Tuesday, May 29, 2012
Tales from the Furnace: Alexa Dickerson Pre-Race Q&A
Alexa Dickerson, 24, is an ultrarunner and Crossfit coach from Orange County, California. On July 16, 2012, Alexa will run 135 miles nonstop through Death Valley, in the legendary Badwater Ultramarathon. This year, she is the second youngest Badwater entrant and is one of the youngest female Badwater entrants in the race's 25 year history. I had the opportunity to talk with Alexa about her running career and what inspired her to sign up for "the world's toughest footrace." She will be running to raise money for the Dreamchaser Foundation, a charity in which the proceeds go directly to help AIDS orphans in developing countries. The following is a transcript of our conversation:
Why do you run?
That’s kind of a tough question. I just enjoy being outside. I’ve never been big into team sports and I like doing stuff on my own. I like the alone time. I like exploring the outdoors. I also like the competitive side of racing. I like that, since I put in all the effort, if I suck in a race, it’s all on me. I cannot blame teammates. I enjoy it.
Have you always been an athlete, Alexa?
I started doing track and cross country in high school, and before that, I did gymnastics in elementary and junior high. But, nothing super competitive. I just did it because it was fun. I started running during my freshman year of high school, and I’ve pretty much been running ever since.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Orange County, California. I’ve been here my whole life.
Was athletics a big part of your upbringing?
I was never forced to do a sport. My parents encouraged me to do it if I enjoyed it, but they never forced me into anything. I never really liked competitive team sports, like basketball or baseball. My dad had done track in high school and he was pretty good, so that’s what led me to try out for the track team when I got to high school. I thought, “I’ll try it out and see if I like it.” But I wasn’t really good at sports before that.
How did you get into ultrarunning?
I started ultrarunning when I was 19. I was a sophomore in college when I did my first 50k. At that time, I had done one marathon – I did the San Diego Rock 'n' Roll Marathon in 2007 – and two months later, I signed up for my first 50k and finished that. It was the Mount Disappointment 50k.
How did you find out about ultras?
When I was training for my first marathon, I didn’t know what I was doing or how to train. One of my stepdad's friends was training for the marathon and he was in a running club. My stepdad introduced us, and I ended up joining the running club so I could have people to train with. It turned out that several of the people in the running club ran ultras. So, after hearing about that for a little while, I decided to sign up for the 50k trail race because it sounded like a lot more fun than a road race.
How did you feel after the race?
I felt horrible! I mean, I loved it; I loved the experience. But, I don’t think I was really prepared for it. It took me 9 hours and 16 minutes, which is a very long time for a 50k. [Laughs]. I didn’t really know how to fuel properly, and it was in the mountains in August, so it was also really hot, and I hadn’t done much heat training or mountain running. So I didn’t go in prepared. After the race, I was so sore. I could barely walk the next day. It took me a while to recover. I remember I could barely run for like the next month. But, I finished. It was an amazing feeling of accomplishment. And I was hooked.
I’d imagine a lot of people would go through something like that and say, “No more. I’ve had it with these distances.” But, you didn't say that. What is it that had you coming back to ultras after that first experience?
It was just fun being out there in the mountains. I also just liked the feeling of doing something really hard and finding out what I am capable of. That feeling of accomplishment you have at the end of a race just makes it all worth it. And, back to what I said earlier about not liking team sports: when you finish a race, you get to say, “I did this because of me, all by myself." I really like that. It fills you with pride. Another thing is that the people I was running with were super nice and friendly.
What do you think you get out of racing these kinds of distances versus what you might get out of, say, a 5k or a 10k or even a marathon?
In a 100 mile race, there is a lot more to it than just being in shape. In a 5k, you train for it, you get in shape, and I guess small things could go wrong during the race, but probably nothing major. In a 100 miler, there are so many other aspects to it. Blisters can take you out. Or bad nutrition. It’s more of an adventure. Everything has to fall into place in order for you to do well and finish. It just makes things more exciting. I also just like the feeling of being completely trashed. [Laughs]. I know that sounds weird.
Well, you know, I think that’s interesting. I think pain and exhaustion are an important part of these events, and I’d actually like to come back to that topic a little later on. Now, you graduated from Cal State Fullerton in 2010. What did you major in?
And you were still running throughout college?
Yes, I was.
Did you find it difficult to achieve a balance between running and school life?
At some points it got hard. But, I’ve never been a super high mileage person. I always did my long runs on the weekend. And, during the week, I didn’t really run super high mileage. So it was easy. Well, not easy. But, manageable. And I worked at a gym. When I was in college, I worked at 24 Hour Fitness. And now, I work at a Crossfit gym. It’s easy to find time to work out when you work at a gym.
And what is Genr8?
Genr8 is the company that makes Vitargo. I do sales for them part-time. I’m also one of their sponsored athletes.
Tell me about that. Why do you like Genr8?
I was actually introduced to the product by my boyfriend. He is a partner in the company. Genr8 is the company and Vitargo is the product. Vitargo is one of those super carbs. It’s extracted from barley. It gets out of your stomach and into your muscles over two times faster than maltodextrin. Maltodextrin is what is in GU gels and CytoMax. Since it gets out of your stomach quicker, you can actually take in a lot more calories per hour. We have athletes taking in 1,100 calories an hour, and they have no bloating or stomach issues. It’s a pretty cool product. It’s a small company right now, but I like that. I get to go to trade shows and talk to other athletes. I like it because I know the company. They are reputable. We have university research behind our product that proves it works, so I know it is going to work for me during my races.
Will this be your main fuel at Badwater?
What is your boyfriend's name?
Does he run?
Yes, he actually ran Badwater last year, and he is running it this year, too.
Are you going to run it together?
No, he is a lot faster than me. He got 6th place overall last year. He is in the 10 am start this year.
Is competition ever an issue in the relationship?
Obviously, we get kind of competitive with each other. I may joke around and say something like, “Oh, I’m going to beat you at Badwater.” But, he is a lot faster than me, so that’s probably not going to happen unless I have a really great race and he just blows up completely. But, I can tell that even when I joke, he doesn’t really like it. [Laughs]. It’s never really an issue, though. We both got into ultrarunning before we met each other.
How did you meet?
We both did the Coastal Challenge Stage Race. And we both did the Javelina Jundred. Not together, but we were both signed up and it was both of ours first 100 miler. That was back in 2009. We had a mutual friend, and before Javelina, I had gotten a stress fracture in my foot. Mark, who has been injured tons of times, had stress fractures before. So, he had this machine called a bone stimulator. [Laughs]. Sounds really funny. But, it helps heal bones. Basically, our friend introduced us so he could help heal my stress fracture before Javelina. And then we just started hanging out, and that eventually led to dating.
Do you train together?
We train separately because of our schedules. Sometimes we’ll run together on weekends. But, he has his way of training and I have my way of training. But, we’ll go to races together and we’ll do big stuff together, like go around the Grand Canyon or, sometimes when we go on vacation, like when we went to Cabo last year, we’ll run together on vacation. But, during a normal week, we usually train separately.
Between work and running, does spending that time apart ever become challenging?
I try not to let it affect me too much. I get a little jealous sometimes when he goes to do a race with friends and I don’t. But, running has always been his thing before me. And I had my running before I met him, so I think it’s good for us to do it separately. It’s our time alone from each other.
What do your parents think about your running career? Are they supportive?
I don’t think my mom was very excited when I found out I got into Badwater. I made the mistake of showing her the movie “Running on the Sun” a couple of years ago. So, of course she got this picture in her head of how dangerous the race is and people dying on the side of the road and stuff like that. And I tell her, “Mom, I have a crew. They are going to be with me every step of the way. I will get pulled from the race before anything ever gets that bad.” And, she has come around a lot more to the idea. She’s totally fine with it now, and I think, really excited for me. I don’t really speak to my dad that much, but I think he’s proud of me for getting in.
Will your mom be at Badwater?
No. My mom said she’d crew if I wanted her to, but I don’t really want her to.
Because you think she’d be worried?
I just don’t know how she’d do in that kind of heat. She’s not an experienced ultrarunner. She crewed me for my first 100 miler. But, this is different. I just don’t want her to see me if I am in really bad shape. Because then she will pull the “mom card” and say something like, “Oh, it’s okay for your to stop.” She’s seen me in bad situations in races before, but I think this just might be a little too extreme for her. I’d rather not have her there.
Alexa, what was the toughest moment you ever had during a race?
I think it was Western States in 2010. I was having a bad race. I was struggling to make cutoff times. I made the overall cutoff time by just five minutes. The last ten miles, every time I came into an aid station, I was making it by, like, a minute. I was cutting it really close. And then I had people yelling at me to get in and out of the aid station in less than a minute. And this was 95 miles into a race. It was very stressful. And I was already feeling like crap. That was not fun. Worst way to finish a race.
How did you first hear about Badwater?
I heard about it in high school. I just remember hearing about this crazy race out in Death Valley and that the most elite runners did it. I think I read about it, too, in runner magazines. When I got into ultras, I started hearing more about it. Then, I was asked to crew for it in 2009. Once I crewed for it, I knew I wanted to do it. I didn’t know that I’d be doing it so soon, though.
Who did you crew for?
How did you like the crewing experience?
I loved it. It was a lot of hard work, but it was such a cool experience. Seeing all the runners out there in the middle of the desert was just absurd and really, really cool. And Death Valley was just so awesome. It was super hot! [Laughs]. And it had more hills than I thought it would. It's funny, when I heard about the race, I just thought the main factor was the heat. I thought it was hot and flat. I didn’t realize the mountain ranges you go through are pretty tough. So, that was a learning experience. I just loved the whole experience. It made me want to race it myself.
What made you sign up this year? Take me through your thought process. You're sitting in front of your computer. You're filling out the application...
I wanted to do it last year because Mark was doing it last year and I wanted us both to do it together. But, I needed three 100 milers, and I DNF’ed what would have been my third 100. That was Javelina 2010. I got injured. So, I couldn’t apply. He applied. Got in. And, of course, I was really jealous that he got in and I didn’t. So, I applied this year. I filled out the application in New Orleans. There was a 126 mile race I did that I had to drop out of. Mark was crewing me. I had been injured off and on. For some reason, a week before the race, my injury flared up really bad. I had a popliteal and calf injury that I had developed during Javelina a few months prior. But, I still wanted to go out there and try to finish. During the race though it flared up really badly, and by mile 55 it was so bad. I had wanted to sit in the crew car for an hour and let it calm down but [Mark] said no. He had seen me limping since about mile 15, and it was just getting worse and worse. So, he made me call it a day. He didn't want me to keep going and do permanent damage. I was pretty upset. I was so pissed. I had wanted to use that race on my Badwater application. In order to apply you need a minimum of three 100 milers. I was already planning on applying, but I didn’t want to just have the minimum qualifications. I wanted to have more than that to boost my chances of getting in. But, I was so upset that I dropped that the next day when I woke up, I just filled out the application. It wasn’t that I needed to prove myself. I just needed something else to look forward to. I already knew I was going to apply, but the drop just made me more motivated to do it.
Were you expecting to get in? Or was it a surprise?
I guess I kind of thought I would get in because I’m a female and I’m a younger female and there aren’t too many young females who do the race. I guess I kind of expected it. It wasn’t a complete shock that I got in.
Now, you are being coached by a very accomplished woman. Tell me about Lisa Smith-Batchen and how that relationship came about.
I knew Lisa had done Badwater plenty of times. She had sent me an e-mail saying congrats for getting in and offering advice if I needed any help. Then, I saw that other runners had been coached by her. And I was reading a book. I forgot what it’s called. It was a book where each chapter talks about a different Badwater runner.
Scott Luwig’s "A Few Degrees From Hell"?
Yes! That one! And there were a few chapters where people said, “Oh, Lisa was my coach.” So, I e-mailed her asking her how she coached and how much she charges and so on. We talked about it on the phone, and we just hit it off. I knew that she knew what she was doing and would be a good coach. And we got along really well. And after we talked, she asked me if I wouldn’t mind running for a charity. Of course, when she explained how we would be helping kids and AIDS orphans, there was just no way that I could say no to something like that. It just sounded like a good cause. It just helps motivate me even more.
Have you always felt you trained better under a coach?
Yes and no. When I was training for Western States, I had a coach who was an ultrarunner and was a big promoter of Crossfit Endurance. We kind of argued and our personalities conflicted a lot. Even though I did feel like I was getting in shape under him, I didn’t feel like it was enough for a 100 miler. I think if the personalities are right and if the training philosophies are in sync, having a coach can be great. I can do really well under a coach. With Lisa, I just love her coaching. I love the workouts that she has me doing. With Brian, it was just too much of a conflict. But, for most of my ultras, I’ve actually just trained myself or I’ve taken advice from Mark. But, something as big as Badwater, I feel like I need a coach to make sure I’m not overtraining or undertraining. I just need to make sure that I’m doing things right because this is such a big race. I definitely don’t want to screw it up.
What kind of training schedule are you on?
She has me doing a lot of different things, which I like. This week is kind of my recovery week because I’m in between races. I did a marathon on Sunday and I ran a 50k on Saturday. But, usually she gives me all kinds of stuff. She incorporates hill work. She’ll have me do something like an 8 mile hill run, and have me run hard on the uphills and hard on the downhills and keep the flats at an easy pace. Or she’ll have me walk on a treadmill at an incline. I probably never would have programmed myself to walk on a treadmill at an incline, but obviously that’s going to be super important for Badwater because, clearly, I’m not going to be running up all those hills. I need to get used to walking. I also have easy days where I walk. Some days I go hard on just the hills. Some days I go hard the whole time. She also has me doing intervals, like do a half mile hard then a half mile easy. Stuff like that. It’s good that it’s not just putting in mile after mile with no rhyme or reason. Every workout has a purpose. She has me doing lots of cross training, too, like doing 15 minutes on the rower at a good pace or she’ll have me bike. She asked me to keep doing Crossfit, too. That's good because I won't get burned out on just running. I get to do other fun stuff.
Do you know what your peak weekly mileage will be prior to the race?
I don’t know. She gives me my schedules about a week or two weeks at a time. But, I don’t think she’ll have me going much over 70 miles. I think that’s what she said her max is. It’s totally manageable.
What time of the day do you like to train?
Usually, I run in the afternoons. I’m not much of a morning person. [Laughs]. Sometimes, I’ll train in the mornings, but it’s rare. It takes me a while to wake up and get in the mood to go workout. I’ll wake up, eat breakfast, do whatever I need to do around the house. Usually, I’ll workout at 12:30 pm. I teach a class from 12:30 pm to 1:30 pm, and then I have a three to four hour break. So, I’ll run during my break. Then, I don’t start working again until 4:30 when I teach my evening classes.
How do you eat?
I eat pretty well for the most part. I try to follow the Paleo Diet. The Caveman Diet. I try to eat as many natural foods as possible. The only thing I eat that’s not Paleo is probably rice. Sometimes I just can’t get enough carbohydrates on fruits and vegetables; I need more calories. Usually, for breakfast, I’ll eat eggs and then either rice or sweet potatoes or sometimes vegetables. I eat really well for a majority of the time.
Where is your favorite place to do your training runs?
Most of the time, I like to trail run, just because road running gets so boring. And you have lights and traffic on the road and it just takes forever stopping and starting and stopping again. But, there are some good roads out by where we live. There’s one road through Santiago Canyon that’s pretty scenic. But, I still like doing trail runs. I like to do El Moro, which is down by the beach. I train there a lot.
Do you run with music?
Yes, I always run with my iPod. I listen to all sorts of stuff. I’ll listen to pop stuff, like Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga, and all that sort of girly music. I’ll also listen to Eminem or Linkin Park. Anything that has a good beat or rhythm to it and will keep me moving. It just depends what kind of mood I’m in. But, I pretty much listen to anything.
Are you heat training?
Well, I need to start actually. [Laughs]. I need to start getting in the sauna sometime soon. I need to talk to Lisa about that. Right now, I’m just trying to run when it’s hot out. But, I’ll probably start heat training soon. One of the good things about dating someone who has run Badwater is that we make trips out to Palm Springs, which gets almost as hot as it will be in Death Valley. We’re also going to go down to Mexico next month to get some heat training in.
Do you have a time goal in mind for the race?
I would like to be somewhat competitive. If I could get in the 30 hour range, I would be thrilled. But, who knows what could happen? But, 30 would have me stoked.
Going back to what we were talking about in the beginning about pain: What is your philosophy on pain? How do you handle it during a race? Do you love the pain of an ultra?
I don't love it. Although, I know that pain is a big part of an ultra, so maybe I do love it. It is sort of self-inflicted. [Laughs]. I guess I just like the idea of pushing yourself really hard. If you’re running a shorter distance, like a 5k, you finish and you feel good and that's it. I feel like if you run far, like a 100 miler, and you’re hurting, it just makes it feel so worthwhile. Knowing that you ache all over is kind of a good feeling. But, I don't know if I love pain. It’s not like I’m running and I say, “Oh yes! My knee hurts!” [Laughs]. But, knowing that you pushed through something that difficult and that you overcame it, that’s what feels good.
At 24, you are the second youngest Badwater entrant this year. How does that feel?
Well, I wanted to be the youngest. I was kind of disappointed when I saw there was someone younger than me. For girls, I mean. I know there have been a couple of guys who have been younger. Me and Claire will be some of the youngest girls to ever do Badwater, which is a pretty cool feeling. I just feel like there are a lot of girls – this is going to sound bad – who don’t push themselves. It’s just kind of cool that we are in our early 20s and we are doing this huge event and not many other girls would even want to attempt something like that.
No, not really. I’ll get nervous, but I’ll be prepared. 135 miles is a long way to go. You have a lot of miles to screw up and then fix it. It’s not like a 5k where you’re done in 20 minutes. I feel like in this long of a race, you just take it one step at a time and deal with stuff as it comes up. It doesn’t help much to get too worried about it beforehand. I’m more excited than scared. It’s a race. I’ll do it. It will be hard. Definitely the hardest thing I have ever done. But, I'll do it.