Chasing Dreams Again THANKS to the supportive ULTRA COMMUNITY!!

Chasing Dreams Again THANKS to the supportive ULTRA COMMUNITY!!

The entire time I was rehabbing my knee from my last surgery and prohibited from running at full weight bearing (July 2nd, 2019-March 1st, 2020), I dreamed of returning to ultras. I told myself I would be happy if the surgery worked and I could just run any distance, but like most people, want IT ALL if possible. My dream goal for this year was to get my knee back and qualify for the 2021 USA 24-hour Team that would compete in Romania in May of 2021. 

I planned to run 24 hours at “Six Days in the Dome” on July 23, 2020 with hopes of getting at least a low qualifying mark, seeing how my knee would tolerate running the longer distance, and working on my nutrition again. I would pace for 150, but a PR (149+) with only 4 months of running since October 2018 was a far reaching goal, but…you never know. On July 1st, we found out the Dome event was canceled. Steve Durbin had worked tirelessly with the Petit Center and was able to hold the event with several restrictions. Unfortunately, not enough participants wanted to run the event with the restrictions and the race was canceled.

Literally within hours of the Dome canceling, Sarah Smith tagged me in a Facebook comment about running Canal Corridor 100 on July 11th since my schedule was now clear. CC100 was only 10 days away. I looked at the race information and found they wouldn’t allow drop bags due to COVID-19. I wasn’t sure I could race off the aid station food, as I pretty much live on gels, Carbopro, and pringles. If I was going to run it, I would need crew. I talked to Mike, my husband about running it. He was all for it, but unable to help crewing because he wouldn’t be able to get Sunday off. I texted my running partner, Jeff, but he had already put his work availability for the next week, so it was unlikely. He would check and get back to me the next day.

I messaged Sarah at 9:32 pm on July 1 in regard to the race. Astonishingly enough, by 3:22 pm on July 2nd, Sarah had found someone who was willing to give up there weekend and take off work on Friday to help me! A total stranger…Stephanie McQuade Dempsey committed to help me so that I could run a 100 miler. How great is the Ultra Community?! Most of us have crewed and paced our friends or family, but how many of us have taken a day off work, driven 10 hours round-trip, and helped someone for what could be 30 hours?! I was STOKED! Many people have embraced virtual runs and FKT’s, but after NOT running AT ALL for 18 months, I WANTED TO RACE! THANKS to Stephanie, this would be possible! 

Stephanie and I were cyber-introduced through a 3-person Facebook Messenger conversation with Sarah. Stephanie and I later talked on the phone to get to know each other a little and talk about the crewing plan I had put together. She was an experienced ultra runner and asked great questions like what types of things are good to say to me to motivate me if needed. I told her I did better with tough love than blowing smoke. I asked my husband that question while I was talking to her. He said to tell me that she didn’t take off work and drive all that way to help me so that I could quit. YESSSS!! That’s the perfect kind of thing to say to me. It worked at Western States when I was struggling. Sometimes in an ultra, I get hurting and think about quitting. If I realize I am affecting someone else adversely, it is way more motivating. We ended up chatting for about an hour and planned to meet Friday night before the race. 

I was super excited to race and get to see old friends again too! Jon Olsen and Olivier Leblond were both coming after hoping, like me, to be running at the Dome. Megan Alvarado, Sarah Smith, and Bill Shultz would be coming to help/crew runners. Plus, my 2013 teammate from my first 24-hour World Championship, Deb Horn was going to be there. Plus, Emily Collins (the RD), Brian Polen, and several other people would be there. 

On my drive to Akron, I got a chance to chat with Justin Mock who wrote “Catching up with Traci Falbo” for irunfar.com. https://www.irunfar.com/2020/07/catching-up-with-traci-falbo.html.  It was fun to talk about running again. I was nervous to share my goals. I said that I was hoping for 17 hours, but really had no idea. I only had run 50 miles per week a couple of times, and tried to jump up to the 60’s for 2 weeks. However, the 2nd week of 60’s, I started to have some bad long runs where I had to walk and cut the distance down because I wasn’t ready for such a big jump. I had also texted back and forth with an ultra runner friend, Troy Shellhamer who coaches by heart rate (I have always just run by feel) earlier in the week. I told him I was nervous and worried I’d go out too fast. I wondered if he could help me figure out a heart rate to help me double check myself. He asked me to let him know what my average and max heart rates had been for my most recent runs over 10 miles. Once he had some data, he suggested trying to stay under or around 150.

I really felt like a newbie. I was nervous, unsure, but super excited. Stephanie knew I was optimistic, but that my knee my not tolerated the distance and if I felt that I was going to damage my knee, that I would drop. I was able to touch base with Stephanie, and her 16 year old daughter, Attie Friday night before going to bed. I gave them all of my supplies and written plan with ETA’s to all of the aid stations. 

Saturday morning came and it was nice to see friends!

Jon Olsen, me, Olivier Leblond, and Megan Alvarado

After a brief picture, we lined up 3 people across, leaving in those small groups of 3 every minute. I started at 5:04am. I was in a group with Ashley Truan, and Martin Erl. Martin mentioned that he would be running his first 100 miler. I asked if he had originally planned to run this as his first 100. He said he had qualified for the 2020 100k USA Team, but was unable to run it due to it being canceled. 5:04am came and AWAY THEY WENT. I looked at my watch briefly and saw close to 8:00 flat pace. I thought “WHOA NELLIE!” your optimistic goal is to average 9:30’s, which would equate to just under 16 hours. I slowed down and clicked off an 8:59, but I was alone less than a quarter mile into the race. Martin took off and Ashley wasn’t far behind him. I figured if Martin was used to 100k and was racing his first 100, I needed to let them go.I felt a little unsure of the course initially to get out of Akron and was a little slow looking for markings by myself in the dark. By mile 2 or 3, I saw someone sitting in a chair (a good sign that I was on course…why else would someone be sitting in the dark next to a trail)? I asked them if I was on course just to make sure. Yup! Great! I got to the first aid station (4.52 miles) and saw Megan Alvarado. It was nice to see her. She made me smile! I told her that I hoped the girl she was crewing was on a similar pace as me so that Megan and I could trade smiles and hellos all day.

I thought about stopping at the aid station bathroom, since my body forgot my normal “1, 2, 3 GO” routine prior to the start, but I still didn’t have to go yet. 2-3 more miles down the trail and finally! My body was working…I found some good trees and was off again. 5 miles…another stop…ok no worries. I got to the aid station at 15.08 miles and ran in the port-a-can. Ok. This was getting ridiculous. I popped 2 Immodium figuring I didn’t need to go any more. Unfortunately, it didn’t kick in fast enough and I stopped around mile 21 again. I swallowed 1 more Immodium and was finally done for the day! Unfortunately there wasn’t a super good stop around 21 and I was in some weeds. Unbeknownst to me, I would carry a leaf in my skirt for the rest of the race which left a 3” Poplar leaf shaped chafing-tattoo. Not my best move.

I was running mainly by myself for most of the race, except for being passed by a woman, Melissa, and 2 men whose names I didn’t know in the late teens or early 20’s. When I was about 5 miles from the turnaround at mile 35, I saw a bunch of men flying towards me. I couldn’t help but to do the math. There were almost 10 guys, of which I figured most were under 14 hour pace. It had been cool for July with light rain, but after 2-3 hours the rain stopped and the sun came out. It was hot and humid. I briefly wished I had some popcorn and was able to be a spectator. I knew that there would be major carnage and was interested to see how the race would shake out. I was glad to see Olivier and Jon weren’t leading the charge. I told them they looked great and were being smart, reminding them to keep running their plan. It’s always nice to race with friends and be able to cheer them on.

Still feeling strong! PC: @windingtrailsphotograpy

Shortly after the guys went by, my knee really started hurting. I was only in the 30’s. It was too early for this! As I briefly stopped at 32.5-ish, I told my crew that I would need some Tiger Balm for my knee after the turnaround. On my way out to the turnaround, Melissa was now in the lead, coming back towards me, followed closely behind by Ashley. I didn’t really care. I was worried about my knee. I normally would look at my watch and calculate the time/estimate the distance of people ahead or behind me, but didn’t do that math. Instead, I was thinking about how long it would take me if I could run to 50 miles at this pace and then walk 4 miles per hour for 50 miles. I didn’t think my knee would make it. I had to start walking for short periods due to some sharp knee “bites”. At mile 37, I rubbed Tiger Balm on it and Megan Alvarado offered up some Voltaren gel. Sure, I’ll take all the help I can get. I briefly teared up and told my crew I was going to have to slow down from my estimated time and walk some for my knee. I told them that I was not going to quit. If I only got to do one more 100 miler, I wasn’t going to DNF. At this point, I saw Deb Horn, a former 24-hour teammate of mine. She was headed out to the turnaround, not far behind me. We rooted for each other and went our separate ways.

By mile 47, I had seen my last 9-something mile. At some point on the way back, I asked Stephanie and Attie to text my husband, Mike and my running partner, Jeff. I knew they were following the live feed and would likely be worried about me since I was REALLY SLOWING DOWN. Stephanie an Attie were crewing like a well-oiled machine, giving me everything on my sheet and adapting to my knee issues. I was getting ice in my hat, bra, and ice bandana virtually every time I saw them and dumping water over my head. I knew staying cool and wet would be the key to my survival. I also put Tiger Balm on my knee for the next 4-5 aid stations. It was helping. I still had pain, but it was slightly less and more importantly wasn’t getting any worse. I really was just in survival mode, not thinking about placing. I was still doing math, figuring I would be walking much of the 2nd half.

Stephanie crewing like a PRO!

Then, I got to an aid station around mile 55. I saw Melissa sitting in a chair. Stephanie and Attie said she had been there for a few minutes. I continued to do what I did at every aid station…ice everywhere, dump water, switch packs, thank my lovely crew ladies and take the time I needed. As soon as Melissa saw me, she stood up and took off from the aid station. It was getting hot. I hadn’t thought about placing until THEN. I had wondered before the race if I still felt that drive to compete. It had been so long. Instantly, I knew it was still in me. I left the aid station maybe 90 seconds after Melissa took off and couldn’t see her. All I could think was that she took off hard in the heat and it would likely catch up to her. Just keep doing what you are doing I thought. I was using my Garmin to monitor my heart rate, making sure I didn’t kill myself to try to gain on Melissa. I kept my heart rate in the low 150’s and focused on my heart rate, resisting the urge to chase her down. I kept telling myself you caught up to her because you are being smart. Keep doing that. Finally, around mile 60, I saw her in the distance. I kept reeling her in. Just before I caught her, she started walking. I stopped briefly and walked with her, asking if she was ok. She said she was, that she was just tired. I said I felt the same way, and went on. I transitioned through the next aid station, and then back to the start/finish. I never saw her coming as I headed out on the 2nd out and back. 

I was getting more tired, and my knee was hurting to the point I was altering my gait at times. I love downhills and there was a good one about a mile after leaving the start/finish. I started to bound down it, and then realized it was a bad idea as my knee had some sharp shooting pain. I slowed and kind of loped down the hill. There were 34 more miles to go. I had been enjoying my music since mile 37. I was trying out a new Aeropex headset and Sports Clip with my music on it. As I approached the first aid station on this part of the course, the Sports Clip died. Thankfully, I was able to pick up my old faithful, ipod Shuffle to help me get through the rest of the race. My fitness, or lack there of was starting to rear its ugly head and I gave myself permission to take 10-20 second walk breaks here and there. I had been eating gels, mashed potatoes, and drinking Carbopro in my water for calories with some occasional Pringles. I was tired of the potatoes and asked for more gels. I also picked my first thing up off the aid station: Ginger Ale and a different flavor of Pringles. I knew I was no longer moving fast enough that “real food” would bother me anymore, plus my stomach was bugging me anyway, so WTH! I made sure to thank my crew and aid station workers. I am so thankful for RD’s like Emily Collins, Steve Durbin, and Jason Green who are finding ways to adapt in this COVID time.

I was at mile 74-ish when I saw Arlen Glick coming back at me. He was moving well and was smiling. He seemed to have that smile plastered on his face. I am envious of smily people like he and Kaci. I feel joy when running, but don’t always look that way when I get tired. About 5 minutes later, Olivier came cruising. I told him how much gap there was and was rooting for him to catch Arlen. Next was Brian Polen and his pacer. Brian was briefly walking up an incline. Only 3 minutes behind him was Jon Olsen! I gave him the low down and wished him well. Jon would end up overtaking Brian for 3rd, but Arlen actually extended his gap to hold onto the lead.

Around mile 78, I crossed a road and saw fellow Altra athlete, Sam Skeels coming back at me. He hollered that I wasn’t far behind Ashley and to go get her. I hadn’t heard any reports about how she was doing. This got me recharged! I was on the hunt once again. I got into the aid station at mile 79, only 5 miles more until I get to the turn around and get to head back to the finish. An aid station worker told me that Ashley was taking some time in the aid station and when I left, I would be taking the lead. That got me really excited. I had great hopes when I decided to run this, but realistic expectations. Stephanie asked me if I wanted company. Attie joined me on the out and back. She was sweet and asked how she could best help me. I got back to the aid station where Sarah was now waiting with Stephanie. I asked how Olivier did and found out that he came in 2nd. Sarah could now drive Attie and help crew while Stephanie ran with me to the finish. 15 miles to go. I looked at my watch on the out and back and knew I had almost a 2 mile/20 minutes-ish lead. I was thankful for the buffer, as I was dying a hard death. I ran as much as I could, taking walking breaks along the way. I saw Deb Horn coming towards me and was totally impressed! She was in 4th place and is 61 years old! she ended up running 20:33!!!!!!!! She is totally amazing!!

I was listening to my music, and talking intermittently to Stephanie. I wanted to get to know her better, but I was soooo tired. At some point, I was going to cross a road and Stephanie grabbed my wrist, not letting me go. I tried to get away…I just needed to be done. She told me I wouldn’t make it in time because I was moving much slower than the oncoming cars which were approximately a block away. I insisted I would and tried to pull away. She had a death grip or rather a life grip on me and scolded me that she wasn’t letting me go because my husband would kill her if she let me die. I laughed, relented and stood for the passing traffic before crossing the road. In hindsight, pacers are good when your brain isn’t functioning at tip top capacity 🙂  Anyway, we got lost briefly about a mile from the finish. We went up a hill (the straight direction) instead of going left to go into a pedestrian tunnel under a road. I told Emily at the end (she thought someone had removed the markings). I wanted to make sure they were aware so it could be fixed for people still on the course. Anyway, we made it to the end. Sarah and Attie were waiting. I was soooo glad to be done.

Thanks Jennifer Marie Photography for all the great photos!

Sarah and Stephanie taking great care of me! I couldn’t have done it without them and of course Attie (not in picture)

Emily congratulated me on placing 1st and gave me a super cool award that lights up in different colors. I sat for 10-15 minutes and then headed back to the hotel. Sarah helped me to my room and insisted she take off my socks and shoes (gross!!!). She helped me because I was limping and my knee started swelling after stopping. That is some good crewing!

Emily Collins RD presenting me with my award…super cool!

It hit me hard on the way home that I had just run a 100 miler!  A year ago, I had just had surgery and wasn’t sure if I’d ever run again. I was hurting, but JOYFUL!

July 2019…ONE YEAR AGO!

The aftermath: my knee absolutely blew up. I lost at least 20 degrees of range of motion due to swelling. My PT worked me in on Tuesday and got 7 degrees back in one visit, getting some of the swelling out. I went back on Friday and again the following week. It took me almost a week to walk without limping and I had such severe bone pain in the middle of the night, it woke me up and kept me from sleeping, despite taking Tylenol regularly after the race, in addition to my normal daily Mobic/Meloxicam dose for arthritis. I originally told my PT that I wanted to run 100’s and 24’s after rehabbing even if it meant I ended up with a total knee sooner. However, the bone pain at night (something I had prior to surgery, but hadn’t had since) shook me, making me wonder if I screwed up my entire surgery and rehab. I was in A LOT of pain for a  week and had A LOT of swelling. Muscle pain is no biggie and is expected. Puking during races is no biggie. Blisters, bloody body parts. and skin lacerations from running or rather falling have always been no biggie. But, bone pain is totally different.  I no longer felt indifferent about blowing through my knee at all costs. I was thankful to be running again. My PT told me that I didn’t screw up surgery and rehab, but basically told me that every time I cause swelling that doesn’t resolve in a day would cause some chondral damage/changes. I also recalled that Dr. Cole told me that my knee would be as good as it gets at 12-18 months. It had only been 12 months. I decided to just chill out and run 50k’s and marathons for awhile. 

Thanks sooooo much to Stephanie, Attie, Sarah, and Emily. I wouldn’t have been able to do this race without all of you!! It means more than you know! If this was my last 100 miler, it was one hell of a ride!

Thanks to all my sponsors all of these years!!

Altra Running: I wore the Torin 4’s (https://www.altrarunning.com/shop/womens-shoes-road/women-39%3Bs-torin-4-alw1937f?variationId=003) which were the perfect shoe for 100 miles on road and crushed gravel! They are the best iteration of the Torin that I have tried in my opinion. I love them because they are light, responsive, yet feel cushiony.

Nathan Sports: I wore the VaporHowe 12 Liter Race Vest (https://www.nathansports.com/products/vaporhowe-12l-womens-race-vest). It is super comfortable and feels more like wearing clothes than wearing a vest. 

Running Skirts: I wore my Aqua Wave Ultra Swift Running Skirt https://runningskirts.com/collections/ultra-swift-skirts/products/aqua-wave-ultra-swift-skirt)…on sale right now for 26.2. I own 2 of them. It is my favorite skirt they’ve ever made. It is super light weight with a kind of mesh material that breathes. I wear it at any hot race. 

Drymax Socks: I wore my favorite socks:  The Sharman (https://www.drymaxsports.com/product/sharman-sock-1-4-crew-turn-down/) they are a maximum protection trail sock. These socks offer THEE best blister protection of any sock I have ever tried. 

Squirrel’s Nut Butter: No chafing, except where I had a leaf in my skirt for ~80 miles. I didn’t anticipate carrying a leaf in my skirt. If I had, I would have put SNB in that spot and carried it without incident. Way better than any other product on the market. (https://squirrelsnutbutter.com/products/anti-chafe-stick) I prefer the stick because it is easy to apply. 

Epsom-It: I use the packets when I go out of town, because one pack will give you more than enough for one application and is small and easy to pack. (https://epsomit.com/products/muscle-recovery-lotion) This is a must-have product for me after long runs and races. My muscles feel so much better than if I don’t use it. I first tried it on one leg after the 48 hour race to see if it worked. I have been a believer ever since. It decreases soreness, inflammation, and pain. Plus, it’s quick and easy to apply after your post race shower.