26 February 2015

I'm an Alpha Gal?

When I was in elementary school, I was lucky enough to have a bunch of friends who hosted sleepovers on a fairly regular basis. We would spend these nights watching scary movies, playing light-as-a-feather-stiff-as-a-board, prank-calling boys in our class, and other classic sleepover activities (that almost never involved sleeping). Eventually, morning would dawn, and the host family would make some sort of breakfast while, most likely, silently grudging how late we kept them up last night with our incessant chatter.

I never liked cold cereal growing up (still don't, actually) so I would always stress about what would be offered for breakfast. Usually, the parents would make something special like waffles or pancakes. But in the rare occasions when cold cereal was the only item on the menu, I tried to avoid it without seeming rude. Sometimes I asked for toast. Other times I said I wasn't hungry. And in one particular instance, I flat-out lied. "I'm allergic to cereal," I remember telling the host mom. In the early 90s, before gluten-free became a thing, I'm fairly certain the host mom thought I was crazy. An allergy? To Cheerios? What a weird little girl.

I've since learned that it's okay to dislike a food item, and haven't experienced any other allergy, to food, medication, plant, animal, or otherwise. That is, until the past 6 months...dun-dun-dunnnnnnnn.
Finish line of Berryman 2014...Jeff, me, Doug, Garrison.
It all started with getting to know my WABAR teammate Mike "The" Garrison. In one of our first "here's what kind of competitor I am" conversations which are so essential to adventure racing success, he mentioned he is allergic to mammalian meat and that consuming it may result in anaphylactic shock (a potentially fatal condition if untreated). This struck me as weird, especially when he explained that he acquired this allergy later in life from tick bites. But as long as he didn't eat beef, pork, rabbit, venison, bison, goat, or any other mammal, he was the same top-notch racer he's always been.
This was 5 days post-race. Not my leg.
I raced with Mike (and Jeff and Doug) at the Berryman Adventure Race in September 2014, and all of us got attacked by seed ticks during one of the trekking sections. As we were paddling away from the TA, Jeff happened to look down to see hundreds of ticks crawling all over his legs. The same thing happened to our friends the WhackaDALI-ans, and in the weeks after the race we had a pretty hilarious "photos of my bug bites" email chain going. I remember eating pepperoni and bacon during that race with no ill affects. But a few weeks later I had pork for dinner and broke out in head-to-toe hives later that evening. Some frantic texts were sent to Garrison, who didn't respond... And also to Carrie Sona who advised me to take a few Benadryl and sleep it off if possible. I did, promptly passed out, and woke up in the morning to significantly reduced hives (or "urticaria" in medical-speak).
After having pork for dinner in October. My leg.
That got my mental wheels turning, and I decided to avoid mammalian meat until my next regularly scheduled doctor check-up a few months down the road. The check-up happened in January 2015, and I got referred to an allergy specialist for February. At the allergist's office, I described my history and self-diagnosis, and she decided to perform skin and blood tests. The skin test came back positive for every mammalian meat they applied: lamb, pork, and beef. She also tested cat which was positive, and chicken was negative as expected. These results were suspicious enough to order blood testing, and we just got those results back this week: I have developed an allergy to alpha-gal.

What is alpha-gal? First, it's a shorthand term used to describe galactose-alpha-1,3-galactose, which is a carbohydrate found in mammalian meat (but not primates or humans). What does that have to do with ticks? Ticks ingest alpha-gal when they bite mammalian hosts...deer, raccoons, possums, etc. Then, ticks transfer alpha-gal to humans when they make a subsequent bite.

Normally, human antibodies (immunoglobulin E in this case specifically) understand that the alpha-gal introduced to the body, either via tick saliva or via ingesting mammalian meat, is no big deal and do not react. The alpha-gal carbohydrate gets digested normally and people go on their merry hamburger-eating way. But in certain cases, especially in instances of historically high tick bite volume, the body misconstrues ingestion of alpha-gal from mammalian meat as a tick onslaught and produces a specific type of immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibody to fight against the invasion. The IgE antibodies bind to the alpha-gal CHOs, producing histamines, which manifest initially as hives and can progress to anaphylaxis.

Alpha-gal allergies are unusual among food allergies in these ways:

  • they are associated with a carbohydrate, and all other food allergies are associated with proteins
  • they manifest 2-4 hours after ingestion, not immediately like most other food allergies
  • they can develop later in life in a person who has previously ingested mammalian meat with no problems
  • the intensity of their reactions can change based on recent tick bite volume, hydration state, and a few other systemic factors.

My interpretation of the whole thing is one more of fascination than of sadness. Sure, I'm going to miss steaks and bratwursts. But I think it is weirdly cool that I had a medical hunch, my doctor believed me, there was a conclusive test available, the test was covered by insurance, and the results were definitive. I've taken steps to replace the lost iron in my diet, which I believe is incredibly important for female athletes, and otherwise have adjusted well to eating a ton of fish and chicken. I'm writing this post to bring some awareness to the issue. Most of the research on the alpha-gal allergy has only been ongoing for the last 10 years.  The connection between red meat and ticks wasn't even made until one of the researchers happened to develop the allergy himself (after a tick bite). Most doctors aren't aware of the condition, but I feel a lot of the people who read this blog spend a lot of time in the woods and may be susceptible. So if you experience head-to-toe hives a few hours after eating mammalian meat (beef, pork, venison, bison, lamb, etc), please consider visiting an allergist and getting tested.


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12 February 2015

Emily's Epic Birthday Adventure 2015: All 31+ Hours

The idea for my 31st birthday party happened in the middle of my 30th birthday party. I was driving home on Saturday morning from Stage 2, the Aerie's 12hr Ultrarun, after running/hiking all night and covering 40 of the hilliest miles in the STL area. I had the entire day to sleep/recover and then was planning to slay a Double Berryman with Dwayne and HH on Sunday morning. I remember thinking I just want to go get my mountain bike and ride The Berryman right now. Screw this wait-and-recover strategy.
The plan.
So for 2015, my 31st birthday, that's what we did. 31 hours, straight through. I planned out a giant loop around St. Louis that incorporated running and biking and 2 ferry rides. Weather in the week leading up to the event melted the singletrack, so we stuck to gravel and pavement and did the whole thing on our cx bikes, which honestly made logistics a TON easier. We had several different combinations of Team Noah Foundation members and friends on each stage - 12 different people in total. And no one person did exactly the same thing, everyone tailored their participation to their interests, fitness, and availability. That was exactly how I wanted this to work. I wanted to plan something on a massive scale, and then have my friends pick and choose how they wanted to participate. Sort of like how DBMFH works, no one person does exactly the same thing but everyone ends up crushed.

Of course this whole event raises money for the Team Noah Foundation, which is my mountain bike team. Last year we raised just over $2,100 and this year we want to do better than that. So if you have a few extra dollars, please click over to our donation site and put them towards a good cause. Team Noah Foundation helps the families of children with a Congenital Heart Defect spend as much time as possible with their kiddos while they are receiving treatment. Dwayne and Bettina, Noah's parents, got to spend 10 beautiful weeks with their baby boy, and want to give other families the gift of that much time or possibly more. So after Noah's death, the Foundation was created and his memory is what we are riding for today.

Bike from Alpine Shop (Kirkwood, MO) to Aerie's Winery (Grafton, IL)
55 miles, mostly road
1600 Friday - 2030 Friday
Thanks Maria for the pic from the Alpine Shop parking lot!
I meet up with Dwayne, Peat, JZ, Chuck, Maria, and Jim in the parking lot of Alpine Shop on Friday afternoon. It's beautiful - sunny and high 50s, RealFeel. It takes a long time for us to get Chuck's tires swapped, admire Peat's new van (with Stow-and-Go and electric doors, holy cats!), get my car packed, etc etc etc but we finally roll out on this adventure around 4pm. There is no rush as we ride through Kirkwood, Webster Groves (hi The Hub!), Forest Park, DeBaliviere, super sweet bike path, then into THE CITY on Goodfellow which is actually not a bad road to ride. Some ladies even stop to chat with us and JZ invites them on our adventure. Smiling, they decline. We make it up to The Circle and then veer east on Riverview, eventually smacking straight into the Riverfront Trail. About then we start turning on our various lighting systems and continue up to the Chain of Rocks Bridge, crossing our fingers that the gates are still open. Even if they weren't, Peat assures us that he's lifted full kegs of beer, and bikes, and trailers, over the locked ones so we're in good hands. Turns out the gates are open, HOLLA!, and we cross the Mighty Mississippi and say goodbye to Maria and Jim (they're allergic to Illinois). Then it's onto the MCT system to bring us northbound to Grafton.
Dwayne and Chuck on the Chain of Rocks Bridge.
Once we pass Alton, it starts to get a bit cold, but thankfully our support car, driven by Matt, is nearby so we stop to get some heavier clothes and he feeds us heart-shaped doughnuts. Then it's flat flat flat roads and bike paths to Grafton which Peat and Dwayne and JZ use to sharpen their high-cadence skills (they are on SS, Chuck and I are on gears). We roll in to Grafton just before 8:30 PM and check in at Race HQ. I see a lot of my running friends but I don't have much time to get ready for the 9:00 PM start. I change shorts, socks, shoes, put on new gaiters, add lights, EAT, quick picture, and then we're off into the next adventure. 4 hours down, 27 to go!

Run Aerie's 12hr Ultramarathon (Grafton, IL)
40 miles, all trail
2100 Friday - 0748 Saturday
Peat, Dwayne, Chuck, me, JZ at the start.
Aerie's is a 12hr race. The course is an almost-5-mile loop that you do as many times as possible in the allotted 12 hours. The loop is pretty heinous - 1,000' of climb (ridic for IL) of mostly trail and some pseudo-bushwhacking. This is a race that rewards constant forward motion over pure speed. So, perfect for me. Robin, the race director, sends us off and Dwayne and I run/hike the first loop together. The course changed from last year and at the major point of deviation, isn't very well marked, so we spend 10 or 15 minutes floundering in the woods trying to figure things out. But we finally do (really it's our fault for not looking at the 2015 map) and settle into 12hr pace. I'm running with 3 other women and I have no idea who 2 of them are...are they fast? I know the third, Melissa, completed 6 laps last year which is no joke so I try to stay ahead of her. My legs actually feel great and it's fun to run! But as we get to Race HQ, she has a lightning-fast transition while I stop for several minutes. So atypical for me but in my rush to make the start, I forgot to take care of some things so I'm forced to do those now (retie shoes, plug in phone, find food, fill bottles, etc).

Laps 2, 3, and 4 are pretty hard, but mostly in my mind. Melissa is staying solidly in front of me by about 5 minutes and I'm starting to crack mentally. I keep telling myself that racing doesn't actually start until the sun rises (about hour 9), but I am trying to run/hike pretty fast and only making up a minute or so on Melissa. I start to project the effort I will need to make up the remaining 4 minutes and that makes my head hurt. I start to doubt that I can win. This is pretty crazy because we are SOOOOOOO not about winning on the Epic Birthday Adventure - it's an ADVENTURE for godssake. But if you've known my last 6 months of solo racing, it's been a mind-screw for me, and 2nd place here will not help that. Thankfully, I hear a familiar voice behind me and it's DWAYNE!! I almost hug him in relief and blabber on about all of my fears and insecurities. Like the good teammate/mentor that he is, he gets my head straightened back out and we move. Not 2 miles later, Melissa appears in front of us, we run with her for a bit, and then motor on up the signature climb on the course, the "Big Long Turd" as named by Jeff in 2014.

Looking back at the splits, we made up 11 minutes on Melissa on Lap 5. 11 minutes is how hard my mind was screwing with my body. That is crazy. Thank you Dwayne.
Final meters of Aerie's 12hr. My number was 34. I got 7th place overall. 7 is special.
Laps 6-8 are all good. I don't feel as great as I did last year (in worse conditions), or as I did a few weeks ago at POCAR in Indiana, but I just try to ignore that and focus on constant forward motion and conversation with Dwayne. We talk about pretty much everything, including bikes that have a treadmill on them and the purpose of time. What is time? Who decided how long a day should be? Is time getting longer? The sunrise on Lap 7 is incredible, despite Dwayne not knowing which way is east. It totally makes up for the fog-fest last year. On Lap 8, the course swings close to the cabin that we've adopted as our HQ and we see JZ outside. We convince him to join us and he even runs a little! We finish the lap, securing the women's win for me and 7th place overall, cheer on the men's winner as he crushes out his TWELFTH LAP!!!

I spend the next hour or so piddling with my bin (adventure racers will appreciate this) and getting ready for Stage 3. Kate rolls in right on time (she rode STL-Grafton solo this morning due to work obligations yesterday) and Ian gets dropped off as well. Chuck, having pushed far past his perceived limits, decides to call it quits and gets a ride home with Matt. The rest of us saddle up and ride out. 16 hours down, 15 to go!

Bike from Aerie's Winery (Grafton, IL) to Bike Stop Cafe (St. Charles, MO)
26 miles, mostly road, 2 ferries
0930 Saturday - 1230 Saturday
Chuck, Dwayne, Adam, Matt, Jason, Kate, Peat, me, Ian. Ready to roll south!
Our first task is to ride 4-ish miles west to the Brussels Ferry. That is mostly on bike path, along with a super-sketch connector trail to the ferry entrance which is pretty fun. We board the ferry with minimal waiting and cruise across the Illinois River with high spirits and a group pic. We're on a ferry!
We are on a ferry!! The Brussels ferry.
Then we land in Calhoun County and have about 11 miles of road riding to do on the way to Golden Eagle Ferry. The nav isn't hard, we just follow the signs, but there is a significant headwind and the start of many rollers. Also the start of my inability to ride a bike in a speedy manner. I have ZERO power in my legs, I am pretty sure because of not eating enough after Aerie's. So I try to eat a bunch of food, but it's kind of difficult to operate the zippers on my pack without stopping. I have no idea why. I'm in a nutritional hole when we reach the Golden Eagle Ferry, but Peat gives me a birthday cookie, SS Kate shares a delicious rice krispie treat, and I eat another bar. The Golden Eagle Ferry ride across the Mississippi River goes well and pretty soon we're in St. Charles County, riding the flat floodplain roads another 11 miles towards lunch.

My favorite moment of this stage happens when we hop onto the Boschert Bike Trail and I see a giraffe. A real giraffe! I start excitedly yelling at everyone, "Hey look at that giraffe over there!!" and then I realize it's a fiberglass giraffe. Not alive. Whomp-whomp.
Adam, Dwayne, Peat, Kate, JZ, and my empty bowl of chili at Bike Stop Cafe.
We take surprisingly well-connected bike paths all the way into St. Charles historic downtown, and begin the search for the Bike Stop Cafe. I know it's just off the Katy Trail but not exactly sure where, so we have a few map checks while Dwayne's stomach growls loudly. Finally, we spot the Cafe and barge inside to do some serious ordering of food. I think everyone buys 2 or 3 meals. I order an egg/avocado burrito, a bowl of veggie chili, and a cup of coffee. We enjoy a relaxed lunch outside on their patio, wait while JZ puts down an extra order of waffles, and then get back on our bikes to take the Katy all the way to The Mound. 19 hours down, 12 to go!

Bike from Bike Stop Cafe (St. Charles, MO) to The Mound (Weldon Spring, MO)
20 miles, mostly road
1330 Saturday - 1600 Saturday
Except, the warm temps (60 RealFeel) have turned the Katy into a soggy, tire-sucking, slow pea-gravelly mess so we decide to re-route on pavement. JZ knows a way through the discombobulated subdivision hell of St. Charles, so we follow his lead through miles of cul-de-sacs and tan vinyl siding. My slight slowness in Calhoun County has devolved into absolute anchor-laden bike riding. I think I ate too much at lunch and now all of my body's blood is in my stomach, trying to digest and distribute those calories. I can't do anything to help the situation either, besides pedal slowly and try not to get too down on myself.

Luckily, my teammates realize what's up and come to my rescue. Dwayne does a ton of pushing, which is crazy because he's on his singlespeed franken-bike (mtb frame, cx tires, thud-buster post, trunk rack, aerobars). Peat even gets in on the fun too with a triple push. Everyone else keeps the pace moderate in front so I don't fall too far behind. Struggle Street can be many lengths, but today it is 20 miles long. Even 20 miles has to end sometime, and finally we cruise through the Research Park and onto the brand-new GRG trail that links up with the Hamburg that leads straight into The Mound. Jeff, Maria, and Melisa are there as a terrific welcoming committee, but my first priority is getting off the Warbird and laying on the pavement for a while. I'm seriously WORKED and I just need some time to digest. Jeff knows exactly what's going on, he's been through this before too, and luckily everyone else finds things to do during the break so it doesn't feel like I'm holding anyone up. 22 hours down, 9 to go!

Bike OT Night Ride Route
30 miles, gravel/road combo
1700 Saturday - 1930 Saturday
Ready to leave The Mound. Thanks Melisa for the pic!
The Mound is a perfect staging point for any variety of mountain bike or gravel rides, so we have plenty of options to choose between. Too many options, almost. In the end we decide to embark on a 30-ish mile loop of gravel and pavement known to many as Rich Pierce's Tuesday Night Ride. We put our own spin on it by using the Lost Valley doubletrack to connect to the Katy. The Katy is pretty soft still, but Peat motivates everyone with "POWER SECTION!!!" yells and we all motor through. I seem to be handling the flats a bit better and can actually hang, sort of, with the group. We get to the base of Terry Rd, one of the larger climbs in the STL area, just as the sun is setting and share my 630-calorie QT PB/Chocolate rice krispie bar as a group. Despite lingering bronchitis, Jeff hangs back and helps push me up Terry. I would be no where without my teammates.

Do you know how long a sunset lasts? Longer than it takes me and Jeff to haul my tired ass up Terry Rd. I keep wanting to stop and enjoy the cloudless perfection, rich oranges and golds silhouetting my friends, their bikes and the bare Missouri woods, but getting going again would take too much effort. So I just steal quick glances here and there, trying to conjure up a sense of gratitude for the beautiful day, however painful it's been.

We bomb down the pavement to Defiance, have a quick group conference to discuss gin shots at the biker bar, decide against them, then get back on the Katy towards home. Again, I can hang with the group on the flats but once we hop onto the Hamburg and its slow uphill grunt, I'm off the back again. But Peat sticks back to chat so we have a great time grinding out the final-ish miles. 25 hours down, 6 to go!

Hike Clark Loop of Lewis & Clark
5 miles, insanely muddy trail
2030 Saturday - 2230 Saturday
Now, the real purpose of sticking in some running-slash-hiking-slash-oh-come-on-you-really-thought-we'd-be-running-at-this-point?-Hiking-FTW! was simply to give our butts a break from the bike saddle before the final ride home. Also I wanted to introduce my cycling friends to some hike-only trails, which happen to be my favorite in MO. So we say goodbye to Jeff (thank you so much for driving support), hello to Yvonne, and switch into our running shoes for some time on foot. Yvonne tells us the story of the Love Connection trail as we access the Lewis & Clark trail system and start the Clark Loop. And we find a lot of mud.
Maybe not as much mud as Adventure Racing World Championships 2014 in Ecuador, but almost! And it's dark!  We all spread out along the super-muddy trail, gingerly picking our way towards the bluff overlook. Maria turns back to save her newly-purchased running shoes before we get there. We spend a few minutes watching the moon rise at the overlook and I'm excited to start my second night of no sleep, which is uncharted territory for me during endurance sports. Sure, I've done a bunch of 24-hour races, even staying up a second night to cheer other teams on, but I've never actually pushed straight through the second night on foot or bike. After some nice group time at the overlook, Dwayne, Ian, Adam, JZ, Yvonne, and I press on, leaving Kate and Peat to retrace their steps back to The Mound (Peat's hip is still recovering from Aerie's).

My hip flexor isn't feeling awesome either, but my desire to do the "whole" Epic Birthday Adventure is stronger than the discomfort so I slog through the remaining 3 miles. It doesn't sound like long, especially to me since I've ran this loop so many times, but tonight it is long. So long, and full of mud that each step is like a slip-n-slide. Mud cakes onto my shoes, adding to the load my overworked hip flexor has to deal with. Yvonne chats with me for a while, and I grab a stick to function like a trekking pole, but eventually it's just me, alone in the woods following the faster progress of 5 bobbing headlamps in front of me. They wait for me every so often, but honestly in my emotional state it's better to just be alone, and somehow everyone understands that without saying anything and lets me bring up the rear.

The miles tick by so, so slowly. I get sadder and sadder. I cry a little. I know this is normal and a sign of being pushed to the limit, which is exactly what I asked for when planning a 31-hour birthday party. Whose idea was this anyway? Oh yeah, mine. I encourage myself by drawing on the strength of my friends - Peat refusing to let a broken hip ruin his bike racing. Adventure racers worldwide who battle through 12" of mud like it's a road 5k. Dwayne and Bettina absorbing more pain than I'll ever know after losing Noah. I can deal with a whiny hip flexor for 1 more mile. Finally, The Mound comes back into view and I tumble into the Interpretive Center, eager to sit down, eat something, and saddle up for the final part of tonight's journey. 27 hours down, 4 to go!

Bike from The Mound (Weldon Spring, MO) to Alpine Shop (Kirkwood, MO)
30 miles, gravel/road combo
2330 Saturday - 0300 Sunday
After returning to The Mound, we find out that Peat and Kate have already started their ride back to Alpine Shop, so it's me, JZ, Dwayne, Adam, and Ian left for the remaining 30 miles. Maria and Yvonne make sure we've got everything we need and then wish us good luck as we connect back into the Research Park and onto the Katy. Before we cross the Missouri River on the Page Bridge, we stop at the gas station across the street in hopes of pizza. No pizza, but they do have coffee, hot chocolate, turkey wraps, and potato chips, all excellent sources of fuel for a midnight ride.
Real cyclists eat on the curb. Eyeballs.
Engines re-stoked, we crush out the Page Extension bike path and decide to execute a rare climb up Marine. During normal daylight hours, the climb is a bit sketch given its frequent traffic, limited sight lines, and no shoulder, but tonight it's perfect. I haven't regained any climbing power but everyone waits at the top and we cobble together a route back to Kirkwood using Craig and New Ballas. The pace is easy and I'm reminded about the joys of urban night riding - no traffic!! Dwayne gives me some more pushes and finally we're rolling into the Alpine Shop parking lot and our waiting vehicles. DONE AT 3:00 AM!

There wasn't much to do once we finished. No finish line, no crowds, just a quiet parking lot. Ian and Adam still had to ride home to their houses, an extra 45-ish minutes, and they both refuse rides from me. Studs. I say goodbye to Dwayne and JZ and we just all drive away. So simple and so complicated.

I knew that 31 hours was going to be hard. We ended up being outside a long longer than that, thanks to several leisurely stops for meals and changing clothes. For me, I woke up Friday 0600 and went to sleep Sunday 0400. 46 hours awake and 31 doing some form of exercise is great prep for a 72-hour race I have next month in Florida. We covered more than 160 miles on our bikes, and everyone had different foot miles, about 45 for me. But more than numbers, the support I felt from my friends and teammates was far beyond anything I'd expected. It's hard to explain, maybe I can only explain it to someone in the woods at 3:00 AM, but to everyone who joined in on this Epic Birthday Adventure, thank you for picking me up when I was hurting and telling me my crazy plans were not crazy at all. They just take a long time.

Also thank you Noah for the stunning weather.

Please consider a donation at http://www.plumfund.com/pf/teamnoah15 if you can :). Fundraiser closes Friday 13-Feb at midnight!

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