Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Bradbury Bruiser - Race Report

An actual, living, breathing race report. It's true. I finally put in an effort worthy of a report. Not the result I would have liked, but certainly the effort. But without giving away too much of the ending, here's what went down at the 2013 Bradbury Bruiser.

Since setting my sights on the Big Brad Ultra 50k, I'd basically forgotten about the Bruiser. It was on the calendar, but I didn't think about the course or race strategy or anything until the day before. I took a quick peek at my 2010 race report--the year I PR'ed in 1:38:23--to get refresh my memory on the three key splits: end of the Island Trail, the beginning of O Trail and the finish. That year, I went approximately 15:00, 60:00 and 23:00, but this year I'd hoped to get under 1:44:48 to put me a 4 hours even for the series. I thought this was a bit a stretch, but still held out hope.

What I didn't need to review pre-race was the strategy. I've learned how to best tackle this race: stay relaxed on the Island Trail, race hard until the O Trail, then hang on to the finish. It's worked well for me in the past, and this was my goal again despite my depleted fitness. While marking the course with Jeremy on Saturday, we were chatting about something that had become quite clear to me this summer: it's really hard to race, when you don't trust your fitness. It's tough to push yourself early and often, when you haven't trained and tested yourself enough to know if you're going to survive. Right now, I don't trust my fitness--what little of it there is--but I knew that if I was going to have a satisfactory day on Sunday, I needed to have a little faith.

Unfortunately, on Saturday night, I felt terrible. Not sure quite what it was, but had some aggressive gastrointestinal issues that evening that left me feeling a bit wiped out on Sunday morning. In my favor, however, was the weather. A cool September day was on tap, so I knew the weather wouldn't be holding me back. After the usual song of dance of setting up the Start/Finish area, which I feel like I have down to a science now, and the hustle and bustle of registration, Ian was giving the pre-race instructions, and we were off.

Unlike the previous races this summer, after the announcements, I moved quite a few rows back from the start line. I did not want to get pulled out too quickly, potentially sabotaging my race even before it began. My plan worked, and according to the photos I was in 36th place at the start of the Island Trail.

Feeling comfortable in 36th place at the start of the Island Trail.
Photo courtesy of hurdlingreggie/Maine Running Photos.
It was a very comfortable spot to be in and then throughout the Island Trail, while I watched others waste far too much energy jockeying for meaningless positions and wasting crucial energy so early in the proceedings. The end of the Island Trail came in 16:30, a full 90 seconds off PR pace, but just where I thought I should be, and once we made that left hand turn, I was in a good place to pick up the pace.

I say "we" because at about a mile into the race a kid in a blue shirt pulled up behind me. He would end up staring at the back of my head for a very long time. It was great to have the push, and it definitely put me into race mode. But, of course, I wouldn't have minded dropping him either. It is a race.

Exiting the Island Trail. Note the blue shirt lurking. Thirty-third place at this point.
Photo courtesy of hurdlingreggie/Maine Running Photos.
I asked him a couple times if he was interested in passing, but each time he declined. He seemed more than content to let me dictate the pace, and I know without him I probably would have backed off a bit. Either way, we would run alone--together for a bit--then catch a group, pass them...rinse and repeat.

We rolled through the first aid station which was quite spirited due to our awesome volunteers, so I decided to give them a bit a a cheer back. Or, perhaps I'm completely insane.

Photo courtesy of hurdlingreggie/Maine Running Photos.
At this point, we'd moved up to 22nd and 23rd, and I was really enjoying the stress of racing. A third runner joined our train just past the entrance to the Bat Cave due to an untied shoelace, and it felt like even more of a race. I still didn't trust my fitness, but I also knew that I needed to try to shake my blue shadow. I'm not as nimble on the technical terrain as I would like, so part of my Bruiser strategy is to hammer the Snowmobile Trail, which comes at mile 6 or so. The treadway is smoother, and no one likes to pick up the pace on an uphill, so it's a good place for me to try to break things open.

So, as soon as we hit the Snowmobile Trail, I dropped the pace considerably, and I as the trail pitched upward the footsteps behind me got quieter and quieter. I was putting myself fairly deep in the hurt locker at this point, but it was working. As an added bonus, I was catching up to two guys in front of me. A frothy and subdued thanks to the aid station crew this time, and I pushed some more. I was pretty worked by the time, I turned left off the Snowmobile Trail, but was super stoked with the risk I'd just taken. It had seemed to have paid off as I took a glance back at the left hand turn onto the next bit of singletrack: no blue shirt in sight. Plus, I was able to latch on to the two guys in front of me. I say "latch on" but I was always a few strides back of second guy who was always a few strides back of the dude in front. We were a pretty disorganized train, but we were moving pretty well. Or so I thought.

Then just before the long, superfluous mountain bike bridge, the blue shirt reappeared right on my tail. Oh, to be young and fit. Damn. Since I now had company--or more likely from fatigued--I dropped back a bit from the two dudes in front and ran along on with my blue shadow once more. As we entered the singletrack on the other side of the Snowmobile Trail, I tired to pick up the pace again, knowing that I was going to blow through the upcoming aid station and push hard up the hill on Knight's Woods--that dreaded, awful, terrible, hill on Knight's Woods. I flew through the aid station with Jeremy and Zak yelling wildly at me, and I put the hammer down going up the Knight's Woods Trail. That hill hurts like hell. It must have hurt blue shirt too because I got another gap, and actually caught back up to the other two guys in front. I was a grunting mess by the time I ran the final few yards to the O Trail, and it was at this point that the blue shirt finally went around. I managed to squeeze out a "Great job" or other such congratulatory phrase as I knew I wouldn't be seeing him again.

I enter the O Trail at 1:18:59 in a train of four other runners. The split was only about two minutes slower than my PR split from Island to O, which was encouraging. However, I knew I had pushed really hard to get to the O, and my plan of just hang on backfired somewhat.

Being the caboose in a train of five meant that it was easy to get dropped off the back. And that's exactly what happened less than a minute or so in. I couldn't--or didn't--hang on. Since my race strategy at this point has always been "hang on as best you can," I cut myself a little too much slack. If I had tried to stay with them longer, which would have been a tough task, perhaps the O would have gone a little better. As it was, I soon found myself running alone and not moving very well. Then I was moving even slower. It's really hard to know what's going on in the O Trail with its myriad twists and turns, but I could tell that a group of three or four was gaining on me. I started to see them more frequently, but at the same time, I also knew I was nearing the end. After stumbling and shuffling, I started running harder when I was afraid of getting caught, and I was somewhat ashamed at how well I was able to run as I popped out onto the Knight's Woods Trail for the final push to the finish. Then I remembered that I was about to claim my first Bad Ass hoodie in three years, and I picked up the pace another notch.

After they'd broken out the calendar to record my O Trail split, I headed for the finish.
Photo courtesy of Maine Running Photos.
I crossed the line in 1:45:47, 22nd place. I made sure to seek out the guys that I ran with throughout the race, especially my blue shadow, congratulate them on their efforts and thank them for their push. It had taken me nearly 27 minutes to complete the O Trail, and I'd missed my goal of breaking four hours for the series by 59 seconds. Don't get me wrong, I'm thrilled to be healthy enough to complete the series and actually racing the Bruiser was so much fun, but there's more there. There has to be. I just have to keep working for it--both mentally and physically. I am fit enough to run the O Trail faster than that, but my mind wasn't there. Training isn't just about the body. Damn, this sport is cool.

Who's ready for the Snowshoe Series?

Friday, September 6, 2013

State of Love and Trust

I've drafted this post on countless runs over the past few months, but when it has come to putting keys to pixels, nothing has materialized. Fear of the enormity of the task was the biggest obstacle. How do I properly sum it up? Well, here's a crack at it.

In short, it's been a roller coaster. But, the up and downs have been more complicated than healthy or injured--a lot of gray area. I'll go into more details in a bit because I want to focus on the one constant. Throughout the running problems, the one constant is that I've never given up. Even when I was "All Done," I knew that I would still be running. Deep down I never gave up. I enjoy the act. I enjoy the people. And, I'm too damn competitive. I never gave up because even though I'm getting older, I believe I can still get faster. There's a 3:10 marathon PR that's begging to be lowered. There's a 3:56 50k PR that can be bested. And, there's a 50-mile puzzle that I know I can solve. Maybe I'm just too stubborn. I'm typing this with ice on one Achilles and ice on the opposite calf. Stubborn. And, stubbornly, but happily, moving forward.

Where have I been?

At the beginning of 2013, I was in the midst of a positive stretch. I wasn't putting any pressure on myself, and I was just enjoying it. I was enjoying it to the point that I could feel some fitness coming around--enough fitness that I was excited about the start of the Bradbury Mountain Snowshoe Series. Unfortunately, two days before the first race, I strained my calf. Again. (I'd rather discuss religion or politics, but I can say with relative certainty that it was the 4mm drop shoes I was running it at the time. They been shelved and no problems since. Yes, I had calf problems previously, but let's just say that minimal isn't for me.) I still started the race, but dropped at a half mile to avoid further damage. It was hurting, and running on one leg is a bad idea. I was crestfallen. Snowshoe season is my season. To that point, I had never lost to any of my Trail Monster teammates in a snowshoe race, and my goal was to keep it that way. Based on my fitness, I knew that it was a long shot with Jeremy, Scott, Jamie and more toeing the line that day. But, stubborn. No offense, fellas: I believed that I could have out-suffered anyone on that day. I wanted to make someone suffer to beat me, and suffer a lot. My only real talent is my ability to suffer. I just wish I'd had the chance to test it that day.

I took the next four weeks off from running to let the calf heal. It was a very smart decision. It killed me watching snowshoe season pass me by, but it wasn't as if I could have raced at a high level. I was starting in the basement. This point was proven in early March at the final snowshoe race six weeks later. I was healthy enough to run...er...participate...after two weeks of light running, but I finished well back. I felt like I was missing one, two, maybe even three gears as I made my way around the course. I was glad I raced, but I was a bit embarrassed by my result. The spirit was willing, but the body was weak. Very weak.

In the ensuing days, I hatched a plan. Regardless of my fitness, I've always been able to muster a bit of speed. I figured I would build off a strength--focus on speed and the rest will follow. That would become my goal for the summer. So, at 7:00am on March 15, I jumped on the computer and registered for the Beach to Beacon 10k, which would become my goal race. With August 3 circled on the calendar, I also decided to register for the Back Cove Series--a weekly 5k series, which I figured would be a great way to tune up and speed up. On top of that, a group of us started a regular Thursday night "Sufferfest," which was usually hill repeats. I was hopeful that this combination would bring it all together.

In late April, I got a tempered ego boost with a win at the TARC Spring Classic 10k. My winning time was slower than the first lap of the 50k leaders, but a win is a win, even if the pond is really small. I actually got to race: led the first mile, then trailed, took the lead at mile 3 and extended from there. Racing is fun. But again, I knew that the talent pool was limited, so I didn't put too much stock in it. However, my time of 43:22 did give me a good target for the Bradbury Scuffle in July. I figured with increased fitness, I could get down around that number on a much harder course.

With a road race as the goal, though, I decided to test the speed in a road 5k the first weekend of May. I ended up second overall in 18:37. As my training log notes: "5k's hurt!" It was a good effort, and a good baseline for the rest of the summer. I figured with the right training, I should be able to be under 18 or better by the end of the summer. Unfortunately, this would be my fastest 5k of the season, as I melted in the summer heat. At the end of May, I managed an age group win and 5th overall at the Pineland Farms Trail Challenge 5k, but much like the TARC 10k, the pond was small--the undercard for the heavyweight races the next day. Plus, I barely outkicked an 11-year-old girl and was behind a 14-year-old girl until 2.25 miles. This was telling.

I did a good job of mixing in track work, hill repeats and snappier long runs with plenty of easy runs until early June. Then, it all fell apart. The heat of the humidity of the summer were really hard on me. I barely made it through a number of long runs, and generally felt off most of June and July. Sometimes I waited until 8:00pm to go out for a run to avoid the heat, but it still didn't help. Early mornings weren't much better as I can never get in the quality first thing in the morning, since I struggle with mornings and always feel as if I'm missing a gear. The Back Cove 5ks weren't much better. My first of the season was the fastest: 18:59. On top of that, I didn't really enjoy the series--just not my particular brand of vodka. And, since my heart wasn't really in it, it was tough to motivate to get to the races and even harder to motivate myself during the races. I ended up only making three races, and even that felt like three too many. (No offense to those who work hard to put on the series, as it's a great asset to the Portland community, but I have some issues with the race organization and set up. While this may sound like sour grapes, my performances are my own issue. No one's fault but my own. Again, just not my scene.) The good side of the race management was that after getting "closed out" of one week, I jumped into a 4-mile race in Gorham the next day, clocking an optimistic 24:43, taking third place. One important note: that evening, the weather was 60 degrees and lightly raining.

By the time the Bradbury Scuffle rolled around in mid-July, I knew I wasn't where I'd hoped to be, but I still figured a sub-45 clocking was possible. Or at least, I hoped so. The notes in my training log are brief: "Awful." I felt great for the first mile, going out very easy, thinking I'd reel in people in the last 4 miles. By the time mile 2 passed, I was slowing when I should have been speeding up. The rest of the miles got slower, and I had no pop. Another humid day, and my race was a joke--even more embarrassing than the snowshoe race. I was pissed.

I'm not entirely certain when it happened, but it was around this time that I realized something else: I'd put on some weight. I'm not fat, but I'm getting close. I'd say I'm 5 pounds more than what I should be and about 12 pounds away from fast. Add this to the race results, and I wasn't feeling so rosy about my fitness, my effort or much else. Oh, and I still had Beach to Beacon on the horizon.

For once, I made a smart decision. With so many questions surrounding my fitness, I really had no idea how fast I could run 10k. I just didn't know. I decided that my goal for the Beach to Beacon was to enjoy the experience: go out comfortably quick for the first 5k, and come home in whatever. It wasn't exactly a detailed plan, but it was one that set me up for success. Although the race was a gigantic mega-production, which I usually avoid, mission accomplished. I finished in 40:49, which isn't close to the time I had hoped for when I registered in March, but I enjoyed my race. I even negative split the 5ks. It's not my style of race, but I had fun. A positive racing experience. That was the goal.

Where am I now?

With the "goal" race for the summer behind me, I used the same plan going into the Bradbury Breaker. With the extra weight and the lack of training, it was pretty clear that wouldn't be tearing it up. And, I didn't. My climbing was terrible, but I could really move on the flats--which make up 4% of the course. I finished further back than I would like, but I put in an honest effort. I wouldn't call it fun, as that course is tough, but it was another good race experience. Being as competitive as I am, it's tough to look at the results, but I can't be in PR shape at every race. I'm slowly coming around to that idea. And, that's really where I am right now.

I'm not certain if it's age or experience or sobering reality, but I'm coming around to the idea that it's fine to go to races and not be near the top of the heap in both placing and fitness. After Beach to Beacon I posted on Facebook: "Not what I'm capable of, but it's what I'm capable of right now." It's the right now that I need to focus on. I can never really be upset with a result, if I'm putting in the best effort I can. Sometimes that effort will put me near the top. Other times, that same effort will put me in the middle or bottom of the pack. Either way, I've started focusing on the experience. I've been having this same conversation with ultramarathons. Yes, they're races, but they're also something to experience. Experiences I've been missing out on.

Since the Lookout Mountain 50 in December of 2011, I've attended 8 ultramarathons as crew or pacer. Not once have I put on a number myself. I even coined this little number: "Those who can't do, crew; those who can't race, pace." That's me! Sigh. Now, a large part of the reason I've been in this position is due to injury, but an additional piece is that I've been reticent to jump into something if I couldn't perform at my peak. (Maybe I'm really just concerned about my ranking on UltraSignUp getting too low.) In some ways, that's missing the point. But again, I can never really be upset if I give it my best effort with what I have at the time. Case in point: I'm one race away from completing my first Bradbury Mountain Trail Running Series Bad Ass since 2010 (not a typo). That's three years that I haven't been able to finish all three races. Sure, this summer will be far from my fastest clocking in the series, but I'll be proud to rock a new hoodie. However, it's another hoodie that interests me. Well, that's a lie--it's not about the hoodie. It's about going after it and having the experience. And, sadly, attending all those ultramarathons has only fueled my addiction to them. Seeing the "other side" of the race is tremendous, but I miss competing. I miss actually putting on a number. So, I've decided to run the Big Brad Ultras 50k on October 20. I know that I'll be going in a bit heavy and a little undertrained, but at least I'll be going in.

So that's the state of things. I'm still tumultuously in love with this bizarre world. And, I'm ready to trust myself to give it everything I have regardless of what I have. Who knows? I may even start blogging again on a regular basis.