Walla Walla 6-Hour

Yesterday, I joined some friends and a large group of women from all around the Northwest at Bennington Lake for the Walla Walla 6-hour. This is the longest and farthest I’ve run in years, and I had a great time.

I am a big fan of timed races. I’ve run 6- and 12-hour races; someday, I’d like to tackle a 24-hour race. For a slowpoke like me, a timed race is ideal. Instead of setting out to run a certain distance in less than the cutoff time, the runner has the freedom – and fun! – of running (or walking) at whatever pace they chose. Timed races tend to have a “party” feel to them: run a loop, hang out with friends, run some more, have a beer, take a nap, run more – or just run the whole time and test yourself.

The Walla Walla 6-hour is the creation of Walla Trails, and it has a fun backstory: The owner of Walla Trails, Gretchen Walla, met Claire Walla in 2014. Gretchen and Claire aren’t related, and as someone with a relatively unique family name I can understand what it’s like to find someone who shares your name but not your family tree. The two joked that they should meet in Walla Walla, Washington, and from there the Walla Walla 6-hour was born.

I’ve spent the last several months working base-building training rather than trying to train for a specific race. I’ve had some struggles. With the new job and the long commute and other stressors, it’s been difficult for me to get in the non-running workouts. (Like a lot of runners, if I’m short on time I’d rather go for a run than strength train or cross train. Even though I can do some basic strength training in 15-20 minutes, I’ve still managed to find excuses not to do it.) I’ve had rough weeks during which I had to skip run workouts, too. It’s not been ideal, but I’m seeing improvements. My long run last week was 8 miles. The week before I did a 7-mile run at McBee with 1300′ of elevation gained & lost. It trashed my quads as I expected it to, but my short runs during the week were good. Then came last Sunday’s run. Ugh.

I tapped out after about 7 1/2 miles. My previous long runs on flats were much better — I didn’t start feeling weary until the last mile or so. This run never really felt right, and I did it on the flat trails of Chamna. I felt like I’d been battling fatigue for a few weeks, and it made me worry that I was losing the battle against some microbe. (I’ve not been sick in quite a while.)

Because of this, I decided to re-evaluate my plans. I’ve signed up for Jump Off Joe Half Marathon in early September. My current base-building training plan ends about a month before I’d start training for Jump Off Joe. Because Jump Off Joe HM has long climbs (1700′ of elevation gain), I’ll need to train on hills – something I’ve not done except for the trip out to McBee. At this time, I’m not confident my body is adequately prepared for that.

I have a significant track record of overloading myself by training only for races and not taking enough recovery time between training plans. I’ve never set aside a block of time for aerobic base building. But I’m working on a big, multi-year goal now – running a road marathon with a Boston qualifying time after I turn 60 – so it’s worth it to take the long view. It’s worth taking the time to lay the foundation to prepare myself for training for a road marathon. (I think my biggest mistake in preparing for the Badger Mountain Challenge in 2017 was not realizing I was not in good enough shape to tackle the demands of training for it. If I’d taken a year off back then, the end result would likely have been different.)

My plan at this point is to evaluate how I feel when I hit Week 16 of the base-building plan I’m doing right now. I can repeat weeks 12-16 before starting the half-marathon training plan. Or I can elect to not run the half-marathon, and instead continue to work on base building. That decision will be based on how I feel during and after my long runs, and how I’m doing with fueling & hydration during those runs.

Which brings me back to the Walla Walla 6-hour…

The race is open to women only. (Legally they cannot prevent men from entering, but so far only women have shown up to run. Lots of male volunteers & crew, though!) This year, Gretchen invited a member of the Cayuse, Umatilla, and Walla Walla Nations to hold a land acknowledgement before the race. He told us of a legendary woman in his people’s history. She was abducted by a raiding party from the Snake people. Hands bound, they put on horseback and headed back to their land. She worked her hands loose, and when she saw an opportunity she grabbed her captor’s knife, killed him, and fled home. When she told her people of her capture and daring escape, they lauded her bravery. They gave her status as a warrior, and she accompanied the men when they went out to battle others. He told us that when he learned this race is a woman-only event, he thought of this legendary warrior. He bid us a strong, swift run, to be safe, and to blessed by this land. He asked us to enjoy ourselves, to enjoy the beauty of this place, and to hear the songs it sings to us. He and his two daughters blessed us with a song. It was very moving, and I am grateful for him giving us his time.

My training calendar for this weekend showed a 4-mile easy run (keeping my heart rate in Zone 2 – 110-130 bpm) on Saturday and an 8-mile easy run on Sunday, and next week is a recovery week (lots of easy work). I decided to just run as much as I wanted at the race on Saturday and go for a short easy run on Sunday (or whatever my legs would tolerate). I also decided to use the race as a chance to try out fueling only with gels. Trail races tend to have ‘real’ food at aid stations in addition to gels & electrolyte drinks. (A peanut butter & jelly sandwich can be a divine treat during a long trail race!) But I want to start focusing on making sure I’m getting enough carbohydrates during my runs (30-60 gm/hour on runs 1-2 hours long, 60-90 gm/hour on runs longer than 2.5 hours), and taking in that many gels is a big change for me. I tend to only use 1-2 gels over the course of several hours, and that’s probably not enough. This race is a 5-mile loop, so getting the fueling wrong isn’t a total disaster — I’d still be able to make it back to the aid station.

I was chatting with a friend before the race, and she asked if I was going to walk the first loop. I said yes even though that wasn’t my initial plan. It worked out well, and it was fun to chat. (I knew about a dozen women who were in the race — lots of folks to chat with!) And while it was a good five mile warm up, I very foolishly didn’t fuel at all on the first loop because I was “just walking.” But I burned at least 500 kCal, meaning I depleted my available glycogen. I drank some ginger ale & electrolytes at the aid station and took in a gel, but it was too late. I headed out on the second loop running, but my legs really needed some fuel. It was an inauspicious start but a very valuable lesson: ALWAYS FUEL YOUR MOVEMENT!

So of course the second loop kind of sucked. I was trying to set up my watch to remind me to eat, and I pressed the wrong button in it. Now my watch thought I was in “cool down,” so it no longer alerted me to what my heart rate was doing. I had to look at the watch frequently to make sure my heart rate wasn’t too high. This was not a great loop. But it was a great learning experience: don’t mess around with fuel, and don’t try to re-set your Garmin setting during a run.

Here’s a video of my track for the first two loop.

After the second loop, I took a break. I was wearing new shoes, and the socks I chose were a bit too thick. I’d thought about bringing a second pair of socks, but alas I decided against it. I had a different pair of trail runners in the truck, so I took my socks off, check to make my toes were intact, and switch over to the other shoes. (The other shoes are a bit roomier.) And off I went on loop three.

After a certain time, runners can elect to run the short course if they don’t believe they have enough time to make a complete 5-mile loop. It’s a 1-mile out & back. It was a bit of chaotic fun because it’s so short. By that time, a fairly large proportion of the field was walking – myself included. Lot of laughs, smiles, grimaces, and encouragement.

I ended up with 17 miles. That’s the farthest I’ve run in four years. I learned some good lessons that I use going forward to make me a better, stronger runner. My legs are weary today. I skipped the planned run and instead we took Trooper out to Leavy Park and let him run around. It was a bit of walking & playing that helped loosen up tired muscles.


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