Peanut Island 24 race report

“101.18 miles is a LONG way to go!”

The past year of running has been full of personal epiphanies.  In February, I accomplished something I never thought possible – a sub 13 hour finish at the 100 km distance at the Orange Curtain 100K.  In August, I went on a five-day running/camping trip on the Colorado Trail with the Adventure Running Company.  The “alone time” in the Colorado wilderness really helped me to get my priorities straight, and I finally made the decision to relocate WITH my husband to New England.  I’ll be making the move this coming summer.

Then, in September, I attempted a 100-mile trail run at the Rio del Lago 100 in Northern California.  I went into the race rested, well trained, and mentally prepared to finally FINISH a 100.  I had one prior attempt at the distance in 2008 at the Burning River 100, where I dropped due to horrible blisters around mile 75.  I felt confident that I would finish the race, come hell or high water.  Well, “hell” summed up this race attempt, as the temperatures were in the triple digits for much of the day!  By mile 24, I was already down by seven pounds due to extreme dehydration.  At mile 25, I began vomiting, once I began the stretch down the famous Western States trail toward No Hands Bridge.  I puked seven times in a row, not exactly good for someone who was already down seven pounds in weight.  Over the following seven hours, I took in exactly 200 calories and little fluids, while picking up my per-mile pace in order to make the mandatory cutoff times.  By the time I started feeling better, by mile 45 or so, the damage had been done.  I was hallucinating vividly; I thought I had a conversation with two green parrots dressed up in little pirate outfits on the Western States trail in the middle of the day, for example.  Again, not exactly good.  By the time I picked up my pacer, Jill, at mile 46, I was barely able to run, as my legs felt like absolute lead.  My 50 mile split was about 14:30.  This did not bode well for a 100 mile race with a 30 hour cut off.  Yet I trudged forward in a zombie-like march, completely despondent until Jill hooked me up with some real Coca Cola at an aid station.  Suddenly I was back to life and coherent, but too much time had passed.

At a certain point, maybe around 10 pm that night and 60 miles into the race, the reason I had been having so much trouble completing 100 mile events hit me like a ton of bricks.  Jill and I sat down on a rock and turned off our headlamps to look at the stars and I said, “That’s it.  I’m done being a vegan.”  I just knew that my restrictive diet was causing issues for me as an extreme endurance athlete.  I think I knew this intuitively for a long time before, as I’d suffered from horrible stomach issues during “shorter” ultra events for years, but I wasn’t really willing to face up to having to change my lifestyle.

I was pulled from the race at the 100 km aid station (mile 62) for being about 15 minutes over the cut off.  I had absolutely no regrets.  The next morning, Jill and I, along with our friend Jeri (who had been pacing another training buddy overnight), went to a Denny’s and I had a grilled cheese sandwich.  Once I returned to San Diego, I contacted Kim Mueller, a nutritionist at Fuel Factor.  She had been highly recommended by Jill, who had used Kim’s services while preparing for an Ironman event.  Before I met with Kim, I had to keep a food diary of everything I ate for three days. By this point, I was beginning to incorporate a little dairy into my diet, but had yet to eat any meat.  I thought I was “being good,” eating balanced meals, with a lot of recovery calories.  Yet when I finally met with Kim in person, I got a real wake up call.

“How many times have you run 100 km?” she asked.

Me: “Oh…a few…”

“I’m surprised you’re not dead.”

Whoa.  Really?  I thought this whole vegetarian/vegan thing was healthy, good for the environment, cool, hip, socially responsible.  Wrong.  I was extremely deficient in nutrients, was well under needed calories for the day (I was averaging somewhere between 1400-1500 calories a day while training at 50 miles per week on trails), had nowhere near the required amino acids needs to recover from events…consequently, I was packing on body fat, as my body was in perpetual starvation mode (gee, that explained the “muffin top” that kept expanding as my training miles increased), and my immune system was suffering (I had something like seven sinus infections within the first nine months of 2010).

As scared as I was to face my “food issues,” I followed Kim’s diet plan exactly.  I began incorporating lean meats into my diet, along with dairy and eggs, and learned about what it meant to eat a balanced diet for the first time in over twenty years.  Yes, I had been a vegetarian since 1989, and a STRICT vegan for the final eight years until 2010.  As a result of the change in my diet, I lost 8.5 pounds of body fat (almost the equivalent of two shoeboxes)…a reduction from 26% body fat to a lean 20%.  I also lost about three inches off of my waist, went down two pants sizes…all while eating more than I ever had before, and enjoying life and food for the very first time.

Shortly after my DNF at Rio, and my “food epiphany,” I signed up for the Peanut Island 24 hour race, largely as an experiment to see how I would do at a longer ultra on my new nutrition plan.  Timed events are great for first-timers, and for slower runners, as you don’t have the pressure of cut off times like you experience during 100 mile trail events.  You can run as much or as little as you please.  Many runners bring tents, and nap during the event, while others will move slowly, walking, throughout the entire time period.  I had participated in one 12-hour race in 2008 (the Lake Merritt 12 hour in Oakland), where I completed about 50 miles in 10:38.  Although I did well at Lake Merritt, finishing in the middle of the pack, I suffered greatly from stomach issues, and probably spent at least 30 minutes in the port-a-pot.  I was hoping to avoid this sort of thing at Peanut Island.

Peanut Island was a really cool locale for a closed-course, timed event.  It’s a manmade island in the channel between West Palm Beach and Palm Beach, Florida.  There’s not much on the island except for a house that was used as bunker for the Kennedy family during the 1960s.  The island is accessible only by boat.  It has amazing views of coastline, hosts a wealth of bird and marine life, and is generally representative of unspoiled Floridian beauty with its white, sandy beaches.  The race itself took place over New Year’s Eve/Day, so the weather was perfect…low to mid-70s with a breeze right off of the water.  Gorgeous!

The race start was scheduled for 10 am, but I wanted to arrive early to find a place to set up my supplies near the aid station, so I took one of the earliest water taxis over to the island at about 7:30 am.  Once on the island, I located a table under a canopy right next to the main aid station at the start/finish area.  All I had with me was a tiny carry-on size suitcase, with a single change of clothes for post-race, a Tupperware box filled with Gu’s, my blister kit, and two iPods.  Shortly after setting up my supplies, a few other runners asked to share my table – Noel and Lynne Hanna from Northern Ireland (!), and Garth Peterson (who has done a bunch of these events).  Garth’s wife, seeing that I had no crew, offered to help me out if I needed it.  I think I was one of the few runners who was completely alone out on the island!  I have to admit that I was pretty intimidated at the starting line, because a lot of runners looked like they had professional crews, along with big tents, rolling coolers, portable barbeques…and here I was with my little suitcase all by myself.  I socialized with my tablemates until the start, where I lined up at the back of the pack, fully expecting to start in last place as I normally do (and where I normally finish).

Once the start sounded, everyone took off like a pack of rabbits.  I walked for the first five minutes, letting everyone else go by, and then started in on my run/walk routine that I would hold for MANY hours.  Prior to the race, I had barely run a step for about five weeks due to some nasty plantar fasciitis symptoms.  All I cared about was moving for the full 24 hour time period…I had no mileage or placing goals.  I just wanted to have fun, keep moving, stay positive, enjoy the beautiful weather and scenery, and see how my nutrition would work; I thought this would be perfect preparation for another 100 mile attempt sometime in the distant future.

With my run/walk method of 4:1 and 3:2 (in minutes run/walked), I was able to hold around a 12 minute pace for the first 50 km.  During that time period, my husband kayaked out to the island to say hi.  It was pretty hilarious running around the 1.23 mile loop, over and over again, seeing Jason about every 15 minutes in his little sea kayak.  Eventually (right around my 30 mile mark), he found a table by the beach and called his mother, who I talked to on his cell phone for a few minutes before heading back out onto the track!  Then I updated my facebook page at the aid station as well…just had to keep everyone posted.  It was at that point that the time keeper told me I was currently in second place.  WHAT??!!  I seriously thought he was kidding, as I’m usually in LAST place.  But, it gave me motivation to keep moving forward.  Jason left before I could pass on that news…

After the 30 mile point, I was feeling great.  I kept hammering out the miles at a consistent pace.  Most of my run intervals were at around a 9:45-10:00 per mile pace, with relaxed walk intervals following.  I didn’t feel tired at all.  I was eating normally – I had two grilled cheese sandwiches, some Little Debbie oatmeal cream pie snack cakes, a bunch of Gu’s, lots of Cheez-It’s, chicken noodle soup…and everything was staying down.  For the first time, I wasn’t puking (or pooping) my guts up during a race!  What a difference!  Somewhere around mile 40-45, I was told I had taken the lead.  I passed the 50 mile split around the 10 and a half hour mark…nice and steady, and still feeling good.  Everything went uneventfully following that, and my mile splits were staying nice and even through about the 65-70 mile mark.

By this time, it was around 14 hours into the race, my iPods were dead, midnight and the New Year’s festivities were passing away along with the beautiful fireworks, and my wheels just fell right off.  By mile 80, I felt like absolute hell!  My stomach was rebelling (I became incredibly nauseous, but never threw up, thankfully!), and not many people were left out on the race course, except for us die-hards that were set on either completing a full 100 miles or staying out there for the full 24 hours.  My run/walk ratios had become much less consistent, and I was lucky to be able to do a two minute run/three minute walk.  The running time continued to dwindle until about mile 85, and by that point, it was more of a “just run to that lamp-post” kind of mental game.

Even though the night running was incredibly painful (and words simply cannot describe how painful this way, believe me), the time was uplifting in other ways, namely in terms of socializing with the other runners on the course.  I got to experience Mary Gorski and Nikki Seger (two names I recognized from the ultralist) singing tunes, ran a lap or so with Brad Compton (a super nice guy who finished third overall), exchanged fist-bumps with Dave Carver (a proud Canadian who won the race), and heard lots of “atta girls” from the ever-upbeat and smiling Bonnie Busch (who finished as the first woman, and who is a very experienced 24 hour runner).  Bonnie especially encouraged me throughout the night; I’ve seen her name on many racing results at the front of the pack and I couldn’t believe I was holding my own with athletes of her caliber!  I also saw my tablemates Noel, Lynne, and Garth occasionally out of the course…still moving forward as well.

Over the night, I told myself about a thousand times that I was done.  I’d sit down, and say to myself, “OK, I’m just going to rest for about fifteen minutes.”  Then I’d look at my watch, and get up again after about two or three minutes and keep on plugging ahead.  I don’t think I rested for longer than three minutes during the entire event, including bathroom breaks (and there were many of those, as I was keeping up well with my hydration!).

Yet somewhere around lap 72, I knew I only had ten laps remaining to achieve that elusive 100 mile belt buckle, and barring some major disaster, I knew I could walk it in and still get that 100 miles in less than 24 hours.  At that point, I didn’t care at all what place I was in…that honestly never mattered to me.  I felt pretty weird leading the women, I have to admit!  Once the sun came up, I felt like a new person, even though I could barely shuffle and was limited to a slow powerwalk.  Another runner said to me, “This is the time for miracles.”  So true!  Shortly after dawn, I walked a lap with a nice guy named Will, who was also doing his first 24 hour event.  He was amazed that I had kept moving all night; he said he had taken a nap in his tent for a while.  That’s probably why he was able to run ahead after a lap!

The laps kept counting down…10, 9, 8…then 4, 3, 2…and FINALLY, 1 lap to go to reach that 100 mile mark!  Actually, after 81 laps, I was at 99.9 miles…which I thought was kind of cruel and unusual.  I was still in first place at that point, but Bonnie Busch passed me sometime within that final lap.  I met up again with Will during the final lap, along with another guy (sorry, can’t remember his name, but he was nice and had a great sense of humor!).  They paced me through my final lap.  When I saw the start/finish area, I started running again.  I crossed the timing mat, to absolutely no fanfare whatsoever, and promptly fell down on the grass.  I couldn’t move another step.  101.19 miles in 23:11.  In the final hour, Bonnie completed two more laps than me (plus a little more) and ended up with the win with a little over 104 miles.

I finished as the second place female, and sixth place overall.  I received a cool, little trophy/plaque at the awards ceremony, which I will treasure forever!  And I got my 100 mile belt buckle…it’s being engraved with my name and mileage right now.

I can’t believe I accomplished what I did…and then I try to get up and walk (now two days later) and I realize…yep, I did run over 100 miles.  Still couldn’t get my feet into regular shoes today!

I learned so many lessons throughout the training and racing process for the Peanut Island 24:

1. Extreme diets are bad.  A moderate diet may not sound sexy or trendy, but it really is the best thing for your body.  Eat what you want in moderation, treat yourself occasionally…just chill the hell out when it comes to food!

2. Don’t take everything so damn seriously.  I kept stressing that my weekly mileage wasn’t high enough (oh no…I wasn’t regularly cracking 50 miles per week…horror of horrors!).  It’s really about enjoying yourself, staying positive, and just putting in some decent time on your feet consistently over the long haul.

3. You don’t need to be high maintenance in terms of racing.  I didn’t need a 5 person “crew”/cheering squad, fancy arm warmers or compression socks, custom sports drinks, minimalist shoes, blah blah blah!

4.  There are other things in life besides running.  As much fun as I had at this event, I’m really looking forward to an extended off-season filled with things I don’t normally have time to do.  Maybe I’ll surf more, take a spinning class, go for some hikes instead of 20+ mile death marches in the mountains, etc.  But, I will be back.  I think Tim Noakes is right in his book “The Lore of Running” when he says that you really can’t race at your optimum level for years and years on end.  Again, everything in moderation.  Isn’t that the lesson for pretty much everything?  Enjoy life.  Don’t stress.  It’ll all be OK.

Last comments…just want to offer special words of thanks to:
Bob Becker, the RD, and his wife, who manned the aid station and made the best grilled cheese sandwiches EVER, along with your timing guy (sorry, can’t remember his name) who was a great cheerleader
Noel and Lynne Hanna, and Garth Peterson and his wife…thanks for being a little support crew out there!
Bonnie Busch and Sue Ellen Trapp, who were so encouraging out on the course.  You ladies ROCK!!!
Will, who ran the final lap with me.  Congrats on your 70 miles.
All of the runners out there with kind words, songs, and smiles.
My training buddies in San Diego: Jilly, Jeri, Jen, Paul, Charla, the crew from RDL100…love you all.
My wonderful husband, Jason.  I love you!  Thanks for letting me “be me.”

3 responses

6 01 2011
Bob Becker

Thanks for writing such a great story, and congratulations, again, on your terrific performance. You SHOULD be extremely proud. Suzanne and I appreciate the kind words, too.
Enjoy your recovery. Eat that hot fudge sundae–what the heck!
Happy New Year to you and yours,
Bob Becker

17 04 2011
jarrod dale

I’m interested in what you learned about the balanced diet. I’ve had stomach issues on runs before too. my runs aren’t as long as yours, but still . . .

I’ve just finished reading all the entries on your blog. Great job on the 24 hour. I think I’ll make my first ultra maybe an 8hour. 🙂

Looking forward to more entries.

18 04 2011

Thanks for the comment. I’m convinced a balanced diet makes all the difference, based on my experience.

Good luck on your first ultra!

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