Thursday, November 29, 2012

Lanzarote International Running Challenge Race(s) Report

And now, here is the story of how I originally scheduled a brief week in Lanzarote to wrap up my time in Spain, and ended up completing one of the craziest sporting ventures of my life....

I blame it all on google. Google is great for lots and lots of things, but it gets me in trouble from time to time. When I have a stuffy nose, google is always there, offering up unsurmountable evidence I've actually contracted scarlet fever (which, you know, KILLED Mary in Little House on the Prairie (eta: just kidding, she only went blind)). When I let one small drop of water fall on my passport two days before traveling, there's google, convincing me that my "damaged" passport will never be accepted overseas, of course leading to countless nightmares involving detention at the hands of scary Icelandic customs officials.

And when I'm looking for some small little race, maybe a 5K, to do in Lanzarote....there's google, offering instead the option of the International Running Challenge, an event comprised of 4 running races of distances ranging from 5K to a half-marathon, each on different types of terrain, completed over the course of 4 days. Or, as it came to be known, the Crazy Running Event. 400+ crazy runners participated, most from Ireland, the UK, Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands. I was the token American.

Gratuitous big waves shot

So, without further ado, the races:

Day 1- 10K Road Race:

The first race of the series was considered the "classic" race-- a 2-loop, 10K run on the roads around Club La Santa, the resort that hosted the event.

Club La Santa = Triathlete Dream. In addition to this pool, they have a 50M one

For reasons not worth going into here, I was very low in confidence coming into this race. My running and training in general just felt "off," (moving locations every week or two will do that to you) and my spirits weren't boosted at all when I showed up to the track and saw dozens of teams with matching jerseys doing extensive and elaborate warm-ups and, mostly, looking like real runners. Turns out there are a ton of Irish, British, Danish, and Dutch running clubs that come to Crazy Run Event every year, and there are true rivalries that are taken very seriously. I resigned myself to finishing mid-pack, if I was lucky, and lined up several rows back from the front, hoping to just not embarrass myself.

The finish line for 3 of the races. I love a blue track.

With that attitude, you'd expect it'd go horribly, right? Well, shock of all shocks...the race went well. I ran very controlled the first mile as per my plan, and when I looked down at my watch at the mile mark and saw something like 6:20 (fast for me for a 10K), I figured either my watch was messed up or I'd blow up spectacularly. But when the second mile's pace wasn't much different and I still felt like I was running very comfortably, I had a fantastic moment of realization... hey, maybe I'm more fit than I think I am. Cool!

From there, I was in a great place mentally, and just rolled through the rest of the race, working my way through the pack, relaxing and staying calm when the wind picked up substantially (Lanzarote's winds are notorious and we were most definitely NOT spared), and feeling quite good. The miles ticked off quickly and I was thrilled to finish with a huge PR, vastly exceeding my expectations and finishing way higher than I thought I would (6th overall, 2nd in my age group). Off to a good start. And lesson learned -- I need to just trust in my training and not overthink everything, because sometimes you can feel like absolute garbage for weeks on end, and actually be gaining fitness.

Gets a little windy in these parts

Day 2- 13K Ridge Run

After doing everything in my power to recover quickly from the 10K (more on that later), I woke up on Monday morning feeling fairly decent, but unsure of how my legs would feel once I tried to go hard again. The second race, called a "Ridge Run," essentially took us away from Club La Santa, up to the top of the ridge of one of the local volcanoes, and then back down. So, generally, 4 miles up and then 4 miles down, with a large chunk of the race on trails. The course was absolutely beautiful, from what I could tell from the brief moments when I looked up enough to take in the view. There were rocks, and I'm a klutz! I couldn't afford to sightsee.

We climbed to the top of one of those...can't tell you which one, though (no sense of direction, here)

Like the day before, I started conservatively and by Mile 3, I was feeling good and passing people, including several girls that'd beaten me handily in the 10K the day before. The course got more steep at this point, and I tried to relax but still keep driving up the hill. I kept thinking of all those hills I begrudgingly climbed in my neighborhood in London and the last long run I did in Spain, when I basically ran down a mountain for a half hour, and then turned around and ran back up it. 4 mile sweat! (And having just uttered those words, I don't think I can call myself a Chicago girl anymore).

Look closely, that's me climbing in the foreground (#78). Favorite race pic ever
A few seconds later

Once we reached the top, I knew it was all downhill, so I just let go of my fear and flew down the hill, turning over my legs as fast as I could and trying not to trip on rocks. My race was almost obstructed by a goat that had wandered a bit away from its herd, but I'm not even phased by random animal encounters any more so I just shrugged and moved on. I ended the run 2nd in my age group and 4th overall and generally felt like it was, in a lot of ways, a better performance than the day before

Day 3- 5K Beach Run

Tuesday morning, we were bused to Puerto del Carmen, the biggest beach on Lanzarote, for a 5K race on soft sand. I underestimated this race; a 5K just didn't seem like that big of a deal. I didn't adequately figure in the difficulty of running in soft sand. It was brutal and I hated it. I couldn't find any sort of rhythm and constantly felt like I was inches away from face planting. I got quickly frustrated and just had a horrible race. While I'd been 6th and 4th overall the previous days, I was 12th in the 5K and I had no explanation other than I just didn't know how to run on sand and somehow, the others did. The other women that I'd been in competition with in the overall standings put over a minute on me, just in that stupid 5K.

Running through this stuff....not fun

I gave myself the ride home to pout, and then put it behind me altogether and switched my focus to the next day's race. That wasn't necessarily easy, but it had to be done. A nap and a little Nutella helped (God, they love Nutella in Europe).

Day 4- Half-Marathon

The grand finale was a point-to-point half marathon, starting out in the town of La Mancha. Despite three days of racing in my legs, I felt oddly calm and confident.

Near the start

Without much ado, the race started, and several woman took off quickly. I told myself to put the blinders on and run my own race, but I got pulled along a bit. Instructions were to go no faster than 7:20 in the first three miles, and my first three miles were all around 6:50. Whoops. But I felt very comfortable and was mixing it up with the same girls I'd been trading places with throughout the whole series. I had goals for my overall placement and placement in my age group, so I decided to just race instead of try to hit splits.

From mile 3.8 to mile 5 was a long and pretty nasty hill. I'd studied the course profile the night before and made the decision to take a risk and really work that mile. I had a new found confidence in my uphill running, and thought I could make up some ground there. So I attacked. It meant that I was running pretty much at a 5K effort only 4 miles into a half-marathon, which was scary, but it's what I thought I needed to do. I did catch a couple girls in that mile. Whether it was the right call or not I don't know, but sometimes it's fun to just RACE.

After the 5 mile mark, the course flattened out with some long downhill stretches broken up by a few more climbs every now and then. At 8 or 9 miles, we moved onto a loosely packed dirt/gravel road, and then at mile 10, were hit in the face with a headwind unlike anything I've experienced before. That lasted for the whole last 5K, and it was not fun. At all. But I felt strong and focused throughout and never stopped working. For the first time, there was no upcoming race looming, so I wanted to leave it all out there.

The scenery for much of the back half of the race

And I did. I ended up with a huge PR (over 5 minutes) and slipped under the 1:30 barrier. Yeah, (despite some difficult sections) the course was a net downhill. Yeah, it measured maybe 100m short. But a PR's a PR, and I'll take it, especially after three days of racing.

In the end, I fell a little short in the overall and age group place goals I'd set for the day. For the series, I wanted to be Top 3 overall or win my age group; I had a shot going into the half-marathon, and it didn't happen. But honestly, I wasn't even a little upset. I gave it everything I had, exceeded my own expectations, controlled the controllables, and executed my own plan pretty much perfectly....the other girls were just better on this day. For me to be able to say that is growth. After a lot of work and self-examination in the off-season, I think I'm finally learning how to find satisfaction in the process and not just focus on the outcome. That right there takes so much pressure off, which I think allows for better performance. Next step: keeping it up once we add swimming and biking to the mix.

Most of all, I loved this Crazy Running Event. It was hard and it tested me physically and mentally, but it also brought back a love of running that's eluded me for a while. Even when I was in the depths of pain, all I had to do was look up at the scenery for a minute, and I remembered how lucky I was. To be here and to be able to do really is a gift.

Recovery Nonsense

And a little note about recovery. I will confess that despite hearing over and over how important recovery is, I have never been good about it. I think (thought) compression gear is way too expensive and possibly a marketing ploy, I avoid ice baths like the plague (perhaps due to negative flashbacks from the dumb athletic trainer we had in high school who didn't think ice baths were effective unless they were exactly 35 degrees which is NOT the case), I'd rather use up my calories on things I like, like Arby's or jelly beans or red wine, than bland recovery drinks (although I am newly inspired by Karin's shower smoothie recipes that sound pretty yummy). Mostly, I'm just lazy and perhaps have an inflated view of my own toughness. Basically,  I've spent lots of energy trying to convince myself that all that recovery nonsense isn't really all that important.

Ice baths aren't so horrible when they're in the sea

BUT, I will also admit when I am wrong. I was wrong. That recovery nonsense is important. This week, I decided to do a little experiment and actually do what I'm supposed to be doing with recovery. Perhaps I felt like the stakes were higher with back-to-back-to-back-to-back races, but I went with it. As soon as I finished each race, I practically sprinted to the bag check and got a protein bar out of my bag to eat. I warmed down after every race until my legs felt normal-ish again. I drank recovery drinks. I had high-carb lunches. I did a few easy spins to flush the lactic acid out. I stretched, I self-massaged (that always sounds way dirtier than it is), I took naps (OK, I've never really fought that one, I am a napping champ), I wore compression socks, I even (gasp) took ice baths. worked. I recovered far better from these races than I thought I could. So, yeah, I guess I'll be doing that recovery nonsense from now on. Another lesson learned.

Friday, November 23, 2012


Happy Day-After-Thanksgiving, American friends!

I'm currently in Lanzarote, one of the Canary Islands. The Canaries are Spanish, but closer to Africa. Translation: the weather is warm enough for me to wear one of the two sundresses I've been traveling with since July. (See, e.g., pretty much every "warm weather" picture of me on this blog) Living out of a suitcase makes you realize how unnecessary expansive wardrobes are, but also makes for some extremely repetitive photographs.

But I digress. I've been in Lanzarote since Sunday. Katie and I left our friends at Vamos Cycling on Saturday and slowly made our way here via Malaga (rainy, somewhat unremarkable but for a delicious paella and getting so lost walking back to our hotel that we ended up walking along the side of a real, as in Eisenhower-Expressway-real, highway for a while) and the Barcelona airport (I solicited recommendations for sites to visit in Barcelona before realizing I'd miscalculated the length of our layover, so we just used our 3.5 hours to get a little tipsy in the airport lounge, never mind it was still before noon).
Malaga. Southern Spain seems to be having some trouble dealing with rain. And pollution.

I think my best adjective for this island is volcanic. Lanzarote is small, and had major volcanic activity in the 1700s and 1800s, wiping out a lot of the plant and animal life. So the interior is largely lava fields and somewhat desolate terrain. Few trees, and lots and lots of wind. Tourist sites, so the extent they exist, largely incorporate the volcanic aftermaths--- like little grottos built in to lava tunnels.

Architecture built into a lava tunnel

The coasts, including the one I'm staying at (Costa Teguise) are beautiful and somewhat less built up than American resort areas, although there are certainly plenty of British pubs and restaurants (this is a prime area for British and German snowbirds). I'm not exactly sure how it worked out that my trip in Spain has resulted in far more interaction with British people than Spaniards, but it is what it is, and I think I'm starting to talk with a British accent. And care about soccer/ football. (No, that's a lie. I do not care about soccer.)

We hiked on lava rocks

Katie and I were both wiped out from our cycling adventures, so while we did some outdoorsy stuff this week, we kept it nice and easy. A little hiking along the lava fields that overlook the sea was the highlight of Monday. And, despite substantial traffic, Lanzarote is about the most cycling-friendly location I can imagine. You can literally ride your bike on any road on this island, including the busy freeways. There are reasonably-sized shoulders and drivers who are ridiculously patient with cyclists, of which there are many. So on both Tuesday and Wednesday, we got out for some moderately-long rides, taking it pretty easy, stopping to take pictures along the way, enjoying the fact that the terrain, while challenging at times, is much flatter than we found in Southern Spain.

I am getting good at taking pictures while riding and I am not proud

We've done some swimming, too. Here's the obligatory picture of this week's pool:

And, it's heated. THANK GOD

Believe it or not, the resort I'm staying in (and really, the island in general) is somewhat of a hotspot for triathletes. A lot of the pros come down here for training stints, and while there's another resort on the island that's truly the triathlete mecca, our place (Sands Beach Resort) attracts its fair share of cycling teams and big name triathletes, too. This is definitely the off-season, so there's only a few pros wandering around. I can tell they're pros, but I don't know who they are. I kind of wish I had Henry here. He'd know who they were. He'd definitely know. I suppose I could possibly ask them, but that sounds a little stalker-y, no?

Not professional triathletes, but camels.

Between our little bouts of activity, we rested. We had leisurely breakfasts on our patio, lounged by the pool, ate lunch at the Pool Bar. We played bingo with the old people (and won). I actually went "dark" for a while-- I shut off my phone and didn't log into email or the internet ONCE in four days. This was partly due to the ridiculous cost of WiFi here (I can pay an arm and a leg for a week's access, so I picked my week to be the week starting last night); partly because I wanted to indulge in the luxury of being able to truly unplug for 4 days, something I don't think I've done since, hmmm, maybe 2005, likely earlier; partly because it's becoming obvious that I'm addicted to social media and constant electronic interaction and addiction, in general, is bad.

And having completed my little experiment, I can report that taking 4 days to just focus on myself and what I was doing here, now, in this moment... wasn't the worst. I survived. I slept a little more and got through an entire book in two days. (Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn, check it out, and if you've read it, please send me recommendations for similar sorts of reads. It was one of those books I was sad to finish and I want more, just like it). I wondered what was going on back home, but it didn't consume me. My typing fingers stopped twitching after a day or so (just kidding).

Last night, I dropped Katie off at the airport. I was really sad to see her go; we had a great week-and-a-half together. I didn't actually know Katie very well at all when she emailed me saying she needed a vacation (she really did, girl works hard!) and wanted to join up in Spain. We'd chatted a few times at Well-Fit this summer, and that was about it. So there may have been a sliver of nervousness on my part--- what if we ended up hating each other? But we didn't. We got along great, laughed a lot, compromised well, both enjoyed seeking the perfect combination of go-go-go activeness and laziness, and ended up great friends by the end of the trip. It was fantastic to have her along.

Because the misfire is sometimes much more fun than the real picture

And now, I'm here by myself for the next week. Four days of which will be filled with running races of varying lengths, up and down volcanoes. So I think I'll go take a nap now, preemptively rest my legs, and think good running thoughts.

Found my bus

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Adios, Vamos!

My body hurts.

Yesterday, Katie and I wrapped up our week of cycling in Las Alpujarras, Spain with Vamos Cycling. It was an incredibly enjoyable week full of epic climbs, screaming downhills, picture-perfect vistas, and, of course, artery-clogging (but delicious) sausages and other Spanish cuisines. And now, I'm laying in a hotel room in Malaga, wondering if I'm ever going to feel the same.

Trevelez, the village of ham

You can't tell by how happy she looks, but Katie was mid-bonk here

Of the three triathlon disciplines, cycling is the one that I truly feel like I'm still learning. Just a couple summers ago, I was a complete rookie who always needed help pumping my tires, didn't know how to pace, and tended to fall down a lot. I've done a lot more riding since then and have gotten stronger and more comfortable on two wheels, but with such a limited cycling background, I haven't had a lot of opportunities to truly get outside my comfort zone and make it hurt...and then turn around and do it again the next day. In fact, until this week, I don't think I actually knew what a true bonk felt like.

Me and some of the boys I chased all week

This week changed everything. None of our days were particularly long, in terms of mileage or hours. But we were riding up and down some serious mountains, the likes of which I haven't encountered before, and being slightly competitive, I pretty much spent every ride trying mightily to stay with the boys (Ash, Robin, Mike, Ramon, Gary, and Paul), all of whom were stronger and more experienced cyclists than me. It meant a LOT of time with my heart rate well into Zone 4, some seriously burning quads, many gasping/wheezing/snorting ascents, and more than a few prayers to the cycling gods to 'please stop it with the climbs.' But I had a unique opportunity to really test my limits as a cyclist by riding with REAL cyclists, so I took advantage. All week.

The boys- Gary (our humble leader), Ash, Paul, Robin, Mike

Just to add to the fun, pretty much every day included at least one climb, at 6-8% grade, that took between 50 and 80 minutes to complete. Long sustained climbs like that are completely new to me and I found them to be just a difficult mentally as they were physically. It was during the climb on the second day (16 kilometers, and cruelly, after we'd already ridden 3.5 hours), that I had my first real blow up. Three-fourths of the way up, pretty suddenly, my heart rate dropped like a rock and I just couldn't turn over my legs anymore. I panicked a little....we weren't doing an out and back, and my options for getting home were: 1) somehow get up the mountain; or 2) somehow get up the mountain. Neither seemed feasible at the time.

Fortunately, I had an emergency gel in my pocket, and a little stop, eat, and regroup helped. I got home. Barely. It was my first real bonk, and I doubt I'll forget it anytime soon.

This is actually during a long run that I don't want to talk about.

But while the cycling was scenic, challenging, invigorating, exhausting, etc., in a lot of ways the highlight of the week was quality time with the Brits. Every dinner was a social event, with delicious concoctions prepared by Sarah, always accompanied by excellent Rioja, some homemade "pudding" (a generic Brit term for dessert), and lots of laughs.

In the end, I felt a bit a part of a family. A very funny, sarcastic, and quick-witted family. For six days, I hung on the boys' wheels, forcing myself to keep up, even once (gasp) beating all but one of them up a 14 kilometer climb. With Strava, those results are internet permanent, baby! But the boys didn't get angry, didn't make attempts to drop me, and only sorta joked about fiddling with my bike early in the morning so as to mess up my gearing and/or throwing tacks in my path. Instead, they were supportive in their own British, non-exuberant sort of way. ("Yeah, you did alright there" being the highest of praises).

In fact, Mike wants to work with me to devise a training nutrition plan that's based on sausages, and we're absolutely convinced this is the path to great success. If I stick to this plan, the stars align correctly and someday I manage to qualify to Kona, Mike said he'll be there on the side of the road with a big sausage sign. Robin's in, too....he'll show up the day before to chalk the road with a series of "comedy cock and balls." (Don't ask.) Basically, in some miraculous way, I found a group of British roadies humble and kind enough to be supportive of a female American triathlete. That's special. (And keep it quiet, k? They might all be shunned by their euro cycling clubs if their roadie friends find out.)

The whole gang
And there were lessons learned, of course. Mostly lessons about Britishness. Like....

  • If you possibly mention on your blog that one of the British chaps is from "near Scotland," well, that doesn't go over so well. No Brit wants to be considered close to Scotland, even if he DOES only live 120 miles away (that's far in British).
  • When it comes to talk about poop, well, there's no line. I spent six weeks last summer living with various 2-year-olds, so I thought I could handle the poop talk. Not so. There was a story told that involved Nepal, shit, and pigs, and it will haunt me for life. That's all I'm going to say about that.
  • Pudding means dessert. But black pudding is NOT a dessert. In fact, it's a sausage.
  • The word "tossing" means something very, very different in British. So Katie saying that she was going to toss her helmet, which she's had for 4 years and is a bit worn out, at the end of the trip.... that caused a few laughs. 
  • Exuberance is not the British way. Say the word "awesome" or the phrase "we got this!" early on in the week, and you will be mercilessly mocked (nicely) for the next six days. 
  • Nothing, absolutely nothing is more exciting or riveting to a group of Brits than motorcycle racing. 
  • If you hang out with a group of British roadies instead of triathletes, one of them might say, "if you want to eat something absolutely bloody horrible, try quinoa," and everyone else will agree. And you will feel completely, totally out of your element.
Overall, Katie and I had an amazing week with Gary, Sarah, and all our new cycling buddies. I needed a happy week among friends, and I got that. My body my never recover, but... totally worth it. It was AWESOME!!! (just a little exuberance, there, for the Brits) And yeah, I'm already plotting a return trip. I've got some Queen of the Mountain trophies left to win on Strava.

One day, we just climbed on through a cloud
A delicious Sarah creation

Sunday, November 11, 2012


Just a couple days ago, I was whining and complaining about being alone. Now, I'm sitting on a couch in the living room of a beautiful house in a Cadiar, a small town in the Las Alpujarras region in Southern Spain, in front of a fireplace, watching MotoGP (motorcycle racing, I'm gathering) with my friend Katie, six Brits, and two dogs (Chica and Pincho). Lonely no more!

For the next week, we're doing a bike "training week" with a company called Vamos Cycling. I honestly can't remember what combination of google search terms led me to this company, but I am so glad I found it. The back story (which I find incredibly inspiring): Sarah and Gary are a British couple that moved to Southern Spain several years ago to start a cycling holiday company. Basically, every week, they open up their home to a different group of traveling cyclists. Gary, an excellent cyclist, leads the group on 60 to 100 km. rides up and down the surrounding mountains. Sarah stays behind, cooking up delicious meals. It's a bit like joining a family....when not cycling or eating, everyone hangs out in the living room, watching the telly, reading cycling magazines, chatting and drinking tea. It's delightful.

"Here Lives A Cyclist." I want one.
In addition to me and Katie (a friend from my Ironman Wisconsin training group), this week's group includes four "chaps" from the UK: Mike and Ash, cycling club friends from Northern GB, near Scotland; Robin, now in London but previously from the North (who's doing his 4th trip with Vamos, quite the endorsement); and Paul, from near Oxford. In addition to being quite keen cyclists, these guys are absolutely hilarious. Mind you, with the Northern England accents and the group talk, half the time Katie and I can't make out anything they're saying, so we just smile and laugh. But the parts we understand are just the perfect combination of sarcasm and slapstick. With a fun almost Scottish, Lucky Charms leprechaun accent (see, e.g., Robin: "I do really enjoy riding me bike.")

Me and Katie pre-ride
And Katie and I are picking up some British customs, too. Just this morning, I tried marmite for the first time, with the support of the Brits. Didn't love it, but didn't hate it, might try again. Katie's trying to use civilized words like "spectacular" and "brilliant." The Brits, in turn, are quickly picking up Americanisms. Mike has found himself accidentally saying "awesome" several times. He got that one from Katie, and it amuses everyone when it comes out of his mouth. They find "phenomenal" to also be quite the laugh. As it was explained, Brits just don't generally have such enthusiasm or, thus, use for such "exuberant" terms.

Today was the first day of riding, and I can say, I have a hard time imagining a better place to cycle. The roads are smooth as silk, absolutely flawless. Traffic is minimal and friendly (Katie claims that a passing motorist stopped and cheered for her as she was climbing). The mountain views are so beautiful it becomes distracting at times. I love me some Colorado, but this place puts Colorado to shame. I'd take more pictures, but I was mostly trying not to crash.

Starting a long climb
We started with a "short" day today (a bit under 3 hours), but when you throw in an 9K mountain climb along with several other lengthy, granny gear ascents, it's still quite the workout, at least for this Chicago girl. And while the climbs certainly got the heart rate up, it was probably the descents that really showed me how far I have to go. I can (almost) hang with the guys on the big climbs, but as soon as we start going down mountain roads with switchbacks and blind turns, I grab the brakes and they pull away. But serious props to Katie, who had a very serious bike crash just before Ironman Wisconsin, did the race anyway, and is just now getting back outside on the roads. Last time I had a bad crash, it took me MONTHS to feel comfortable riding outside again, but she's flying down mountains like it's no big deal. Rockstar!

And now, until tomorrow....we rest (and watch the telly and eat and laugh with the Brits).

Post-Ride Chillin'