Tuesday, May 13, 2014

TARC Spring Classic 50k Race Report

Finally burdened with the task of writing a race report nearly two and a half years since my last ultramarathon, and it took me nearly two and half years to finally write this. At last, it was time to pass the grill tongs and the bottle opener to someone else and get in the game myself. I'm very thankful to have been able to do so.

The theme of my training, which I dubbed "Operation Get to the Starting Line," was to stay healthy. Easier said than done. But, I knew that pushing too much in training could only set me back once again. I went into the race with decent fitness and strength, but nothing that I would call great. Even if I got to the start line a bit underprepared, I knew it was better than not starting at all. My training was very much focused on my weekend back-to-back runs with the midweek being reserved for resting and assessing. And, above all, no speed work. My final three long runs, while not perfect, certainly gave me some confidence:
3/28: 21 miles at 8:16/mile - all road
4/3: 20 miles at 10:50/mile - all trail in 80+ degree heat. I melted.
4/12: 21.5 at 11:28/mile - all trail and crazy technical
Note that I didn't say "a lot of confidence." The amount of time running was solid, but the distance was not. On race day, I'd be running close to 50% longer than my longest run in terms of miles. That fact had me concerned. Still, with a flat course, I hoped that I wasn't in too much trouble. But, again, I wasn't injured.

On race day, I was shockingly relaxed. I had a great time pre-race sipping coffee and chatting with Michael Wade and the large contingent of Trail Monsters that were there to run the various distances (10k, half marathon, marathon and 50k). In fact, I was so relaxed that I skipped the pre-race meeting (see: sipping coffee and chatting) and missed out on the news that the race was going to start early. Suddenly, there was a howl and a whole slew of runners heading off down the trail. Well, I guess the race is starting.

Trail Monsters not attending the pre-race meeting.

Lap 1
The trail narrows fairly quickly off the starting line, so I don't think I took a running step until about 30 yards in. And, even then, with all the people--approximately 300 in the 3 races (10k had started 10 minutes prior)--I was barely jogging. My race plan called for going out easy, but when the average pace read out on my Garmin read 13:XX a half mile into the race...well, I guess I was going out easy.

In all seriousness, pre-race I believed I could run between 4:30 and 5:00, with a realistic goal of sub 4:50. I figured on an amazing day, I might be able to sneak under 4:30. Nine minutes per mile is a 4:39 50k, so my plan was to run nine-minute pace for the first two laps. From there, I would assess, with the hopes of picking it up or at least not slowing.

I was running with John in the first couple miles, and we were steadily passing people until about the two-mile mark. Then the following exchange happened:
Me: "Nice to be free of the crowd."
John: "Yup."
Me: "This pace feels about right."
John: "Yeah, I don't want to go out too fast."
Seconds later he was speeding away from me down the trail. I kept him in sight, but I kept closer watch on my Garmin: average pace 8:50ish. I didn't want to overcook things just yet. I still had John in my sights about a mile later when Ian, running the half marathon, caught and passed me. He heckled me about the "old man" beating me, but I was able to keep my ego in check. I was worried than Ian speeding by would entice John to pick up the pace, and, unfortunately, that's just what would happen.

It wasn't raining at the start of the race, which was a blessing, but it starting raining about 20 minutes in. I was feeling a bit overdressed at first, but the rain cooled me down to a reasonable temp quickly. In fact, I was very comfortable through out the race.

The average pace crept down to 8:45, but it felt very comfortable, if a touch risky. I tried not to think about it too much and just focused on staying relaxed and "no effort"--that was my mantra.

Lap 1 passed uneventfully in 54:22

Finishing the first lap. Photo by Topham Photo

Lap 2
After a flawless bottle hand off from Jamie, my crew, and more heckling about the old man, I was off for my second lap. While finishing my first, I was very surprised to see Michael on the short out and back section that starts and ends each lap. I figured he'd be long gone with the training he'd been putting in this year. I'd seen John as well. "No effort."

I ran the majority of this lap alone. Just me and the mud. It was muddy to start, and the rain added to it. But, after the tales of the TARC 100/50 that was held on some of these same trails last year, I couldn't complain. I will say that I was amazed to watch some other runners try to figure out ways around it. Not that I'm the toughest guy out there, but it is a trail race.

Squish. Photo by Topham Photo

Of note: I stopped to pee during this lap. I never do that in a race.

Another flawless bottle swap with Jamie, and I was off.

Lap 2 time: 53:02

Lap 3
I was surprised to see Michael even closer at the close of the second lap, but I assumed that he was about to pick up the pace. I stayed consistent with my splits and noticed that the average pace was now closer to 8:40. With that realization, I started to dream of my uber-reach goal of sub-4:30, but then I remembered that I still had half the race ahead of me.

On one of the twistier sections, I could see Michael and John just ahead, and with some quick math, I counted them less than a minute up. In a few clicks, I had caught up to John who was feeling the effects of his early pace. We were almost exactly halfway through, 15.5 miles, and he told me he was going to dial things back a notch. I told him not to worry and that he was right on 4:30 pace. A steady pace would get him to a fine finish. Well, he later informed me that "my skipping and frolicking" while passing him really took the wind out of his sails. Oops, sorry about that.

Less than a mile later, I caught Michael just in time to heckle him for dropping his water bottle. We ran together for a bit, and I confided in him that was feeling good but concerned I was in over my head. What I didn't tell him was that I was stoked to be running with him at this point in the race, since he's been killing it this year in preparation for the Ghost Train 100 in October. He's run twice as many miles (literally) as I have this year, so to be feeling solid and with him at this point was a big boost. Of course, shortly after I thought that, he gapped me slightly, and was a few strides in front of me as we closed out the lap.

Lap 3 time: 52:52

The handoff.

Lap 4
This was, as they say, when shit got real. Thanks to another flawless hand off from Jamie, I was able to get out of the aid station ahead of Michael. And, because I've spent so much time watching ultras, I recognized a couple guys I passed early on in this lap as fairly experienced and/or accomplished ultrarunners. Suddenly, I was feeling a lot of pressure. I felt like I was racing. No, I was racing.

Then, almost out of no where, I heard myself say out loud, "You gotta believe."

That was it. At 20 miles, I made the decision to keep it going. I could have easily backed off, conserved a bit, and not worried about blowing up. But, where's the fun in that? Plus, my competitive disorder was in high gear right now. My legs were still churning out the miles, and I needed a test. This is what I had been missing all this time. Time to take a risk, suffer a bit, and see what I could do.

It was during this lap that I also got to experience what makes ultrarunning so great. I was starting to lap a number of other 50k runners and marathoners. Everyone was so encouraging. One woman even said to me, "You're amazing." I wanted to reply, "I'm totally normal," but my communication skills had diminished to neanderthal level at this point. Another gentleman even scolded me lightly for not more fervently asking to pass: "You gotta tells us slow pokes to get out of the way!" I grunted a smile.

Lap 4 time: 53:42

Lap 5
I only have snippets of memories from this lap. I remember saying out loud on more than one occasion, "Just...keep...pushing." I remember another runner cheering me on as I ran ever step of the "steep hill." (Those who ran the race know the hill to which I'm referring.) I remember a blur of ouch.

I had been wearing gloves for the first four laps but tossed them at the aid station. Shortly into this lap, I absentmindedly pressed my thumb and forefinger together. Something felt strange. I looked down and realized that my left had was pale and swollen. Better check the right. Yup, that hand too. I tried to wiggle my fingers, and they felt like foreign objects. That process probably took three minutes, but my brain was still sharp enough to realize that I'd overdone it with my fluids. In each of the first four laps, I'd drained almost an entire 20-ounce bottle of Nuun. I was on electrolyte overload. I squirted half of my bottle out knowing that I didn't need to carry all that extra weight, and probably took 3 sips in the final 5 miles.

With that issue solved, I was able to get back to my main focus: suffering. It was a manageable level of suffering, and although the splits would later reveal that I was slowing a bit, I was hanging tough. Then, suddenly, I wasn't. I popped. It was like a switch was flipped. The risk at mile 20 hit me hard sometime after mile 29, and I was a shuffling mess. I was moving forward, but barely. Less than two miles to go, but they were by far the longest two miles of the race. In one of the muddier sections, with about a half mile to go, Michael went flying by me babbling nonsense about sub 4:30. I could barely see, and it felt like my skeleton was made of Twizzlers. It's amazing how fast a 9-minute mile can look. ;)

But, I finished. I crossed the line with a smile on my face and a high five from Michael, who was nice enough to wait for me after his finish.

Lap 5 time: 57:13


Ultrarunning is fun.

Once the results were posted, I was bummed to realize that the pass at the very end dropped me out of the top ten, but I can't complain. For my first ultramarathon back after such a long hiatus, it's a huge relief to have finished. While I'm pleased with the result, I'm more proud of the way I ran the race. I ran smart, even splits. When Michael pass me, he was the only 50k runner to pass me...period. I took a bit of a risk, and it paid off. Sure, the last two miles were gruesome, but that has more to do with training than race day tactics. Could I have backed off in the third lap or at the beginning of the fourth lap? Sure. But, I believe I was still destined to run into some trouble with the lack of training. Again, it was all about getting to the starting line healthy, so I wasn't in prime fitness. Will I get there again? Maybe. But, running an ultra was far more satisfying than watching one...two...three...

Thanks to...

Jamie for crewing. It takes a true friend to stand out in the rain and not mind me barking orders at him. Then, he gave me a beer and a sausage after I finished. He's almost as good at crewing as I am...

Dr. Jamie Raymond for keeping my parts in working order by bending and popping me in unspeakable ways.

John for holding me accountable through the winter--a couple nights per week at 8:00pm, often in sub-zero temperatures. There is absolutely no way I would have gotten the miles in without such a committed training partner.

The Trail Animals Running Club, specifically the race directors Bob and Josh. They put on a helluva show.

Danielle for putting up with all my whining and believing that I could get back here. (Speaking of my lovely wife, she won the women's race. Topper.)

My Trail Monster Running teammates who encouraged me during my injuries and sent me kudos post-race. Even this athletic supporter needs support sometimes.

The obvious question, now, is: what's next? The first priorities are to recover and stay healthy. Beyond that...

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Snowshoe Season

Happily feeling saddled with the burden of updating the blog, since I'm actually fairly ambulatory these days. And, I'm even more happy to report that I completed my first snowshoe season since 2011. Granted, I wasn't able to attack it as hard as I would have liked, but two years of injuries and sporadic training will do nothing but erode one's fitness. That erosion was on display in all my races, but I made it to the start line of five races, finished each one, and survived unscathed. Here's a recap...

January 19, Bradbury Squall
After some quality early season snowfall, a prolonged and particularly aggressive January thaw put this race in serious jeopardy. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy my race director duties, but wrestling with Mother Nature is stressful. I managed to devise a course on the East side of the park that was just under three miles, but it took much more shoveling than should ever be needed to pull it off. Plus, with the icy conditions, it was more like a road race than a snowshoe race--firm and fast.

After a healthy period of sandbagging from the crew pre-race, during which we all professed our disinterest in racing that day, the race went out like a 1500 meters on the track. It was insane, and a giant mistake for me. Around the first corner and on to the first stretch of single track, I "settled" into fourth place behind gIANt, but my heart was already dangling out of the side of my mouth. We hit the Snowmobile Trail after 3/4 of a mile, and Jamie, Tyler and Scott easily moved past me a pulled away. Due to the firm conditions, I was able to keep them in sight, but by the time we reached the turn around, Chuck and Jennifer were breathing down my neck. Thankfully, fat is aided by gravity, and I was able to grunt and froth my way back down the Snowmobile Trail to the Link. I could see Jamie ahead of me, as he looked back approximately 37 times in the final quarter of a mile, but I was wide open and had no shot of getting him. I did manage to hold onto 7th place overall, but I knew that it was smoke and mirrors. The course really played into my hands being short and fast. I can handle that right now, but I know that in a real snowshoe race, I would've been toast.


February 8, Maine State Snowshoe Championships
It's no easy feat to get to Rangeley, so I was happy to have John as my driver and official MEDOT tour guide for the journey. It was cold when we arrived, but the yurt was warm and cozy. The field this day would be small, so I knew that even in my weakened condition all I needed to do was finish and I'd qualify for Nationals. As it turns out, that's exactly what would happen.

After an uneventful but beautiful warm up on a mix of groomed trail and singletrack, I made my way to the starting line in the "stadium." The race was held at Rangeley Lakes Trail Center--a Nordic skiing facility--and it was the perfect venue for a state championship. Even with the small field, the set up and course made it feel like a big deal. I could almost picture stands full of screaming fans. I was pumped to go after it...for about 100 yards...

Maine State Snowshoe Championships Race start.
The gun went off, and so did my left hamstring. It wasn't a full on pop, but I felt a significant tug only a few seconds after the start. For the next mile or so, I tried everything I could to try to make it feel normal with no success. Lengthening my stride, shortening my stride...nothing seemed to work. After turning off a lengthy singletrack section during which I shadowed Jamie, and once again, had Chuck and Jennifer on my tail, I shut it down. I knew that I just needed to finish to qualify, and I hoped that I could complete 10k without doing any real damage.

My reaction was strangely measured, since you'd think that I would be quite upset, but I after so many injuries I was nonplussed. I would have loved to have been able to race, but I was able to stay focused on the bigger picture as I have other fish to broil this year and the goal was to just get to Nationals. So, I jogged along and enjoyed the scenery. The upside was that I could enjoy the aforementioned scenery, which was stunning, and I was feeling very lucky to be able to be out in the woods on a such a winter's day...ahem. It was definitely worth the travel to be out on those trails, and I hope to find myself back there again.

At about 5k, I caught up to Tyler who was walking after realizing in only his second snowshoe race that it's really easy to go out too hard. He soon caught back up and trailed me for a bit before I decided to stop trying to race on my bum hamstring, and I let him by. Then, much to my surprise only a few minutes later, I came upon a group of seven or so all standing a trail junction totally befuddle. I quipped that it was nice of them to let me catch up, but once we confirmed we were headed down the correct path, they quickly pulled away. I was alone again and meandering along the singletrack toward the finish. As it turned out, we all stayed on the singletrack too long as the course wasn't clearly marked, but I was just as happy to enjoy the woods rather than try to run on a groomed nordic trail. I crossed the finish line with a disappointed smile, happy to have finished and hoping my hamstring wouldn't become a major issue.


February 16, Bradbury White Out
A few sessions with the ice pack and a fortuitously schedule appointment with Jamie, and my hamstring was feeling just fine as the second Bradbury Mountain Snowshoe Series race came around. I definitely dodged a bullet on this one and was pleased with myself for making the right decision during the race in Rangeley. The downside, although a few days of training wouldn't have made much of a difference, was that I was not physically ready for the conditions on this day. This was a real snowshoe race.

I wanted to make up for the easy and short course from the Bradbury Squall, and combined with the conditions, I really nailed. I still opted for the flatter East side, but I packed in the two biggest climbs I could find along with half of the dreaded O Trail. In short, this course is a keeper! Plus, Mother Nature threw a snow/rain/snow combo at us in the days leading up to the race, and breaking the trail to mark it was a Herculean task on Saturday. The crust was heavy and thick leaving chunks of various sizes on top of soft, sugary powder below. After marking, John and I ran the course together that day, and I told him, "Those are the hardest conditions I've ever run in. No fun at all." I wasn't exaggerating.

Prudently, I opted for a more leisurely start in this race, and it was necessary. My lack of strength is painfully obvious in the soft snow, and I was still leery of my hamstring. I was chasing David for most of the first two miles, but he has 20 years of experience on me...um, yeah...

Bradbury White Out start
Laurence tailed me for most of the race, and each time I offered for him to go around he declined. We did manage to pick a few people off here and there--including a few folks who went out way too hard and Scott who was having a very uncharacteristically off day. We reached the O Trail with Ben right on our tails, and I knew that I was going to get nipped eventually. I managed to keep the train moving through the O (while cursing the race director), but as soon as we turned onto the Knights Woods Trail, Ben moved around and off up the hill. I told Laurence to go after him, but he once again declined content to listen to me grunt and snort my way up the final hill (once again cursing the race director). I managed a bit of a smile near the finish, knowing that I'd gutted it out. I never attempted to really race in this one, but I didn't just go through the motions. It's tough for me to not race when I put on a number, but the stars were not aligned for me to go after it on this day. It's a strangely measured and mature attitude from me, but I think it's going to be necessary moving forward.


Almost a smile at the finish line

March 1, U.S. National Snowshoe Championship
How often do normal people get to compete in a national championship event? Measured and mature was replaced by balls to the wall. I knew that I don't have the fitness or strength to do any damage at this event, but I wanted to give it everything I had--even if I was bringing a butter knife to a gun fight.

The ride to Bennington, Vermont on Friday evening was a mix of awesome--a bacon cheeseburger with peanut butter--and less awesome--being second hand rear ended by a drunk driver. Luckily, no one was hurt by either the burger or the moron...aside from Scott's car, but it was still drivable. With the drama behind us, Saturday dawned sunny and cold, as we made our way to Prospect Mountain, which was the perfect venue for a New England snowshoe race. A retired alpine ski area turned Nordic touring center, time has stood mostly still at Prospect, but the energy for a National Championship was off the charts.

The day started with the Junior 5k, in which Chris was entered. Because he's a true American hero, he sacrificed his race to help a competitor in distress. Then, the women's 10k race went, and we were able to get some course intel from Jennifer before our start. In short, don't go out too fast, and it's hard. With an opening mile on all groomed Nordic trail and a mile long climb to the summit in the third mile, it confirmed what we already knew.

Near the mile mark. Joe Viger Photography
The race had more than 200 runners on the line making it easily double the size of the largest snowshoe race in which I'd ever competed. And, it felt like it. I was lucky to keep my snowshoes attached to my feet, but I saw a number of other runners who had to pull over to get shoes back on after being trampled. It was tricky to not get caught up in the energy of the race, but I did a good job of staying relaxed in the opening miles and was ready to go when the climbing begain. I was able to get into a good gear and just kept grinding. I passed a number of people on the climb, but I could also feel that I was pulling a group along. Shortly after the 4k mark, a runner went by, then another, then another. I was lamenting my lack of strength and was leery to start pushing, but after a few seconds, I decided to drop a gear and try to pick off those three. It was Nationals after all. I picked up the pace and was able to earn those places back. My timing was perfect as I was worked by the time I reached the summit. I was able to regroup and get into a line of other runners as we entered a tough and twisty singeltrack section in which I was running all out and just trying to stay upright. Once it flattened out, I must have relaxed and caught my snowshoe on the edge of the trough. I supermanned in spectactular fashion losing a couple places in the process. I was able to get back up and give chase. Another climb was a slap in the face, but I was charging and clipping the heels of a runner in front of me. He let me by at the top, and I kept chasing on the final, long descent to the finish. After 8k of snowshoe racing, a steep, fast downhill is pretty painful to say the least, and my legs were wobbly. A trio of runners snuck past me a few clicks before the final downhill switchback, which was severely rutted out since 300+ runners had churned it up prior to my arrival. I negotiated this stretched and was determined to catch that trio in the final quarter mile or so to the finish. The pictures will attest to the fact that I gave it everything I had. The trio and I were separated by a total of four seconds, and I didn't have enough real estate to catch them.

Satan face at the finish. SNAPacidotic

Post-race I was stunned to find out that I finished 105 out of 213. Even in my weakened condition, I never expected to be that far back. Then, I remembered that every single person in the race needed to qualify, and they came from all across the snow-covered United States and the Canadia. How cool is that? I'm honored to have been able to compete in such a great event and proud of the effort I showed.


March 9, Bradbury Blizzard
Even though it felt anti-climatic to have a race the weekend following Nationals, my race director hat was back on for the final race of the Bradbury Mountain Snowshoe Series. I had a chance to get to The Brad on Thursday to assess the conditions, and I was excited that we'd be able to race on the mountain side. Of course, it was warm on Friday and Saturday during the days and cold at night, so the course had more ice than I would have liked, but no one ever said that snowshoe race directing reduced stress. On Saturday, I had a ton of help marking the course. John and Sean had no idea that it would take two hours to mark a quarter of the course. We placed approximately eleventy billion flags on the Switchback and South Ridge Trails. Then, we ran the Beautiful Loop, 15 miles--it was a big day.

Sunday was the first day of Daylight Savings Time, and I somehow set my clock ahead two hours. At least I had extra time to get registration and the start and finish lines set up. The good part about having a race after Nationals was that I had finally really tested my fitness and strength. Granted, the results weren't entirely encouraging, but they also weren't unexpected. But, armed with the knowledge that I could actually push a bit and not explode, I was looking forward to testing myself at the Blizzard.

Bradbury Blizzard start
At the "gun" (me yelling GO!), things went out a bit faster than I expected, but I was happy settling into my pace knowing that the first part of the course was the much easier than the rest. Also, without the opportunity for a proper warmup, I really needed to take it easy to work the previous day's effort out of my legs. By the time I turned onto the Boundary Trail, I was a few strides behind the ageless David where I would remain for the remainder of the day either chasing or annoying him. I picked off a few folks along the way who didn't realize how hilly this sucker was, which gave the race director in me a point of pride. Then, while starting the South Ridge trail a few strides behind David the race director in me was terrified watching him descend with reckless abandon. The racer in me was disheartening by my complete lack of downhill ability. I resigned myself to reel him in slowly on the climb on the Switchback, which is just what I did. I pushed pretty hard up the zigzags, but took a moment to enjoy the crunching sounds of those behind me and watch the conga line move along--I love climbing the Switchback as both a racer and race director. At the top, I opened up the best I could and with each step, I was gaining a bit on David around the Tote Road. Finally, at the top of the Northern Loop, I was right on his shoulder, but then we started down the Terrace Trail. I would never see him again, and I was once again left to lament my downhill "running."

While compiling the results, I was stoked to see that I wasn't too far behind the crew I've been trailing all season. There's definitely something brewing. And, of course, it was a huge relief to complete my second consecutive Bradbury series and my first snowshoe series since the first in 2011. Above all, people loved the course--many said it was their favorite. It's clearly the hardest of the three, with 700+ feet of climbing in five miles, but the crew that comes out to run my crazy idea embraces that. I'm lucky to be supported by each and every one. Bad asses, indeed.


Finishing up snowshoe season.
Despite what the results might depict, it was a very successful snowshoe season. I made it through healthy. I competed. I had the honor of competing. I was surrounded by great competitors and, more importantly, great people. Snowshoe season is my favorite season of all, and it was tremendous to not be standing on the sidelines. Fitness-wise, I have a lot of work to do, but that will come. I'm in no rush. It's more important to be healthy than to be at top fitness. Easier written than done...