Monday, February 18, 2019

Winter Wild: Ascutney

It's been a long time since I participated in one of the Winter Wild events... dang, it's been a REALLY long time. Like, since before I moved away from New Hampshire back in 2011, I think (see old blog post here). I guess that's one of effects of moving south. That and having only hiked in the White Mountains once since then. Anyway, this past weekend I broke the dry spell with Winter Wild Ascutney, a 5K night race in east-central Vermont.

On February 16, Jen and I headed up I-91 to the mountain in late afternoon, and I signed up in time to allow myself a good mile-long warmup jog on a loop road at the base of the ski area. I also took a second warmup once I'd put my spikes on. It was pretty cold out, so the warmups were essential for getting me warm enough to consider removing my jacket. Which was totally the right call as you definitely don't want to be wearing too much once you start running up a ski slope.

Snow conditions were highly variable, with everything underfoot from bare ice to a few inches of powder to glazy crust over half a foot of super-soft fluffy stuff. Most of us opted to wear microspikes, though some wore nanospikes, Yaktrax, or snowshoes, and a few brave souls even didn't wear any traction at all (I have no idea how that could have worked). Normally you can choose to use all sorts of gear at the Winter Wilds, but no one was allowed to use skis here at this one since it was a night race and only the lowest portion of the slope was lit up. Headlamps were required the whole way.

 headlamps in the twilight

 that's me in all black near the right edge of the photo

and they're off!
(photos by Jen Garrett)

The start went off right at twilight. The crowd of about 90 racers surged up the slope towards the vague outline of the mountain looming above us in the darkness. Within about a quarter of a mile the leaders had sprinted well ahead of the pack, but most of us remained clumped together as we ran out of breath and slowed to a mere jog.

In retrospect I wish I'd spent a little extra energy to get further ahead here. I didn't have much more in me, but soon we hit a switchbacky section on narrow singletrack and the pace slowed significantly as many of us got stuck behind people who'd gone out too fast. I didn't want to go a lot faster, but I did want to go a little faster. A consolation, however, was that the sight of dozens of headlamps winding up the slope through the trees ahead, lighting up the snow as they went, was an absolutely gorgeous sight. Magical even.

Eventually we reached a long, steady, curving climb up ski slopes, and the line stretched out slightly. I passed a few people but then got passed by a few others, including a couple of awesome young kids (maybe 10 years old?) who were running up with their parents. My watch told me it took just over 20 minutes to climb the first mile. The traction was generally pretty good, though sometimes our feet slipped backwards and the occasional patches of glare ice were a bit disconcerting.

The climb continued, and the grade steepened slightly near the top. It felt like we'd slowed to a crawl. The top of the climb was about 2/3 of the way up the mountain; we began descending from it very quickly once we reached it. The descent was definitely faster, but it took some effort to ensure safe purchase even with the spikes. I could have run with wilder abandon, but I kept thinking about how I've been on blood thinners since November (full story behind that here), and I'm not looking forward to my first bloody injury on them. My second mile actually took 22 minutes.

The final mile was far and away the most fun. Most of it was on swoopy, switchbacking singletrack trail, and again it was a delight to see the lights ahead (fewer this time) bobbing through the woods below. It was a little hard to find the right way when we came back out onto ski trails (and viewing the Strava flyby video reveals a few wrong turns in this area), but I was keeping pace with a young woman named Paige and between the two of us we managed to stay on course with no time lost.

descending under the moon; that's actually me during a warm-up jog

I finished in just under an hour, and had a blast. Jen was at the line, shivering almost uncontrollably as it took me a bit longer than I'd estimated and she'd been standing out there in the cold night air for quite a while. She got some great (if a bit understandably grainy) shots of the start on her phone, though, and I'm really grateful that she was there to support me.

start and finish were at the base of the ski trails (upper left on the map)

There seemed to be a fairly boisterous social scene in the lodge at the end, but we left before the awards. I came in about mid-pack and had no chance of winning anything, but mostly we left because we were chilled and hungry and wanted to head to a restaurant on our way home (we ended up stopping at a place in Bellows Falls). Overall it was a very well run event and I have no complaints at all. If it's on again next year, I'd definitely consider going back for more!

Monday, February 11, 2019

a snowshoe half marathon

Yesterday I ran the Nor'easter Snowshoe Half-Marathon at Viking Nordic Center in Londonderry, VT. Jen came too, and ran the 10K race, and our friends Tom and Laure also did the half. Though it was sunny out, temps were in the teens and there was a steady breeze the whole morning, so it felt quite cold and never really felt like it warmed up much. We had run a 10K race there under similar conditions a few weeks before, however, and dressed accordingly.

finishing loop 3 at Viking Nordic (photo by Jen)

The half marathon was supposed to be 4 laps of a winding course around the Nordic center (with the 10K being about half that), but due to a communication mix-up that I won't dwell on here, the course markings got switched at the last minute and no one ran the first lap correctly. At the next intersection after the mis-marked one runners had to choose which way to go, and then again at the next one, etc. I was in a small cohort of runners with one guy in sight about 50 ft. ahead and the lead woman usually just out of sight around the next curve. I followed them, hoping they were following someone ahead of them who knew where they were going. It wasn't too be, though, and my first "loop" ended up being about 5 miles.

I admit, it felt a little frustrating to be out there climbing up and down steep hills not knowing whether we were even remotely on course, but fairly quickly I adjusted my attitude and tried my best to explain what seemed to be going on to one of the race directors. The faulty marking wasn't their fault, and they rallied and corrected the course as quick as they could. Some people used their GPS watches to adjust one of their loops, though it seemed like no one ended up with the same distance (though who ever does, trail racing?). I decided to just run my next 3 loops as designed, and ended up with a 14.25-mile half marathon. Oh well. We were all just out there to have fun anyway.

(loop 2 photos courtesy Nor'east Trail Runs)

I actually felt really good most of the way. I did need to make an unfortunate time-consuming pit stop after the first lap (TMI alert!), and my energy gel break after the second lap took too long because I needed to cross an icy patch to get to my stuff, but my fitness seems to have returned (see previous blog post) and I never bonked. When I completed my third lap I passed by Jen and her phone camera at the start/finish line; she'd finished her 10K and was standing out in the cold taking pics of the other racers as they came in (getting pretty chilled in the process!). By mile 14 or so I was all alone out there, and I think I might have actually been the last person out on the course.

the first 5 miles are all loop 1

round and around them thar hills

starting out on the last loop, feeling good

I think that might have also been the farthest I've ever run on snowshoes, and I'm really pleased that I came away spent but not destroyed. I did sleep for 10 hours last night, though.

The race directors fully acknowledged the course-marking issue and actually went well out of their way to make it up to us. I'd still highly recommend making a trip to one of their events. The vibe is great, the swag is top-notch, and the snow conditions were and have been some of the best around this winter.

neato icejam scultpure along the West River
on the way home

medical stuff

At some point I need to write about a medical mystery thing that happened to me last year (because this is kind of therapy for me). As it's been an ongoing assessment, I've held off. Comprehensive answers have proven elusive. But recently a few of the component pieces have cleared up and I suppose now's as good a time as any to plunk down a synopsis.

So. The story so far:

In late summer of 2018, around Labor Day, I found myself experiencing a severe pain in my ribs and had trouble taking complete breaths. I even spent 2 nights sleeping upright in a recliner. I also developed a bad cough, and after a worrisome but inconclusive chest x-ray was treated for probable pneumonia. The prednisone made me feel better and I tried some runs, but the slightest uphill made me feel like I’d never run a single step before. It was a weird fall.

When I didn’t really get better after 5 or 6 weeks, I went in for a CT scan of my chest. On my drive home to Greenfield from Cooley-Dickinson in Northampton, I got a call from the head pulmonologist telling me to immediately turn around and go check myself into the ER. It turns out I had several blood clots and fluid buildup (pleural effusion) in my lungs. So that was a little scary.

me, hooked up to more wires than I generally prefer, and sporting some sweet hat-head hair

I have to note, the staff at the ER at Cooley-Dickinson was incredibly awesome, and they really made me feel like a rock star. Several of them recognized my name from the trail running guidebook, and I actually got asked, "so, are you THE Ben Kimball?" Day: made. Trail runners are my tribe, and they are AWESOME.

Between blood thinners, rest, and natural dissolving, the clots began to go away and by mid-November my recovery was well underway (though I still needed to go in for echoes, ultrasounds, a repeat CT scan, and a full-body bone scan). I ran a test "race" (the Ray Brown 9K for K9 at Wendell State Forest) that seemed to go OK. I started to monitor my estimated VO2 Max levels using my Garmin watch and the corresponding app (now I'm addicted), and the number was slowly but steadily inching its way back up from a level that might as well have been labelled "sad / rather mediocre."

The next round of scans looked promising. The clots were definitely shrinking on their own and the pleural effusion was shrinking. By the start of the new year I could run hills again, though I was stopping a lot to let my HR recover and make sure I didn't overdo it. So far so good. Today I feel pretty close to being back to normal, though I'm still carrying around some extra weight from all the lack of exercise in the fall.

Last week I had another follow-up chest x-ray and the pleural effusion appeared all but gone. Whew. I still have one more round of scans in another month, but for the moment it looks OK. The big question remains, though: why did it happen? There's no obvious answer. I take diggers occasionally while trail running, but I don't recall anything too acute last year. What I DO remember was hitting my chest with the corner of my car door, hard, when I opened it while parked on a slope. The door flew back at me and the sharp metal top corner hit me right in the side. Ouch. Maybe a fracture? Who knows. The bone scan didn't show anything conclusive. My blood didn't show any tendencies towards clotting and there's nothing in my family history. And I was told at my most recent visit to the hospital that I "have the vitals of a teenager" (which made me feel really damn good). 

So, an "unprovoked" blood clotting episode then. Basically for me that means that I get to be on blood thinners for life. Which is fine. I can deal with that. Better than the alternative of another clot. That said, I've already done what I do very often, cut myself on a briar while on a trail run, and this was how I bled for about half an hour: 

my blood is really watery and orange now, and even small cuts just won't stop bleeding

I'm not sure what happens next. I've got my fingers crossed that it was a one-and-done episode, but the case isn't closed just yet. Time will tell. Maybe.