Tuesday, July 22, 2014

A Weekend in Ajijic

As I sit here in a sleepy haze, it is hard to believe that I woke up in the Hotel Danza Del Sol yesterday morning. But then I try to get up from my chair and my throbbing quads remind me that it wasn’t a dream. This weekend I had the opportunity to re-visit a very special place and re-run what was one of the best races of my mountain running career.

Ajijic at a glance. Photo Richard Bolt.

Just as I was ready to embark on my adventure to Ajijic, Mexico for the 2014 NACAC Mountain Running Championships, I received a phone call from a very talented reporter from the Bellingham Herald. Thanks to my very sweet BDP (Bellingham Distance Project) teammates, he was interested in doing a write-up on the pending race. You can find his article here

Only in Ajijic are there dogs on the roof.
Ajijic is exactly what comes to mind when you think of a small Mexican town in the mountains. Nestled between Lake Chapala and Mountain Chupinaya at just over 5,000 feet above sea level, it is home to over 10,000 natives and American and Canadian ex-patriots. After spending now two occasions there, it is easy to see why so many ex-pats call Ajijic home. The weather is mild, the people are genuine and the landscape is beautiful.

Tad and I met Richard and Nancy in the Houston Airport on Friday afternoon. After an hour delay and a 2 hour flight, we landed in Guadalajara getting dumped with buckets of rain. A local American volunteered to pick us up and drive us 45 minutes south to Ajijic. Our team all arrived safely and we convened at a pizza shop at about 9:00pm with our hosts and race directors, Ivan, Ricardo and Karla. Pizza and cerveza came out of the kitchen one after the other. It was delicious.

Surprised with 1200 pesos from setting the C.R. 3 years ago.

Me and my friend, Jambo.
I woke up Saturday morning with a stiff back and tight calves so I headed out for a jog to regain some sense of normalcy. I jogged down the cobblestone streets to Lake Chapala where locals were setting up shop, walking their dogs and swimming. There is such a calm presence in this town that makes it hard to be stressed out or anxious. I need to come here more often.

Karla picked us up for breakfast and drove us to a spa resort just outside of town. We toured the grounds which featured exotic flowers, serene massage houses and the most enticing steam baths you can imagine. Our appetites were ready for breakfast. Fruit, yogurt, granola, croissants, bread, scrambled eggs, beans, tortilla chips, fresh squeezed orange juice… So. Good.  After checking out the first kilometer of the course, the rest of the day was all about resting, stretching and preparing for the colossal effort that was to come in the morning.

View from the breakfast table.
Sleeping wasn't always easy as there constantly seems to be something going on. Loud random noises interrupted my naps and piqued my curiosity. During the day loud bomb-like noises would go off that sounded like the canons in the Hunger Games that signal a fallen tribute. They were dropping like flies on Saturday. At night rave-like chants could be heard into the wee hours of the night with the beat of club music.

Me and Amber hydrating after the race.
The race can be divided into four parts: the ascent, the ridge, the descent and the cobblestones.  Ivan announced the Mexican and American team members and with the blast of a flare, we were off. I wanted to start out more aggressive than I did 3 years ago because I remember the course being so bottlenecked as we funneled into the tight single-track, that I had to stand and wait my turn to get up and over some of the rock barriers. I managed to dodge all of the congestion and started the 3.6 mile climb up Chupinaya. Brandy passed me at 1.5 miles and continued to power her way up and over the massive boulders. I worked together with the Mexican men surrounding me to keep pushing the pace and grind it out. There were many water stops with little plastic water pouches that you had to bust open like water balloons. I don’t think I actually got any water in my mouth, but the men behind me got a surprising splash every time. Hopefully they found it refreshing rather than annoying. At mile 3 there was a low hanging branch that I ran right into and knocked me in the head, pulling out my hair pins. I was stunned for a second, but marched on once the birdies stopped flying around.

Leading Brandy up the first big climb
As I climbed my way into the clouds (there is very little "running" going on at this point), the ridge line appeared. The next 1.3 was up and down across the mountain, hugging the steep drop-offs. At one point the man I was following chose to go right when the flagging indicated to go left. I hesitated and questioned my safety, but all the men behind me followed so I sent up a quick prayer and hugged my way around a boulder that was nervously close to the edge.

The descent is a dive back down the mountain. Sliding, hanging on branches, many screams and obscenities is what it takes to get down. The Mexican men were amazing to watch as they gracefully danced down the switchbacks and loose dirt. My feet burned. Despite how hard it is to run on cobblestone streets, I think everyone on the U.S. team agreed that it was so good to see the cobblestone after what we were dealing with. As Ryan said, once you hit the cobblestones and could get a semblance of a stride going, it felt like a road race.

The kilometer back to the finish was just as hard for me as any part. I was exhausted as I made the turn for the town square and it took a lot of effort to not lose composure and keep my legs from tying up. I crossed the finish a couple minutes behind Brandy and a couple minutes ahead of Chris. All three of us broke my course record from three years ago. Go U.S.A.! Amber had a tough day after a car accident two weeks before the race, but still battled through lead legs to conquer the course and meet us with a smile. Full results here.

2014 NACAC Mountain Running Champions

Interview with Foro Runner. See below!
Celebrity activity pursued. Pictures, selfies, interviews, more pictures. The most fun chaos after any race. All of the locals wanted pictures with the “fast Americans.” I've never gotten so close to so many sweaty strangers in my life. Cheers and congratulations were shouted from the crowds as we were recognized on the awards podium. I can’t say enough what an amazing experience it was, and to be able to do it again – I am so blessed!

Me and Tad post race and my arm splashed with paint.

I am embarrassed to confess that Tad and I took a taxi to the town square for dinner rather than walking another mile on the cobblestones. My ankles called uncle. A group of us went out for margaritas, burritos and some of the best guacamole ever. Ironically, the restaurant had run out of tortilla chips and we had to eat it with saltines. Too funny.
After dinner, there was more eating, drinking and celebrating with our hosts at a taco joint that was open late.

I woke up at 2:45am the next morning. I couldn't sleep, but had to be ready to go for when Ivan came at 3:25am to take Tad, Danny, Rich and myself to the Guadalajara Airport. It was sad to say goodbye, not only to my teammates, but to Ajijic. Once again I was charmed by its authenticity and character. 

I could go on and on about how much fun I had this weekend. I am so thankful for this experience and couldn't have asked for a better group of people to share it with. I want to thank Nancy and Richard for the opportunity to be a part of this family.

Shrimp ceviche toastada at the finish.
Ivan, Ricardo, Karla and sweet Mom – you were so good to us and we truly appreciate your hospitality. Hopefully one day you can visit the States and we’ll take turns sharing you.

Viva Sportiva!
La Sportiva was one of the main sponsors of the race so it was neat to be representing not only my country, but a company that is so passionate about mountain running. My Helios got me safely up and down the mountain and I saw many people sporting the Vertical K’s and Bushidos.

As always thank you to Trail Butter, Terrain Gym and Align Chiropractic for fueling me, making me strong and tough and for keeping me healthy. You help me every day to reach my full potential and for that I am truly grateful.

Until next time, Ajijic. 

In my happy place.
Experimenting with some exotic fruit.

Three cheers for Chupinaya and good margaritas!

Thank you to our friends at Foro Runner for the awesome video of the race. They really capture the spirit! That's me at 3:32 and at the closing. I think I'm a natural. Maybe I should go into news broadcasting? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TcIGH1mIAlY

Hurry up and wait. Photo Richard Bolt.

Monday, July 7, 2014

U.S. Mountain Running Championships

Tad and I flew out to Boston on Thursday for the U.S. Mountain Running National Championships to be held on Sunday at Loon Mountain Ski Resort in Lincoln, New Hampshire.  After arriving late due to storm delays, we stayed outside of the city and went for a run at the Walden Pond State Reservation in Concord, MA. A timely place to be on the 4th of July, Walden Pond is the site of the inspirational and influential philosophical writer, Henry David Thoreau. We ran a complete loop around the pond before getting yelled at by the park authorities that there was no running allowed around the pond. This objection didn't seem to be aligned with Henry's advice to "pursue some path, however narrow and crooked," but whatever.

My favorite HDT quote, next to the site of his cabin.
It is no surprise that I was really nervous for this race. A week before, I had a dream that I was leading the race and all of a sudden the arrows telling me where to go were gone. I slowed to look for them, calling out to no one in particular where to go. The other women soon caught up to me and we were rummaging through a house looking for signs of where to go. Turns out, Paul (race director extraordinaire) only completed marking the men’s course and forgot to finish marking the women’s course. We had to hang around and wait for him to finish putting up flags.

The weekend before I spent following the Western States 100 and the USATF Track and Field National Championship. It was hard not be inspired by the strong, powerful, persevering athletes. If I could run with half the intensity and passion that these runners showcased, I would have a good performance.  

My last time at the Championships was in 2012 and it was also at Loon Mountain.  I was coming off of a stress fracture in my right metatarsal and I had not run for 6 weeks prior to the race and accumulated only a handful of miles the days before. Finishing the race was questionable. It was encouraging to know that my performance this year could only be better than that, barring any unforeseen weird circumstances.

I love the mountain/trail community. In my opinion, they are the most genuine, kind and friendly group of people and I am proud to be a part of it. It was great getting to see some old friends, make new ones and meet my social media stalkees.

Leading Magdalena up.
I purposefully started easy and worked my way up like I do in a cross country race. I saw Magdalena Lewy-Boulet up ahead and caught her on the first climb (or what road racers would call the fourth big hill.) By two miles, I caught up to Megan Lizotte, four-time world team member.  I knew this was a smart place to be so I tried to stay in her footsteps. Megan continued to work her way up, but because I was so focused on the demanding footing and difficulty of the course, without me realizing it she soon pulled away. 

It is hard to focus on racing when you have to also focus on the tremendous difficulty of the mountain and the technical terrain. If you are running on the roads or the track, you are rarely thinking about where you are putting your feet and you can solely focus on your competition. In mountain running, you are so focused on where you are putting every footstep and the effort that it takes to get up the mountain that it can become more about the finish line than racing. This is something that I personally need to work on. My goal was a top-ten finish so I am content with my 9th place. However, I know that I can finish much higher. With another injury-free year, another bump in the mileage and this learning experience from the mental perspective, I am confident that I can make a more aggressive goal than a top ten finish next time. 

Finish at the top of Upper Walking Boss.
Congratulations to Allie McLaughlin and Megan Deakins for making the U.S. team your first time out and to Morgan Arritola and Kasie Enmen for making yet another team.  Congratulations also to Megan Lizotte who, no matter how she is running throughout the year, she brings it to this race every time. I am truly inspired.

Results can be found here.

Thank you to Paul Kirsch and Chris Dunn for planning, organizing and executing a successful championship race. Thank you to La Sportiva, Trail Butter, Terrain Gym and Align Chiropractic for your sponsorship and support. Time to get back to the Northwest, rest up and prepare for the NACAC Mountain Running Championship in Mexico in two weeks.