Susitna 100, Part II: The Training

This is a hard part to write because so many of the pieces I talk about here are still works in progress. I wrote this on the plane high in the air between Seattle and Anchorage, two days before the race, which was February 13-14, 2016.

Sitting in the Health Center on 9/22/15. So puffy and swollen. You couldn’t see the veins in my hands or feet.

After IMTUF (Idaho Mountain Trail Ultra Festival 100 mile race, September 19-20, 2015), I started retaining so much fluid that I gained 10 pounds within two days after the race. On Tuesday, I went to the health center at work and asked them to check my electrolytes to see what was going on. Without some more data, I was not sure whether to take in more salt or more water or what.

The physician’s assistant called me Wednesday, September 23 and said that my kidney and liver function showed signs of distress, which is totally normal after 100 miler, but because I was also starting to pee again more regularly, and the pounds were dropping back off, I wasn’t worried about hyponatremia or kidney damage anymore.

However, one other interesting thing was revealed on the blood test. My iron levels were severely low. For the iron deficiency anemia, the PA recommended that I start supplementing my iron immediately and wrote me a prescription for 650mg of iron/day.

I was floored by this information. Nothing is ever wrong with me. I am always healthy. It slowly dawned on me that THIS piece of information totally explained why I had not run with energy for two and a half years (I identified my last “good” race as Wild Idaho in 2013).

With the benefit of hindsight, maybe I should have seen this coming. Maybe it should have been a clue to me when I was too low in iron to donate blood two times over the last year. All the symptoms were there. However, when it was happening, it was easy to convince myself I was just being a hypochondriac. Nothing was wrong with me…I just needed to try harder. And people don’t take you seriously when you say something is wrong yet continue dusting up the trails and pounding the pavement.

With the anemia diagnosis, I comforted myself in knowing that nothing I could have done would have made me better. I could not have muscled through this one. Had it not been for the thoughtfulness of the PA at my health center, I never would have gotten the critical information that maybe changed my life, not to be hyperbolic.

Suddenly, I had something to hope for, like REAL hope, backed up by data and not just dreams that my general badassery and experience would automatically translate to awesome races as I put more notches in my belt. With the promise of resolving my anemia and finding joy in energetic running again, I decided to postpone my certain retirement following IMTUF and see what would happen after a few months on iron.

CTThe week after IMTUF, I traveled to Italy for work, barely enough time for the swelling in my feet to subside, so I ended up not running for two weeks following IMTUF. On October 6, we flew back to Boise, and I ran, jet lagged and all, for a couple miles up to the grocery store and back. Even more than my resurgence in June, I was motivated to persevere and keep running.

At the same time, other things in my personal life were at rock bottom, unresolved…even lower than back in May/June. The horrible state of my body, having just completed a 100 mile run, and returning from international travel left me once again angry, depressed, exhausted, and filled with personal angst.

Running had given me a lifeline to get through the previous four months of this personal turmoil, but nothing was resolved. My perspective on life was totally distorted. My eating habits had declined  to horrible and I was sleeping 4-6 hours a night and surviving on a hardcore intake of coffee and 4-8 espresso shots per day. The only glimmer of hope is that maybe I could run if I just stuck it out.

Early in October 2015, my friend Rachael who is living temporarily on Prince of Wales, Alaska, asked if I wanted to come run the Little Su 50K with her on February 13th outside of Wasilla, Alaska. A break from life and a fun trip to AK sounded like just the thing I needed, so I said sure!! I was hopeful that I would feel stronger by then in order to meet the 12 hour cutoff in the 50K race. We planned a 6 day, fun-filled Alaskan girls getaway, and I signed up for the 50k just as soon as it opened.

Following September 23, I had a very firm plan in my mind to keep running no matter what. I knew it would feel like it always did – tired and heavy. But now I (thought) I knew why, and I had something to look forward to – the hope that one day I would have runs that felt good and faster. I continued my 12 minute per mile runs around my house. That’s all I could do. I had no faster gear. If I was running, that was the pace. I could not drop it down to 10 minute miles or faster for more than a minute or two at a time. But I had this clear vision in my mind that I could stick it out until I felt better and that way not lose my fitness in the meantime.

Jet lagged and strung out on espresso.

Through October, I started paying attention to the food I was eating in order to boost iron absorption. I increased my citrus (Vitamin C) and cut back on dairy (food containing calcium). I knew after returning from Italy strung out of my mind on espresso that pruning my rigorous latte regimen was next on the list. I wanted to find my functional baseline. By October 19, I had weaned down to zero cups of coffee per day and started drinking tea like a chain smoker consumes cigarettes. I’m still doing that to this day.

October 19 was also the day I started seeing a therapist to help me work out the personal issues that were reaching critical mass. I could not be healthy unless I dealt with the stress and anger in addition to the physical issues.

With all these things on a generally positive trend as a backdrop, Rachael messaged me one day in early November and said she had not registered for the Little Su 50K before it filled. I was registered, and she was not. The race is very rigid about making exceptions to the rules, so there was no way for her to enter. She immediately was wondering if she should run the corresponding 100 miler, which I had been vehemently against because I wanted to give my body the time to rest and recover and get my iron up. I was sure I would not be strong enough by February to attempt 100 again so soon.

It took me a couple of hours before messaging Rachael that both of us entering the 100 miler was ‘obviously the only option.’ I’m in. We were both terrified at the prospect – it seemed big and scary and unknown – but the decision was made. We signed up.

Meanwhile, I kept running. It was all the same. Breathless on any incline. Breathless on the stairs at work. Breathless and weak climbing Cervidae Peak every Tuesday morning before work. Lightheaded and dizzy. But, sometime in November, those symptoms started to subside, and on November 24 I logged “I think I just had a good run.”  My boss at work commented that I was not nearly as faint as I used to be. You know, you’re right!  Another good run logged on November 30…and from there the energetic runs outnumbered the dead runs. I was cautiously optimistic.

Me and my good friend Puffy.
Bars and bars and bars. Nut butter, coconut oil, nuts, rice krispies, sesame seeds, cheerios, maple syrup, honey, agave…high calorie food for the Alaskan tundra.

Through December I put together my sled setup and began compiling my gear. I wrote a training plan and [mostly] followed it. I was not running super high mileage, but I got in very consistent training and felt good doing it. That was the amazing thing – I was actually able to follow the training through without pile driving myself. I bought a -20F down sleeping bag. I tested all sorts of high calorie bar recipes. I put in 35 hours with my sleds. I spent endless hours researching winter gear and methods that would best help me get through up to 48 hours and 100 miles of Alaskan snowmachine highways and trails. I read blogs and race reports and all the information I could get my hands on. I was obsessed with the unknown.

On December 23, I had my blood tested again. My hemoglobin, hematocrit, and ferritin levels all showed massive improvement. My PA said the anemia was resolved. This was exciting. The data supported my improved performance. I am cautiously optimistic that I will continue feeling good and that I don’t have other issues at play. I don’t have blinders on. I know I need to keep taking care of myself, getting good rest, and moving to a place of lessened stress.

December 30 with Kermit.

On December 30, I pulled my green sled, Kermit, for 11.5 hours on a plowed road outside of Stanley, Idaho. Back and forth three times on a remote mountain road. I tested my cooking skills on the MSR Whisperlite stove with marginal results. It took me too long to boil water. I needed to find another system. By the end of the day, my sled felt exponentially heavier. I thought it was just me, that I was getting tired. When I unloaded my sled that evening, I realized that the bottom was filled with snow. I weighed it. What had started out as a 30 pound sled was now a 50 pound sled. The bottom of the plastic kid’s toboggan had cracked and I was picking up snow for at least several hours. This was not going to work. But I had done it and felt pretty strong at the end despite pulling a REALLY heavy sled. I was ecstatic. 

Kermit with 20 lbs of snow.
Kermit 2.0 with skis.

With J’s help, I devised a second sled, one with skis on the bottom for runners. I got the pair of kid’s downhill skis from the storage shed of Greenwood’s Ski Haus. Many thanks to Eric there for the help. I got away by myself for another introvert’s dream rejuvenating training weekend the third week of January to test out Kermit 2.0, the red sled with skis. This time, I had fresh snow, which was challenging. The curve on the skis caused the sled to pull back and forth, which was hard on my hips and lower back. It was not the most confidence boosting exercise. However, I did set up a bivy in the snow and tested out my little tuna and cat food can alcohol stoves that J made for me, which worked just as well as the MSR, although I still couldn’t get a good boil going fast enough. I also tested my cycling overshoes and microspikes together, which was a fantastic system. My feet stayed warm and dry, and the microspikes provided excellent traction even on the soft snow. Kermit 2.0 didn’t feel like a winner, though.

Snow bivy in Idaho’s mountains.

Through several email exchanges with Dennis Aslett, who has done the Susitna 100, I learned about his sled setup, which involved a heavier duty cargo type sled that might be used by ice fishermen. I picked one up at Sportsman’s Warehouse and rigged up my third sled, which I named in a nod for various reasons to my two friends named Dennis: Blackalicious the Drag Queen. My final sled training exercise was an overnighter outside of Fairfield, Idaho. I left my house about 9PM and arrived in Fairfield about 11PM. I parked, loaded up my gear, and took off running until about 6:30AM. This black sled slid nicely and I decided this was the final iteration. I wasn’t going to fret over it anymore. Training was in the bag; hay in the barn. After I returned home, J made me a “beer can” alcohol burning stove out of an Amp can, and we tested that with very good results and a rolling boil in just over 5 minutes. This would work for the race, although I hope very much to not use it at all.

I can’t control the weather, the snow conditions, or the aid provided, but I can control my preparation and training. About THAT, I have no regrets. I did everything I could to prepare. I am in the best shape of my life. I believe the anemia is resolved. Life isn’t all rosy. I’m still working with my therapist to become a less cynical vibrant-creative-introvert-warrior. No matter what happens in the race this weekend, I believe I have fought for my life, my energy, and my running. This race is just a symbol of that.  

Susitna, I’ll see you Saturday. Bring it on ‘cause I’m bringing my Warrior. IMTUF, I’ll see you in September.

20160211_085224_1  20160210_202439

5 thoughts on “Susitna 100, Part II: The Training”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *