With cream and cherries please! My attempt to qualify for the Irish 24 hour team at Riverbank One Day Race.

I grew up in Ireland taking part in track from about the age of six.  As a young sprinter and jumper, I had a pretty good early career winning county, provincial and national titles.  Unfortunately, at the age of 17 when I finally had the opportunity to represent Ireland in international competition I suffered from a ruptured appendix.  About six months later I developed a bowel obstruction thought to be secondary to adhesions from the original surgery.  I ended up undergoing a second surgery.  And just like that I had missed enough time from track and needed to catch up on college work so I ended up drifting away from running.

 

The next 13 years or so flashed past in a blur that included medical school at Trinity College, marriage, a first child, a brief period in Alaska, relocating back to Ireland, a second child, medical internship, a move to Tucson for Pediatric Residency and briefly dabbling in a cardiology fellowship at UCSD before realizing that to prioritize family we needed to forego any further subspecialty training and find jobs in a community where we wanted to settle and call home for good.

 

And so, we moved to Skagit Valley, Washington where I was quickly introduced to trail running!  This serendipitous discovery was born from the simple desire of wanting to run with our new Malamute Juno who needed the exercise.  However, transfixed by the beauty of the forest I was soon running further and further to discover new trails.  I ran my first trail race, Orcas 25k in 2014 falling in love with the event and the community.  From there I progressed quickly through the other event distances from 50K to 100 miles and like so many others set my heart on running some of the classics like Western States, Hardrock and UTMB.

 

Last summer I learned that the World 24 Hour Championships would take place in Belfast and immediately the idea of representing Ireland crossed my mind.  I researched the qualification standard to find it was a pretty steep 200k.  That and the idea of running a short loop course was intimidating so I set the idea aside.  Then after failing to be drawn from the hat in either the Western States or Hardrock lotteries I found my summer race schedule wide open.  Right about that time the open category registration for the Energia event which will host the World Championships in July was announced.  This gave me the nudge I needed to take a more serious look at making the qualification standard for the Irish team.

 

I had just run the North Face 50 mile in San Francisco in December and was scheduled to run Orcas 100 in February so in my typical impatient style I tried to squeeze in a qualifier at Across The Years 24 Hour in Arizona in early January. Unfortunately, this grand idea was doomed before I even got on the plane at SeaTac.  Our old Golden Retriever was diagnosed with cancer and I spent a week sleeping on the floor with him and getting up with him at night before he passed away the day after Christmas.  I thought I could nap away the tiredness and stretch away my stiffness but within the first few hours at ATY’s I knew my goal was going to be a struggle.  Running crewless I eventually became cold and sleepy overnight and was forced to spend an hour in the warming tent.  In the end, I racked up just over 111 miles and a ton of experience.  I went home with a fierce determination to try again and do it right.  My heart was no longer in Orcas 100 so I pulled out of the race and entered Riverbank One Day Race instead.

 

I had eight weeks to be race ready.  After a week of recovery, I eased back into running again.  All my runs were transitioned from trail to flat gravel paths, hilly road loops or the treadmill (with many, many episodes of Game of Thrones!). I increased my fat intake and introduced some fasting runs to encourage fat utilization as my main energy source.  Having had gastrointestinal issues resulting in poor nutritional intake in past races I had begun to research how to apply a ketogenic diet to endurance events.  As I began to increase my fat and decrease my carb intake I seemed to transition naturally to a ketogenic diet (high fat, moderate protein and very low carbs resulting in the formation of elevated blood ketones due to fatty acid oxidation).  I really didn’t mind sacrificing potatoes and pasta in favor of butter and cream in my coffee and my obsessive personality ensured that I didn’t even skip a beat when I needed to dramatically reduce my beer intake to remain in ketosis!  I had a rough two weeks of transition where my energy was low, I felt headachy and my training run performance stank.  But once I succeeded in producing ketones (which I checked with a finger stick blood ketone monitor) and fixing what was some likely dehydration I started to feel good.  My general energy levels soared, my energy remained steady on long runs, I noticed an improved faster pace for the same heart rate and a slightly leaner body habitus.  Once I figured out the routine I was taking in 2800 – 3200 calories a day and maintaining a steady weight. My daily intake of macronutrients was divided roughly to keep carbs less than 50g, protein around 100g and the remainder of the calories were made up of fat. Breakfast consisted of eggs, bacon and avocado along with my butter and cream coffee.  Lunch was usually nuts, cheese, salami and a smoothie made with coconut milk, Greek yoghurt, eggs, nuts, berries and Flora Udo’s oil. Dinner usually consisted of meat and salad or vegetables, an omelet or quiche among other favorites.

 

As I formulated my race day nutrition plan I spoke with another runner who had successfully used the ketogenic approach in a 100 mile race.  While some carbs are necessary to burn fatty acids, taking in too many carbs would have the negative effect of blocking fatty acid oxidation.  So, I had to trust that my body would burn fat and held off on the typical pre-race carb loading.  In fact, I had a bun-less burger and salad for dinner the night before the race! As for the race, I planned to take in around 150 calories per hour at most.  This would mostly involve trickling in Scratch hydration drink which I made up to 80 calories per 16 ounces.  The rest I planned to take in from small volumes of soda (Coke, Sprite and Fanta-I need variety or I’ll just end up hating my favorite food item in the later stages of the race), cookies (Milano’s, Oreo’s and Ginger Snaps), peanut M&M’s, Skratch chews and potato chips. Worst case scenario if the whole fat/ketosis experiment didn’t work I knew I could just fall back on the old strategy of carb loading during the race. I felt confident in the plan however, as I ran a marathon PR as a training run two weekends before the event taking in only about 8g of carbs prior to the race and 10g during it.  My energy felt steady and strong throughout the run.

 

So, race morning rolled around. In the few weeks prior, I was feeling intimidated, even a little unworthy to be lining up at an event with such high caliber athletes as Gina Slaby, Pam Smith and Courtney Dauwalter just to name a few.  But I reminded myself that I wasn’t competing against them.  I had my own goal and my own agenda and if anything, maybe I could feed off their energy and being inspired succeed in achieving my own goal. This time I wouldn’t be alone either.  My good friend and experienced ultra-runner Vivian had come to crew me. I knew this would make a huge difference to my performance and her presence served as a comfort and to ease my nerves. Race morning was crisp and clear with the promise of good running weather for the next 24 hours.  Riverbank high school is in a pretty, rural location that made a really nice setting for the event.  As we all settled in, setting up our supplies and mingling with the other athletes we were greeted by friendly, welcoming race staff and volunteers.

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Vivian and I before the start.

After a beautiful performance of the Star-Spangled Banner we were off.  My pacing plan was to stick to a 10 minute/1 minute run/walk routine with the rough goal of keeping an 11 minute mile average pace to cover 100 miles in 18.5 hours.  That would leave me 5.5 hours to cover the remaining 25 miles in around 13 minute per mile pace.  At ATY’s I reached the 100 mile mark in 19.5 hours so I felt that mentally and of course physically I really needed the 5.5 hours this time to successfully cover the final portion of the race.  While those average paces seem doable in theory I knew that to cover 100 miles in 18.5 hours I needed an hour PR and after that still needed the reserves to run a marathon. After going out too fast at ATY’s and not taking walk breaks which resulted in pretty beat up quads after 100 miles I knew that I had to be patient with my pace this time, allow my muscles and joints a brief recovery on the walk breaks and to run with short, soft strides to minimize the pounding.

 

What all that meant was that in the first 6-8 hours as I trotted around trying to keep my average pace slow enough I was being lapped at a ridiculous rate by the front runners. But I stuck with the plan and just sat back enjoying watching the other runners, listening to the enthusiastic cheering of the volunteers and remembering almost forgotten days from my teen years which were recollected on hearing the classic 90’s dance tunes such as ‘Rhythm is a Dancer’ which were being blasted by the DJ. This also became a time to chat with old friends from past races and to meet wonderful new friends.  Of course, the Irish in the crowd always find each other and during these early loops myself and Jim Magill spent quite a few loops together chatting about immigrating to the US, family, Irish athletes, races and Irish music.

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Being lapped in style by Gina Slaby and Pam Smith.

So, until the 100k or half way point (as I saw it since my goal was 200k) I continued my run/walk routine keeping my average pace around 10:40 (that’s as slow as I could go without walking more).  My nutrition and hydration included sipping Skratch hydration drink from a 4 ounce bottle which Vivian kept topped up for me.  I just drank to thirst and didn’t really keep inventory on how much. I really wasn’t sweating very much at all as my pace was so slow and controlled and I had an appropriate number of bathroom breaks so I felt my hydration was good.  Between noon and about 4pm it got warm with temps in the high fifties to low sixties so I focused on sipping more frequently and took 4 salt caps during this time.  However, I never felt overheated requiring extra cooling methods.  I planned on taking Vespa every 3 hours.  While some may question the benefits of the product, I felt a stimulant effect when using it during my long training runs so was willing to give it the benefit of the doubt during the race.  On the hour for each of the other two hours between the scheduled Vespa’s I had either 4 ounces of soda, Skratch chews or cookies (each in approximately 100 calorie portions) or a small portion of salt and vinegar potato chips.  During this time, I felt really good and was thoroughly enjoying the high spirits of the other runners and volunteers. I was running comfortably, feeling strong mentally and grateful to have Vivian just hand me everything I needed and constantly remind me to be patient and keep a slow, steady pace. I reached the 100k point in 11:05 hours, ahead of schedule with an average pace of 10:40.

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During the heat of the afternoon.

After that my next milestone would be the 100 mile mark.  This is the portion of the race where I began to suffer at ATY’s, I waited too long and became cold before putting on layers.  In my personal experience, I’ve found that its difficult and time consuming to bounce back from getting cold and slowing down.  So, I’d instructed Vivian to force me to start layering up early in the evening.  So, before I got to 100k I had a long sleeve top, capris over my shorts, ear warmers and gloves.  I felt perfectly cozy for the temperature and the pace I was running. I continued with the nutrition plan as before but opted for a little more soda than solid food at this point, I think mainly because it was easier to take in while running rather than having to deal with zip lock baggies, gloves and solid food.  Vivian noticed this slight change and continued to push the solid food and I obliged by having her hand me one cookie at a time.  Somewhere around 14 hours I started to feel the quietness of the night.  The 12 hour event was over and some of the 24 hour runners had stopped or were taking sleep breaks.  The DJ had retired as the high school is in a pretty residential area. Worried about becoming sleepy like at ATY’s I took in some caffeine at this point and got my iPod.  However, for some reason my iPod kept shutting off when it went to the battery save screen.  Frustrated I walked almost an entire loop trying to figure it out.  Then I carried it in my hand touching the screen every few minutes to keep it ‘active’.  I noticed my lap times getting a little slower as I began internalizing listening to my personal playlist.  The iPod was bugging me so I gave it back to Vivian.  I focused on getting back in the moment.  There were still plenty of athletes, crew and staff to provide encouragement and entertainment and I seemed to function better while embracing the surroundings rather than trying to block them out with a distraction. As I neared the 100-mile mark I was grateful that my GI tract was still happily obliging with solids and liquids, my energy was steady and my legs still felt comfortable with my steady pace.  As the miles ticked by I never felt like I had to push the pace but rather that I eased back on forcing a slower pace.  My Garmin had racked up nearly 5 extra miles by the 100 mile mark and so was giving me an incorrect faster average pace but I knew I was on track for an 18 hour 100 mile. Still anxious about picking up the pace too soon by chasing a subsidiary goal of a new sub 18 hour 100 mile I committed stubbornly to my pace plan and reached a 100 miles in 18:06, around 10:50 pace.  A new PR and 24 minutes ahead of schedule to reach my main goal of 200k in 24 hours.

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My obsessive attempt to maintain a steady pace!

So, 5 hours and 54 minutes to cover 25 miles.  I restarted my Garmin and obsessively asked Vivian to keep recalculating my real average pace over those remaining hours.  While I could’ve accepted that reaching the qualification standard was a given at this point I didn’t want to leave anything to chance.  Nothing was in the bag until I crossed the 200k line! At one point around 19-21 hours I thought I felt the start of some nausea. Maybe related to the increased soda intake, the caffeine or possibly the anxiety of nearing the goal.  I backed off on the solids and soda and Vivian gave me some warm water to sip. The feeling passed without too much of an effect on my pace.  With around 4 hours to go I noticed that since Connie Gardner had dropped and Pam Smith took a break after 100 miles just using the event as a training run, I was now 4th female.  Stacey Costa was about half a lap ahead of me and on the next passing of the screen I realized we were on the same lap.  I asked Vivian to confirm but she told me off for being competitive!  She reasoned that I should reach my goal first.  I had four hours to go and should leave any racing until the last hour.  I listened.  However, I was moving faster than Stacey and passed her at one point.  She stayed with me and I got a stern look from Vivian.  Then my watch beeped indicating a walk break.  So, I walked, decided it was a good time for a bathroom break and let Stacey move ahead. In the few hours before sunrise the temperature dropped to the high thirties and I added a Houdini jacket and some mittens with hand warmers.  My main goal of 200k came within closer reach and seemed inevitable and so I was egged on more by the idea of becoming third place woman. The cherry on top so to speak! Myself and Stacey were still on the same lap with her being about 200 meters ahead but I was gaining slowly without forcing an increase in pace.  I kept an eye on her pink, pussy hat (which was fantastic to see!) as the darkness gradually transitioned to a foggy morning.  I’m not sure of the exact time I moved past her but we stayed together for a while before I ended up running and chatting with Pam for a little while and when I looked again Stacy was half a lap behind.  I reached 200k in 22:40, about 10:52 pace with an hour and 20 minutes left to enjoy.  Vivian suggested we make 130 miles the new goal and so I set off looking for that big dollop of cream to go with my cherries!

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Hammering out the miles just after sunrise.

The fog gave way to a beautiful, clear and sunny morning.  The track came back to life with more race staff and volunteers.  Runners who had retreated to their cars, cold and suffering from race day issues came back to the track determined to fight fatigue, aching limbs and GI upset to cover more miles and see the race through to the finish. We heard announcements of various American records that had been broken and learned that Courtney Dauwalter had broken the American 24 hour record!  The energy was electric and infectious!  With two and a half hours to go I quit taking walk breaks!  I felt great and just let the pace flow.  I just drank some water and Nuun but didn’t feel like any more solids.  My energy was fantastic and I was running lap times the same as those at the beginning of the race. The music was turned up again and a crowd had gathered at the start/finish line.  At one point, I joked that they should change the British music (The Cure) to some good Irish music and so ensued an hour of U2 classics!  It was impossible not to be proud at having made the qualifying standard for the Irish 24 hour team and start day dreaming about running at the World Championships in Belfast in July. Once the siren sounded for the 24 hour finish I had run 530.5 laps, 212k, just shy of 132 miles. It was then that Vivian noticed I was just 4 laps behind Gina Slaby. She’d had a rough night with a lot of walking but showed fierce determination by seeing the race through to the finish.  In reality I may not have had it in me to chase down those extra laps anyway and besides I think I’d had enough cream and cherries for one day!

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Still being lapped by the amazing Courtney! Judging by my smile this had to have been during the U2 ‘power hour’!

In short, I really had a perfect race and far exceeded my performance expectations.  My training, diet and race pacing and nutrition plan played a huge part in this success. However, it wouldn’t have been possible without the help of my wonderful one woman crew, Vivian, the race directors and staff who put on an amazing event and my family, friends and coach who supported me and provided endless encouragement and understanding.

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Finishing how we started, 530.5 laps/212k/131.73m later!

 

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