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...