Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Going to the Dogs: Dirty and Dancing

This was my third year running the Dirty Dog 15k in Charleston, West Virginia.  This race is special to me, because it was my first race longer than a 5K and my first big challenge as a runner.  This is also the race that I registered my husband and brother for in 2010 (without their permission), so that they would be forced to train and run it with me.  Our first Dirty Dog kicked off a passion for racing challenges which led to our first triathlon and half marathon.  And if those aren't reason enough, my friends are the race directors, and the t-shirt is awesome.  Oh yeah, and you get to run with dogs.

The Dirty Dog 15K is a fun but incredibly challenging race set in the beautiful and mountainous Kanawha State Forest just outside the state's capitol city.  KSF is especially rugged and remote, spanning well over nine thousand acres.  The trails are mostly single-track and challenging, with boulders, creek crossings and fallen tree hurdling.  The best part about the race is that runners can run with their four-legged running partners off-leash.  The presence of the dogs knocks the seriousness of the race down a few notches.  It's hard to get uptight about running performance when the sound of a baying bloodhound is echoing through the valley, a golden retriever is sniffing your rear, and a lab is joyously splashing through each creek crossing.  Dogs of all shapes and sizes come out for the race, along with their runners of all shapes and sizes.  Many of the duos look amazingly alike.

The Dirty Dog 15k was written up in Runner's World Magazine as the "Best Doggy Race."  The race had a record attendance year, with almost 300 runners and over 50 canines.  Major kudos to Tracey and Dan Todd, race directors, who managed the throngs efficiently.  Robert's Run Shop in Charleston hosted a race day eve packet pickup party which helped reduce the registration line on race morning.  Volunteers directed traffic and a jamming pre-race party mix helped everyone get on site happily and easily.

Post-race Ice Bath
The race is very well organized yet delightfully informal, with lots of great food at the end, and a park atmosphere at the start-finish line.  The trail has absolutely no flat places in it...runners are either climbing or descending the whole way.  The route is shaded by the dense forest, and the mostly single-track trails are muddy, bouldery, or mossy.  The spectating is family-friendly.  There is a playground for the kidlets and a crisp cold creek that many of the dogs and runners took advantage of post-race, including myself.  

My four-legged partner, Daisy, unfortunately did not get to run this year.  She was limping the morning of the race and I didn't have the heart to run her for 9.3 miles not knowing what was causing her soreness.  She has a hot spot on one of her footpads, so I was hoping that is all it was.  (turns out it was just that)  Regardless, this was no race to take any chances.  So, my husband and I were to run it without our furry friend this time.  

My Dad and Alex taking their job very seriously
A huge bonus that almost made up for Daisy not running with us was that my brother, dad, and 7 year old son volunteered for the race and manned aid station 3.  I looked forward to seeing them, and knew that around mile 6 or 7 I would see their smiling faces as they handed me much-needed fluids.  Seeing them gave me the adrenaline boost I needed to get through the final three miles with a smile.

Last year I improved my first-year time by a significant amount.  However, this year, even though I felt fitter, I did not believe I would be faster.  A few months after the Dirty Dog 2011 my family and I moved to coastal South Carolina from our hilly West Virginia home.  I knew that the lack of available hill training would affect my DD15K performance.  I was prepared for that.  I knew this race was going to hurt.  Bad.  But what I didn't realize was how much my yoga training would help my race.  Yoga is no substitute for hills, but I did learn some key techniques in my Baptiste-style yoga class that improved my race and my recovery.

Here's the story:
I joined a yoga studio when I moved to Beaufort South Carolina which promotes the Baptiste style of yoga.  For lack of a better way to put it, Dancing Dogs Yoga Studio teaches power yoga for athletes as part of their menu of classes.  I have done yoga for almost ten years, but I have never reaped the benefits like I have in the classes at Dancing Dogs.  These power yoga classes are a form of cross-training that I would recommend to any runner or triathlete.  The yoga practice not only strengthens and tones muscles, but teaches body awareness and a presence that translates to everyday life in a powerful way.

Top Dog Macey Warner
awesome photo by Joel Wolpert, thewolpertinger.com
So what makes Baptiste yoga different?  I asked Shelley Lowther, owner of Dancing Dogs this question.  According the Shelley, "The Baptiste method speaks to True North Alignment by emphasizing stacking your joints and bringing your spine and body into optimal alignment.  This translates so well into all sports.  If you keep your spine long, tailbone tucked, core engaged, you gain access to your body's strength.  You lose strength when you fall out of alignment."  As a yoga student of hers, I can attest to the fact that bringing awareness to your body's alignment helps you engage your muscles and lift the pressure from your joints.  I have a tight pre-arthritic knee that has bothered me for years.  Being aware of how my quadricep muscles can either bang on that knee or lift the weight off of the knee has been incredibly helpful to me and how I not only do yoga but how I run and bike.

Shelley explains further, "True North Alignment is being true to yourself, and physically it’s bringing your body to anatomical neutral.  The easiest way to think about this is to look at a skeleton hanging on hook like you see in doctor's offices.  The joints naturally stack on top of one another.  While your body is aligned, it is easier to access your strength potential.  When your shoulders are back, core is in, it enables you to find all the power that you have.  The stacking of the joints is especially important in injury prevention and it helps minimize abuse.  Joints get pounded while running, but if you stay in alignment, you allow the muscles and tendons to do their job and absorb it." 

In the weeks leading up to the Dirty Dog, I attended a workshop hosted by Shelley's studio and taught by Mark White, who is a Senior Baptiste Teacher and owner of Baptiste Affiliate MBody Yoga in Jacksonville, FL.  The workshop was called "Creating Tadasana" and it was all about how to create balance within your body and learning True North Alignment.  The workshop made so much sense to me, and I found myself reflecting on it...often...as I continued to train for the Dirty Dog race. 

The finish line...I'm in lime green
During the race itself, I heard Shelley and Mark's voice in my head telling me ways to get over the tough terrain.  Key phrases like, "keep water on your joints," "keep your spine long," "SMILE!" and "engage your core" helped me maintain an awareness of my body as I traversed the rocky and hilly terrain.  Other runners stiffened and fell all around me, but I stayed true, applying what I had learned in my yoga classes.  I spread my toes and stayed on the balls of my feet, grounding into the four corners of my feet.  I kept my thoracic spine lifted and shoulder blades down and back to allow for full breaths.  I stayed aware of my breathing and forced myself to keep an even, steady breath.  My balance was great, and I did not fall, although I had a few close calls.  

Dirty Dog Daisy
I learned to be nice to my body, even while I was in the middle of a technically challenging and pounding race.  This, above all the miles of trails and roads I had run leading up to this race was the key to my success this year at the Dirty Dog.  I did not shave many minutes off of my 2011 time, but I definitely improved my overall performance.  This year it was not about finish time.  It was about body awareness, injury prevention, and true enjoyment and celebration of strength and power.

Dirty Dog 2013 is already on my calendar.  I will always love this race!