Saturday, February 10, 2018

Sean O'Brien 100k Race Report

PC: Howie Stern Photography​

Sean O Brien 100K

They don’t call it the SOB for nothin;)

My oh my, did that SOB take me on a wild ride! I ran the Sean O'Brien 100k in Malibu State Park, just about a week ago and since then I have been immersed in a ‘Blissology’ yoga and meditation retreat at 1440 Multiversity…and now the race feels like it was a hundred years ago! I must say, spending a week doing yoga and blissing out might just be the perfect post race recovery plan. I’m sold, that’s for sure! The day after the race, I drove up the California coast to Santa Cruz and so I had plenty of time to reflect and practice gratitude for each and every one of my 100kms in the Malibu trails. I write my race reports for me, to journal my experience so that I can learn and grow but I also write them for you. If you are reading this, I hope that you find what you need here today- inspiration, inside course info, racing knowledge or a good long run without having to get dirty hahaha. I will do my best to keep this one short (er) and sweet tho, because, really, I have a yoga class under a giant redwood tree to get to lol;) (OK- I just finished writing and have to warn you that this one is NOT in fact short but I like to think it is sweet lol. Warning! Proceed with a heavy dose of procrastination in mind!) And so…

The prep…I signed up for the SOB 100k as a way to get my 2019 Western States Lottery qualifying race out of the way early in the year. Although running 100kms in February was a first for me and made my preparation a bit challenging, an early season race meant that I would be free to play and be available for spontaneous adventures the rest of the year with no need to worry about training, tapering or recovering. I had a good endurance base after my 100k in September and a few 40-50k runs over the winter, but hill climbing, strength and speed were severely limited for me (aka non existent) coming into this race. A strained left calf in New Zealand meant that I could only run light and easy from November on. I was never actually sure that I would be able to pull off the 100k in time, but thanks to my amazing team I was ready to go just in time! Big love goes out to Derek Vinge of Fit Chiro, Michelle Hughes of CV Acupuncture and Amber P my Massage queen over at Strong Hearts. Thanks to this team, many positive thoughts and my super healing powers, once again, I bounced back just in time for a big run. Just two weeks before, I booked the trip and committed to the race and the retreat. I was heading to California for a week of running, yoga and bliss! Wahooo! 

I rarely, if ever set performance (outcome) goals for races (finish times and placings) because these are only indirectly under our control with so many other variables affecting them. Of course, performance goals are great to have for motivation and drive, but I prefer to put my energy into process goals - the things that we can directly control, throughout the race. My process goals were:

To run in the moment- to practice presence as fully as possible.

To run for the love, the pure joy and gratitude and for the sheer gift of every single step.

To run smart, to be totally dialled with my nutrition, pacing and self care - never letting the small things turn into big things.

To run my legs completely out in the final third, leaving nothing in the tank and everything on the course.

I had a new goal of pushing myself 4% more. Running 4% faster, running 4% longer before switching to trekking etc. I have been reading ‘The Rise of Superman’ and this concept of pushing 4% further to achieve a Flow state had stuck in my mind.

And finally, to be focused but flexible, accepting, responding and adapting to any adversity that came my way.

My performance goal was to finish under 16 hours firstly, to get my qualifier, and the icing on the cake was to beat my fastest 100k, sub 12hours and 30minutes. A girls gotta dream!

The race…I had two totally different journeys on the Shawn O Brian 100k race course. The first 60k were a beautiful, creamy, dreamy path lined with hearts and stars and hope and sunshine. My race was going so ridiculously well for the first 50k that I was actually cocky enough to catch myself writing my post race report in my head…it would be the most boring report ever I thought…everything would go exactly how I had planned…it would be the easiest and fastest 100k that I had ever run…totally boring reading material…HA! Well, you know what happens when you put the cart WAY before the horse dontcha… The last 40k were a mind bender. After a joyous first half, I suddenly found myself on a hard, sharp, crumbling path, threatening to break apart at any moment. Ha! Well, ok, you know I like to make my race reports a little dramatic;) It wasn’t so bad, but there were moments.

I started and finished under a big, starry sky with a shining half moon. The sunrise was sweet, rich and delicious…deep saturated rainbows of rich colour soaked into and grew out of an ink black sky…magic light…magic moments…shared with my ultra brothers and sisters. Words never need to be spoken in these moments…we all just know. This is why we are here. To experience these connections. With the earth, with ourselves and with each other. We are here to experience something greater than chores and habits and to do lists. We are here to feel the earth under our feet and to know the universe is wide open all around us. It’s hard to put into words…but…if you are human and you have felt this deep connection…you know what I mean;)

And I met some lovely humans on the trail this day. We shared stories, revealed dreams and negotiated goals. We commiserated. We elevated. We reminded each other of why we were doing this crazy thing called ultra. I love the ultra community for so many reasons. In the middle of running 100kms, with the sun beating down, our legs half shattered and the mountains heaving the trail right up into our faces, we are completely exposed. All layers of our shells are removed. All small talk is evaporated. Instantly we are connected, deep below the surface, much closer to our core. We see each other for our true essence. There is no energy to keep up those layers and really, there is no need for them out there. These connections and these moments are more and more rare it seems, in our daily lives. We are busy busy out there. We have 3000 things to do and they are filling our minds and blocking our hearts. In here we have none of these things to distract us and to disguise us. When was the last time you connected, instantly, with a total stranger, and shared your snacks with them? Or sprayed them down with sunscreen or offered to play your music for them, or told them your biggest dreams, or gave them a sweaty high five, or, even better, a big sweaty hug? It happens every km of every ultra and, I believe, we are better, more connected humans for it. It doesn’t take an ultra to make these connections, but it does take some vulnerability and much presence, to create such intimacy.

Back up to the start for a moment. It’s cold, I’ve got my windbreaker, my gloves and my brightest headlamp to help me navigate in the darkness for the first couple of hours before sunrise. Normally I warm up for 10 minutes minimum before every race, even 100kms. Warm ups allow us to leave the line safely, prime our nervous system and actually, help us focus, relax and calm our minds. But man oh man it was way too cold! I wasn’t prepared for the temperature with any warm up gear/pants etc, so my best move was to sit in the car and crank the heat for my warm up. Less than five minutes before the start, I surrender to the cold, and made my way to the start line. While fastening my running vest, I noticed something sticky on my jacket…and my vest…and my hands…wth? Ugh! One of my gooey chocolate espresso gels had exploded in my vest pocket. Awesome. I ditched the gel and cleaned myself up as best as I could, but it was a messy scene lol. ‘Oh well’, I thought, ‘we are counting down in the chute now!’ I pressed the button to start my GPS watch and…nothing happened. I pressed again. And again. Now I was obsessively pressing all of the buttons in various combinations trying to get the thing to hard reset or do something, anything! 10…9…’Do you know how to hard reset a Garmin??’…8…7…’Do you?’…6…5…4…’Ahhhh! I don’t have kms, I don’t have paces, I don’t have a stop watch’…Well I did want to run entirely in the moment…3…2…1…Go! Hahaha! Now I was laughing out loud. ‘First time for everything!’ I thought. Accept, adapt, respond…GO!

Although the math hurt my brain, having to convert miles to kms at each aid station, the lack of a pace/km staring me in the face during the first third of the race, was actually beneficial in many ways. I normally run by feel, using my watch to cross reference and ‘keep me out of trouble’ (going too fast at the start). But I am pretty sure that I ran slightly faster than I would have normally, in that first third because I was truly running intuitively, aiming for the top of my aerobic zone, while keeping a healthy respect for the distance ahead. I didn’t limit myself to numbers that may have normally scared me into running below my actual ability. I just had fun, running by feel and playing in the trails with my new friends:)

After a couple of hours, I fell into the beautiful rhythm of my body moving and my feet turning over and over on the earth beneath me. I got lost in the curves and found my flow in the wild beauty of the endless ribbon of single track. The views did not disappoint. It was very chilly before sunrise, and I was happy to have packed my windbreaker and gloves for the 5am start. But once that sun rose up, the temperature began to climb and by 8:30am the sweat was rolling off of my sun deprived Canadian body. I was here for the heat, however, and although it added to the challenge, I loved every single moment of it. But man, was it ever hot! By mid day, the temperature had climbed to 90 degrees F (I go on Imperial now lol;) and the number one goal became getting enough water and electrolytes into my body every single hour. I was drinking up to a litre and a half every hour and 4 salt tabs. Still, every time I licked my lips I could taste a thick layer of salt building on my skin. More water, more salt…race smart, accept, adapt, respond…

OK…let’s go back to the start for a moment, again. Day before the race, I went for my usual ‘shake out’ / ‘gear check’ run on the race course and discovered a wee problem with my sneakers. I had switched to Salomon’s that were a half size larger this past summer, as my feet had changed shape (again) and my right big toe just wouldn’t fit in the 7.5’s any more. The more I run in shoes with a wide toe box, the more my forefeet stretch out, kinda like they are sleeping like a star in my sneakers;). Combine that with the swelling that occurs during distance running in the heat and I didn’t have a choice but to move up sizes if I wanted to eventually have a toenail growing back on that right big toe. Long story short, the larger size, has allowed my heel to move inside the shoe and the last 2 races I have done resulted in losing the skin of my entire heel on both feet from the friction. Not pretty, and most definitely painful. I thought it was just the last pair of shoes and that my new pair would be ok as my feet had been pretty happy while training at home. But, the moment I started running in the mid day heat of southern California on my test run, I just knew that I would lose my heels again if I attempted to run 100kms in my Salomon’s. So grateful, to have done the test run, as it meant that I had a chance to go to plan B or C if needed. I decided to take a huge gamble…and break one of THE rules of racing… all of my athletes and clients know what that rule is…

Never try something new on race day.

Well, folks, life aint black and white and sometimes breaking the rules is the best choice you’ve got. So, I decided to wear an entirely new make of literally brand-new sneakers….the Salming T3s’.  Trick is...I had only worn them for two 30 minute runs...but I was super impressed by how they had felt. Really, when I ran in them, I completely forgot about my feet and the fact that I was wearing a different brand of shoe. THAT is a big deal. My feet had been happy, the toe box was wide, but the heel was snug and I knew that they had monster tread while being even lighter than my Salomon’s so I figured I would run in them for as long as I could before switching to the Salomons, in order to limit the amount of time and friction and save my heels. I was most concerned about having happy, healthy feet so that I could participate fully in my yoga retreat! The Salmings were a bit short, so I figured I would be lucky to get 20kms out of them before having to switch back to the Salomons. My plan was to then wear 2 pair of socks with the Salomon’s to limit the movement in the heel. My other strategy was to completely coat my feet in zinc cream to create a friction barrier and pull the sweat/moisture away from my skin to prevent blisters. The best zinc cream I have found is Desitin- the baby rash cream and it works like a charm, if you keep on it and re-apply as needed. And so…off I went with Plan A B and C… accept, adapt, respond.

Km 36 aid and the end of the first third of the race, came at the bottom of a massive, lovely quad thrashing hill on hard pack. On the descent, I could feel my feet starting to burn in the forefoot, telling me that the zinc cream had started to wear off. I followed my plan of racing as smart as possible, pulled up a chair at aid and took the time to re-apply the messy business along with the usual restocking of water and fuel. I grabbed my visor and shades and off I went for the epic trek back up to the top. Fully exposed, mid day sun and 90 degree heat and peeps were beginning to either fall off or charge on…heat lovers rejoiced!

Around km 45 I was loving life and caught myself writing my race report in my head, thinking how boring it was going to be, with everything going so damn perfectly that day. I was absolutely convinced that I was going to just keep on cruising at record pace, beat my PR for the 100k and have the ‘easiest’ ultra experience of my life. HA! Normally I breathe humility to the ultra distance and although I do enjoy brainwashing myself with positive thinking and manifesting, I have never had such cocky thoughts so early into an ultra lol. But, next thing you know I am sitting at the 59km aid station with a bunch of happy, sore, tired ultra boys, talking trash about there ‘only being a marathon left’…and how ‘easy’ marathons are;) Positive self talk and joking around, sure, but man…if that wasn’t foreshadowing I don’t know what was…

60k in and it was time to trade the Salmings for the Salomons because of some pressure in my right foot. The shoes were a half size too small, and once my feet began to fatten up in the heat, I knew it was time to switch over. But 60kms in a brand new pair of shoes and a new model is truly remarkable! If they were a half size larger, I don’t doubt that I could have run the entire 100kms in them. I was sold, that’s for sure. Since the race I have been in touch with Salming and I am stoked to be joining their team of Ambassadors for 2018! Woot! Proof is in the pudding. Stay tuned for details on discounts I am going to soon be able to pass on to YOU!

Back to the race…Malibu…mid day…60k…I was sooooo happy leaving this aid station! I had eaten a face full of watermelon, I had ice in my bra and down my shorts, I was munching on my halfway treat, a bag of salt and vinegar chips and I had plugged in my tunes for the final 40k. Life was so good! I dance trekked and ran that 4% more every chance that I could. 

The SOB aid stations were totally stocked with all of the yummy snacks that your heart might desire during a 100k run - salty, sweet, soft, hard, liquid, solid... they had chairs to take a load off, toilets at nearly all of them and a pack of super awesome aid station volunteers to pick up your spirits, share a smile and words of encouragement, spray you down with sunscreen and dress you like a 3 year old if you needed that;).  I couldn't have asked for better support on course.  No crew needed (and none allowed in this State Park race).

Quietly, I had also been thinking how happy I was to be in the clear of my nemesis, ‘the heartburn’, because I had surpassed the 50k mark without any sign of the devil.

Well…now…I don’t have to tell you what happened next but I will…cuz this is a race report…

Those first signs… Uh oh. Oh no. Nu Uh. Not happening! I tried to talk my body out of it. I tried to believe that this time it wouldn’t progress from those first warning signs even though it had every single other time it came to torture me. Within 30 minutes I went from the highest of highs to the reality that things were falling off the tracks. The soft ball in my chest had settled in and every running step made me feel like I was going to lose all of my chips and watermelon. Noooooo! I thought I had it dialled, taking the OTC medication that normally prevented this, but something had changed and it was no longer working. The slow, painful death march began. I was desperate. I had already taken my medication. Not working. Now I would try anything. I had heard somewhere that drinking milk could neutralize heart burn and so at about km 65 I asked the lovely aid station boss if she had any milk by chance. Nope, but she had chocolate milk! And so, I did the most disgusting thing I could possibly imagine doing at km 65 in 90 degree heat and I chugged a box of chocolate milk. Well…we all know how that ended, right?

The next hour I got to know the scrubby bushes of Malibu State Park. Never very good for hiding in, but always very prickly, sharp and covered in thorns, I found myself off the trail more than a few times thanks to that well intentioned, but oh so wrong decision to drink an entire cup of chocolate milk mid ultra lol.

Onward! I made it to the 68km mark, and I was having a bit of a pity party. Man! I was soooo looking forward to this point in the race as it was my ‘final third’ and my plan was to just absolutely crush the last 2 massive descents and run my legs right into the ground to the finish. Not to be… Very frustrating, to have to put your fitness and your plan aside, due to something that seems to be out of your control and as silly as heart burn. But this heartburn thing really is the only thing (besides freezing cold) that I let have power over my positive mojo. I now know that there is work I must do here… It is the barfing thing that shuts down my inner unicorn, for sure. Those who know me, know I am a barfaphobic and this fear, has way too much power over me, for my liking. The wheels are turning now…and you can be sure that the experiment of one will continue…I will overcome this mess and turn it into an opportunity…stay tuned.

Back to the race tho… I was mid pity party when I stumbled out of the bushes and directly into the comfort of the aid station greeter volunteer. Poor man. There may have been a tear or two and there was certainly a desperate plea for help. Who was that woman? Glad you weren’t there to see it hahaha! You know how suddenly things feel worse, when there is someone there to take care of you? Well, lucky for me, this volunteer was a very kind human and recruited some help to get me some drugs from a friends personal heart burn stash. I was desperate, so I took a pill from the hand of a total stranger (was I at a rave or what?) along with some ginger chews and a dose of hope. I spent WAY too much time at WAY too many of those last aid stations. Really, I was just procrastinating moving because I knew how much it would hurt again as soon as I started walking, let alone running.

I did my best that I thought I could do at the time and that meant a bit of a stroll up the final hill before the biggest descent of the day. At the top, I did my best to gather my strength and run down cuz man I love to run down! I pretended I was filming a movie with my go pro while I was running down, because it made me run as smoothly as possible, to stabilize my imaginary camera…the lighter and smoother I thought, the longer I could run before the pain overtook me again. The next 22k was a combination of this gentle jogging, suddenly stopping to throw my head between my knees and then a few mad dashes for the bushes in between. It was sooooooo fun hahahah!

I made it to the bottom of the longest, and what would have been an absolutely dreamy, quad thrashing descent for me, if I had been in the game…but I still had a few miles of flat/undulating terrain to get to the next aid station…it was the longest 6.5miles and longest leg of my life because I was not in the right mindset. All the while knowing that I would have to turn around and do it all over again in reverse because this 22kms was an out and back leg. Run light, double over, head between knees, hands on thighs…look up…stare down the trail ahead…gather up and go again…and on and on. Doesn’t this story just make you want to run 100kms? HA! I did my best to keep pushing forward, but I know that my mental game could have been much stronger. I lost my positive super power in the discomfort and the level self pity I was creating was much too dominant for my liking. I met a gal at aid who had a really bad belly and we took comfort in sharing the journey together in that strange way that we do, as humans. We left aid and made our way back to the base of the epic hill…and we climbed up up up because the only way out is through…treking slow and steady…sharing the trail and the load with a few words, but mostly just together, in silence.

When I was about 2/3rds of the way up the climb, my mood suddenly shifted. The light was changing in the sky. Acceptance had set in on the new timeline and finish time I would come out with that day. I realized the pain in my chest was fading, and that I was officially not going to barf. It was passing. My head came out of my body and my eyes took in the absolute beauty all around me, once again. Gratitude poured into me as the sky began to shift from blue to pink and gold. My music suddenly sounded more powerful and my body wanted to trek hard. After over 3-4 hours of forgetting, I instantly remembered that I had 4% more. Hands on thighs or swinging arms high, I powered through that final third of the climb, pulling away, driving onward and upward to the big beats in my head. I had been looking forward to these tunes for so long and now, finally, I had the focus and mindset to actually hear them.

The views...of the wild space beside the Malibu coastline...this course had us climbing up to receive them over and over.  A challenging course with a BIG hill at the start and end, and a few more in between, we were always running either up or down it seemed.  The four biggest hills were all on dirt service roads, which made them hard, exposed and fast. If you like climbing and/or descending on fast, non-technical terrain you will love this course.

Back into the same aid at the top of the hill and now only 10kms out of 100 left. My aid station volunteer was there to see me return and his words of advice range true… “It will pass.” he had told me, during my 68km pity party. He was right. It is always the way in ultra running, as in life.

The sun was beginning to set and it gave us an amazing show. The darkness was coming. Reality hit. I would be finishing this long run in the dark, just as we had begun. The only thing that separated me from the finish line now was a 10km stretch including a 5km descent (that I had been dreaming of hammering but so goes life). Tragically, my cocky 50km self, had had the gaul to pack only her tiny, dim headlamp as a ‘just in case’ light, because she was most certainly going to be finished before dark. Oh lord. Silly wabbit. And so, the heartburn was gone, my legs felt amazing, I had a 5km downhill in front of me but I couldn’t see shite so I had to do the quad destroying braking nearly walking pace down the steep descent again. I just didn’t want to bite it. It would have been very easy to do with that terrible bit of light I was running with, so I proceeded very slowly and with caution to the base of the hill. It could have been worse. I passed a woman without any light at all! Oooops!

Long story, long, I did it. I made it to the end, filled with gratitude, bliss and joy that I had finished the thing, that I had made my qualifying time and that really, that my body felt amazing, now that the heart burn had calmed down. Happy feet, happy legs, happy heart. A leprechaun kick across the line and an “OH MY GOD that was SO HARD” to the RD. Because, well, it was;).

The lessons…so many...

We always have 4% more.

Experiencing pure presence is a powerful, intimate, beautiful thing.

Even thought ultra racing is a ‘game’, unlike team sports, there are no subs. Trust me, I tried calling for one, but no one wanted to go in for me;).

Don’t count your chickens before they hatch. Never, ever, ever, write your post race report in your head 50kms into a 100km run.

Be positive but stay humble.

Running 100kms without a gps/pace/distance is frightening but it will improve your math (especially when you are a CAD in the USA) and your intuitive pacing skills.

Chocolate milk + 90 degree heat + ulltrarunning are not a good combo. Ever. Just don’t do it!

Sometimes trying something new on race day actually works. Life aint black and white. Sometimes its better to break the rules:)

There are always gifts to be accepted and lessons to be learned on every journey, be it 1km or 100kms. There are no such things as ‘good or bad’ in racing, there are only experiences to be had and growth to be gained. I’ll gladly take them all.

The gifts…

A heart bursting at the seams with gratitude for it all…exploding with bliss and love for this journey. Knowing and believing that each step and every moment is enough.

A shining light from within. A chance to push my body and mind to what they are capable of and beyond. Racing my strengths and elevating my weaknesses 4% more. Again and again. Adapting to adversity. Continuing to move forward regardless of life going sideways.

My unicorns. Strength to run wild… Turned out to be strength of heart and mind rather than body. To stay present and full of gratitude even when visions and dreams slipped away. To be ok with endings you didn’t see coming.

Beauty of nature. Starting and finishing under a starry sky… sunrise and sunsets full of life and magic and saturated colours…warm California sunshine all day long…dirt and earth under my feet.

Beauty of ultra humans and community. They run and pull you when you don’t feel like running yourself. They share. There are no layers or filters. You are instantly connected through the grit and the trail and the understanding. The knowing, that we are all in this together, that we are running circles in the nature for so much more than a finishers medal and finishing time… That those things are just details… That we are running for these powerful, seemingly rare, opportunities to connect to the earth, to ourselves and to the humans around us. Usually without words, always with love.

Nothing lasts for ever and this means that we have the opportunity to travel many different paths on our journey. If we can find the mental strength to keep perspective during times of distress, we will see that there are no good or bad paths, there are simply many different experiences along the way. All are valuable and offer us gifts if we choose to accept them.

That is all. Stay tuned for pieces of my Blissology retreat experience on my instagram and facebook pages…so many more lessons learned there…what a wild journey it has been. 

A HUGE thank you goes out to the race organizing and volunteer team for the massive amount of time, energy and passion they put in to this day, so that we could immerse ourselves in the experience of ultra and play in the trails all day.  You rock!

Happy trails and BIG HUGS friends:)

And, as my Grandma Lily always said…Keep on truckin;)




Melanie sakowski said...

This is so much Lifing 🙌🏻
"Nothing lasts for ever and this means that we have the opportunity to travel many different paths on our journey. If we can find the mental strength to keep perspective during times of distress, we will see that there are no good or bad paths, there are simply many different experiences along the way. All are valuable and offer us gifts if we choose to accept them." this is huge!

One love, dear woman, one love.

Sarah said...

Melanie! Thank you so much! I am so happy to hear that you were able to connect with something in my words... Big hugs!