Friday, April 13, 2012

Returning The Favor

I biked at the base one day early this week but the last time I ran on trails was last Saturday.
With spring decidedly springing, the trails are changing rapidly and every time I head out that way now it is like a huge adventure of discovery.
All winter I have posted pictures of bare trees and ground covered only with a thick layer of old dead leaves.
On overcast days the trails looked bleak and uninviting.
And I constantly felt as though I was enveloped in a world where the only two colors that existed were grey and brown.
Waking up this morning I looked at the temperature gauge outside my kitchen window as I sleepily added water to the coffee pot.
The gauge read 34 degrees.
It has not been 34 degrees in more weeks than I can remember, and since spring hit Tennessee early (as it did with much of the country after a disappointingly mild winter) seeing a 34 reading was a shock.
Looking at the sky as my coffee brewed I smiled inwardly because it was cold and incredibly sunny, and the world was a beautiful place
After checking the weather forecast on line (sunny and high of 67) I saw that this would be the last cool day for a while.  Maybe a very long while. 
.  NOAA happily reported to me that steadily increasing temperatures finally reaching the upper 70's by mid week next week were in the works.
Reading that I felt a little let down, as I always did in years past when I realized that very hot temperatures and very high humidity would now be the new normal until sometime around October...................

This is what the base trails looked like only three weeks ago.................
And these pictures are what the trails look like now................
When I ran last Saturday it was very very warm and very very humid.
I started my 7 mile loop by heading into the trails, and at the fork in the trail turned right instead of left as I usually do, instantly deciding without forethought that I would run the loop backwards.
My usual route begins with a long and very gradual incline - effectively and slowly climbing "up" for more than a mile.
Taking the right trail first got all of the fast and furious ups and downs over the first mile out of the way (instead of taking them at the end of my run).
There are pros and cons of both trails (which eventually loop together) but with the high heat and humidity I hoped that the run would be a little easier running the loop backwards.
It wasn't.
By the time I was four miles into my run I was very hot and very tired, and I struggled through an ugly last 3 miles, steadfastly determined to finish the whole thing.
By the time I was less than a mile from the truck and the end of the run I pulled off the trail, stopped briefly and then reluctantly sat on the ground in the shade for a few minutes trying to calm a heart rate that was way too fast.
I was tired, and discouraged to realize that both the trail and the heat had effectively kicked my ass.
Needless to say my time was awful, and I finished the run completely wiped out but gratified in the knowledge that I had at least stuck it out.
By the time I got home and took a shower, the only thing I had enough energy for was to drag my sorry self to the couch for a nap..................
I was still in my first year of adventure racing, and had signed up with two other women to do a race in May outside of Asheville North Carolina.
My two team-mates and I began the race on foot, hiking up into the mountains and picking up checkpoints as we went.
Still climbing higher and higher into the mountains we (at some point in our journey) picked up our bikes that had been transported to a checkpoint by race staff.
We continued to climb.  And climb.  And climb.  This time on bike.
Eventually we three new racers could no longer pedal our bikes and we dismounted and continued moving higher, this time pushing our bikes.
It was May in the south, it was very warm and then eventually very hot, and after 9 solid hours of non-stop climbing I physically started to fall apart.
I was suffering from heat exhaustion, and although I had recognized the onset of it early on (and had worked hard to try to eat and particularly drink), we were putting out a lot of effort and I could not combat the impending implosion.
Everyone slowed the pace and I tried to cool my overheated and exhausted body, all the while feeling guilty for slowing down my team.
Still struggling, a couple of hours later one of my team-mates began to experience the same symptoms.
So now we had two out of three members of a team with overheated bodies, nausea, exhaustion, rapid heart rate and dizziness.
And we were in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the mountains.
Two "thankfullys".
Thankfully the team-mate who was still healthy was a nurse and she did everything she could to care for her two overheated team-mates.
Thankfully within the next hour we reached the crest of the last uphill we had to climb, and the next portion of the race was a 45 minute full-speed down hill ride on gravel roads, where all we had to do was coast and control the bike.
By the time we got down to the bottom my team-mate had mostly recovered.
I continued to struggle for another couple of hours, all the while trying to eat and drink.
Eventually everyone was healthy enough again to continue with the race in earnest.................
Nearly all of the trees that were flowering recently have now turned green.
I found these tiny and very fragile flowers growing in the moss alongside the trail...............
The only flowering tree I came across during my run this morning...............
"Bonk" is a term that is familiar to both runners and bikers.
It means that all of the energy that you have stored in your liver and muscles has been used up during activity and you "hit the wall". 
Most people know hitting the wall as a conditon that affects marathon runners around the 20 mile mark if they have not been eating and drinking enough throughout the race to top off their energy stores.
When I first started adventure racing I was stunned at the amount of junk food that athletes ate while out on the course.
It didn't take me long to realize that they ate junk food because it was light weight, high in calories, high in fat, high in sugar, high in salt (all the things racers needed to replace after many hours on the move), that it was easy to digest on the run, and that it also provided comfort while out on a course that might be freezing cold, or soaking wet, or horrendously hot. 
That in the middle of the night a Little Debbies Snack Cake or handful of Pringles provided more than just calories.
Comfort food for uncomfortable racers.
Racers generally ate "real food" in Transition Areas (where they moved from one sport to another) while also typically eating junk food out in the field.
Eating while moving for long periods of time becomes challenging because weird things happen to your belly while racing, and it gets very hard to stomach food after a while. 
At the end of the day eating small amounts regularly is the most important thing.  
THAT you eat is much more important than WHAT you eat.
I have only bonked once.
I was part of a two person co-ed team at a freezing cold multi-day race in WV.
About 2 1/2 days into the race my team-mate and I were well into a very long stretch of mountain biking on a combination of paved road, gravel roads and trails that eventually found us in a very back country and mountainous region.
For a while I had vaguely been aware of the fact that I was beginning to feel very tired.  Not tired that I needed to sleep but tired in that my energy level was beginning to drop.
This was a five day race and both my team-mate and I were in way over our heads, but we continually felt gratified that we were still on the course even while so many other more experienced teams had already dropped out due to any number of reasons (including illness, injury, weather, mechanical failure, exhaustion to name only a few).
Once I became aware of the fact that my energy level was bottoming out I tried to concentrate on eating and drinking.
It was too late.
An hour after my initial recognition that something was wrong I bonked.  Hard.
I could not bike anymore and both me and my team-mate began to push our bikes.
We were in the middle of nowhere in the mountains and really wanted to get out of the mountains before nightfall.
And yet we were now pushing our bikes.
My team-mate grabbed my pack and I still have a very strong image of him wearing his overloaded multi-day pack on his back and at the same time strapping mine in front of him.  
He looked like a hunchback who was 9 months pregnant. 
30 minutes after he took my pack I sat down on a rock on the side of the trail.
In that moment I was done. 
I couldn't stand.  I couldn't walk.  I couldn't talk.  I could barely think.
My team-mate sat down on the rock beside me and wordlessly handed me a snack-size chocolate bar.
I wordlessly looked down at it in his hand and my stomach heaved.
I reluctantly put the tiny chocolate bar in my mouth and chewed it. 
And chewed it.
And chewed it.
The entire time I was chewing the chocolate bar my stomach continued to churn and when I tried to swallow it, it wouldn't go down.
Five minutes after he gave it to me I finally got tired of chewing, finally got tired of my churning and swirling stomach, and absolutely recognized that if I didn't start swallowing food soon my race was done.
I chewed some more, and finally choked the entire mess down with a large drink of water.
We repeated the same scenario a second time and then a third.
Still feeling shaky and weak but slightly better I stood up and we began to push our bikes higher into the mountains again, while my team-mate continued to ignore my protests that I couldn't eat anymore.
Eventually he didn't have to force feed me anymore.
Eventually I remounted my bike and we rode trails up into the mountains and then down crazy winding and steep single track that meandered us back out of the mountains and onto gravel road.
By 7pm that night we found ourselves not far from the gates of a state park and just outside those gates was a convenience store that cooked food.
Real food.  Greasy food.  Hot food. 
In a warm restaurant.  Well..........a warm convenience store.
We ate burgers and hot chocolate before setting out again, and it was the best burger I had ever tasted in my life.........................

This large patch of green was a large patch of beautiful white flowers only a couple of weeks ago.............
Just over a year later I raced with the same guy again in West Virginia.
It was a 72 hour race this time and the weather was very warm during the day and freezing cold at night.
24 hours into the race my team-mate bonked in the middle of the night while we were up in the mountains on foot.
I knew exactly how he felt physically.  Knew how guilty he was feeling for slowing down the team.  Knew the concern he was feeling that he might not be able to finish the race.
I was sorry that he felt so badly.
But I was glad that I was able to return the favor and care for HIM this time...............
The sun was warm but the wind was chill.
You know how it is with an April day...............Robert Frost

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