Race Report: Hamsterwheel 6-Hour, New Hampshire

They called me "Chicago."

The nickname started around lap 5. The race director and his wife were both so super nice, always asking what they could get me when I stopped between laps. The race director's wife, Darby, seemed like my personal cheerleader (and to many others, too!). With her kind words, I knew she was genuinely interested and supportive about how I was doing. She even sent me off on my last lap by saying, "You can do it, and I'll be waiting for you! Go Chicago!" Inspiring words!

I earned the "Chicago" moniker by stripping down to my Chicago Half-Marathon 2013 technical long-sleeved tee a little way into my second ever 6-hour race. The race was aptly called The Hamsterwheel, and took place in the adorable town of New Boston, New Hampshire. I had a feeling when I picked out gear that the Chicago shirt would be easy to turn into a name for me—and when it happened I thought it was great. I worked hard for that "Chicago" back in 2013, and here I was working even harder, for another bigger goal.

I also sported my new Green Mountain State buff, since a New Hampshire race needed to know the presence of its intrepid western neighbor.

But back to the beginning.

After my 6-hour race in August I immediately signed up for another one. I love the idea of putting in whatever miles and pace you want, with time being the limit--not distance. New Boston, NH is about 90 minutes from where I live in Brattleboro, Vermont, so an early morning drive there would do the trick, and I'd be done racing by 2pm, ready to drive home. Perfect!

Of course an August race is very different than a November one. When I signed up on a sunny day, I had no idea if it would be snowing, freezing, blizzarding, or what. Fortunately the weather was mild--around zero degrees (32F) early on and then it warmed up a tiny bit. It had rained the day before but cleared up by Saturday November 14. Up and driving before dawn, I saw the pink clouds of sunrise as I drove through New Hampshire countryside. I was at the race site and checking in before 7:30.

My November course was also very different in character than the August one. August was a 2.2 mile loop of mostly dirt with a lot of elevation changes. The Hamsterwheel is on 4-ish miles of out-&-back rail-trail, meaning it was pretty uniformly flat and... same-ish. The rail trail surface also happened to be compacted creosote or crushed stone (a fellow participant aptly captioned a photo with "Damn you crushed stone!") or concrete in sparkly hellish disguise or similar. Whatever it was, it was a brutally hard surface for me after months of mostly running on dirt.

Ultra runners are very cool and supportive. An out and back course meant I saw everybody many times. Many would exchange a glance, a comment, a thumbs up, a nod, a small wave. The lead runner, a Canadian woman I'd love to hang out with, gave everyone a quick but friendly "Good job!" every time she passed someone. Classy!

What I like a lot about ultras is how the physical challenge combines with the mental game. Ultras are GREAT for people who are very stubborn and have interesting relationships with pain and discomfort. So far, for me a 6 hour race feels a little like a fight between the mind and the brain. I don't know what the difference is, but there are two voices and they both seem cerebral. One is saying, this is ridiculous. You should stop doing this. The other is saying, hey... there's a reason we're doing this. The feeling is only temporary. Think about something else, because your whining is not relevant. We are more than that.

I don't know where the body factors into this! Between the mind and the brain, the body is like the workhorse that keeps going while its two drivers are arguing about whether to stop at the next tavern or go on and get the job done. Thank goodness that my body just chugs along. Every now and then I try to appreciate just that and shut those drivers down.

Running for so long gets a little delirious and jumbled, so just for the record here are some of my post-race notes. It really was an awesome day.

After 2 laps I took off layers, but after two more I put on gloves and a hat when I realized that conserving energy would help me keep running.

Nutrition was GU Roctane drink and fruit balls. I got sick of the fruit balls within 4 hours. I watered down the roctane after a few laps as I'd done before to avoid being overcaffeinated, but it didn't sit well when it was diluted. My body wanted pure roctane and I went back to that for later laps to good effect. It really is amazing stuff.

As noted, the Hamsterwheel was not a looped course but an out and back with small lollipop/loop at the start/finish. The lollipop was also the only elevation, so I quickly dubbed it my favorite part of the race since I got some variety to look forward to. The hilly bit was nice soft dirt, and I knew it was near the lovely start/finish where I could rest briefly.

I tried not to stop for long. The longest was about 5 minutes once I'd started to realize the particulars of the course. I had some ramen and did some stretching to assuage my aching pelvis.

Laps 1-3 were super easy and felt great. Lap 4 I realized the challenges of the surface. I also realized that if I kept going I could reach my 50k A goal. That was unplanned for, but very welcome. To be clear, my C goal was 6 laps (24 miles); my B goal was 7 laps aka over marathon distance (28 miles) and my A goal was 8 laps or a 50k. The course was so flat that I managed to put in a lot of comfortable mileage at a good pace, and then I just had to gut out the rest of it to make my 50k.

The 50k was a birthday present to myself. Back in January I said to my husband with a note of fear and awe, "I think I want to run a 50k this year!" At that point my farthest distance had been a half marathon, ~20k. By November of this same year I really doubted a 50k could happen and had already set a new goal of running 50k by June 2016. But then... it worked out! I was SO HAPPY. I sang "Happy Birthday" to myself on my last lap and felt teary. And during the course of the race I also necessarily ran my first marathon distance. I celebrated that 26.2 milestone as well, believe me!

In the second half of a 6-hour race I like to trick my brain by subtracting a lap. For instance, when I'm on the 4th to last lap I will say, "Hey brain, only 3 laps after this! Just 3!" I know I'm doing it to myself, but it still works every time. This time on the 2nd to last lap I bid a preliminary goodbye to landmarks. Only one more time to see that fuzzy tree! One more time I'll see the old birch! One more time past the mile marker that isn't a mile marker! One more time until I'll never see the plastic fencing! It didn't matter that I never noticed these things on my last lap to say goodbye that LAST time. The only point was to keep my brain occupied and chomping on its fodder so my mind could do its job.

The 8th and last lap was a lot more bearable than laps 5-7, precisely because I was going to be done. On those middle laps I kept telling myself that periods of feeling bad are followed by feeling good, and I'd get there at some point. And I did.

For whatever they're worth, here are my splits, a lot faster than the 13:30 mile average that I allow myself for "normal" trail running. Note how there is a consistent lag every 4 miles, which means I got to the start/finish station and took a little break.

When I came back in after that last lap, where Darby said she'd be waiting for me, I rounded the last turn and I heard her yell, "Is that Chicago??!"  I raised my arms in victory and ran across the finish line, and she gave me a big hug. So did the 6-hour race winner who was already done, the Canadian woman whose energy and consistency was incredibly inspiring. The small crowd was cheering and it felt just... incredible.

I kind of love that the home-made finisher's medal is missing the final "L"--it's truly the HamsterWHEE!

Before the race I snapped a pic of the first place prizes--golden hamsterwheels!

Like I said, the race director, organizers, and volunteers were super nice and organized. When I ended the 6-hour race and needed solace, they had a fire going, a table of soda that included Coke, and tons of food including three kinds of pizza. I hung out by the fire and rolled my muscles (meaning I massaged them with a water bottle), and we continued to cheer people coming in AND those people continuing on for the 12-hour and 24-hour races. Some people I know think 6 hours is a little crazy... for me I can't imagine running 12 hours or 24 hours. Yet this race had that too, and there were souls that actually did it, running until 8am the following morning. Wow!

Thank you Just Keep Running for all that you do!

Gnarly Roots: Celeriac soup

Celeriac is the next cauliflower in terms of trendy foods. (I have decided. You're welcome!) It makes a delicious and filling soup--like cream of potato but with a smidge more personality. But look at this root! It is hairy and bumpy and gnarled, with a crop-top from where the celery was harvested earlier in the season. Who would think to eat such a thing!? Fortunately, a few trims with a big knife shears off the knobbly bits, and then it can be cubed and ready for soup.

My celeriac comes from the farmer's market, and I followed a Celeriac and Roasted Garlic soup recipe by Simply Delicious. Celeriac has a distinctive celery taste, but is more subtle than celery's bright green zing. The Simply Delicious recipe recommends using roasted garlic rather than raw, to keep that on the mild side too.

 Here are my two roots, one roasted and one not, ready to soupify.

A quantity of potatoes add body to the soup; onion is also in the mix. After sautéeing I added prepared chicken stock for a homey vibe, though any stock will do.

Cook until soft, purée, and serve with a swirl of cream or half and half. This provided a great work lunch for three days running!

Have you tried celeriac? Do you "soupify" it or do something else?