Determination & The Arizona Trail FKT

I’m on the Hi-line trail, an oasis high up in the middle of the mountain, surrounded by red rock.  I had just hiked through a wonderland, someplace you would find only in your imagination, a magical place.  I was on day 7 of my Arizona Trail and things were most definitely not going to plan (the night before I was running for my life through a prescribed burned area thinking I was going to die a fiery death! But let’s not focus on that ).  Still, I couldn’t help but smile.  The sun was shining and I was surrounded by mother nature’s glory.

I had set out to achieve the overall supported Fastest Known Time (FKT) on the 800 mile Arizona Trail with 110,000ft Gain and Loss.  At the time this was 15 days, 13 hours and 10 minutes.  I had only started running 4 years previously at the age of 39 after quitting the Corporate World of 22 years, and trail and ultra running 2 1/2 years ago.

Rewind 6 days, I suddenly developed excruciating pain in my left knee whereby it pulled me up short and I couldn’t run on it for any long periods of time.  Most of my rim to rim down in the Grand Canyon was fast hiking.  This was only day 2 and 65 miles in to my 800 miles journey.  Day 3, I couldn’t run at all.  Day 4, I could shuffle for short bursts and this has been the way of it up to and including today, day 7.  I couldn’t bend my knee, so any small rock on the trail was a challenge to overcome.  If any of you are familiar with the Arizona Trail you’ll know that very little of it is smooth!

I was determined to keep up with my mileage, so this meant I had yet to finish a day in the sunlight despite starting at 4am each morning.  It also meant that sweet rolling trails were like torture, glinting at me with their seductive promise of smooth running when all I could do was a hop, skip and a shuffle longing to be able to run, to lose myself in its fluidity but instead was gritting my teeth with the pain, watching the hours tick by as I gamely continued putting one foot in front of the other.  With every passing hour all I could think about was the sleep I would be losing with every footstep.  The nighttime hours felt like I was on a treadmill, the trails seemed endless and repetitive with no sense of perspective, not being able to see far ahead in the pitch black, only the immediate illumination of my night lights.

It was my pacers that I felt sorry for, out with me for many more hours than they had signed up for or expected.  Not one uttered a word of complaint though, only encouragement and smiles expressing their gratitude to be part of my journey.

So, where were we?  Oh yes on the Hi-line trail, day 7, 300 miles in.  I have to also mention at this point that I spent months planning this; the route, access points, maps, terrain, gear required, mileage breakdown, food etc.  Knowing that once we got started I would be in no fit state to be in control, I needed a crew chief that I could hand over all this information to and be free to do what I needed to do, which was run, safe in the knowledge that I had someone in charge who knew what the score was.  As it was I couldn’t find a single someone that was able to take 2 weeks off work, but I found the next best thing which was a group of 4 very capable people who had bravely accepted the responsibility (although please note that up until the night before I started I still had 1 chief missing!!!) 

Unfortunately, due to illness, other commitments and various mishaps, these 4 actually turned into 9 different chiefs, of which 5 hadn’t been briefed properly due to being last minute stand ins (but thank goodness they stepped up) which ultimately resulted in a few comedy of errors, which looking back now helped me shift perspective, roll with the punches, focus on what was really important and fun the heck of it out there bathing in the love and friendship of those who were supporting me.

Oh yes, so I’m up there on this trail, I’ve been struggling for 7 days, I’m dog tired, I have had chief stand ins for the last 3 days, I was spending too long at crew stops and my knee was still hurting.  BUT I was still moving, I hadn’t missed any miles and I was still on plan, JUST.  My coach wanted to speak to me, my current crew chief who has zero running or ultra experience was very anxious.  I just kept on moving, eye on the prize.  Miraculously I had cell service so I called my coach.  He says, we are worried about you.  Your knee hasn’t fixed itself, you could be causing it long term damage.  You’ve been spending much longer hours out there on the trail and you’re not sleeping.  It doesn’t look like you’re going to make the FKT, maybe you should consider stopping?  If I said I was flabbergasted it would be an understatement.  WTF???!!! Where was this coming from?  It had taken all my strength up to this point to keep moving forward, to not let the demons win.  I was like, heeeeeell, no!  Are you kidding me?  Even if I have to drag myself to that finish line I am determined to make it.  Unless I drop down and die, then ok I might allow that as an excuse.  But really that would be the only reason I could think of that would justify me not finishing.  I calmly explained that I was still hitting my planned mileage and my knee may fix itself yet.  He said ok, but at least think about what might happen if you don’t hit the 15 days, you’ll have to come up with a new plan.  It was a shift in my mindset that was worth taking into account, but for me it wasn’t about the planning or re-planning it was the shift to take a breath and to figure out what was really important here, what was my motivation and ultimate goal.  When it came down to it, the overall FKT wasn’t the be all and end all for me.  This was something to aim for and something to plan around.  Finishing it was my number one priority, savouring the experience, having fun (yes to most of you this would probably be type 3 fun!) and celebrating my support team (of whom ultimately I had 40 members throughout the 800 miles).  So I hung up letting go of being shitty with my support team trying to save minutes to achieve the overall FKT in favour of celebrating their love and support and feeling grateful to have these people in my life who were helping me achieve this HUGE thing.  I also came away, thinking F**K YOU, not finish??  I don’t think so buster, and you’d better believe it I’m getting to the end of this trail, no matter what.

The overarching theme?  DETERMINATION.  GRIT.  PASSION.  Without these, I could have given up on numerous occasions and no one would have thought any less of me.  But the thing is, I didn’t want to give up.  I wasn’t looking for a get out of jail free card.  I wanted to succeed and ultimately this is what got me through to the end.  This and the love and support of my people.  Even with hour after hour the demons in my head telling me “You’re so slow”; “You’re so tired”, “You’re never going to make it”; I was able to knock them right out with “I’m doing great”; “Just keep moving”; “Take each step”.  Of course this meant I had no peace the entire 17 days, the mental fortitude required to stay strong and keep positive was relentless.  I wasn’t even getting any decent amount of sleep with which to restore my levels.  It was draining.  Normally trail running for me brings me peace.  It is my meditation time, where I reach decisions from my subconscious, I spark ideas, I find calm.  This was the polar opposite.  Every day for 20 hours each day my mind was working hard to keep me focused, to achieve my goal.  My body was on auto pilot and to be honest, physical capabilities were the least of it.  It was all a mental game, when you came down to it.

I made it in 17 days, 11 hours and 3 minutes setting the women’s record for supported FKT.  I slept for 4 days straight and 3 months later I am still on the road to recovery, mentally but that’s a story for another day!

First published in Trailsisters on 11th February 20200

The Importance of Planning your Recovery

It’s two and a half months since I ran 800 miles and set the supported Fastest Known Time (FKT) for women on the Arizona Trail (AZT) and today is the day that I completed my first long-ish run since then. It’s been a long and tortuous road to get to this point.

I wishI should havewhy didn’t I?”… I try to quell these negative thoughts as I know I can’t do anything about the past, I can only focus on the here and now. I can control only what I do from this step forward. I needed time to heal and recover and there was no formula to tell me how much time or no manual to tell me the best way to do this. Plus everybody is different, there is never one size fits all. I know I shouldn’t be so hard on myself, I did the best I could with the knowledge I had at the time.

I chalk it up as another learning experience, which seems to be continuous within the field of running ultras. I have learned so much from these long distances about life, my body, running (obviously), health, nutrition, and my mindset. I never fail to learn something whether it is from a training run, a race, a workout or from the community.

When preparing for a race, the majority of my time is focused on training & nutrition. The closer to race day I’ll start planning for the event itself, but I have never spent any decent amount of time considering my recovery. I have bumbled my way through it and although sometimes brutal, on the whole, it has been short-lived and I have been back at it before any real damage has been done and the training has commenced for the next race.

My recovery after the Arizona Trail was a complete mess. I was empty both in body and mind. I slept for four days out of physical exhaustion, but to be honest, that was the least of my worries. After two weeks my body was feeling back to normal. It was my mind that needed help. I felt so lost. I had gone from having round the clock support to being on my own, from being single-mindedly focused on achieving a goal to having no purpose, from movement to inertia, from outdoors to indoors, from healthy eating to emotional eating, from smiling and being sociable to staying in my bedroom.

I have tried very hard over recent years to listen to my body, to be kind to myself, to celebrate all the great things it allows me to do. I try not to over-analyze every emotion I have and to just go with how I’m feeling, to allow myself to feel down because this is part of life and healing.

However, as the days progressed, the depression got worse and the self-doubts kicked in. I felt like I was going round in circles with no way out. I tried every so often to pull myself out and found the energy to make contact with friends to force myself to go outside, as I knew it would do me good. I signed up to do talks about my adventure in hopes that by talking about it, it would help me to process my thoughts and clear my mind. These things did help, but then I would slip back into my hole quickly afterward.

At what point does recovery turn into depression or laziness and lethargy? I sit here after my long run with chafed thighs feeling like a fat dumpling with my mind full of “I wish I hadn’t let myself go,” “Why didn’t I maximize on my fitness after 17 days on the trail?” “I should have stopped myself from eating all those cookies and forced myself to run sooner.” Hindsight is a wonderful thing and of course, I was not in a position to have done any of those things in the weakened emotional state that I was in. But maybe, just maybe, if I had planned for my recovery, things could have taken a more positive turn and I would be here celebrating instead.

So, what can I do differently next time, how will I plan my recovery?

Support Network 

I will give my friends a heads up for what’s coming and ask them to check in on me, and if needed, even come fetch me from my house. I will plan in some play dates in advance so even if I am suffering from the blues and not feeling motivated post-race, there is already something in the diary to force me out of the house.

Active Recovery 

I will plan some kind of activity – a walk/hike, biking, swimming, yoga (you can choose whatever floats your boat) to get me moving again, as much for my soul as well as my body. This might be one of the play dates I plan in, to encourage me even when I am not be feeling like it. I know I always feel better moving my body than I do when I have been lying on the sofa for hours on end. When I’m feeling low it’s difficult for me to take those steps regardless of what I know to be true!

Go Outside 

It’s easy for me to want to relax and binge watch TV on the sofa, especially after expending a big effort from training and the race itself. I deserve it, right? And while that will feel great for a day or two, anything more than that is unlikely to have a positive impact for me. I know that what will make me feel better is to go outside and enjoy nature, even if it’s just sitting outside in the garden or on the porch.

Sleep 

I know I always feel loads better when I have had a good night’s sleep. If possible, I won’t plan any early morning appointments so I can let my body wake up naturally, telling me it’s had enough or I’ll go to bed earlier so I maximize the time allowed for sleeping to reap the restorative benefits on both my mind and my body.

Reward 

What have I been dreaming about through my training – a meal out, a massage, a breakaway? I’ll plan it in advance so I have something to look forward to.

Meal Prep 

I’ll prepare some food in advance of my race so I’ll have some healthy and enjoyable meals ready to eat when I’m feeling too tired to shop or cook. Hopefully, this will limit the need or desire to buy that packet of cookies or get that fast food meal and help me maintain a healthy lifestyle and not completely fall off the wagon.

Goals 

I had spent two and a half years focusing on my running goals leading up to the AZT and hadn’t thought much past this. Mainly because I wanted to take the time to process what I had learned and how I felt after doing something so huge, to see in what direction it might take me. The downside to that was I was left feeling quite bereft with nothing to anchor me after I had finished. I had a lot of question marks in my life about what was next and didn’t have the mental strength or positive energy to find a solution or path to take. For me to lead a healthy and balanced life I have come to realize it doesn’t work for me when I just focus on one area of my life. I quit the corporate world after 22 years as this was driving all my decision making, was my sole focus and I needed more in my life. I embarked on a journey of self-discovery and discovered my passion for running at the later age of 39 and then this quickly became my primary driver. I need to have a plan and goals for all areas in my life including work, running, other hobbies, friends, family, community and my health. So that when one goal is achieved, I have others to focus on and look forward to.

I understand that running two marathons a day for 17 days is rather on the extreme end of the scale but when it comes to personal challenges, these are all relative to the individual and I sincerely believe some form of a recovery plan will come in handy regardless of the size and scale.

How has my recovery journey progressed? It’s been a steep learning curve but with the help and support of my friends, together with my mental fortitude, has enabled me to recharge my batteries and fight my way through the fog to feel human again. The future no longer looks bleak and complicated and I feel excited and grateful to have a world of opportunities ahead of me. I can’t wait to see what this next chapter in my life will bring. No doubt there will be more big challenges, as I like to continually push myself outside of my comfort zone, but also some more balance.

This story was first shared on TrailSisters on 25th March 2020

2 weeks to go

Butterflies in my stomach

Zombie land. That’s where I am living right now. Peak training complete, now on the final straight. I can’t believe after months of thinking about it, that I actually pushed the button in the beginning of July, and now I have arrived. I am both terrified and excited at the same time. This is real. This is happening.

I will be running North to South (so right to left)

I am attempting to set the Fastest Known Time on the Arizona Trail. Me. Is this madness? stupidity? I hope not. 800 miles. Continue reading 2 weeks to go

2 months and counting

I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised when my coach suggested I fast-hike a 12 hour running race. To say I was not enthused by the idea would be an understatement. I positively rebelled to begin with but then slowly appreciated his wisdom, given that a sizeable chunk of my Fastest Known Time Attempt (FKT) on the Arizona Trail (AZT) is likely to be fast-hiking. Continue reading 2 months and counting

T-3 months

Pushing the button

So, I pushed the button and set the date. There’s no going back now. I am giddy with excitement and nervous with apprehension. I have often found myself in life changing situations, not quite knowing how I have got there.

I have created opportunities, sometimes life events have happened to me and others, I have had the good fortune to be presented with an opportunity that I have then chosen to take. It’s these series of events that have led me to where I am and the person I am today. Continue reading T-3 months

803.5 miles Arizona Trail Fastest Known Time Attempt

On Thursday October 17th I will be beginning my attempt to set the Supported Fastest Known Time (FKT) on completing the 803.5 miles of the Arizona Trail from the Southern Border of Utah to the Northern Border of Mexico, with over 110,000 feet of vertical gain and 110,000 feet of loss. The current FKT (which was Unsupported) was set by Jeff “Legend” Garmire and stands at 15 days, 13 hours and 10 minutes. Continue reading 803.5 miles Arizona Trail Fastest Known Time Attempt

Me vs The Bighorns

My first 100 mile race

Bighorn – (as per their website) a tough contender in the ultra-world boasting its name on the top 10 most difficult ultras in the nation. We met with Mother Nature to custom design a challenging course: full of steep climbs, difficult down hills, shoe sucking mud, and relentless technical terrain leading you to spectacular views with a possible wildlife encounter here or there.  Participants, be prepared to endure extreme ever-changing mountain weather conditions and temperature variations. Mother Nature provides over 20,500 feet of ascent and 20,750 feet of descent testing the most seasoned ultra-runners with 76 miles of technical single-track trail, 16 miles of rugged 2-track jeep trail road, and 8 miles of gravel road. Continue reading Me vs The Bighorns

#greecelightning and 100 miles

After successfully completing my first marathon, the Athens marathon, I set my sights on the next most important thing in my life…my approaching 40thbirthday and the celebrations that would ensue. I travelled around the world from Hong Kong to North America, onwards to Europe and Argentina, celebrating with best friends and adventuring in new parts of the world.  Of course, I continued running, as this was now part of my lifestyle, but with no particular goal in mind.  Once I had safely transitioned into my 40thyear it was time to take some action and decide where I wanted to lay my hat. Greece was still pulling me but this time back to my hometown, my heart, my Crete.  A small business opportunity helped with the transition into my new life and so it began in a small fishing harbor called Chania on the west side of the island.  From the moment I stepped off the plane, a wave of peace and joy swept over me, together with the hot summer air of course.  I was home! After a few weeks of settling in, I started asking around about where to run, and I was soon introduced to the local running community.  Shy at first, I was very nervous about running with actual runners…who was I after all?  Such a newbie, only trained by myself up until now, how would I compare?  Continue reading #greecelightning and 100 miles