Monday, August 19, 2013

Probably the Most Painful Experience of My Life

Sorry for the delay since Sierre-Zinal.  It's been quite a week.  After the race, I came home (to Arizona now) and have spent the last week doing graduate student orientation.  I thought originally that grad student orientation would be kind of like undergrad orientation.  You know, this is where the dining hall is kind of stuff.  But I've been expected to learn a great variety of things, from how to operate a fire extinguisher to what strategies to use teaching undergraduates to what do do with any radioactive waste a lab I'm in generates.  I am not being sarcastic, these are all topics we have covered.  Also, to add to my terrible excuses for not updating in a timely fashion, it took me a while to get internet to my apartment.

Anyways, Sierre-Zinal is a 32 km race from Sierre, Switzerland to Zinal, Switzerland.  The race starts at 500m or 800m or something like that above sea level.  It then immediately climbs about 2000m up one of the steepest hills I've ever seen in a race, rolls across the top through every type of terrain and surface I can think of except deep sand and cobblestones, then drops off the face of the mountain to end in Zinal.

I ran Sierre-Zinal two years ago in just over 2:45, and thought that my preparation was much better and would allow me to at least run faster than last time.  I know that Sierre-Zinal is the kind of race that has so many challenges that nobody can be strong at everything, but I thought that I was stronger in essentially every part of the race than last time, an idea that I now find somewhat laughable.

Early in the race, I positioned myself near the front.  I thought I was in the perfect position, not leading, but far enough up to hopefully stay close up the hill.  My legs disagreed.  This year had a much deeper field than previous years, as it was the 40th running of the race and somewhat of a landmark, so that meant I was passed by a lot of people going up the hill.

I reached the top and reminded myself that last time I ran, I also lost a lot of ground on the uphill but surged over the top.  I thought I could do that again.  I passed some people, but my legs still felt pretty heavy.  As I came into the part of the course that gradually works it's way down in preparation for the drop into Zinal, I thought I was finally ready to come into my own.  The sight of Zinal made me realize that I really wanted to be done, so I picked up the pace to finish earlier and started to feel good.

Then I reached a "stony path."  This is a way of saying the course went across a boulder field.  I had told myself that these parts of the course were few and short, and hadn't put in a ton of work on them.  Apparently I was more tired than I remembered last time, because it felt like the boulders never stopped.  Finally, my back seized up, which made me too afraid to run down the hill like I had hoped to.  So basically, I felt good for about a mile of the race.  Not bad for a 20 mile race.

This was where we slept in Zinal.  Even on a rainy day it looks amazing!
The street that our chalet was on
I finished and walked immediately to the chalet that the amazing race organizers had put the American men into. I told myself that I was just going to drink my PowerBar Recovery drink, eat my PowerBar Recovery Bar, change my shoes and leave to grab my gear check bag.  I suppose this was what I actually did, but I was in so much pain from the race, I almost crawled into a ball on the floor and cried.  Then I started shivering so I made my way to my bedroom and found sweats to put on.  Sierre-Zinal really does take it out of you.  For those of you who really care about the result list, I was announced as 18th at the awards ceremony and ran about 2 minutes slower than two years ago for a 2:47.

I managed to get a very slow cooldown in, and within a few hours was feeling better.  That is the amazing thing about mountain running as opposed to marathoning.  A marathon has a really tough time going too terribly, but almost regardless, there is a week of terrible pain after.  A mountain race cannot be "kind of bad."  It goes from good to really bad in the blink of an eye, and Sierre-Zinal is an unforgiving course in mountain running.  But give it a few hours, a day tops, and all of that awful pain has turned into just fatigue, but you can still actually walk.

Then, as I said, I came back to the states, where I now live in Arizona, where I'm attending graduate school in physics.  Okay, so far I have just been attending graduate school orientation, but I start progress toward a PhD later this week.  High temperatures in Tempe have been above 106F this week, so I have had to run either really early in the morning or inside.  Based on what I have seen of outside, the trail running around Phoenix has a great deal of potential, assuming I don't plant myself onto a cactus.

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