Wednesday, August 17, 2011

LT100 Interview: Laura Bleakley

I met Laura Bleakley back in 2005 during the Damn Wakely Dam Ultra-Marathon. I vividly remember an amazing female running blowing by me on the trail about 7 miles into the run. She dropped a gel as she ran by me. I picked it up and tried chasing her down to give it back. Eight Hours later when I crossed the finish line, I found out she smoked me and ended up coming in 1st Female. This woman is the real deal; one of the best female runners in the country who I feel goes virtually un-noticed. But beyond her results, is an incredible story of a runner who has come back from the brink of an injury related termination.

Name: Laura Bleakley
Age: 41
Location: Bedford, NH
Years Running: 40

SJ: Laura, thanks for taking the time to talk to us as you prepare for the Leadville Trail 100.
LB: No problem....I owe you since you found me a pacer for Leadville.

SJ: So tell us a little bit about your ultra-story.. when and where did you start running ultras and why?
LB: As a youngster I was always athletic and a skier, but my parents really never put me in team sports. So, once I entered junior high school it was just natural for me to run cross country. In high school I loved the distance races and knew I belonged in marathons. At 23 I found myself as a young mom who was left as a single mom a month before Justin was born. Single working mom, no child support that I also never asked for or went looking for because I didn't want it. I was self sufficient working often overtime as an ICU RN and raising my child.

I met my husband Jeff when Justin was about 8 months and began running together. He was a lacrosse player but liked to jump into some local races. We trained and ran our first marathon together where I missed BQ by 6 min but knew I had it in me, ran a couple more failed to BQ. We married 6 yrs later had 2 more boys I continued to work fewer hours but my job became less important as his fellowship training took more time. Eventually I had a serious achilles injury hat required rest and attention.

Eventually, we moved to CA at Travis Air Force Base. Shortly after we moved there we were training for Big Sur Marathon  and planning on taking the family exploring the coast and aquarium while still hoping for a Boston Qualifer after 9 yrs of trying. The only way I could run after the achilles injury was if I hot packed it before and iced after. It was kind of high maintance but it worked.

Then we got the call... Deployed, and he was gone 2 days later. I was a single mom again with 3 kids and I didn't know anyone while all of our family living on the East coast. Jeff was part of a CCAT team (critical care air transport) based in Germany. He flew into Iraq to pick up the critically injured and back. Two weeks later I took a babysitter with me and ran Big Sur. I didn't run well but knew I was better than that. I ran on the treadmill at the gym and again at night pushing the double baby jogger Justin biking. Every Wednesday I ran with a local running group, most of whom were trail and ultra runners. We drove up to the Sunriver resort in Oregon, hired a local babysitter while I ran Pacific Crest marathon, my first BQ 3:34, and my kids were at the finish line. Finally I had a great run but the next morning the boys were crying missing Dad. I just did what I always do and put Justin on the bike, Ryan & Alex in the double baby jogger and we ran to the playground; That's when I realized I could run 8-10 miles the day after a marathon and the soreness in my legs went away.

Not sure what to do, I focused on the marathon calendar and I was drawn to this race called the Tahoe Triple. 3 marathons in 3 days running around the Lake. I couldn't stop looking at it. I loved Lake Tahoe skiing there and for some reason my mind thinks in 3's. And then on a difficult night after 3 glasses of wine I kind of accidentally entered. It was in 3 months and I had no idea how to train for something like that so I figured I'll just run as many marathons as I can between now and then. So that's what the boys and I did exploring the West coast by traveling and running marathons. The time between races got shorter; to about 2 weeks apart, 1 week apart then back to back & my finishing times got faster PRing almost every race. For someone who spent 9 yrs trying to break 3:40, my first win was Crater Lake. A difficult course at 7,000-8,000 ft altitude in exactly that time 3:40. The following week drove to Reno and won the Silver State Marathon. Two weeks later drove to Pocatello, ID; since they had a lot of kids activities with the marathon. I ran a 13 min PR and won 3 straight consecutive marathons. Really not a big deal since these were very small marathons with less than 150 runners and fast elite runners obviously weren't running them.

Jeff returned right before the Tahoe Triple and they watched me finish running 3 back to back 3:40 marathons. I broke the course record but placed 2nd Female. The next day, just for fun, I ran the Bizz Johnson Marathon and finished the "Quadzilla," 4 marathons in 4 days. I was surprised that I was able to do that and couldn't wait to return the next year. So I ran the "quadzilla" prior to running my first ultra. My first 50 miler was at American River. I ran well and had a great experience. I started to really like the longer stuff. I still ran lots of marathons but started trending more into the ultra world.

We moved back to Rochester, NY. Now we had both sets of grandparents within an hour so it became easy for me to continue racing frequently. Thought about the Tahoe Triple nonstop. I loved it and couldn't wait to return. I knew I could run it faster and I did. I won & broke the course record by 23 min. then the next day I ran Bizz Johnson and finished the "Quadzilla" again.

I got into the 2006 Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run. It would be my first 100 miler and all my races were in preparation for that. I was running well, mostly surprising myself with some of the finishes while at the same time the second I'd cross the finish line I'd rip apart my race knowing I could have run faster. If only I pushed harder here and didn't back off there. Running anything marathon or greater within a 3 hour drive, trail or road.. it didn't matter I liked both. My first 6 hour I discovered I loved short loop courses. The repetition made it easier to figure out my fluids, electrolytes, nutrition. Round and round for 43.25 miles. I just put myself on autopilot and it never got hard, with the last hour being the most fun because I was gaining on the lead male runner but ran out of time as he finished 1/4 mile ahead of me.

I received an email something about USATF performance list 100 km World Cup in Korea. Huh? I didn't even know that such a thing even existed. Mine was one of the slower times. Two days later, moving on toward WS 100, I felt recovered and ran hill repeats... that's when I felt my hamstring pull and it wasn't good. I discovered that for the past 4 months, I had been running through a throbbing ITB/ hamstring pain, treating it with lots of ibuprofen & yoga. Ignoring the bruise I just wrapped up the hamstring and continued on. Forcing it altering my gait, I developed an unbearable pain in my achilles only to be confirmed as a partial tear of the Achilles at the insertion site 4 days before Western States. I did not start. Then moved to New Hampshire the following week. I didn't know anyone. I was unable to walk, unable to run, unable to connect. I was Absolutely miserable.

SJ: With that said, in all the years you've been doing this; what one race sticks out in your mind as your best?
LB: I don't think like that. I don't have a best race. I've had races the surprised the heck out of me and not quite sure how I ended up at the finish line in the time I did.

SJ: What race was your worst?
LB: Every single 100 miler I've attempted. I've run in seven 100 milers (but 2 late DNFs) I have yet to run a smart one with a good solid 100 mile finish. Always falling apart either starting too fast then death marching or not thinking and messing up my fluid and electrolyte intake. Forgetting to eat, developing corneal edema running blind..... the list goes on of all my mistakes. So last year I decided to only run 100 milers and not even bother with any other distance until I figure it out.

SJ: What kinds of things have you had to work on and work out since that "worst race"? What did you learn from that experience?
LB: "Everything!" The corneal edema found out was due to my "dry eye" and exposure to environmental elements bright sun light, dust, wind, cold... so I wear eye protection/sunglasses all the time, have a Rx for restasis, and take eye drops at every aid station. The flat road ultras I'm fine with only gels and liquids; but the same plan doesn't work for trail mountain races where I need way more calories and solid food like turkey sandwiches, spaghetti and meatballs throughout the race. The problem is, I forget to eat so I need to be reminded. I forget to take electrolytes and need to be reminded. That's where pacers and crews can help out.

SJ: Now you encountered a debilitating injury back in 2006, tell us about what and how it happened..
LB: When I partially tore my achilles again in 2006 I was down for 7 months then took care of some unfinished business. I ran my first 100 on 2 months of training. I guess not many women ran 100 kms that year because my time even though it was the slowest was still within the qualifing window and selected on the USA100km World Cup Team to be run in the Neatherlands. It didn't make sense I was the only "nobody" listed on that roster everyone else was a well trained elite athlete and I just simply ran. I hired Lisa Smith-Batchen to help coach me. Unfortunately with the volume and intensity my achilles easily became overloaded and I was forced to crosstrain a lot. I wasn't running well because my achilles was so bad they needed to have another runner take over my spot for the 100Km World Cup. Seeing as there wasn't anyone elso who could run they still wanted me to at least start. ...there was absolutely no way I could run and I didn't belong there in the first place...I quit. My son Ryan who was 7yrs overheard and said "you're not going? you're not even going to try?" He was proud of me and I cried, sat down, booked my flight and trained the best that I could. It's just pain, pain is subjuctive, it can be manipulated, you can play games with it and make it go away. My achilles continued to get worse and I tried to adapt and work around it with heel lifts in my shoes, changing my gait swinging my leg out and sliding it forward with a flat foot so I wouldn't have to push off my toe. Two weeks before the race I was icing my achilles.  I had the kids it was late so I ran upstairs to check on them. My achilles didn't get past the first step. I felt the rip, hit the ground and I knew it was done. I fully ruptured my achilles tendon from the bone at the insertion site. After surgery I was in a cast and crutches for a long time. My world became very dark, cried a lot and when I stopped crying then there was nothing; no emotion, I couldn't feel anything... happiness or sadness... it was just empty. I used to run all night but now pain meds, ativan, ambian mixed with alcohol filled my nights.

SJ: How has the road to recovery been? Did the doctors tell you that you'd never run again?
LB: I had a very good surgeon and it was unknown if I would be able to run again, but I would be able to walk again. Maybe I could run 5-10Km runs but not ultras. Recovery... let's just say I fired a lot of Physical Therapists until I did eventually find a good one. I was unable to run for 2 years but that didn't mean I didn't try. I felt that I was different because I wanted it more and that I would recover faster. All that did was throw me back in the boot and on crutches again. I developed a neck/shoulder issue, probably from trying to crutch so fast and wrong that it took a good year in PT to improve. So I couldn't run or lift weights; I lost everything. 15 months post op I started bikram yoga and this was key in recovering my achilles. 2 years post op I started to tolerate runs over 10 miles but I couldn't run uphill so I just hiked them. I jumped into a 50 miler after 6 weeks back running, to get my WS qualifer and put my name in the lottery. In 2010, I returned to 100 milers though I was very slow and still couldn't run hills. I just wanted to finish. I had lots of set backs and  I discovered the Dexamethasone 12 hour Iontophoretic patch. I could go from limping to running without a problem the next day.

SJ: Tell us about how Cross Fit has affected your recovery and training.
LB: I always wanted to train and lift weights like that but I didn't know how. Then crossfit finally came to NH right around the time I was able to run a little bit. I had done nothing for 2 years but quickly within months regained my strength and then became stronger than I was before the injury. I had several set backs early last year and needed to give my achilles some time off but I was able to maintain training through alternative crossfit workouts. I don't follow the "crossfit endurance" type of program. It may work for some but I believe in logging those miles, no shortcuts, but I do run some of those interval workouts within my longer runs.

SJ: Do you attribute Cross Fit as the reason for your come-back and continued success?
LB: Crossfit came along and I found it right when I needed it. It plays an important part in training for 100 milers. With Olympic weight lifting my quads have become stronger so I can fly downhills without a problem. The intensity of some of the workouts is like my speed workouts and I hate to go to the track... actually I don't go to the track. Also, some of the trainers and others from crossfitnewhampshire have come to my races to support me by crewing and pacing. It was great since I've never had a crew before or anyone volunteering to pace me.

SJ: How does being a mother of 3 affect your training?
LB: Well now that they are older and I don't rely on the day care at the gym. I never set foot on a treadmill or any other type of cardio machine. I'd much rather fight the weather and snowplows. In general I run at 4AM, return home and get them ready for school then go to crossfit. I do a lot of double and triple runs in a day to get the mileage that I need. It works better for me and the family. My oldest son in high school easily gets distracted from homework so I have a 2 mile loop and a 5 mile loop around my neighborhood. So I'll run a loop check on him making sure he's still on task check things off the list then continue to do these repetitive loops until either I'm done running or he's done with his work.

SJ: You're running in this weeks Leadville Trail 100. When did you decide to run Leadville and why?
LB: Early sometime last Fall. I was running at 4am and it was really dark foggy couldn't see a thing and I accidently ran up a really steep hill I usually hike because it's too difficult for my leg. So I ran up it and didn't realize it. so I ran more steep hills and it didn't kill my achilles. So I got all excited that after 3 years I could run hills again and entered Leadville kind of by accident.

SJ: You attended the Leadville Training Camp back in June. How did that help you in preparing for this race and was the trip useful?
LB: Absolutely, I feel so much better knowing the course what to expect and how my body deals with the altitude.

SJ: After having read Born To Run, and then seeing the course during training camp.. how do you think the actual course compares to it's description in the book?
LB: I read it so long ago but I think so?

SJ: Do you have a crew for this weekends race or will you be using drop bags?
LB: I don't really have a crew planning on using drop bags but I do have a great pacer who has finished Leadville more that once.

SJ: Do you have any time goals, or other goals, for this weekends race?
LB: 29:59:59 or faster

SJ: How are the tough Leadville time cut-offs affecting your race strategy?
LB: I really don't have a race strategy except to not start out too fast like I usually do. I have 2 plans and aware of my targeted splits for each aid station.

SJ: Laura, we wish you the very best of luck for success this weekend at the Leadville Trail 100 and continued success in your ultra-running journey.
LB: Thanks! you too see you out there.