Finding the Balance: An Ultra Runner on a Gravel Bike

Ultra running can be time consuming. It requires a lot of time to train in the mountains, a lot of time to recover, stretch, rest, eat . . . always eat. You can get caught in a cycle of doing too much or thinking you must train crazy hours on the trail to be successful in a race. While I agree, running is the most specific way to train for a running race, there is a point of  diminishing return, when there’s too much running and not enough recovery (or playfulness, in my opinion). I was definitely in danger of becoming consumed with only running, and stressing about needing to run and train all the time. But, that all change back in 2017 when I nearly died, falling off a cliff during a race, and was faced with the harsh reality of injury and that running might never happen again. It was during my recovery from those injuries that I discovered gravel bike riding.

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Photo: Emma Ziobrzynski

I started riding as a way to recover, as a way to explore the mountains, to get outside and to move my body. I didn’t ride very long or very far, I think I did a ride once that was 3 hours long—max. It was for the enjoyment. It helped me to fall in love again with being outside and to regain fitness and return to running. Once I started running and competing again, I still used cycling as a way to cross train. I found it beneficial to my running and overall strength. In fact, my coach Adam St. Pierre, encouraged me to keep riding my bike and saw it a fun addition to my training, my fitness with the added benefit of not get overly concerned about only running.

 

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I’m really thankful I had at least started to cycle when this winter, a slip on the ice and an ankle twist caused me to break my ankle. I was faced with another surgery, another recovery, and I had to cancel my early season running races.

Of course, I was devastated, having to move forward from another injury. The thought of having to start over again felt overwhelming. I turned to my team of physiotherapists at REVO Physiotherapy and Sports Performance, a group that’s put me back together so many times that they’ve basically become family. That’s when I met Joe Lewis, a retired professional cyclist, a coach at REVO and the founder of First Wheel Coaching. Along with my PT team, and coach Adam, Joe encouraged me to get on a bike as soon as possible so I could prevent further loss of fitness. So, as soon as my doctors cleared me for partial weight bearing, I brought my bike into the gym.

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Photo: Jenni Lewis

Joe helped me set it up on a trainer, and I started riding. At first, I rode with a normal shoe and a flat pedal for my injured leg. I couldn’t even push all the way through with that ankle, but eventually I progressed to being clipped in and started to push myself. Joe monitored my progress, provided modifications and helped me increase the quality of my workouts by raising my Functional Threshold Power (FTP—basically a metric in cycling measuring your threshold, or the amount of work you can do in an hour, all out).

 

I saw progress more quickly than I would’ve thought possible, and was relieved to feel like I wasn’t losing fitness during recovery. I was really starting to enjoy cycling and was learning a lot, not just about the sport, but also about myself as an athlete (see my other blog post, Getting Out of my Comfort Zone, and how I started from scratch with a new sport).

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Not long after being cleared to ride a bike outside, I got a call from my good friend Allen Lim over at Skratch Labs. He had an entry into a gravel bike race for me. And it wasn’t just any gravel bike race, it was THE gravel bike race: the Dirty Kanza, a 200-mile gravel grinding bike race. The idea of doing 200 miles on a bike, something I’ve never done before, really scared me. I didn’t know if I could even do it, especially coming off of an injury. But, that was the beauty of it; it was intimidating and challenging, but it motivated me. I told Allen I was in.

The next day, as I was sweating it out on the bike trainer, I told Joe about the race. He had a big grin on his face as he said, “Well, I guess we’ve got a lot of work to do.” He was all-in and ready to help me tackle my biggest challenge yet: racing the Dirty Kanza.

 

Joe wrote me a program prescribing different workouts and longer rides. Every Tuesday and Thursday, we’d meet up at the gym for cycling workouts, and Joe was there to push me and walk me through what would come next. I think during every cycling workout so far, I’ve looked at Joe with my wide eyes and said, “I don’t know if I can do this!” But, as usual, he just shakes his head and tells me, “You’re stronger than you think you are. You can definitely do this.”

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I’d end the day smiling, tired and proud to have another hard day of cycling under my belt. With his help, I learned how to train for two sports at once. This was important because I wanted to get back to running as well, so Adam and Joe worked together to help me increase my running volume as I was coming back from my ankle injury, while training for the bike race. It was a lot of work, but the process has been so much fun.

 

My cycling ability has improved an incredible amount while working with Joe. He made training as a cyclist accessible, pushed me harder than I thought I could go and helped renew my optimism for my future as an athlete by optimizing my recovery. Even more than that, he’s given me a new excitement for cycling. So much so that I even signed up for another gravel bike race—a stage race! Who knows, maybe I’ll end up balancing racing on my gravel bike and ultra running in my future seasons.

With Dirty Kanza and my stage race still ahead of me, I look back on this process and appreciate how far I’ve come. Cycling is more than just a means to an end or a bridge to recovery. It’s a challenge in and of itself, and one that I’m enjoying and embracing fully. But, most importantly, it has led me to a new community, one that’s always there to help me up when I’m down and willing to create new paths to success and recovery.

 

If you’re looking to get into cycling and don’t know where to start, or you want to learn how to race or use riding for recovery, look up Joe and First Wheel Coaching. Not only has he changed my perspective and helped me to get back to doing what I love, he’s also helped me uncover a new love for cycling that I’ll carry with me throughout my athletic career.

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Resting Into Greatness

 

Resting is recovery. Resting IS recovery. Resting is . . . well . . . it’s hard. I’m a person of routine, and running is part of it. Running, moving, getting outside is part of me. It makes me better. I can focus; I’m more patient, and more productive. When I rest I find myself restless, not sure what to do with my pent up energy.

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It’s a distinct feeling from tapering. For a taper, I’m relieved for some rest and recovery. I am motivated to save my energy for an upcoming race or hard effort. I have an end goal. Extended periods of rest are a bit more difficult for me.

I like to take an off-season from competitions. I need the mental reset. Generally my off-season is October until my first race of the season in May, which leaves me with no real goals until the following spring. Of course I’m running during that time, but my intention is to reduce volume and intensity; I do easy running mixing in skiing and strength work. This time is important for me mentally and physically, so I feel rejuvenated when it’s time to train hard again.

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Logically I can talk my way through this, but when it’s actually time to rest, to recover and take a break, I struggle. Maybe you can blame this on my type ‘A’ personality, my goal-oriented way of thinking, my determination and discipline? All of these qualities make me a great runner and hard working; however, they also make it hard for me to chill out!

Recently resting has been a challenge for me. I spent the summer in Europe racing. I was focused, training every day, making sure I was prepared for the challenging races I committed to. So, once it was over and I returned home, I found myself at a loss. I was bored, unhappy and dissatisfied. It wasn’t due to disappointment – I was happy with my season – so what was it, this profound sense of uneasiness? So I went searching for it, trying to run through the boredom and uncertainty. I would stay in Boulder during the week to teach my classes, and then I would take off for 4 days, meeting up with friends or spending time in the mountains alone in hopes of shaking this unease.

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But I didn’t find it. I only ran into tears, fatigue and more dissatisfaction. I wasn’t giving myself permission to enjoy the down time. I was terrified of where my mind would go, what I would do with my time, of feeling unproductive.

Finally, after too many runs spent crying and wondering why I was still pushing, I realized rest was really what I needed. In fact, after a few days, I got pretty good at it. I just needed permission to rest, and some time to figure out the transition; to establish a new routine.

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I’m learning these periods of relaxing and allowing myself to move at a slower pace are a treat. I come back stronger, more motivated and eager. It’s not always easy. There are definitely days where I have to be more patient and not be so hard on myself, but those days are getting easier. I’m letting myself rest into greatness.

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Check out more articles at Trail Sisters, and thanks to The North Face for their continued support.

Balance

Strictly speaking, balance is defined as the ability to remain upright and steady due to an even distribution of weight. This is definitely applicable for most trail runners – although falling is inevitable at times. However, I’d like to talk about a different kind of balance, one dealing with the stability of one’s mind and state of being. I’m constantly striving for balance. Maybe you laugh, scoff even, that an ultra runner knows the meaning of the word. Balance? Indeed, I am familiar with the term, and I strive for balance in my daily life.

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First, I start with running. It’s a huge part of my life, and my favorite way of enjoying nature. However, I don’t want to overdo it. This is to prevent over-training, but even more importantly, to prevent burn out or lack of motivation in my running/racing. I balance my training: mileage, hours and vertical gain.

Now, it’s not always easy to maintain this balance. Heard of FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out)? What about YOLO (You Only Live Once)? I fall victim to these ailments, especially when I’m traveling or exploring a new area. All I want to do is get out and run for hours and hours up every mountain I see! Of course, I will get after it, but I’m constantly monitoring how I feel. I allow myself the freedom to slow down, skip a workout, take an extra rest day, or go longer that day if I’m feeling good. I am dedicated to my training plan, but want to maintain a playfulness and happiness with running. This balance keeps me hungry for more.

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I can’t run all the time, and even if I could, I don’t want to. Another important aspect to maintain a balanced mind is work. This is something us runners don’t talk about a lot. We assume that if someone is a sponsored runner, that’s all they do. Wrong. In fact, the majority of ‘professional’ trail runners have a day job too, a family and other interests that they are balancing. For me, it’s science.

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I’ve been a scientist since before I could walk. I’m pretty sure my first words were ‘miller moth,’ you know, those moths that come around in hoards once a year and get stuck in your house? Yep. I wanted to be an entomologist for as longa as I can remember, dressing up as an entomologist on career day in kindergarten, or for every Halloween.

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This love of science and curiosity in the natural world motivated me to earn an undergraduate degree in Organic Chemistry and a Masters degree in neuroscience. I worked or volunteered in labs starting in middle school.

Currently, I’m teaching chemistry, physics, anatomy and physiology at a small college outside of Boulder, CO. It’s the perfect way to motivate the next generation of scientists. Plus, it’s challenging to teach the material well.

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Science, teaching and running are major parts of my life, without each piece I am not whole. I’m a better teacher if I prioritize running before class. I have more energy and more focus. Then, when it’s time to run, I make it count no matter what the training is that day (even rest days). Balance is more of a way of living, rather than an achievement. It allows me the freedom for change, constantly adjusting my life as my interests evolve. I also coach runners, I ski, and rock climb. I do yoga, cycle, read, cook and travel. Now, of course, I can’t balance those daily, but I can incorporate them in my lifestyle as a whole. Each adding a unique value to my life, while contributing to entirety of me.

 

Check out more pots on Trails Sisters

 

Past the Limit

Ultra running is a niche sport, an extreme one at that. It can take many forms as far as terrain, but the definition is simple: covering a distance more than a marathon. Covering that distance in one piece however, is not so simple.

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I first discovered ultra running in the form of mountain running. This quickly turned into a love for an even more extreme form of mountain running known as skyrunning. Here, courses take you from the sea to the sky, in the most direct path imaginable. This year I’ve been lucky enough to compete in La palama (Transvulcania 75km), Madeira (Madeira ultra sky 50km), the Dolomites (Cortina Trail 50km), and the Pyrenees (Buff Epic 110km). I find motivation and challenge in skyrunning, due to the demanding technicality and steep grades. However, my most recent race, the Buff Epic, at the skyrunning world championships in Valle de Boí, forced me to places I had never been before.

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I’m not going into the details of a race report, but for background, this race was 110km with 8000m of positive gain (about 69 miles and 26,500ft). Extreme.

 

I knew this race would challenge me, maybe even break me, but never did I expect the day I had.

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I started comfortable, anticipating all the climbs, letting the steepness dictate my pace. I felt comfortable, calm to be running. Within the first 20k I had already managed to go off course for a few minutes, to fall on some slippery rocks, but even that couldn’t get my spirits down. I knew I was going to be out there all day, mentally I was ready to be patient.

Then, all of a sudden it hit me. Nausea. I was being proactive about my nutrition, but suddenly, around the 25km mark, even the smell of food made my stomach turn. I would vomit when I tried to eat anything!

I thought things would turn around if I stuck to liquid calories and salt to get back in some electrolytes, but things just got progressively worse. Sipping coca cola soon lead to vomiting and by the 50km mark I was stuck to drinking a salt solution provided by the aid station, with very little caloric value. I was worried and I wanted to quit.

I had an amazing support crew who were meeting me around all sections of the course (which were really hard to get to), so perhaps that was a source of motivation. But, for me, running is so personal. I won’t simple do a race or a run because someone tells me to, I must be convicted to do it myself. So I kept going.

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This time, every uphill, or slightly steep pitch I was dry heaving. Pushing my body past a certain pace caused me to double over with nausea. I was 67km in.

My mind was spiraling. I worried about my place. How I was competing – I wasn’t competing. I wondered what people would think about my performance, it was the world championships, I wondered if I was a horrible runner now. I thought about quitting simply because I wasn’t in a podium position like I imagined I would be. Right then, I stopped on the trail, and told myself out-loud: ‘That’s a horrible reason to quit Hill, and it’s not why you run.”

 

So I kept moving forward. Around 75km now.

 

I wanted to quit! Why wasn’t I quitting?? Should I quit? Am I causing myself damage? How am I able to walk up this mountain with no food in me??

 

I carried these questions with me into the last major aid station at 81.5km, convinced this was the time to call it quits. I had run 50 miles – that was good enough. Plus, I didn’t want to run in the dark. I was ready to quit, like I had told myself around the 30km mark.

 

My crew had everything prepared. My headlamp, water, more water – water was the only thing I could stomach now. I looked at their faces to confirm my defeat, but they told me they’d see me at the finish. I didn’t believe I’d make it. But I got up, making my way towards the door, hesitant. I wanted to quit, to end the suffering, but I was still moving toward the door. I left in a slow trudging jog.

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Where was the hope, the perseverance, and this determination within me? Why were my feet still moving me forward? How? Why won’t my stomach stop hurting? How in the world am I still dry heaving? Why am I not quitting?? I still want to quit.

 

These words played like a broken record within my head. Repeating, circling, questioning, begging myself to quit. I really had no idea how I was still moving or if there was anything to be proud of with my performance. I was absolutely defeated. Yet, still moving. How were these two things possible?

 

The last few hours of my race were all a blur. The dull ache of my stomach and my circling questions made time irrelevant. I came to when I say the 1km mark on the side of the trail. I had made it to the finish, but not in a triumphant manner, or with any extra surge of energy. I was relieved and confused crossing the finish line. Why and how did I keep going? How did I make it hear.

 

Over the next few days, I kept reliving my experience and I still can’t explain what transpired that day. I’ve always said I run for the challenge, and the strength it gives me as a person. That day I felt the weakest and most challenged in a race or run. Extraordinarily, I still had something more. Nothing tangible or explicable, but I had something deeper that kept me moving forward, something that wouldn’t let me give up or give in to the pain, the challenge and doubt.

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I wouldn’t have discovered this silent strength, this powerful force within me, unless I was pushed past my limit. I would have never known I possessed this immeasurable strength if I had not kept going that day. This is my silver lining, and the true reason why I run. There is strength in the struggle and grace in the challenge. All I must do, is simply run.

 

 

Check out more articles at Trail Sisters

 

Thank you to The North FaceSky RunnerUltimate DirectionSkratch LabsSwiftwick Socks and Real Athlete Diets (RAD) for their continued support.

Run The Rut 50k

This year, I was really looking forward to Run the Rut 50k. What’s not to love? The race is in beautiful Big Sky, Montana, it’s a super technical course, has a ton of climbing, and attracts stout competition. I had run the race last year, so I knew what to expect (as far as difficulty and technicality), which mentally helps a great deal.

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Coming off a win at Speedgoat, where I had broken the course record (previously held by Anna Frost), I now knew I could hang with the top ladies. I just had to race smart, something I’ve been learning to do all season. My technical running had improved throughout the summer, so I was confident in my abilities to run technical descents, and on courses with big elevation gains and losses.

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Despite all of these reinforcements, I couldn’t help feeling tired. Not only physically, but mentally. I had reached an unambitious point in my training, but mixing things up helped like cycling, rock climbing and peak bagging. I still did a few workouts prescribed by my coach (Mike Aish), however some were unsuccessful due to either lack of motivation or the feeling I might be getting sick. This had me worried to race, since I knew my competition would be fresh or such seasoned racers they could constantly compete at a high level.

I did what I always do; forget about the competition and focus on the event, the location. I wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity to travel to Montana to run around Lone Peak, or let outside pressures get in the way with my enjoyment of ultrarunning. I got to the race early enough to watch all the events. The Vertical Kilometer race on Friday was a blast. I did the course before the race started to wake up my legs and do my favorite climb along the ridge to Lone Peak. The 25k on Saturday was impressive; for the competition, the technicality and steepness of the course. My friend David Powder Steele ran the whole 25k course with an American Flag on his back!

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The 50k was sunday, and I was thrilled to discuss my race plans with Meghan Hicks during my first interview on iRunFar:

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Race morning was chilly; 22 degrees, dark, still and clear. I focused on maintaining an even pace on the first climb, before heading downhill and then hitting some flat trails around a lake as the sun came up. Early on I became discouraged. Maybe it was my legs which felt heavy in the cold, or my stomach, upset, telling me I couldn’t eat too much that day, or my 5th position, I wanted to be higher. Regardless my head wasn’t in it. It took extra effort for me to focus my thoughts. I contemplated dropping (only 10 miles in). I scolded myself for getting caught up in negatively and urged myself to see the positive: the beauty of the course, running in Montana, going up Lone Peak.

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Still, I was struggling. I was in 4th position going up headwaters and I could see 1 of the girls ahead of me. I kept pushing. I saw my friend Myke Hermsmeyer at the top of the climb. I burst in to tears. My stomach hurt worse now and I was still discouraged, defeated and tired. He urged me forward as I took on the first technical descent.

The Rut 2015 Photos for Competitor Web Gallery. Photos by Myke Hermsmeyer. michael.hermsmeyer@gmaill.com / mykejh.com / @mykehphoto on Instagram and Twitter

Hillary Allen descending on Headwaters Ridge at The Rut 50k on her way to 2nd place. Photo Myke Hermsmeyer / michael.hermsmeyer@gmail.com / @mykehphoto

When I reached the aid station atop Swiftcurrent lift I still hadn’t snapped out of it. I even managed to go off course for 3-5 minutes, which frustrated me further. I saw my teammate, and race director, Mike Foote at the aid station, still in 4th position. I told him I needed new legs, that mine were feeling dead. He could tell I was discouraged and assured me I was running a great time. If I hiked steadily up to Lone Peak, he told me, my legs would come back. His words stuck with me as I urged myself forward, behind Anna Mae Flynn, trying to close in on Martina Valmassoi (who had overtaken me when I went off course).

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I am a strong hiker and as I closed the gap on the girls ahead of me, I started to formulate a strategy to finish the race. I was confident descending off of Lone Peak and I overtook Anna Mae here, pushing forward to catch Martina, who I could see just ahead of me. I knew Emelie was in the lead (which was impressive, since she had competed in the VK and the 25K the two days prior to the 50K).

The remaining part of the course was mostly downhill, so I pushed myself as hard as I could on the uphills to get to them. I passed Martina on the ascent to the final aid station to learn I was only 8 minutes back from Emelie. I was ready to get this thing done, and to not anyone pass me!

On the final uphill of the course (about 1 mile from the finish) I glanced at my watch:6:22. I realized I was running a fast time, and could actually finish under the course record from last year (set by Emelie Forsberg)! I had held my 2nd position, and when I finally crossed the finish line I had goosebumps and couldn’t stop smiling. Not because I finished in 6:30 (under last year’s course record), or that I had qualified for the World Mountain Running Championships next year in Slovenia; I was so pleased I fought through to the very end, I didn’t give up, and pushed through when I wanted to quit.

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My Mom even came to cheer me on, and my friend John Fitzgerald. It was great to see them along the course and celebrate at the finish. I even had a little dance party at the finish (a warm up for the ‘Cowby-up’ party later that night).

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2015 The Rut photos for CBS consideration. Photos: Myke Hermsmeyer / michael.hermsmeyer@gmail.com / mykejh.com / @mykehphoto

Check out my post-race interview with iRunFar and USL.TV (and a little round table action with USL.TV):

Thanks to Myke Hermsmeyer Photography for all of his amazing photos: Myke Hermsmeyer / michael.hermsmeyer@gmail.com / mykejh.com / @mykehphoto! To The North Face for their support, Hammer Nutrition, Swiftwick Socks and team Run Steep Get High. Huge thank you to Mike Foote (@mikefootemt) and Mike Wolfe (@wolfepaw) for putting on such a spectacular event.

Rest: a runner’s 4-letter word

Take it easy, take some time off, put your feet up . . . lie still . . .  When I hear these phrases I get an overwhelming urge to go for a run. This might be irrational, and I embrace that dichotomy.

Running feeds my soul, and never lets me down. Even on a bad run, I’m never disappointed that I got out the door and into the fresh air, trails and mountains. I’ve grown from running and it’s a part of me, so when there comes a time when I can’t or shouldn’t run, there’s always an inner battle to fight.

Logically, I know my body needs rest and recovery to keep performing and running without injuries, but sometimes my mind tells me a different thing. Especially during taper weeks for races, when I feel fat, lazy and inactive. My mind plays tricks on me, that I’m losing fitness, or getting slower . . . I have to constantly remind myself that these times – where I move more slowly – are necessary, just as necessary as my long training runs.

I learn best through trail and error. I learned a valuable lesson about rest this season. So let me take you through what I did first:

1) No rest after tough races.

My first 50 mile race was in June this year, Big Horn 50 mile (you can read my blog recap of it: https://hillygoat.wordpress.com/2014/07/01/bighorn-50-race-report/). I raced it pretty hard. The steep, uneven, off camber downhill left my quads and IT bands wrecked.

But, I soon forgot the pain of the race and was still riding my adrenaline high, so I rested for 2-3 days and started running again. I knew I was tired and my muscles were still beat up, plus I had a weird pain in my foot (when I would propel myself uphill). But, my IT band was the real issue.

I had a huge knot in my left quad and even with stretching and rolling, it was difficult to relieve. But the real issue was my left IT band. It was tight, going downhill hurt my left knee had this clicking noise. Every time I would extend/bend my knee it would click/snap . . . I learned this was because my IT band was so tight, that it was snapping over the bone at the connection point in my knee, coming off its normal ‘tract’ . . . basically not good.

I still kept trying to train on it, but I soon realized I would have to cut back if I wanted to run Speedgoat 50k in less than 3 weeks. This race was pretty important to me, being my first big competition race, so I really wanted to compete and see what I could do.

I had to alter my training, I had to take more days off and focus on stretching and rolling. I could run flat without it hurting, and biking was fine, although I had to be careful to not climb too much. It was really frustrating. I also had to be diligent with daily glute and hip flexor strengthening exercises. If one day I forgot those, or to roll out, I would suffer for 2 days with pain and the clicking knee.

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It wasn’t until I had 4 days of running pain free that I decided to run Speedgoat 50k, and even when I stepped on the start line I knew I wasn’t 100% recovered. Not a good feeling, especially since Speedgoat was notoriously hard. During that race, I hit a wall by mile 15, and had already started to feel my IT cramping up. Plus, I stepped on several rocks, so my feett felt horrible too! The only thing that got me to the finish line was me repeating to myself “I’m taking a whole week off after this!”

 

So now I will tell you about scenario #2, where I take significant time off after tough races.

2) Listen to your body, quiet your mind and REST, damnit!

I literally couldn’t walk normally for a day after speedgoat. So it was definitely time to rest. Even by Monday, my mind was wandering and telling me to run, but I was stubborn and went to yoga insteadd. I made sure to stretch, roll, do easy yoga and sleep for 7 days straight. It was challenging to switch up my routine (remember I like this running thing), but it was a needed break, physically and mentally.

Once I started running again, I was surprised at how strong I felt. I hadn’t lost any fitness, but was motivated, and ready to start training again. I eased back into the training week and before long, I was out doing big loops in the mountains, feeling really strong. I made sure to keep up my foam rolling and strength exercises for my IT, I definitely didn’t want that issue again.

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My next race was Run the Rut 50K in Big Sky Montana, and I was feeling strong. I raced very smart and was very pleased with my 5th place finish, but most of all, with how I felt during and after the race. My IT didn’t cramp up, and I wasn’t completely thrashed after the race. To me this says I trained smart, since my muscles were recovered and ready for such a hard effort. A stark contrast to Speedgoat (which was an easier race). 2 short weeks after Run the Rut, I was even able to race Flagstaff Sky Race, and win the US Sky Running Ultra Series.

 

This is definitely a plan I will be sticking to. Rest is a 4-letter word I have learned to like.

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Loops in the high country: Mount Belford, Mount Oxford and Missouri Mountain

This is the first summer I’ve spent a lot of time running in the high country. And I’m addicted. Want proof? I’ve only done eight 14ers in my life, 5 of them being this summer alone. My goal isn’t to climb all the 14ers in Colorado . . . it’s more about the beauty of the high country, exploring new trails and loops, with the bonus of getting killer altitude training!

A few weekends ago I completed a loop with boyfriend Jon. I had my heart set on a 3 mountain loop that I’d been reading about on 14ers.com. It involved massive Missouri Mountain, Mount Belford, and Mount Oxford. The trip reports on 14ers.com are extensive, but after looking at several maps and routes I decided to do Mount Belford first, traverse over to tag Mount Oxford (a common duo) and then descend through Elkhead pass and head up and over to Moussouri mountain.

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I printed out a couple maps and trip reports to help me out along the way. These two were the most helpful with descriptions and pictures:

http://www.14ers.com/php14ers/tripreport.php?trip=15130&parmpeak=Mt.+Oxford&cpgm=tripmain&ski=Include

http://www.14ers.com/php14ers/tripreport.php?trip=13031&parmpeak=Mt.+Oxford&cpgm=tripmain&ski=Include

 

Based on the reports I read, the loop was around 15 miles with 7,000+ ft of ascent. Hikers reported 11.5 hours round trip, but I figured with power hiking, running the flats and downhill, 7 hours would do it.

We camped the night before about a mile from the Missouri gulch trailhead, about 5 miles down county road 390 (off hwy 24). There’s plenty of dispersed camping along county road 390.

The weather already felt like fall that night, and it was a brisk 40 degrees that morning. I decided last minute to hike in capri pants (good call for sure!). We started a little after 5am with packs and headlamps (my trusty Salomon pack filled was full of water and food). Initially we started running the flat sections but pretty soon transitioned into a strong power hike. It was steep right away!! In 0.9 miles we had already climbed 1000ft. Having the headlamps helped to focus on the steps in front of me, and not on how steep everything was!

 

I had read in some reports that there was a crucial intersection/river crossing early on in the route. This was at about 1.5 miles in, where we could cross a creek (over two sets of log bridges). I knew Belford was over to the left so we needed to go that way. I’m pretty sure going straight would lead to a dead end, but I didn’t go find out.

We knew we were on the right path when the trail went steeply uphill through fairly rocky terrain. There were definitely some runnable sections in this section, especially once the trail started to reach tree line. At about 2.5 miles in we reached the junction for elkhead pass and Mount Belford. We continued left at a solid pace, mostly power hiking at this point.

sun              valley

There were quite a few people on the trail by this early hour. The more I looked up, the more I was surprised how steep the trail was. Just how steep? Well, in under 4 miles we had climbed 4500ft to reach a red, jagged out-cropping of rocks (the abrupt summit of Belford). We ate something quickly and started running the downhill and flat traverse over to Mount Oxford. I was super pleased with my shoe choice for the day: La Sportiva, Helios. Light weight, super sticky rubber and surprisingly protective for being so flexible. These shoes did great on the uphill, but the true test of loose gravely, winding downhills my Helios were still very grippy.

traverse

We were having a grand time, enjoying the sweeping views, they were literally breathtaking, especially when we started on the uphill again. We had descended around 700ft, which meant we needed to ascend that to reach the Oxford summit. My legs were not happy with me at this point, I guess the lack of oxygen at 13,500ft has it’s effects after all.

The summit of oxford was windy and desolate, mainly just a pile of rocks marking the summit that were slightly higher than the mountain plateau. The traverse took us about 40 minutes, But we had to stop at the top and take in the spectacular views of Mt. Harvard and Mt. Yale in the distance. (I’m already planning a Mt. Harvard-Mt. Columbia duo).

descent

 

We hunkered down, at the summit of Oxford and ate some food while we looked at some maps to decide where we needed to take the trail down to Elkhead pass. We had to ascend not quite on the top of Belford, but to that same ridge-line and take a left to head down to a 4-way junction, towards Elkhead pass.

missouri        view

Once we reached the ridge-line of Mount Belford, the trail we had to take was quite clear and we could see it stretch down and over towards Missouri Mountain. The downhill was fun and playful, we had to descend about 1700ft before the junction to Missouri Mountain. I was mentally preparing myself for the grueling uphill, for my legs to feel like jelly, to grind my way to the top. But after refueling with delicious hammer bars and espresso gels before the trek up, we summitted in about 45 minutes.

belford

Missouri Mountain is a beast!! The sketchiest part of the loop was on this section, not really due to technicality, just due to foot traffic, a really small single track plus loose gravel and a steep sweeping scree field. Once we reached the summit, we felt a profound sense of accomplishment! 3 summits in one day! We also had a visitor at the top.

goat

We then started back the way we came, to the junction at Elkhead pass. We started bouncing off rocks and dancing down the mountain. Descending through Elkhead pass was incredible. The bubbling creek and sweeping meadows were breathtaking. Plus is was only 10:30 in the morning! We were making great time. Storms were already blowing in across Missouri Mountain, so that helped us to move along at a good clip.

me           elkhead

We met up with the trail junction to Mount Belford (the one we took early that morning) and quickly descended into the dense forest. The trail became really steep again, and the technicality of this section really tired out my quads. Pretty soon, we were back at the creek crossing (neither of us managed to catch a toe on this descent, although we had many close calls).

We were now on the final descent, and it was steeeep! I didn’t realize how steep until I saw it. The darkness in the morning hid the steep drop offs and the intense vertical angle of the trail.

We made it back to our car in 6 hours and 30 minutes total time, which made our moving time around 5 hours 45 minutes. We made it back to camp before noon and passed out in our tents before the rain came in. It was a perfectly planned early morning loop in the high country.