Monday, September 19, 2011

Pisgah Mountain 50k - Race Report

Where do you begin with a race report that culminates with a 35-minute course PR? (I've been trying to type the next sentence for about 10 minutes.) Honestly, I surprised myself. I hadn't even committed to running until after last weekend's race. I figured that if I made it through the Bradbury Bruiser unscathed, it was worth taking a chance with the ankle at Pisgah. After all, D was running, and if I'm driving all that way...

The success at this race, really starts on Saturday evening when we drove to my parents' house, as they offered to watch the kiddo for the day, while D and I raced. It takes a village to run ultras. So, on Sunday morning, D and I hit the road at about 5:30 after a horrendous night's sleep due to the aforementioned kiddo. I was basically awake from about 3:45 on. Good times. Luckily, the drive was uneventful and after about two hours, we arrived at the epicenter of the universe, aka Chesterfield, NH. I registered, chatted with a whole host of familiar faces, downed a Red Bull, and then it was time to race.

The start wasn't the most organized affair, but I soon fell into a comfortable place and pace running alongside Nick Tooker, whom I met last year at Pisgah. We chatted the whole way up the road that leads to the park, but he soon took off on the first downhill on his way to a 10th place finish in the 23k. Interestingly enough, I met Nick as we walked up that very same road in 2010. I ran it this year. That would be a recurring theme throughout the day.

I rolled along very comfortably passing a couple people in the first few miles until I caught fellow Mainer, Peter Keeney, shortly before the water cache at 5 miles, which we rolled through at around 44:00. I immediately noted what I already knew: that was faster than last year. I tried hard to not compare this year to last because I didn't want to get too up or too down depending on how I was faring, but it was really hard not to. I wanted to make certain the 2011 race was a completely separate experience from the 2010 race. So, I tried very hard in the early miles to stay focused on how I was feeling in the moment. And, I came face to face with that dichotomy as I led Peter along the Dogwood Swamp Trail and the first major climb of the race. Last year, I slowed, dumbfounded by the climb, to a walk. This year, I ran 95% of it, and it felt fairly easy.

Peter and I ran alone chatting the entire time until just before the 8-mile aid station when we caught another runner, and the three of us arrived at approximately 1:15. I downed a cup of Gatorade and started up the long climb that follows. I walked a few of the steeper bits allowing the other two to pull ahead, but I soon reached the top thinking that it wasn't nearly as big of a climb as I remembered. I passed Peter just before the top and soon caught the other runner who introduced himself as Jonathan from Rhode Island. He actually recognized me from my blog, which I found hilarious...someone reads this! He was running his first 50k and asked me what I ran last year and if I knew our pace. "Well, last year I ran 5:25, and we're quite a bit ahead of that now. In fact, 12 minutes ahead at the last aid station." So, there I was comparing again.

As we turned right onto the Chestnut Hill Trail, Jonathan got a bit ahead of me as we climbed, and I downed a package of margarita Clif Shot Bloks. Once you crest the climb, you hit the most technical/unrunnable section of the entire course—very rooty, wet, rocky, uneven, fraught with death. It was the first time in the race that I worried about and was slowed by my ankle. I was cautious, yet still rolled it a couple times. Luckily, the strength has returned fairly quickly, so each time was without incident. I caught Jonathan once things became more runnable, and we chatted all the way into the 12-mile aid station with Peter just behind. I paused to refill a bottle with Nuun, giving Peter enough time to sneak out ahead of me, but Jonathan was behind and I wouldn't see him until after the finish.

In my memory, the stretch after the aid station was flat and really runnable. Not so much with the flat. It climbed a fair amount after the aid station, which I mentioned to Peter as I passed him for the final time. I also caught and passed another runner here shortly before turning left on the Reservoir Trail, which is my favorite section of the entire race. I felt great here last year, and things were no different this time around. I picked up the pace (as much as the terrain allows), feeling relaxed, and ran alone all the way to the 17-mile aid station.

Reaching the aid station in about 2:39, it was now clear to me that my Garmin was coming up a bit short. So, I knew that my pace was a bit better than what it was reading. I also knew that my pace was pretty solid. I was 3 hours at this point in 2010, which was a key moment in the race, because I had hoped to be at mile 20 in three hours. Needless to say, my spirits were high at this point, and I joked with the volunteers about not having hot dogs available as I downed a cup of Gatorade and a few potato chips before taking off. But, before I left, they informed me I was in 23rd place. Hmmm... If the race played out the same as last year, I may be able to pick off a few runners and sneak into the top 20. Let's go climb Pisgah Ridge!

Less that 10 minutes out of the aid station, I looked up and saw 22nd place. I was walking up steep section, but I could tell I was moving faster than he was. As I was getting close, he passed another runner, and I quickly moved by both of them. Hmmm... 21st place. There has to be another guy out there I can get. This was great motivation as I negotiated the Pisgah Ridge, which is probably a nice trail if it didn't come 18 miles into a 50k, and you're not trying to race. However, during the race, it's just hard. The view of Mt. Monadnock is nice...but not that nice. That being said, I rolled into the aid station at 20 miles in 3:09 getting cheers from Nick who had finished and was out to support his 413 peeps. I filled another bottle with Nuun and was off onto the dreaded Kilburn Loop.

The Kilburn Loop: Where dreams go to die.
It starts off so runnable and enjoyable, but soon devolves into the worst place on earth. I passed one runner on the downhill section. Hmmm... That's top 20. This was good. My legs were bad however. I'd been feeling my quads since about the ten-mile mark along with a blister on my left heel just for shits and grins. I was a bit worried how I was going to hold up in the final third of the race. But, luckily, the Kilburn Loop really sums up ultrarunning: just keep moving. Feeling good about getting into the top 20 (keep in mind, I was 28th last year), I hit the "bottom" of the loop which feels like it should be half way around but is really only about a third...of time, anyway...and saw another runner up ahead. He was looking back. "Yup, I'm coming to get you, mofo." I actually said that out loud. Anything to motivate at this point in the race. It took me a while to catch him, and he wasn't too thrilled to let me by, but I was stoked to move into 19th. A few minutes later, I caught a runner who was walking/stumbling. That's 18th. Of course, the numbers mean nothing because I was slowly becoming a walking/stumbling mess myself. Unlike the Pisgah Ridge, I can't think of any time when I'd want to be on the Kilburn Loop. Everyone struggles around this thing. I would find myself inexplicably walking for a few strides on sections that were eminently runnable. At one point, I said out loud, "Get me outta here." There's even a section that looks very similar to the end, but it's not the end. It keeps going. I hate the Kilburn Loop.

In a moderate stroke of genius, I had actually had timed myself the first time through the section of trail that repeats the end of the Pisgah Ridge/Kilburn Loop/into the aid station. (Look at the map, since I've described this poorly.) It was about 6 minutes the first time through, and at the end of the Kilburn Loop, I laughed out loud. I was going to hit the final aid station at 25 miles in exactly 4 hours leaving me with a hour to break 5 hours. "That's cruel."

Along with the joy of the Kilburn Loop, my stomach had also started to turn on me near the end. I was due to take another gel at the final aid station, but food intake was not happening. (I'd taken something every half hour up until then: Gu-Espresso, Clif Shot-Razz, Clif Shot Bloks-Margarita, Honey Stinger Waffle, Clif Shot-Razz, Hammer Gel-Vanilla, Clif Shot Bloks-Margarita) The nausea came on completely without warning, and I've never had a similar feeling either training or racing. Ah...ultras. Luckily, I'd brought along a couple ginger chews with me, and I stuffed one in my cheek for the next couple miles. I really believe this saved me from puking.

I left the aid station in 3:59 and change. While I was gingerly (pun intended) drinking a cup of water, another runner had come in, splashed a couple cups of Gatorade into his bottle and took off. I clearly didn't have that kind of gusto and didn't care that I'd dropped back into 19th. I was feeling kinda barfy. A couple spectators were along this next stretch of dirt road offering encouragement, including a group with small kids, which really lifted my spirits. One adult said, "You're looking great." "I don't fell great," I replied, but I kept moving.

I was somewhat dreading the turn at the parking lot onto the Davis Hill Trail. With good reason, since it was really torn up and uneven last year. I was pleased to find it in slightly better shape this year, and I passed another runner. Back in 18th. Time to suffer. And, that's really what I did for the remaining miles. My left quad was slightly cramping/spasming in these final miles, but every time it did I tried to combat it by running harder. It made me mad more than anything, and I was determined to not let it slow me down. Thankfully, it never locked up and I reached the park gate at 4:40:40. I had already convinced myself that breaking 5 hours had slipped away, and I figured I had about 2 miles to go at this point. Either way, I knew that I was going to run much faster than 2010, so I forced myself to drop the pace as soon as I hit the road knowing how mad I'd be at myself if I either got passed or didn't give it everything I had in the final stretch. After all, I finally didn't have to worry about my ankle like I had been all day. Time to just run.

I remembered a down (Hello, quads!) and two ups before the stop sign that marked the final turn/200 yards of the race, and I had the good fortune of seeing another runner up ahead. I was able to focus on trying to catch him as I dropped the pace as best I could. I knew he was too far out to ever catch him, but it certainly motivated me to try. My left quad started twitching on the second climb, but I could see the stop sign. It's the most beautiful stop sign in the world. I rounded that final corner and pumped my fists. It had been a good day on the trails.

I crossed the line in 4:50:19. So, clearly both my Garmin and recollection of the final road section were short. I waddled over to the results board and was thrilled to see myself in sixteenth place. Obviously, two runners had dropped after mile 17, bumping me up in the standings. Again, the time is a 35-minute improvement over 2010. I have no explanation for such an improvement. Going into the race, I thought I had an outside shot of breaking 5 hours but would really have been happy with anything under last year's time of 5:25. Throw into the mix the bad ankle (well, all this spring/summer's injuries/illness) and the fact that I didn't taper, aside from running 3 miles instead of 5 on Saturday, this race is really a mystery. But, I'm not complaining. Guess I'll just have to run 4:25 next year...

The biggest difference this year was that I wasn't afraid of the distance. Last year, I had only one run 50k prior to the race, and that race was a complete mess. I didn't really know if I could run an ultra, and it was a huge relief to do so. Since then, I've had a good result in a 50k. And, because I wasn't afraid of the 31 miles, I ran a lot more. I pushed a lot harder early on. On the long downhill before the mile 8 aid station, I said to Peter and Jonathan, "I'm sure I'm going to feel this downhill later." But, it was a joke when I said it. I knew it was going to hurt later, but I wasn't really worried about it. It's an ultra. It's supposed to hurt. Might as well embrace it. And, really, that was my attitude all day. Even when I was hating the Kilburn Loop, I felt like it was exactly what I expected and exactly what I signed up for. The other takeaway: that course is hard.


Since this was really D's race, I would be remiss if I didn't mention her awesome performance: 5th woman, 33rd overall in 5:34:28. Anyone who claims you need to sleep to be a great runner, needs to take a look at her performances this summer.

I'm starting to think that this race might be a "must do" every year. The course, while hard, is beautiful. The race directors put on a good show with no frills. The course is well-marked, but not over-marked, and all the aid station volunteers are friendly and very helpful. There's a barbecue at the finish. (Oh yeah, my stomach was fine within 10 minutes of finishing, and I downed 2 hamburgers, a hot dog, 2 heaping servings of pasta salad and a coffee milk.) Each entrant gets a loaf of bread. Just a great race. And, face it, you've always wanted to know where Chesterfield is.

8 comments:

Jamie said...

Great report, Ryan! And glad you're feeling good enough to run hard and fast again. Rolling an ankle won't be as much of a concern at MDI. That'll be a great follow-up for the 50-mile down in moonshine country later in the year.

pathfinder said...

Great job Ryan.....perhaps we are all training the wrong way

vja said...

Excellent, both your account and your race! Team Snowplug kicks ass!

Jonny said...

Good job out there. It was a pleasure meeting you on the trails. Next year I hope to have the same improvement you had. See you then....

-Jonathan from Rhode Island

Sonriserunning said...

Nice account of the race. I like to run/bike and keep in shape ,but I must say that to guys like you and Jamie who do ultras this goes to the extreme end of fitness--interesting to follow. If I duplicated your exploits I think I would be a waste of space to my wife and kids--amazing though!

Sparkplug said...

Amazing race, Ryan! Very proud of you! And good redemption after all that silly time off you had earlier this spring :-)

Jeremy Bonnett said...

Great race and excellent report man! You should probably just take next spring off to mimic this year and kill the rest of the year. Can't wait to hit this one with you two next year when you shoot for top ten!

sn0m8n said...

Thanks, y'all. Like I said, a pretty big surprise, especially since I never really felt great during the race. Good, relaxed, but never great. I think next year we need to make this a mandatory Trail Monster field trip.