Birch Bay Marathon
Race: Birch Bay Marathon 2018
Date: February 11, 2018 9:00AM
Host: Joel Pearson, Pearson Athletic Club INC.
Goal: a finish time close to 4hr 30m.
Secondary goal: a clean finish under 5hrs with minimal walking and no injury, no gut distress (goal set with my Coach, Michael Covey of UltraMCendurance.com)
For those unfamiliar wth marathon pacing and splits, there are split calculators that give you what your average pace per mile needs to be in order to finish by a time goal.
A 10:17 min/mi average would yield a 4hr 30min finish. However, no one really tries to run at their slowest average pace to hit a time goal. Training is based on a combination of speed work (called fartleks), hill repeat work (to practice strong climbing and descending paces without injury), and long flat runs that increase in length, combined with peak training. I also buffer in some time for getting water at an aid station, and a pit stop or two.
My strategy is to run strong and slightly under marathon pace for the first 15 miles, which gives me room to cruise miles 15-21 at marathon pace. Most of us start to hit “the Wall” between Mile 19-21, when glycogen is depleted and the body is tired. If you can catch your second wind and convince the mind in the last five kilometers that all suffering will be quickly forgotten, sometimes you can get a nice little negative split and surprise even yourself. I wasn’t expecting this would happen for me; the Dog Bite leg would have to be contended with. But I try to go into these races being open to whatever happens, and to simply be prepared to chose the best I can muster, mile by mile.
This race would be different for another reason. My gut and immune system are in a very different place then they were a few years ago. Just the difference of having purposefully gained six pounds of muscle and fat through better gut absorption and a whole heck of a lot of strength training sessions has put me in position to have a deeper well of power to draw upon. Food has been my pharmacy, my medicine, and my recovery. I proudly weighed in at nearly 118# the day before the race.
I know in other times, something has gone horribly wrong and I find myself barfing my guts out while trying not to run off the side of the road. In one race, I lost seven pounds and it took over a month to feel normal again. Yes, this did happen to me, but I try not to think about it. Well, not much about. Thoughts about it happen. And then I just try to forget, like it’s a bad dream. I don’t want these thoughts limiting what I choose next.
I decided last minute to try car camping the day before the race. The race is actually not that far away (about a two hour drive without traffic), but when I saw that for very little cost I could car camp about 1.5 miles away from the start of the race, I thought it might be a great dress rehearsal for this year’s Ironman Canada experience in July.
Some items to make the car camping experience pleasant:
1.Goal Zero solar generator to power devices like my blender and my iPhone
2. JetBoil for heating water for hot drinks at night and coffee in the morning
3. Goal Zero solar lamp with hand crank
4. Black Diamond head lamp for reading in the car at night.
5. Kindle reader, because I love reading the night before a race, as it relaxes me. Books are friends.
6. Wolfwill air bed for the back seat. Turns your backseat into a comfy mattress. Lay a yoga mat on top so it’s a smooth surface, add some sheets, a pillow, one comforter, and a top layer to trap the heat below, and you should be good. Oh, and don’t forget a hat!
7. Yeti cooler, to keep fresh foods cold and… well, fresh!
I’ll have access to coin-operated hot water showers and water for drinking and cooking, so there is no need to bring our portable shower stall/dressing stall and solar shower. A pile of quarters will do.
For this short trip, I’ll have all my food prepped and ready to eat, so there’s no need to set up my cookstove. There is a fire pit onsite, in case I want to have a fire and sit out under the stars, weather permitting.
The Day Before: Food Prep and A Chill Night
I spent my morning prepping my race food and meals so that I wouldn’t have to rely on cooking outdoors. I had a feeling that if it ended up being as cold as predicted, I might not want to stand around outside, even in my Canada Goose long coat. Some people have asked me why. Here’s the quick synopsis.
Ever since I became ill in 2013, the loss of body fat has pretty much left me feeling like a perpetually cold fish with legs. My fingers and toes are often cold. My head is cold, and I often wear a cap even in my warm house, just to reduce the extra burn of keeping my body warm. When your body is fighting for calories, every bit counts.
Today, it’s not nearly as bad as it was between 2013 and 2016. I’ve gained some needed muscle, and my formerly leaned-out (some would say gaunt) appearance is hopefully behind me now. But I am still sensitive to cold, and have symptoms of Reynaud’s as well. M bought the Canada Goose jacket for me before taking me to Whitefish Montana December 2016, with temperatures dipping well below freezing; otherwise, he knew I would be pretty miserable.
So I cooked and prepped a lot of options, and packed them in the Yeti cooler:
3 sweet potato puree pouches for the race (about 50 calories per pouch); one Honey Stinger gel to finish the last hour of running (when the majority of your glycogen stores are depleted, a pure sugar source can help)
A pouch of berries for pre-race munching, and a pouch of berries with coconut milk and collagen for a blended smoothie post-race (to be eaten before driving home)
Dinner: ground bison, coconut oil, wilted kale ribbons, brown rice (limited, because you don’t want too much fiber the night before a race)
Breakfast: hard boiled egg, 2 pieces of natural bacon, no starchy carbs (the berries are enough carbs to top off the full glycogen stores from the previous two days of adding some carbohydrates: tapioca and coconut thin crust pizza, brown rice noodles)
I boiled some water in the JetBoil in the evening, and put it in a thermos before bed. I thought that maybe if I got thirsty during the night, it might be helpful to have something warm to drink. Unfortunately, my hands were so cold that I didn’t notice the thermos cap’s thread was not properly screwed on tightly. In the middle of the night, I did wake up and felt thirsty, and the thermos had tipped over on its side, spilling about a cup of hot water in the bottom of a cardboard box. No hot water for Imei!
By 8pm I was tucked inside of my car, resting on a backseat air
mattress fitted to my Subaru, and snuggled into a makeshift igloo of woolen blankets M had insisted I bring with me. I use one to wrap myself in a cocoon of sheet and comforter, and the other to create a hot pocket, blocking the windows from the cool air. With a hat and thermals, I was actually toasty warm. It was a good plan; the park host later told me he was concerned for my welfare, as was pleased to hear I had planned well to stay warm.
Sometime around midnight, it was time to use the restroom. Unfortunately, the park host failed to mention that the restrooms auto-locked at night (they were open during the day), and I wasn’t given a restroom code. I’ll leave it to your imagination what happened next.
I usually wake naturally between 4:30am and 5am, but with the experience of not knowing when the bathrooms would be open or the park host waking up so I could ask him for the code, I woke up a few more times than I normally would if I were sleeping at home. So for this part of the test, it was a bit of a fail. What is the point of camping for a race if it interferes with your body’s need for at least six hours of restful sleep (the minimum I think I need the night before)? So, I will definitely be working on this piece of the camping and race experience, to perfect it, with the simple solution likely centered around camping in the middle part of the year, and not in February. And getting small details down, like bathroom codes, ha ha!
Race Day: Shut Up and Run
Every runner knows this feeling. When it’s breakfast time, you want your guts to empty quickly, and you do not want to have a delay in taking care of “bathroom business.” I remember standing in long queue in the morning for port-a-potties during a 2016 Ragnar race, and one gal saying to me how she was worried she couldn’t “go” when she needed. The expressions on the faces of the runners was so telling. If someone exited the port-o-potty smiling, we knew that person achieved success. It’s like we became four year olds, proud of our toilet behavior. But much as we joke about it, no one wants to run with gut trouble — either constipation or diarrhea. And too much of my life as a person with Celiac Disease has horror stories of a “gut gone wrong.” I am so “over” dealing with gut trouble. Just say NO.
So at 7am, I stumbled off into the darkness with my headlamp towards the office across from the park host’s RV, looking to see if the bathroom code info was on the windows on some of the signage. Dammit, nothing! Fortunately, the park host saw my headlamp shine on his window, and he came out to see if I needed anything. Funny thing, when he went to open the office and open the bathroom with the code, he couldn’t remember the code! By this time, things were feeling just a wee bit urgent!
The office had a rear-window tag waiting for me for my dry-camp stall, and on the back, the bathroom code was neatly written. I never received it because I arrived after the official park office hours were already closed. Doh! So I finally got the bathroom code. Success!
I had less than a half hour to get my race clothes on, eat breakfast, and snag a parking spot outside the start/finish line of the race. No hot shower, because no time. No hot coffee because no time; in fact, I forgot to have coffee altogether (what the what?!?).
Given the cold air, I decided on running tights, a thin, long-sleeved running shirt, and a thin wind-resistant running jacket with gloves and a hat, as well as thicker Dry-max running socks to block out the cold from my road shoes. I put a balaclava around my neck, so I could pull it up around my nose and mouth against the cold air. My feet felt like frozen bricks; it was truly cold.
Given that my camping experience put me only 1.5 miles away from the start and finish of the race, I could now relax. I snagged a great parking spot less than 500 ft away from the start line, and I used the time before the race in my car, packing and double checking my hydration vest for everything I’d need, so there was no reliance on the aid stations; they would only have Gatorade (corn, so not for me), GU (also not safe for me), and water (ok for me). I mixed my own electrolytes from capsules emptied into a hydration pack bladder, water, and a squeeze of lemon for flavor. I measured enough water to get me to Mile 23 without a refill; from the last aid station I would take water off the aid table and finish with the pack empty.
The weather was about 32F as 9am rolled around, and it looked like there would be no rain. Hooray! I did one last potty stop before the race, which had me jumping out of the port-o-potty just 90 seconds before the race was about to start! Cutting it close, right?
One other note: I decided not to take my phone with me. I just felt that I might dawdle, take too much time to snap pictures and break my focus. The truth of it: I would have never considered a cold weather marathon if it wasn’t on my goal pile to run one in the front portion of the year. So, I did have a mindset to treat this particular race differently than my usual “run for fun” mindset.
Once we rolled out of the start, I took in how absolutely beautiful the Birch Bay Marathon is, and why some people come back year after year. The water is on your left as your leave Birch Bay State Park, running through the first part of the small town, and the sun is shining in February. How could I not want to be here?
I tried to find my pace and then set my cadence to a count in my head so that I just stop looking at my watch and run my pace. All my years as a musician makes this pretty straight-forward. It’s like tapping your toe inside your shoe to keep time.
I usually find the first three miles and the last three miles of a marathon the hardest ones to run. The first three, your body is yelling, “Why are you doing this to me?” And the last three, you are yelling at your body, “Shut up and run!” But this time, something else was happening that I didn’t understand. Even with a balaclava on, I was having trouble breathing, and my pace was my normal pace. What was going on?
Here’s where I think being in healthcare has its benefits and its drawbacks. You can think of the worst-case scenarios. What if I’m having a heart incident? The chest tightness could be asthma, a cold, or… ? As the majority of half marathon runners and full marathon runners blazed ahead, I wondered about what was going on in my body, and then sneezed. Not once. Not twice. Not three times. Over and over.
Oh, duh. I have a mild cold! I noticed the symptoms before the race: headache, a little more fatigue than normal, body aches where I didn’t have them before, and not quite feeling rested after two rest days before the race. Combined with all the sneezing and sniffling I was doing Saturday evening, which I thought was related to just sleeping in the car with the blankets, it didn’t dawn on me that the week leading up to the race, I had attended a conference that put me in more public contact than my immune system had been subjected to in several months. Duh, Autoimmune Disease. More vulnerable. More duhs followed.
So I did my best to focus on run technique: forefoot striking, quick cadence, lean into the hill, relaxed upper body, staying within my normal marathon pace, and keeping my mouth covered against the cold air.
Before long, we were turning right up a small uphill stretch, then descending towards the water again before a left hand turn at an aid station. And despite my distress over the tightness in my chest, my dog bite leg was quiet, as I knew it would be until later.
The course turns onto single lane roads that have very little car traffic. I remembered to thank all the police and volunteers for being there for us on this cold morning. A little past Mile 7 was an aid station, and I ditched my running jacket there, as I was concerned that I might overheat and sweat inside the jacket; I’d be picking it back up on the second loop. Half marathon runners turned left, and full marathon runners went straight, so now it became clear who I would be running with for the rest of the race.
I like to take as much advantage as I can in the first half of the race to climb any hills well and grab “free speed” off any descents, and I did through Miles 7 to 15. Instead of walking the hills, I ran up them at my steady, hill climbing pace, and thought of Coach Covey’s encouragement and training workouts to get my hill climbing consistent. Despite my breathing difficulties, I made it running up a long steady climb, with some of the walking marathoners cheering me on.
The marathoners were quite spread out by now, and some of the stretches had less and less people. By Mile 8-10, I began to catch some of the people who went out hard and were slowing down to their regular pace. Others crept up from behind, finding their stride, and you could tell by their smiles that they were having a good time. Birds flew overhead, and I heard the sound of turkeys on a farm as I passed by.
The course drops towards an overpass and back into town with a gentle descent before going flat along the exposed shore of Birch Bay. I was on pace for a 2hr 10m half, which was about what I had expected from my last long runs over the past weeks. As I reached the left turn to the stretch before the beginning of the second loop, I felt reasonably hopeful that I could manage my breathing, and then did some mental prep in my brain. The answer to every question it would throw at me from that point forward were the words, “Shut up and run.” No mercy, unless I’m lying on the side of the road.
Just as I hit the half marathon distance, a little voice in my head said, “You know, if you aren’t having the race that you wanted, you can always quit.”
What the what? Where in the heck did that come from?
Here you go, brain. Shut up and run!
Miles 15 -17.7
While I had started slowing after Mile 13 to a more conservative pace, I had prepared for the inevitable second half: Dog Bite Leg be talkin’ to me. By Mile 13, Dog Bite leg was whispering, “Hello? Hello there! It’s starting to hurt down here!” I applied mind over matter and kept running. And by Mile 15, matter… well, it mattered! I began to take 30-second walking intervals every mile or so, yet still managed to run the long hill for the second time, trotting back to the aid station to pick up my jacket. With enough water and electrolytes still remaining in my hydration pack, I trotted on.
Miles 17.7 – 20
As I had been eating my sweet potato puree every 30 minutes after the first 90 minutes had passed, I was just digging into the second pouch. I could no longer hear the swish of electrolytes in the hydration bladder. It was quiet, and I was alone, with the exception of the occasional runner I had passed before. For the next bit, we would pass each other and be overtaken multiple times, as each of us were on run/walk intervals.
Before Mile 18, I almost ran off the road into a ditch. I was so short of breath, I was feeling a little dizzy. There was an audible wheeze on each inhale, and I know what that means: asthma. While there was sunhine through the trees and exposed areas, there was a light wind and I could feel the cold air in my bones. I pulled up the balaclava and walked until I could breathe again. I looked at my watch one last time, watching my goal of a 4h30m marathon slowly slip away; I would be at least 15 minutes slower than I wanted. However, I would still be under five hours if I kept moving. I wasn’t barfing or passing out. And eventually, I got moving again, listening for the tightness in my chest to help guide me to the speed I could safely navigate.
Eventually, I came upon another runner. I chatted briefly with a woman wearing a bright pink Marathon Maniacs jacket, with her hair in two ponytails and defying everything society says about mature women. She’s the kind of runner I’d like to be when I grow up! We played this leap frog game with each other, and on one of the moments where she was about to pass, I came upon another woman who was walking just past an aid station.
Without judgment, I asked her if she would like to try to run with me, slow steady. She did not appear to be limping or injured, just tired. We had been chasing eachother for a stretch, and in these cases, sometimes two heads are better than one. We began to run together, and it became clear that we could be good pacesetters for the last five miles into the final stretch.
Mile 20 – 26.2
Together, we chased down the Marathon Maniacs lady, rolled up the tiny hill on the overpass into the descent to town, and chatted about running. We agreed that if at anytime one of us wanted to run ahead and finish faster, it was totally fine. We actually kept pace until the last 1.2 miles, as my breathing had gotten the best of me, my Dog Bite Leg was beyond yelling at, and I succumbed to the fastest run/walk intervals I could muster. I told my new run buddy I’d see her at the finish line, and I kept her in my sights as I entered the state park boundary.
Grant Harrington of Snohomish Running Company once shared something with me when I was just getting my start in triathlon. He said, “Ironman is horrible for the body, but great for the mind.” I didn’t understand that until I completed my first long-endurance races in road running (2014), triathlon (2015), Ironman (2016), and ultrarunning (2017). It’s the last part of the race which you cannot replicate any other way than slogging it out with yourself through all the miles before. The crazy things your brain says to try to get you to quit. The fatigue. The tired legs. The soggy brain fog that can happen, where you can hardly talk.
Yet, in those same last miles when your body is a blob of hurt, you can choose to dig into this well of emotional and spiritual energy. One part of your mind can talk to another, saying, “Keep going! You got this!” and “It’s almost over, Young Grasshopper, just keep moving.” I took a hit of Honey Stinger, and picked up my cadence to push past the hurt, through the gracelessness of races-gone-horribly-wrong of the past, and beyond the dark thoughts that had wringled up along the way.
These are the thoughts that say that nothing you do matters to you or anyone, that your life has no impact, that you are fooling yourself, that you are too old, and that all the little boys and girls with Celiac Disease and Food Allergies will be never know about how amazing their lives could be without all that gluten-free, sugar-loaded garbage food that gets shoved down their throats.
Sorry, not sorry, but these thoughts are simply Resistance, and Resistance is Bullshit (Steven Pressfield, The War of Art). Every week, I have someone reaching out to me by email or on my blog, asking about how I do the things I do. The most popular question is about how I fuel my ultramarathon races and Ironman with all the food “issues” I have. They ask because they are beginning to dream bigger for themselves. And I am more than happy to show them what I did to make it possible for me to fuel my adventures.
The mind is a terrible thing to waste. And it gets wasted on these dark thoughts unless you find a way to challenge them. I’m not saying everyone should start running marathons and racing Ironmans. But I am saying that wherever one may be in life, try choosing something with goals that you aren’t guaranteed to meet. Choose activities that you have just as good of a chance of failing as succeeding. It forces you to encounter yourself — this crazy part of our inner thought life — and dig down deep to your most cherished truths as well as the darkest thoughts that need the bleach of real-life encounter to clean that shit out.
I am always surprised just what kind of shit-show I can still run in my mind, but the biggest bombshell to unlock your brain is when you grab onto your real Truths and stick out your tongue at those dark and oppressive thoughts. Neiner, neiner, neiner, I say. You almost stopped me today, but I still win.
And with that, I had the biggest smile on my face as I sped up and ran through the colored-flag finish and picked up my medal marking the 50th anniversary of the Birch Bay Marathon.
Finish time: 4hrs 53 minutes (by my GPS watch)
Time to beat: 5hrs 20 minutes (my last stand-alone marathon)
Weight after the race: 116.0# (woot, that’s mostly water loss!)
Race results for the 2018 race have not yet been posted, so I do not know how I placed in the Female Masters 50-59 category. Given that the average finish time in 2017 was 4hrs 27 for all age categories, I will assume I was near last in my AG category.
Thanks again to Joel Pearson and all the amazing volunteers and police traffic controllers. And thanks to the Birch Bay community for those who honked their horns in support, cheered us on with signs and high fives, and welcome the race back every year.
As always, my Coach and I discuss the race and results. Having asthma and breathing problems are serious issues, and I do not wish to send any readers a message that I don’t take health issues seriously. Post-race, I have some rest and recovery days and activities planned, including a massage and hot baths, lots of hot tea, and sleep.