Ever been frustrated by something you don’t understand? Me too. I suppose not everything in life is meant to be understood. We can wrack our brains with reasoning and dwell on a dozen possibilities as to why this and that occurred or didn’t occur and still come to no clear conclusion. Well, that’s where my brain was the day after the SciaccheTrail race. Frustrated. And I speak in past tense, “was frustrated” because after a day of muling over the details of my performance, I made peace with having no answer and chose to move on.

As a coach, I often advise my athletes to grab hold of every ounce of wisdom that can be gleaned from a race- whether it was a well executed, successful experience or a disaster. There are hundreds of moments in that single event that can reveal a little more about our strengths and weaknesses, ultimately propelling us to train better, race wiser, and grow not only in our sport but in our every day lives.

So was my race successful or a disaster? What did I learn about myself?

My race strategy had been carefully calculated. I studied every detail of the course. I knew exactly where I wanted to push the pace; where to power hike; which aid stations to stop at; and the amount of fuel I needed to run a strong race. I was confident in my training and tapering and I didn’t think twice about whether or not I could improve upon last year’s time. Last year’s race was a humbling disappointment. After making an amateur nutrition mistake, I spent some time digging holes in the woods in between paralyzing cramped adductors. It was both embarrassing and enlightening; but I chose to focus on the enlightenment and grow from it. So my return to SciaccheTrail was exciting; I was eager to test and push myself to new limits and I set high goals for myself:

A Goal: Win

B Goal: Break Female Course Record (5:55)

C Goal: Podium

 

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29ish miles, 11,000+ feet of climbing. (You can see my 2015 & 2016 race and course profile on Strava)

The Race

After a smooth flat 1k on the road, we began the first big climb; a steep mix of stairs, rocks and single track. Coach advised me to be aware of my heart rate, especially in the beginning. The next 3 miles was primarily climbing and I settled in with a group of men for a few stretches; they seemed to be keeping a strong and steady pace, and it was a good way to keep my effort in check. I frog-hopped with a few women, moving in and around 3rd and 4th place.

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The Start/Finish Line in Monterosso.

Coming out of the woods at roughly 3.7 miles, we hit a flat, fast road section. As planned, I took in my 4th gel, a salt tab, water and settled into a faster pace. I was now in 4th place and I kept my eyes fixed on the woman in the fuchsia top speeding just 40 meters ahead of me. My goal was to be in the top 3 by the time I reached mile 12.7; I knew if I ran smart I could push hard to the finish in the second half as the course played to a lot of my strengths.

Per usual, I continued talking to myself, “Run within yourself….watch your heart rate…patience…you got this…stay strong…check your form…eat every 27 minutes…don’t forget to drink…focus forward…forward…forward.”

Less than a mile on the road and we were confronted with a long, steep climb; I had closed the gap a bit on the woman in fuchsia; I noted her trekking poles and watched her chest heave as she moved aggressively up the trail. “You’ll catch her in the forest…be smart here…tall torso…quick feet…watch your heart rate.”

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Coming into Aid Station #2

I took in another gel, some dried baby bananas, a salt tab and more water as I climbed. My energy was good and my head was in a good space, but oddly my glutes and adductors felt off. It was a cold morning and I still felt like I was warming up so I concluded that my body was just adjusting- no biggie. I hit the top of the climb to find the second aid station, but I ran past it since I had been eating and drinking. The flat stretch on top treated us to a marvelous view of the ocean and land for miles around; it was breathtaking and I reminded myself to take it in as I ran…and just then, I felt it. The first cramp.
“Weird…I ate more than 700 calories before the race over the course of a few hours and I had been eating and drinking and taking salt consistently- stomach was great. Probably nothing.”

I kept talking to myself and ripped open another gel for good measure- just in case. I moved steadily along another road section, still noting the woman in fuchsia and still feeling strong…except now my hamstrings were starting to tighten. “What’s that? I’ll shorten my gait, maybe I’m just cold…can’t be dehydration; I’ve been drinking a ton the past couple days…I’ll drink more just in case.”

I didn’t give the legs anymore attention and hopped onto the next trail, passing a handful of men along the way. It was a winding, fun single track with a gorgeous view. I remembered loving this section last year and smiled as I ran. “You got this, stay calm.”

We hit another big climb and then made our way into the woods for a solid 3-4 miles of mixed trails: wide smooth segments, steep leaf covered climbs, and fun winding, technical single track. After a steep climb, we descended for a stretch and I finally passed the woman in fuchsia. We were roughly 11 miles in and I was now focused on getting to mile 12.7.

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My downhill happy place.

Then everything went bad. Both adductors (inner thighs) began taking turns seizing, then the shins, then the calves, then the hamstrings. I was pissed.

“What the heck is going on! There’s no way I was pushing too hard; I’m eating enough, taking salt, drinking….I’m not bombing the downhills…” I spent the next couple minutes frantically weeding through everything I knew about cramping and attempted every remedy: “Slow down…ease the effort…relax, relax…drink, eat, salt….relax, breathe…you got this.”

The woman in fuchsia passed me as I slowed, then a few men; I foolishly glanced behind me and saw another woman closing in. I felt my nose scrunch up and I took in a deep breath, “There is no way I’m having a repeat performance. This is ridiculous Sally, hold it together.”

Mile 14.8 and we hit another aid station. I shoved a handful of raisins into my pocket, drank two cups of Coke and noted the group of 5 runners coming to the table. I shook my legs and punched my adductors hoping to loosen them up before hopping back on the trail. There were a few sharp, rocky, steep descents, so I moved as best as I could, but my legs wouldn’t have it. I tried keeping my legs as straight as possible as I descended (yep, just picture that for a second.) I slowed to a weakening walk, again punching my legs and attempting to relax. I would jog for a few steps then walk, jog then walk, over and over. 100’s of mossy steps would take us down into the first city, Riomaggore and it was here that I was passed by another female. My mind began to plummet.

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“Maybe you didn’t train right….maybe you did go out too fast, now you’re paying for it. You didn’t eat enough carbs this week…your electrolytes are off….this is going to take you a couple hours to correct…you’re going to keep getting passed.”

I beat myself up for the next ten minutes, but somehow, a single thought helped me get out of it.

“You have been in this situation before…actually a couple times. Now change it! Change the outcome! You got this Sally! C’mon! Shut up legs, move…don’t think just move. Forward…forward.”

I climbed the hundreds of steps out of Riomaggore, weakly. Stopping often as both adductors and shins seized. But I kept telling myself that no matter how bad it got, there was still a lot of race to run and regardless if I could remedy the reason for my cramping, I still had the ability to fight…mentally and physically.

I focused on every single step; people cheered along the trail and in the streets but I barely responded; all my focus was on my lower body, “Stay relaxed, shorten your gait…no effort…breathe…keep eating…ease into this next step.” I allowed myself to celebrate every step that didn’t make my muscles stab and recoil. And I repeated, “You got this” over and over and over.

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Manorola

I descended into the next city and caught sight of a woman roughly 100 meters in front of me. I studied her gait and told myself that I would catch her. I needed to focus on something besides my legs; maybe a distraction would help for a few minutes. I awkwardly moved down the steps and into the city of Manorola. I knew I would see Christine (race coordinator/friend) at the aid station; I wanted to know exactly what place I was in. The woman in front of me was now only 20 meters ahead, and as I neared the aid station, I called out to Christine,
“What place am I in? 4th? 5th?”
“No, you’re in 6th place Sally.”
I didn’t want to hear that. I ran past the crowd and began the 1100 foot climb out of the city…all stairs. I dropped my eyes and immediately remembered last year’s race, it was here that my legs cramped mercilessly… and here it was happening again. There were over 1000 steps before me, and no more than 30 steps in, my legs revolted and I was forced to stand completely still. I let out my frustration audibly, “WHY?!” I could take pain…give me any pain, but there was nothing I could do when every muscle seized like this. I grabbed onto a rock next to me, thinking I could use my arms to help take me to the next step. Nope. I looked ahead for the 5th place woman, she was out of sight. I turned and looked below me, another woman was nearing. “Shut up legs!” And then that dreaded statement entered my thoughts,

“This just isn’t my day.”

I’ve said that in the past, maybe too many times. I don’t know where it comes from; or exactly what it means really. It’s apathetically accepting misfortune or disheartening challenges; mixed with permission to count my losses and move on. But, it never makes me feel good; and it always leaves me wondering,

“What if THAT WAS my day…my day was supposed to include letdown, surprise setbacks, and a little bit of pain. This IS my day…so now what?”

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So, right then and there I made the choice to accept exactly where I was,
“This is MY day and dammit I’m not finishing this race the same way I did last year!”

I gripped my thighs and firmly dug my thumbs into my adductors, (just like last year! ha!) I took a step- no cramping. I kept gripping my legs with every step, sometimes successfully easing the cramping and sometimes not. I ate all the raisins in my pocket, some more dried baby bananas and drank the rest of the water in my pack. I was now halfway up the steps leading into Volastra when I saw the 5th place woman. “Choose now Sally, you got this!.”

And for the next 7.5 miles, I made a thousand choices, regardless of the often paralyzing cramping that reduced me to a standstill or slow walking; I made the choice to be my best. With just a few dozen steps to get to Volastra, I caught the woman ahead of me; gritted my teeth and pretended to run strong past her. I hit the aid station, drank some Coke and focused on the next 4 miles. I loved this section and the day prior to the race I had told myself to smile when I arrived here because it meant I was close to the finish and it was a section where I knew I could run fast…or so I convinced myself.

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Entering Volastra

“You’re in 5th place, go get 4th…easy pace, stay relaxed, breathe, push when you feel good…forward…forward.”

I unsteadily descended into the next city, grabbed some more raisins, water, and Coke; and quickly climbed back onto the trail. I was on the hunt.

Fuschia. That was the color of her shirt; I hadn’t forgotten it since she passed me 14 miles ago; and now, coming around a tight corner, the landscape opened up; revealing a half mile of single track weaving in and out of the trees. I felt like a mountain lion scanning the terrain for her as I moved down the trail. There wasn’t much time left and as I descended into the last city, I figured I was somewhere around 2.5 miles from the Finish line. I was happy to see the aid station; my plan was to drink more Coke (it seemed to be helping a bit) and get to that Finish line. Just as I reached for a cup, I saw her… “Fuchsia!! OMG…she’s RIGHT THERE!”

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A few miles from the Finish line.

No more than 20 meters away and walking with two men, I kept my eye on her as I quickly guzzled my soda. I crept closer to her, hoping no one would reveal my presence. We were in the middle of the city and now climbing more steps to get back on the trail. 15 feet…10 feet…and then both men turned to see me. They looked at me then at her and before I wondered if they were going to alert her I made my move; gritted my teeth; and passed quickly on her left. I knew I surprised her and I again pretended to be strong until I knew I was out of her sight.

The next 2 miles seemed like an eternity. I was certain she would be nipping at my heels if I didn’t push as hard as I possibly could(she ended up finishing 2 minutes behind me), but I also knew in order to reach my “C” goal of getting on the podium, I still needed to pass one more woman. So I stayed in hunting mode; resisting the urge to look back (I did a couple times- but to no benefit). The cramping had subsided for a stretch, but my legs felt wobbly. With still a good amount of stairs to climb and descend, I was unsure how I would hold up.

Finally, the final 400 meters was in view; I could see the black blowup arch in the distance. I searched the final stretch for the 3rd place woman…no one.

I hit the road and ran with every ounce of strength left in me, smiling as I entered the finisher’s chute; barely leaping across the Finish line.

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JOY!

Christine embraced me as I let out a massive sigh of relief, “I fought so hard for that finish…what was my place again?”

“You got 3rd…”

And immediately tears came. A miscount earlier in the race had me believing I was in 6th, but in reality I hadn’t dropped past 5th. What a joyful surprise. I never thought I would be so proud of a 3rd place finish.

That was my best. That was everything I had. That WAS my day. It was the day set for me; a day to once again, train for the inevitable. A day that challenged me to ask, “Who are YOU when everything falls apart?”

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My 1st International Podium.

Conclusion

As with all my race reports, it is my hope that you gleaned a bit of encouragement and hope from my experience. I write not just for insight and advice for the runner, but for anyone facing a challenge in his/her every day life. When everything falls apart, don’t be tempted to discount it as, “Just not my day.” Rather, embrace it for all that it’s worth and grow. I am still perplexed as to what the true problem was for me, and I am at peace if I never know; I think that alone is a powerful lesson that I needed to learn. I may not understand all the challenges in life, and dwelling on those things is never positive. Sometimes it’s wiser to accept things as they are, do my best with what I got, and keep moving forward. My hope for YOU is that you find the strength to do the same, in ALL you do.
Thanks as always for taking the time to read, comment, and share.
Blessings and strength to YOU.

 

 
#WS100
86 Days. 18 hours. 7 minutes.
#ForwardWeGo

 

 

 

Special Thanks

Thank you SciaccheTrail and all its supporters for bringing me back to your beautiful country. I was, once again overwhelmed by your hospitality and kindness. I have fallen in love with the CinqueTerre and the people who live there and will be forever grateful for the opportunities you have given me to experience what you love so much.

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Heartfelt thanks to Nicola, Christine and Eugenio for taking care of me each day. I am so blessed to call you my friends. I miss you already.

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Thank you to my adopted Italian parents Paolo and Isa for inventing me into your home for many wonderful meals and loving company. Love and hugs to you!

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Thank you to Nike Trail for your continued support and for making sure I was geared up with the best!

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Author Sally McRae

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  • Dawn

    Inspirational . . every . . damn . .day 🙂

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  • Matthew Hoadley

    Thank you for taking the time to write the report. As a beginner with one Ultra under my belt I learn so much from you. As I prepare for second 50k and first 50 miler I will read this again. You continue to inspire me and are truly impressive. Good luck with the Western States training. God Bless you and your family.

  • Kate Simbeck

    Thank you for your honesty and all the hope and strength you infuse in me!!