did okay hanging on during the gravel road climbs, but once that lady hit the single track, I never saw her again.  Skillz. Though a couple sections were a little dicey getting back, I finished the 50K (32+ miles) in ~7 hours 10 minutes.  Imagining doing that a little more than twice suddenly had me skeered, although I had intentionally blown myself up that week with a 5 mile tempo at 6:45 pace and a 600/200 relay workout.  The elevation was also just under half of Hellgate.  I purchased a mug from the general store, some craft high gravity beer for Mike, and drove home.  


    The next week, I headed to Wintergreen to spend time with my aunt and uncle and also to do a back to back long run weekend.  On Thursday, I ran 10x floating 400s at marathon pace, with general aerobic recoveries. That was hard! Then Friday, I ran a 9 mile moderate run, 12 miles on Saturday morning at Rockfish Gap, and while I’d hoped to run 3 Ridges + Priest from Reeds Gap, the weather was looking shifty, and I put contingencies into place based on the weather.  I was fearful that it would be pretty remote where I was, and I didn’t want to put myself in danger.  So I ran around 17 miles that day with over 5000 feet of elevation.  I ran from Reeds Gap to the Mauhar trail, to the 3 Ridges Trail, all the way down to the Priest trailhead, and then returning by way of 3 Ridges all the way back to Reeds Gap.  The rockiness in many sections was a lot to handle, and I think this run was the impetus for some improper patellar tracking in my left knee. However, I was extremely proud of myself for the amount of solo running I had done to this point, and especially with the wind whipping around me at such high altitudes.  I definitely questioned my courage, but this run taught me resolve!


    My knee had my attention on my next early morning easy run, and I assumed then that it was because my Saucony Shifts were dead. I’d had at least 500 miles on them!  I immediately ordered a new pair and used other shoes until they arrived.  New shoes, while exciting, did not solve the problem.  Bummer.  The following weekend, Mike and I took turns pacing a friend in his Country Roads 100K, which gave me around 20 miles of running (5 miles of tempo pace).  My knee by the end of this was so grumpy and stiff.  Time to start figuring this out!  I had Brittany take a look at it the next day, and two days later, Dr. Glazer was applying red laser therapy to it.  That helped briefly, but I knew what it needed was rest.  I needed one more long trail run before I could grant that.


    I was supposed to run with Sonja Wilkey the next weekend: 3x Jarmans + 1 Carlos.  A day or so before our run, she contacted me to say that she wouldn’t be able to make it due to injury.  The weather was looking incredible, and I was itching for adventure again.  I had attempted TWOT in the past, but weather had been icy and dangerous, meaning a bailed attempt and warm fireplaces at Cracker Barrel with Mike as we ate our weight in pancakes, bacon, and biscuits.  Mike agreed to join me at the road intersection around halfway, as I wanted to run a portion solo and in the dark, in preparation for the 7 hours of darkness I’d be running through only two weeks from now.  I was anxious about my knee and gave in to the temptation of ibuprofen.  I packed sweet potato muffins, gels, gummies, electrolytes, music, and more.  The temperature was cold but bearable.


    The first 7 miles to Little Bald were terrible!  I actually sat for a second and pouted because I felt so slow, texted Mike to tell him I felt like $h!t, and carried on.  I dreaded the second climb to Big Bald.  But as I finished the first of two steep miles, I started feeling better, encouraged by progress, albeit it slow.  As I crested the ridge, I saw Mike’s happy self trotting along the trail!  He fell in behind me as I proceeded down, down, down towards his truck, where surprises and aid awaited me.  He recorded a video of me jaunting along, and not long after, I rolled my ankle badly. I cried out, cursed, pulled myself together, and hobbled along until it didn’t hurt anymore! I was excited to be looking past the aid station instead of viewing it as an end point.  


    I had no time goal really. I wasn’t sure what to expect, putting all these different sections together that I’d run only separately.  We began the rolling ascent towards Hanky, and we just played in the woods. It was marvelous. The weather was perfect; the run was perfect; everything was getting better!  Hanky sucked, but hilariously so.  It was so steep; what else could you do but laugh?  


    Multiple times, I stopped to check that we were on the correct trail, particularly when we hit the dirt/grave/grass road.  By this point, I was feeling impatient. Less than 8 miles to go, now seeing a time goal come into clear view.  I wanted to break 7 hours.  Hitting the single track was exciting, but I’ll admit, I got a little frustrated at around mile 26 regarding when I’d see the turn off for the overlook trail.  I was skipping, jumping, leaping over the rocks, and d@mn, I felt amazing!  When I finally passed by that turn off, I knew it was time to start rolling.  27 miles in!!! Crossing the bridge was kind of hilarious because Mike started jumping on it behind me, and I didn’t know these ladies were approaching the bridge until after I teasingly told him off.  That was kind of awkward, but they were like “you’re amazing”, and I was like “it’s a great day!” and took off up that final climb. I hiked for maybe 30 seconds here to regain my breath, and then powered it home across the road and the final stretch of single track returning us to the trail head!  6 hours 10 minutes of moving time, 6 hours 40 minutes of elapsed time. I’m confident I can break 6 hours now! I look forward to going back!


    After this run, I committed to minimal running leading up to Hellgate. Instead, I focused on foam rolling, epsom salt baths, high protein foods, rest, and ibuprofen.  Two more appointments with Dr. Glazer included adjustments, exercises, taping, and laser.  Ultimately, my taper was pretty successful in that I was well rested.  While I was not without knee pain, it was the best it could have been given the circumstances, and I’m grateful the damage isn’t any worse! 


    I went on to run the race of my dreams at Hellgate. I had a great day, even better than the one I had at TWOT, with only maybe a cumulative hour of "ugh I hate this" the entire race. 

    The Year End Reflection

    The build up for Hellgate was quick and hard, but it was specific in many ways and full of adventures I’ll always be grateful for.  This year’s training taught me how to have courage, how to grow mental fortitude, and how to believe in myself because there will always be people who don’t believe in me or sadly are put off by my success.  This year’s experiences, and let’s be real, 2020 has been hard on everyone, have taught me that I can always keep going: another week, another few months, another mile, after failure.  There is always redemption if you seek it and commit to it.  As my trail dad Bill Gentry says, “It can’t always get worse.” Good days are only achieved by the Law of Attraction: believe in goodness and you will inevitably receive it.


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