Being motivated to get in shape is understandable. Running a few races to burn calories is also easy to grasp, but running 100 miles, which takes hours and hours, is a little tougher to wrap your head around. Not for Helen Fong who recently finished her third 100 miler competing in the Rio Del Lago (RDL) race in early November. Helen is a Placer County Public Defender. She’s not only a litigator but a wife and mother as well. Helen’s daughter was only a few weeks old when she started the intense training for RDL. The journey to compete in and finish this race had its ups and downs. Helen shares her inspiration to make it to the finish line and how this race was different than any other, especially at the aid stations.
Q: Let’s start with how you got involved in endurance running.
A: I started running in 2010 and worked my way up to a half marathon. After running a few half marathons, I trained for a marathon in 2011. While training for the marathon, I signed up for the Run on the Sly 20 Mile Race, not knowing it was a trail race. The race kicked my butt but gave me a little taste of ultra trail running so after my marathon, I signed up for my first 50k in early 2012. My endurance running kind of took off from there, especially since I’ve been wanting to run the Western States 100 since 2012.
Q: Were you able to keep up your vigorous running schedule when you were pregnant?
A: I didn’t run any ultras while pregnant but did try to keep running as best as I could. In the first trimester, I hardly ran as I had really bad morning sickness and was exhausted all the time. In the second trimester, I started running again and finished a couple marathons and then some shorter races. In the third trimester, I ran shorter races and I think my last was a 5k at 36 weeks. I didn’t really stick to a regular running schedule. Most of my running was based on feel and a bit slower than my non-pregnant running. I just did what felt good to me. Towards the end, there was more walking than running.
Q: Walk us through your training for the Rio Del Lago 100 Mile Endurance Race which took place shortly after you had your baby.
A: I did a lot of training on a treadmill. About four weeks after having my baby, I started easing my way back into running. I started off walking and doing one minute runs. Then, I slowly built up my time running. My running legs seemed to remember how to run but I had no cardio so it took awhile to get my cardio back. It was slow going for awhile (I am still slower than I was pre-pregnancy).
Most of my running was done at night on the treadmill after putting the baby down to sleep. I think the treadmill running was also good in getting me some good mental training for RDL as it can be a bit of a grind at times. After I started building up my miles, my husband was great watching the baby so I could get some of my long training runs done. I didn’t run as much as I did before my last 100 milers. Instead, I focused more on quality running over quantity running. Around 10 weeks, I ran my first postpartum (pp) 20 miler. At 15 weeks, I ran my first pp 26.2. At four months pp, I ran the Folsom Lake Ultra and got just shy of 50 miles before quitting. It was a rough race for me but ended up being a really good benchmark training run for RDL.
Q: This is your second time running the Rio Del Lago. How was this race different than the first time?
A: When I did RDL two years ago, it was my first 100 miler so I had a lot of that first time anxiety. In all endurance events, you go through a number of ups and downs. While I did run faster then, I did go through many intense “down” moments during the race – painful blisters, digestive problems, sleep-walking, emotional breakdowns, etc.
This year, I didn’t really have that pre-race anxiety. I felt confident in my ability to endure through the race though I did worry about being away from my husband and baby for so long. There were definitely some tough moments but I don’t really think I had any major problems during this race. I think things executed better this time than two years ago. In this race, I also had to factor in pumping during the race. I had a plan of which aid stations I would have my breast pump set up so I could pump. I also had to factor in the extra time it would take me to pump so I made sure I was much more efficient at other aid stations. I pumped at mile 19. I was supposed to pump again at miles 35 and 52 but since my baby was there (and awake), I chose to just breastfeed her at the aid station since breastfeeding is a lot easier than pumping. Stopping to pump or breastfeed didn’t really impede too much on my race as I used the time to refuel. Also, it was nice getting a little snuggle time with my baby. That gave me a good mental boost.
This year, when I finished, I didn’t go sprinting into the finish line like I normally do. Instead, I carried my baby with me across the finish line. That was a pretty special moment.
Q: You are part of three running groups. Tell us about your involvement in each group.
A: The first running group I joined is Java Joggers. Since it was my first group, I’ll always be a faithful Java Jogger. They helped me train for my first half marathon and marathon. When I started running trails, I joined the Folsom Trail Runners and have been pretty active in that group since 2012. Java Joggers and Folsom Trail Runners are definitely my running family. I’ve developed many wonderful friendships and gained immense inspiration from those groups. The Auburn Moms Run This Town group is a group I joined while I was pregnant. I have not had too much involvement with that group but it’s been nice getting to meet some other local running moms. I am hoping to run with them more in the future.
Q: Why do ultra trail runners eat real food along the route and marathon runners don’t?
A: I am not sure exactly but I think it may be because in marathons, people are generally running with a more intense effort (trying to maintain a particular pace) and are out there for a shorter time. For ultras, I am not quite as focused on maintaining as fast of a pace as in a marathon and don’t mind taking the extra time to eat some real food. In the longer distances, I really need the extra calories from real food. My stomach can only handle eating gels for so long. I will say, I have eaten a little real food in some marathons. I believe some of the elite ultra athletes running at high intensity and out there for a shorter amount of time than me, tend not to eat too much real food.
Q: What are your running goals for 2016?
A: I am really hoping to get into the Western States 100. When I finished RDL, I re-qualified for Western States. But, I have to wait and see if my name gets pulled in the lottery. My name was pulled last year for the 2015 Western States but because I had my baby in June, I couldn’t run it and you are not allowed to roll it over. I’m currently signed up for the Salmon Falls 50k and the Canyons 100k. I may enter the Lake Sonoma 50 lottery too. Other than those races, one of my goals in 2016 is working on getting some of my speed back.