After finishing fourth at last year’s Transvulcania Ultramarathon, Alicia Shay is back again. In this interview, Alicia talks about how race went last year, what she’d like to do a little different this year, and the health issues she’s been dealing with.
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Alicia Shay Pre-2016 Transvulcania Ultramarathon Interview Transcript
iRunFar: Meghan Hicks of iRunFar, and I’m here at the very southern tip of the island of La Palma. It’s about two-and-a-half days before the start of the 2016 Transvulcania Ultramarathon. I’m with Alicia Shay. Good morning.
Alicia Shay: Good morning.
iRunFar: How are you?
Shay: I’m doing great. I’m just really happy to be back on the island and give this race another swing.
iRunFar: Yeah, you were here a year ago. You finished as the top American just a couple minutes off the podium. Take us back to what you were feeling a year ago at this time.
Shay: I was pretty nervous. I’d heard of tall tales of Transvulcania and how hard the course was from my American friends. Any time I tried to get specific race information, everybody just said, “Oh, it’s so hard. It’s so rocky. It’s just so hard.” What does that mean?
iRunFar: “What do you mean, really? I need some specifics.”
Shay: Give me some frame of reference. Is it like this area of the U.S. or like this area of the Rocky Mountains? I just couldn’t get an idea or a grasp of what the course was like and didn’t have much time to see all of the course when I got here. I was just feeling a lot of trepidation and respect for the course. About this time last year I was pretty nervous.
iRunFar: Looking back to last year and how your race went, you had a really strong day, but I think you said last year you struggled on the downhill. I saw you at the very end of the downhill and it looked like you were struggling a little bit.
Shay: I was.
iRunFar: Looking back at your assessment of last year, did you feel good up until the long downhill? How was the race for you?
Shay: I did. I never really felt great. I just didn’t. It wasn’t a good feeling day, but I didn’t feel horrible. I felt in control the whole time… most of the race. I think I really fumbled on a lot of different sections. I wasn’t necessarily in race mode. I was kind of like, I need to make sure I can make it from the start line to the finish line.
iRunFar: Survival mode.
Shay: Yeah, I was really just kind of fumbling around with it. I think I ran the uphill too conservatively. Like a lot of people, I ran out of water in the middle section of the course.
iRunFar: Up high?
Shay: Up high. They had taken out an aid station, and I didn’t know that. So I wasn’t prepared to not have that, so I had no fluids and I stopped eating during that section because if you can’t drink it’s hard to eat. People were just falling apart around me, stopping and vomiting. It was just a mess on that middle section. I was just in the mode of looking for the aid station forever, for miles. “Where is the aid station? Where’s water?” I was just trying to keep myself going. By the time I got to the top, I was just focused on refueling, rehydrating. The downhill felt really comfortable…
iRunFar: [large machine stops behind camera] I’m having a lot of trouble with my interviews. I keep having loud things going past them. Yesterday a man walked up with a leaf blower 10 feet behind the camera. I’m sorry. Go on.
Shay: I was so depleted by that point that I was really focused on rehydrating and refueling. When I got started with the downhill, I thought, This is kind of like running down steep downhills in Flagstaff, Arizona. This is comfortable. Then it just kept going and going.
iRunFar: For 8,000 feet.
Shay: Yeah, and the sections that really threw me off were when we went from soft trail to the harder pavement or cobblestone sections, the really steep pitches. I started hurting in places I never hurt just because I hadn’t run downhills that long ever in my life. I started tip-toeing. I was just like Bambi just fumbling down those last pitches. I think when I saw you, you said, “Only 1,000 more!” I’m like, “Oh, 1,000 feet. I can do this!” Then I got to the top of the vertical k, I was like, “Oh…”
iRunFar: “Oh, no! She meant 1,000 meters!”
Shay: I really, really lost a lot of ground on that section. I lost a lot of ground just being dehydrated and not really fueling and just being in survival mode. On the uphill section, I was taking sand and rocks out of my shoes and stopping for it. So just like stuff that… coming back now, I have that insight and hopefully can do those things a lot differently so that I’m not fumbling.
iRunFar: What it sounds like is that it was a bunch of small things that added up.
Shay: Totally added up. By the time I hit the bottom of the descent, I felt so strong. Once I could run on normal ground, I was just hammering so hard to the finish line. I was really disappointed that I was two minutes back.
iRunFar: Just outside the podium.
Shay: Yeah, because I felt great. I could keep running as long as you give me ground that’s not at 14% grade. So I was pretty disappointed, but I learned a lot. It was the first long trail race that I’d done like that. I really took a lot away from it that I hope I can continue to use moving forward.
iRunFar: Yeah. Since your obvious success here last year, you’ve gone on quite a health journey. You haven’t been able to run regularly. Can you talk a little bit about what’s going on?
Shay: After I left Transvulcania last year, I was feeling really fit and excited to keep racing through December. Not too long after getting home, I got really sick and then just kept getting more sick and more sick. I tried to run through it and push through it and do the whole typical runner thing—being tough and riding it out. I started having some weird, scary symptoms while out on runs. I eventually found out I had a cardiomyopathy from a virus I had, so a viral cardiomyopathy. The symptoms I was having was because the ejection fraction of my heart would drop down below what’s normal levels. So I just didn’t even feel like I had my own body. I was feeling like I was stopped in my tracks and had to back off for several months.
iRunFar: So it was a several-month period of time where you couldn’t run at all or couldn’t train?
Shay: I didn’t run for several months. Then I started jogging around November or December. I started skiing is how I kind of entered back into activity.
iRunFar: You found you could do that okay?
Shay: I could do that okay. It was really hard at first. I felt pretty weak. I was still having some symptoms. But since I was on skis and I didn’t have a Garmin on and I didn’t know my pace per mile, I just kind of did it at my own pace. If I felt bad, I’d go really slow. When I say skiing, I was uphill skiing and ski mountaineering. I was more patient with my physical abilities in that realm than I would be with running, so I did that and then started running one or two times per week and just kind of waited until I got the green light from my doctor. I was okay to be active as long as I kept a low intensity. I kind of stuck to that guideline until March. I got pretty strong skiing. I felt good when I got back into running but still not totally myself. I had a lot of days where I was just super weak, like this deep fatigue of fitness. I just had to keep doing what my body would give me.
iRunFar: Stay patient.
Shay: Yeah, back off when I felt bad. When I had a good day, which wasn’t very frequent at first but increased in frequency…
iRunFar: Use it—use the good day when you had it and respect the bad days.
Shay: Yes, exactly. At the same time, my boyfriend, Chris [Vargo] was having some health issues, so we kind of nursed each other back to health and went through a lot of the frustrations and ups and downs together. When we started back to running, we were good to kind of keep each other in check. “If you’re feeling this way, then stop,” and had no issue with that. Even once we started feeling really good and finally were able to get into a true training block for this race, we still had days when we drove to the Grand Canyon and jogged to the rim and were like, “We can’t do it today.”
iRunFar: “Today is not the day.”
Shay: And we’d turn around and drive home. That took a lot, too, but it helped to have each other to reinforce that.
iRunFar: You’ve had a very small training block putting this together. We saw you run at the Moab Red Hot 33k in February, and then you ran the Crown King Scramble about a month ago.
Shay: It was a month ago, yes.
iRunFar: Tiny little block—what have you been able to cram in there?
Shay: Actually, quite a bit. So when I saw you at Moab, that was one of my first runs. It was my first long run.
iRunFar: “Hey, let’s try this.”
Shay: I went to support somebody else, Chris’s brother. Then we were there… I’m going to run today anyway, so what the heck, may as well race. Then after that, I needed a couple weeks before getting back into normal training. So once we started our first week of training, we went to the Canyon and did a run and, “Well, that wasn’t miserable.” Then I had a ladies group that I was coaching that I had to lead them on an 18-mile run two days later. I did that, and I was like, “Oh, I just did two long runs in a week!”
iRunFar: “Hey, something’s happening!”
Shay: That’s a lot better than normal. After that, we just kind of started really focusing on long runs and made that the priority of our week. We started doing two long runs (per week) in the Grand Canyon so we could get a lot of climbing in and a lot of long descending in. Then we’d come back again a few days later and do it again on tired legs. We just both really responded well to that and felt a big fitness boost right away. We did as much of that as we could. I raced Crown King which is a 30-mile uphill race, so that was a good prep for the first section.
iRunFar: Super-good prep, yeah.
Shay: So, it hasn’t been perfect, but it’s been a decent amount of volume and longer runs within the training block. It’s a little different than I prepared last year, but I think it might be better preparation for the steep running here.
iRunFar: It sounds like it might have been just enough to give you that mental confidence boost of, Yeah, enough happened that I feel good about it.
Shay: Yes, absolutely. Running in the canyon is a big boost if you can just get through it and not have to hike your way out and if you can actually run the whole thing. I think that tool is something that probably gives me more confidence than anything because it’s hard running. There’s no easy way out of that place.
iRunFar: Best of luck to you. It’s great to hear that your heart is healthy. Yeah, we’ll see you out there this weekend.
Shay: Thank you. I’m excited for it.