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A Tale of Two (Races)

PegLeg

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I have officially become a Loopster MIA. I’m not even lurking lately *hangs head in shame* both here and on Loopville. To be fair, what used to be the Loop is now like an empty ballroom after a big party… the majority of the people have disappeared for sleep, Uber, bigger parties elsewhere, or waking up on a friend’s couch without pants on, not remembering how they got there. Except for Dave lingering to drink a little more cake and punch and Gwen requesting one more song from the DJ and Sara dancing to it despite having run 3 marathons in the last week...

Okay so maybe I lurk a LITTLE here and there…

But I don’t run or race much anymore. I have my reasons, some which are sort of excuses and some that are just, well, reasons.

First, I spent the summer and fall working toward a new career in prehospital emergency medicine. Took the 5 month class, passed the state and national tests, got the card pronouncing me an EMT.  Needless to say, working in my previous job while going to class after work twice a week and every other Saturday plus studying in my free time... not a lot of time for running and racing. It was worth it, though. I applied to and got hired by the city's largest ambulance/paramedic service.  After a few weeks of training, I’m now on an ambulance shift as the EMT of a crew (each crew of two on each ambulance consists of one paramedic + one EMT). I’m working nights, 5:30pm to 5:30am, but I actually love that shift and adapted to it well. The 12 hour shifts alternate every other week; 3 shifts one week, 4 shifts the next week. I never work more than 2 or 3 days at a time, with 2 days off inbetween each series of 2-3 consecutive shifts. I only work 7 out of 14 days and average about 44 hours a week which means the shifts are long but the days off are many. I also work every other weekend, which cuts into race opportunities. As for the actual job- I do love it. It’s challenging and stressful sometimes and definitely takes me out of my comfort zone regularly. Like driving the ambulance with a child in the back during a snowstorm. But it is never boring and I am always learning something new and I dig that. My partner is also great to work with; he’s a young paramedic with his sights on med school in the next couple of years. Translate: the little bit that I know and have learned pales beside this kid’s experience and education level. 

Second, life doesn’t get any slower or less crazy. My kidlets are now 9 and 12 (in a couple weeks), and my son has only about 3 more inches in order to meet my height, which at his current rate of rapid growth might be Christmas. At the latest, St. Pat’s Day. They have sleepovers and playdates and activities to get to… Boy Scouts and band for my son (trumpet) and cross-country for the mini-me and it’s a bit of a whirlwind at this age.

Third, I lost my road mojo. I like running with the mini, who has her own Garmin now and usually insists on it being our only method of pace and time so she can dictate pace and call out splits. I try to run a few miles before or after running with her. I like running easy morning or anytime miles with a couple of girlfriends who run. I like occasionally running a leisurely 3-4 miles with Mr. Peg while the kids bike. What I don’t like anymore? Tempos, intervals, and long runs on the road.  I know, I know. What the hell happened to me? I don’t know. Just that suddenly speedwork became a toothache ending in a root canal and long runs on asphalt starting feeling like a jury duty mandate or at the very least an invite to Aunt Gertrude’s knitting party. Even easy runs on the same old routes… elevator music.

Where the heck was the joie de vivre that running used to pour into me?

Turns out it was in the woods.

A few weeks ago, I showed up to the Marilla Trail Race in Bradford, PA aka the hairy underbelly of the boondocks. Remote, beautiful, mountain vastness in the middle of an Indian Reservation. Driving to the race, my phone GPS completely lost its wits for the last few miles. I kept mine about me for once and followed cars that fit a gingerly guess at what a runner’s vehicle might look like. Not everyone has the 26.2 sticker, just saying, so consider this a PSA about how useful that is to suburban moms who have been away from Timbuktu for too long...

Two of my friends showed up, Steve and Jessie. They are local trail runners who I ran with on my inaugural trail half marathon in September. <That race was only gently rolling and a good beginner course, but with plenty of singletrack to get me acclimated. I went into it dubiously, came out of it happy as a lark, and then wondered in the days after if my renewed excitement over running was just a momentary fluke. 

Anyway, I’d signed up for Marilla earlier this summer, lured by peer-pressure and promises of post-race beer and BBQ chicken. I cannot resist BBQ. Smoked meats are pure heaven for me, bringing the Germanic/Nordic hunter right out of my northern European blood. Wait, maybe this explains the trail thing, too? Steve and Jessie were there, too, but since I’d run a slower pace that I felt I could do on the previous race, I told them I would stay with them for a couple of miles and then speed up if I felt good. At this point, I’d also acquired my first pair of trail shoes, per the recommendation of Roger the Pied Pacer. And like the fool I can sometimes be, I ran them fresh out of the box without a single mile. Just two laps around my coffee table on the living room shag area rug, pronouncing the shoes “comfy”.

(Turns out the shoes were one of the least problematic of any running shoes ever, including no hotspots, no blisters, and not a single tweak or pain over 14 miles in a drizzle. I know, there is a special place in Runner Karma Hell for this kind of benevolence bestowed by the running gods for my audacity idiocy).

I could give you the play by play, but the short story is this: after the first 2 miles uphill and around a small mountain, the rest meandered up and down over trails covered in blankets of leaves, the occasional water, some mud, a fine misty drizzle, fall colors like a blanket shrouding everything, and a picture perfect finish around a reservoir and through a covered bridge to the finish. I ran the back half with a big negative split, felt better with every mile, and my heart sang the whole time, okay, maybe just the last 11 miles after that initial 500 foot climb. About 1800 ft of elevation gain total, so still not gnarly by most standards but definitely some climbing for a flatlander. I loved it. I finished 14 miles in 2:24, and was first in my age group. Small race, but thank God for small mercies. And one of my favorite race photos ever! 

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Next up: Joshua Tree Half Marathon, just outside of Joshua Tree National Park in- well, Joshua-freaking-Tree, California. I won’t go into all the hiking and scenery details, but we did plenty of that throughout the whole weekend and I’ll post pics at the end…

This trip was with half a dozen or so runners from around here who know each other, run some together, and hang out frequently. We had flown into Las Vegas and prior to traveling farther west for the race, we stayed in a little town in Nevada called Pahrump. Like Pahrump-pa-pum-pum in Little Drummer Boy, not “Par-Hump” like my friend Dan -who is still a 12 year old- insisted on calling it. We visited Death Valley and hiked our butts off. The next day, we went to Joshua Tree and spent more time hiking.

Joshua Tree is one of the half marathons in the Vacation Race Series, races with an emphasis on beautiful and unique places in the American West.  Probably not one of the most scenic trail races on the list (since it's at night when it's dark) or one with the most elevation but likely one of the most unique. Oh, and the entire course is on sand.

!!!!!!!!

Our group of 5 (6 after meeting up with another friend who flew in from Colorado) chose to bury our heads in said sand prior to the race and instead of hydrating, getting sleep, and eating properly, we drank freely, hiked extensively, soaked in the hot tub late at night instead of sleeping, and stuffed our faces with junk food and the best Mexican in town 24 hours before the race. When in Rome.

This is where the running gods decided the successful new shoe stunt could be properly atoned for.

We got to the race in plenty of time to hang out, scout the area, and enjoy the sunset. At home, there was hail and freezing temperatures, but here we were in the middle of the Mojave desert with the sun sliding behind the golden mountains in the distance, enjoying our flip-flops and tank tops in 70 plus degrees. The race had 2000 runners, plus lots of friends and family, and many of them were camped near the race site. The entire race compound had a very Woodstock/Burning Man feel… California definitely has a few more Woodstocky people than northern PA… and there was music, some alcohol here and there, and the occasional slight whiff of cannabis.

I think I would have made a good hippie.

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It got loud and crowded as race time approached.  A few clouds decided to appear to make the sunset interesting.  We donned our headlamps, wished each other beuno luck, and off we went.

So the first mile or so was pretty magical, really. The race area was dazzling with fluorescent lighting plus two thousand runners streaming into the desert, all wearing headlamps.  A quarter of the way up the initial incline, I  stopped to look back at the ocean of runners behind me. With the red glow of the sinking sun still behind the runners, and the sea of bobbing lights... well, it was stunning. One of those moments you just can’t replicate. All hakuna matata in the desert here…

Then the damn incline kept going. And going. Like so.

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The path went from hard packed sand to less hard packed sand. We were stirring up a fine, silty dust that started raining down on everyone and I now realized why I saw so many runners with a bandanna over their mouths. Not so different from running through snow at home in Erie, just a heckuva lot warmer. There were plenty of runners around at all times, I was never running completely solo.

We finally made it to the top of a ridge with the rest of the race consisting of a few more rolling ascents/climbs before a final descent back into the valley. I settled into a slowish pace on the sandiest parts and tried to up the pace on the areas where the sand was packed. We passed the occasional house or cluster of houses up in the hills. I had to wonder what made people want to live out here in the desolation... yet… at the same time I saw the appeal of said desolation. Most folks had their porch lights on and were playing loud music and sitting out watching the runners streaming by. Around mile 8 at one of the highest and most desolate areas, the course passed one ominous looking house with weird lights where a lady was walking around in the yard in the dark, alternating screeching and laughing manically. It took a good 100 yards for the goosebumps  to fade from that one.

Although I preferred the crazy lady goosebumps to what came next: my stomach revolting.

Yes, I know I asked for it. Travel, lots of alcohol, miles and miles on my feet, a huge Mexican meal the night before, junk food… and then I ask my body to run a half marathon on a tough course. It’s a wonder it took until Mile 8 for the gastrointestinal mutiny to begin.

The next few miles are a blur of cramps and pain with every jarring step. I stopped at a port a potty twice, but nothing was far enough along to make an exit, just more cramping and distress. So this is the beginning stage of a Code Abby?!  I walked a lot of times, but then would start up again determined to not have a completely dismal finish time. Because it was dry and parched and hot, I started pigging out on oranges slices at the aid stations. I took handfuls of them, slurping one at a time and tossing the peels along the trails. Guess what? Fruit doesn’t make GI issues go away AT ALL. I was miserable. There's photographic evidence of my misery.

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 The end eventually came. Every step was jarring the pain and turmoil in my stomach, which was now feeling like a volcano in its last days before eruption. We started the descent into the finish. Unfortunately, about the time I expected I could let loose and maybe gain some time on a nice downhill, the trail got vastly softer. Like beach-sand soft. Oh boy. So even with the descent, which was very pleasant, the soft sand made running difficult. However, with about a mile to go, I had the finish to look forward to. I could see the lights of the race finish area from the top of the ridge, and as I got closer, could hear the usual cacophony of milling runners, music, and race announcers.

GI distress is not pleasant, but there was at least one runner having a much worse day than I was. For about a quarter mile, a dude behind me and off to the side of the trail (for obvious reasons) was having the other kind of tummy trouble. Whenever he needed to upchuck, so to speak, he would loudly cuss. So it went like this: “F########ck!” and then … retching. A few seconds of silence, then: “F######ck”, puke, and…. rinse, repeat about 5 times. Kudos to the guy, he kept running tho.

We were finally in the homestretch! The lights were bright and the music loud and they announced your name and where you were from coming into the finish. Because my stomach hurt and my ankles were wrecked from the sand and I was tired and ready to be done, I remember thinking, Yeah, you folks, I came ALL THE WAY FROM FREAKING PENNSYLVANIA just to run your freaking sandy, hilly, dusty race!!!!  Cue sardonic smile.

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2:21 finish time.

All the very nice volunteers wrapped in three layers of scarves and mittens and sweatpants handed me a heatsheet and I realized that I was shivering uncontrollably. The temp in the desert had dropped from a pleasant 70*+ at race start to about 45* at the finish. Between the heatsheet, the beautiful medal, and the cup of hot chocolate, I was back to, Awwww, I love the desert and I love California! Best hot chocolate ever. And the medal glows in the dark.

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I reunited with the ones from our group who finished before me and we waited until everyone finished before wearily trekking back to the comfort and warmth of our beautiful digs. The rest of the weekend was spent doing more of the things we did pre-race: eating, drinking and hiking. And sunset chasing. Photo dump here:

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Also, I got to meet up with a friend and Loop Legend who was in Palm Springs the same day our group was: BANGLE! He even brought his stunt double aka brother. We got to catch up over food, beer and football...

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The entire trip was memorable and beautiful and a wonderful experience. The desert is unlike anything I’ve ever seen, with its many faces; its changing landscapes, temperatures, colors.  I hope I get to go back someday. Even though the race was challenging and painful at times, I still love the trails and I want more of them.

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For me, this was well worth the wait.  I've missed you and your exquisite writing.

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Very good read. I agree with Dave.

Sounds like two pretty good races even with the stomach issues. 

I've developed a love of trails kind of over the same time period as you. Well...I really knew I already loved them and just needed to make the extra effort to go run on them.

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I did Vacation Races Grand Circle Trailfest. It's 3 days of half marathons outside of Bryce, Zion and Waterholes Slot Canyon. Fantastic time!

The sand!!! 😠

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Congrats on re-booting your career! Very exciting.

That desert race though. Sounds like absolute misery to me. Great job toughing it out to the finish.

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You take the best race photos EVER!  And your intro made me laugh.  Congrats on the new job too - sounds like a very rewarding and intriguing career.

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Well done Peg! Difficult course and conditions, but you pushed through. I don't mind a trail from time to time, but I'll take the asphalt and buildings please!

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I'm lucky to know you, I'm proud as hell of what you've accomplished this year, and can't imagine what the next 10 years holds for you.

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wonderful race/trip reports, thank you.. 

well done on the new career !  

Bangle and his brother are scarily alike.. 

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