Friday, November 03, 2017

Larisa Dannis's Racer Story- Lessons from the mountains: reflections on a run at the Javelina Jundred

Article by Larisa Dannis

Editor's Note: We are thrilled to have Larisa share her journey from her beloved New Hampshire mountains to the top of the ultra world while living in fast paced California, including 2nd at the 2014 Western States 100 in an injury riddled chase of results.  In early 2017, she returned home rebuilding and enjoying her NH mountain trails leading to a happy smooth return to the top of the podium at the Javelina Jundred last week: 1st woman, 6th overall, 16:32 with a qualifier for the Western States 100.
The most beautiful trophy I've ever won

The mountains are powerful teachers if one is willing to pause and heed their lessons. This is especially the case with my home range: the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Beautifully and brutally technical, they reward patience and consistency above all else. Go out too hard and you likely won’t recover, especially as the distance of your route increases.

My ultrarunning career was born in the mountains. I built up my endurance and my fortitude through years of distance hiking. Traversing those rugged White Mountain ridgelines instilled in me a deep understanding of my body and the various effort levels I can sustain. The mountains kept me grounded and made me strong. They taught me the importance of staying in the moment, of appreciating the journey and the process.

When I moved away from the mountains in the summer of 2014, I lost touch with who I am. I lost my ability to be patient. I started to chase immediate results. Turning a blind eye to the advice of many who kindly guided me, I buried myself into the ground, and by the beginning of 2017 I’d burned out – hard. After hitting rock bottom, one has two options. She can give in, or she can resolve to get back up.

I chose the latter.

Within a month of making my decision, I was back in New Hampshire. That first weekend home, I returned to the mountains. For the first time in years, I felt at peace.

Enjoying some beautiful white stuff on one of my first hikes home

In those first months, I made a point to slow down, reflect, and listen. Long days in the wilderness gives one lots of time to think. As time passed, I could feel the scattered fragments of my life slotting back into place. Gradually, my strength returned, as did my desire to run and ultimately to race.

At the encouragement of a friend, I signed up for the Javelina Jundred with the hopes of obtaining a Western States qualifier. Having not run a 100 miler since 2014, I’ll admit I was excited to attempt the distance again. I knew if I were smart and patient, I had the endurance to finish the race. However, the prospect of running on a course much flatter and hotter than my typical mountain training grounds made me very nervous. Thus, I had no time goals. It would be a run to test the waters.

…and it unfolded in a very different way than I expected.

Instead of giving a loop-by-loop breakdown of my run, I’d like to share some thoughts on the training, gear, and in-race strategies I followed that made the race a success. Javelina was my 8th 100 mile race. Though I'm constantly learning, I truly feel it was my best one yet.

From January through August this year, I took an extended break from hard running. I went back to my roots and started training via the MAF method, an approach that's close to my heart (pun fully intended). Phil Maffetone's site is a great resource for anyone interested in learning more about heart-rate-based training. I also talk in detail about my experiences on this podcast interview.

All of my midweek runs through August 2017 were paced well below my MAF heart rate, and I mostly hiked on weekends. In sum, I let my body heal while conservatively building my endurance through long mountain days on my feet.

Early season mountain run on the Twinway

In August, I started to incorporate a couple days of speedwork. I settled into a training approach that consisted of shorter/flatter/faster runs (typically 5-7 miles) midweek, and longer mountain “runs” (running being a relative term in the Whites!) on weekends. Two of these runs were typically tempo efforts, usually back-to-back on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. The Tuesday workout was the harder effort, run a couple beats above my MAF heart rate of 155 BPM. On the Wednesday effort, I’d look to hold my heart rate at MAF.

It’s amazing how just a few speedwork sessions can make a huge difference in one’s all-around running performance. I made noticeable progress week on week (average paces per mile increased while keeping HR consistent), and the faster paces transitioned into significantly faster times in the mountains. My weekly mileage averaged between 60-70 miles, which was very comfortable for me to sustain. I reduced my mileage slightly the week before Javelina, but did not take an aggressive taper.

One week out from Javelina on Lafayette

I’ve been logging my training on Strava since 2014 for those who are interested. Most tracks include HR data.

My approach to running has become increasingly simple. I’ve never been one to head into races with aggressive goals or complicated plans. For me, the beauty of ultramarathons lies in their inherent unpredictability. So many factors come into play during a race that are out of our control. Thus, I focus first and foremost on staying in the moment, taking care of myself, and addressing problems if and when they arise.

I don’t have a pace setting on my watch, nor do I obsessively monitor the time. I simply go by feel, and am satisfied with whatever result that brings me. I use HR as a secondary guide, because at this point I’m quite in tune with my body and know what ranges I can sustain over various distances.

I’ve also learned with experience that I run my best when I trust myself (instead of getting wrapped up in how others are running) and prioritize running steadily and consistently from the start. Going out hard from the gun has never worked for me. In all of my best races – Western States 100, USATF 50 Mile Road Championships, UROC 100k, TNF 50 Mile Championships – I didn’t start out close to the front pack. However, I was always consistent. Consistency might not be exciting to watch from a race standpoint, but it’s what brought me podium finishes at each.

Staying patient during the early miles. Photo courtesy of Howie Stern

Thus, my plan was to be smart, take care of myself, and focus on enjoying the experience of running 100 miles in the desert.

I’m a bit of a shoe junkie, and admittedly I was torn on what shoes to wear. I brought 3 different pairs with me – Salomon Sense Ultras, Salomon Sense Rides , and HOKA Speedgoat 2s – all of which I really enjoy in training. The decision was difficult, but I ended up choosing the Sense Rides paired with Swiftwick socks.

My reasoning: I've been gravitating towards firmer shoes as of late, and the Sense Rides strike a solid balance between responsiveness and comfort. Moreover, I believe there's something to Salomon's Vibe Technology. I'll admit I was skeptical at first, but after multiple long mountain runs in the shoes I was pretty amazed at how fresh I felt and how quickly I recovered given there's only 19mm of cushion in the forefoot.

As it turned out, my choice was a good one. The Sense Rides were perfect for the terrain and dried out quickly even though I soaked them every few miles when sponging down at the aid stations. I wore my standard size, and was grateful not to have to stop to change footwear once. That said, thanks to my tough feet think I would have been happy in any of the 3 pairs I brought!

Happy feet in the heat

I also opted to wear Dirty Girl Gaiters, which I use for all of my mountain runs. I’m glad I did, as getting sand in my shoes likely would have resulted in a shoe change.

In the past, I’ve run most of my races on 100% liquid nutrition: gels and sports drink. However, my approach shifted drastically this past year after reading Stacy Sims' book ROAR. The book discusses female-specific nutrition, fueling, and hydration in detail. Since incorporating her recommendations this summer, I’ve noticed significant improvements in my health, recovery and overall performance.

“Hydration in your bottle, food in your pocket” is her race fueling mantra. I decided to take those words to heart at Javelina, and it worked like a charm.

For nutrition, I carried a bag of Swedish Fish (22 calories each) and 1 kid-sized RX bar (140 calories) each loop. I would nibble on 2-3 Swedish fish every hour and ate 1 kid-sized RX bar each loop through mile 60. The Swedish Fish were palatable all day long and easy on my stomach. They’ll be my go-to race nutrition source going forward.

For hydration, I created my own custom drink blend consisting of 3/4 NUUN tab and 3/4 scoop unflavored Tailwind. This combination met the optimum carbohydrate (3-4%) and electrolyte (~500mg sodium, ~180mg potassium per 20oz) hydration requirements outlined in ROAR. I carried 2 pre-mixed bags each loop which I’d mix into my handheld bottle at each aid station.

All in all, I’d say this is a winning approach for me. For the first time in my years of racing ultramarathons, I did not take any salt pills or gels… and for the first time in my years of racing, I was able to happily take calories in until the finish (my rockstar pacer can attest to this!).

In retrospect, I probably could have eaten a few more calories each hour. Rough calculations show I was in the 130-150ish calories/hour range, though I didn't track this closely. I also ran out of water a few times between aid stations during the heat of the day, but never went more than a mile without fluids. Thus, I thankfully never felt dehydrated.

I used what I know works for me: an Ultimate Direction SJ Ultra Vest 3.0 and a Jurek Grip 20oz handheld bottle (which I'd rather obsessively swap between my left and right hands in an effort to stay balanced). I also carried a soft flask at the heat of the day for extra hydration capacity.

For clothing, I wore INKNBURN shorts and t-shirts which proved to be remarkably comfortable as always. I brought extra shirts with me which I soaked in a cooler of ice water at the start/finish. Swapping into an ice-soaked shirt every 20 miles was wonderfully refreshing, and helped keep my core cool much more than I anticipated.

Colorful and cool. Photo courtesy of Howie Stern

I also opted for white Pearl Izumi sun sleeves. They more than live up to their 50 SPF claims. My arms did not burn, and as a bonus I was able to stuff ice down the sleeves in the heat.

For eye protection, I went with Julbo Cortina shades during the daylight hours. The darker lenses worked very well given how bright it gets in the desert.

Lastly, for err, lubrication purposes I used a combination of my tried-and-tested-in-every-capacity Trailtoes and Squirrel's Nut Butter, a new product for me. I applied both religiously right before the start and didn't need to re-apply either throughout. I experienced zero chafing throughout the race.

I finished the race in 16:32:17 – a 38 minute 100 mile PR for me. 

They had a DJ at the finish and I couldn't help but dance!

This is the first 100 I’ve run in which I never hit a significant low and felt steady throughout. I attribute this to a few things:

1) Staying within my means. I averaged 135 BPM for the race, exactly where I wanted to be given my training. Historically (and fascinatingly at that), I’ve noticed that my HR takes a significant “dip” at the 100k mark or so. It’s almost as if my body knows it’s in it for the long haul and subsequently shifts into low gear. Interestingly, at Javelina I was able to maintain a higher HR for longer than I ever have in a 100 mile race. I’m curious to see if this is something I can continue to extend as I optimize my fueling.

2) Prioritizing staying cool above all else. Zach Bitter’s report from the 2016 race emphasized the importance of keeping cool, and I took his advice to heart. I made a point to thoroughly sponge-and-ice down at every aid station during the heat of the day, even if it cost me a few minutes each stop. It’s amazing how much of a difference it made. I left every aid station feeling like a brand new woman.

3) Focusing on staying in the moment. It’s easy to become overwhelmed with the number of miles to go if one focuses too much on distance. I was surprised by how easy it was for me to stay present and let time fold naturally in this race. I attribute much of this to points #1 and #2 above.

4) Pacers make a huge difference. I’ve run 100 mile races with and without pacers, and was planning on finishing Javelina without one. However, coming into mile 60 I found myself yearning company. At mile 80, I came into the start/finish and excitingly learned that the kind folks at HOKA had found me a pacer for the final loop. Alex’s company for those final miles truly made my race and enabled me to finish at least a half hour faster than I would have if alone. To Alex and HOKA: my sincerest and heartfelt thanks.

Javelina was a solid step forward towards my goal of returning to Western States. I know there are no guarantees in life, but something deep in my soul tells me I will be back. That I'll relive the moment that still gives me chills every time I dare to watch this clip (disclaimer: I likely account for 90%+ of the total views on the YouTube video).

Between now and then, I’ll to look to the mountains and heed the lessons they continue to teach me. I will be patient. I will not force things. I will embrace the journey and let things unfold naturally, as they’re meant to unfold. Most importantly, I will stay true to who I am.

Finally, home.

I’m not infallible. I've made just about every mistake in the book when it comes to training, racing, and taking care of myself. Yet in the face of adversity, I always seek to learn and strive for positive change. I fundamentally believe there’s no limit to what we’re capable of achieving if we’re willing to work hard and hold fast to the belief that we can accomplish our dreams.

Prioritizing recovery with... waffles

For Larisa's run bio see our Reviewers Bio Page here

Gear from Inkburn, Ultimate Direction, Julbo, Tailwind, and Dirty Girl Gaiters was provided at no cost. All other products mentioned in the article were purchased. The opinions herein are entirely the author's.

Comments and Questions Welcome Below!
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Jeff Valliere said...

Congrats Larisa! I enjoyed the read, a nice diversion from the mundane mile by mile recollection that is so commonplace. I too cut my teeth in the White Mountains and after a 15 year hiatus, was able to visit this past July and run a lap on Mt. Washington. After many thousands of mountain ascents here in Colorado and the West, there is still something so grounding and nostalgic about the Whites. Anyways, glad to see you back at the top of your game and welcome to RTR!

NCmtnman said...

Great breakdown of the race you had and I enjoyed reading about your gear selections. Clearly it was your day. Congrats!

Paul said...

Congratulations on the win at Javelina, and thanks for the awesome race report. I liked reading about all the gear, but I was especially interested in the Swedish Fish as fuel. Have to try that, seems a lot cheaper and easier to find than other chews. Intriguing.

Karen Tyler said...

Love your story Larisa! Great tips. Thank you for sharing.

Anonymous said...

What happened to Larisa Dannis? I noticed her Instagram account is no longer active and her Strava workouts have stopped.