Today I bounded over the rocks, catapulted myself off the roots, and took the serpentine trails for a nearly perfect run. I fueled perfectly, paced perfectly, and aside from one wrong turn that added a mile and might have cost me a chance at 3rd place overall, I beat that sumbeetch Poto trail to the teeth. What I know is that today, for just one day, I smote the monster that has taken my lungs, my legs, and my spirit on previous adventures.
For the last week before the race, I’ve been totally calm about this 50k, recognizing that I was still recovering from my first 50 miler two weeks ago, and I wouldn’t be in top form. Also, I’m doing a hard 50 miler two weeks from now called Gnaw Bone, so I should be prepping for that. I decided that I’d do the race completely for fun and forget what place I got, whether I got a PR or set a good time or whatever. And then I had a couple short runs, on Friday and Saturday, that were “super smashing”, as my Scottish co-worker says.
Which leads to the night before the race, when I started getting nervous. It noodled into my head that I wanted to do well at the race and still have big fun. How do I balance the two? Can I still laugh and make jokes with other racers, bounce off rocks, play air drums, and go for a good time. Well, yeah, of course I can!
That morning, I woke up with the cutest note from my wife, Alaina, in my bag of gear. It reminded me that the most important thing today is that I love running, and if I just focused on that, I’d have a great race. Best wife ever, can we agree?
After a 20 minute drive to the race site -- love local races! -- I went around and met up with almost 10 people I knew from training runs and races. For me, that’s unheard of, since at tri’s I know 2 people at most. I’ve started to feel like part of a community in a way that I never felt doing triathlons. Maybe it’s my attitude, but I think it’s the laid-back atmosphere of the ultra community and a general desire at these events to hear and share stories with other like-minded people. A celebration of running, just because it’s awesome.
The lake had this mystical steam rising into the 29 degree air as we lined up at the start. I inched toward the front, but since marathon and 50k runners were seeded together, I didn’t get too far up, ceding that area to the marathoners. Aaaaand, go!
My plan was to hit 8:30/mi steadily for the entire race, focus on taking enough fluids and live off GUs for carbs. The course is 2 loops of 13.1, followed by a 5 mile loop. There were around 20 people ahead of me from the gun, and I had no idea who was marathon or 50k, because it really didn’t matter. If my plan to run steady and fairly easy worked, then I’d either reel them in late in the race when they faded, or I wouldn’t.
After passing almost no one and only being passed by a couple guys for the first 4 miles, I tapped out a steady rhythm and shot off a few boulders along the way to keep the sticks limber. I power hiked the steep as ascents and went conservatively downhill. And then around mile 8, I actually caught a group of three guys, one of whom was fading off the back pretty hard. So I hung off the coattails of these two guys talking about ultra races they’d done and their schedules coming up.
I listened contentedly to their stories and really enjoyed the company. When one guy fell off the pace to run with his buddy, it was me and this guy from the RUT group, Mark ‘Doc’ Ott. I introduced myself and we shared a bit about our lives before getting into how we got started in ultras, and what we do for a living, and where we like to run. Mark is only a few years old than me, but his ultra and marathon experience is 10x as deep as mine. He’s a sub 2:50 marathoner, and a few weeks ago he won a 100 mile race in Philly. I enjoyed hearing his tips and mistakes, where he feels he is now and where he’d like to be.
At the 13.1 point, aka the start/finish area, I swapped out my depleted GU brew bottle for water, which I wanted to use the rest of the race. My legs were feeling really strong, so I took the first chance of the race, and let them loose up the first climb. Yep, turbo boosters are ready to fire, but I must not flip that switch until the last 5 miles. Instead, I steadily pulled away from Mark and this Canadian guy who’d caught back up, and I settled into a pace that felt pretty easy. I didn’t check my Garmin until mile 17, when I was startled to see 7:44/mi on the watch. Where the hell was this coming from?
I’ve done enough training runs on this trail to know that if I’m not careful, it can make the pain machine from Princess Bride look like a soothing massage. But my legs and lungs felt great, so I decided to sit on this pace and get through the 2nd hardest stretch of this trail, from miles 18 - 22. The miles kept ticking by and I thought of Alaina’s note to me again. You love running trails, be there now. I told the woods how much I love that woman, and they continued to smile on me.
The hardest section of this trail is undoubtedly the last 3 miles before the start/finish area, aka miles 23 - 26 on this loop. It features the longest climb of the course, with several steep sections along the way. The quads and calves were finally starting to get roughed up, but if I could hang on here with petrol in the tank, I could let it rip and open up the stride on the last lap. I’d ticked the pace down to 7:41/mi and felt great. Too bad I was so focused on finishing that I forgot to pay attention to the flags.
I flipped the boosters on the last lap, a 5 mile loop on a totally different section of trail than the 13.1 loops. These flags were yellow, so I tracked them up to the parking lot, where they disappeared, but came back on the other side of the lot. Then they went through a short trail, and up to a dirt road. Now I always cross this road and continue onto the trail on the other side when I run here in training, so I did just that today, not realizing that the flags turned down the road to the Crooked Lake trail. I was hauling with everything I had left, thinking about how well I knew this section of trail and how great I felt today. But it all came crashing down at the map post where there were no flags. I realized I’d gone the wrong way for ~1/2 mile and I was going to lose a mile getting back to the yellow flags. Ok, what do I do? GO HARDER. Make up time, catch the people I’d already passed and pass them again. And that’s what I did.
That last loop was white lightning and fury. I saw my coworker and her husband hiking the trail along this stretch, and they gave me a huge unexpected boost of mojo, shouting “Go Banana!” which has become the go-to encouragement for me.
I buried myself in my chest up that terrible climb from miles 28-30 and totally killed it. I averaged 7:21/mi for the last (now) 6 miles, and came in at 4:11:59, a ~10 minute PR, for 4th place Overall and 1st place in my Age Group. I was 6+ minutes behind the 3rd place guy, so who knows if I could’ve caught him, but in the end it doesn’t really matter. I ran 32.2 miles in 4:11:59 or 7:50/mi, but my mistake brought me down to 8:08/mi which is still WAY better than I thought I'd run. In fact, I ran my best ultra so far, paced it perfectly, and fueled exactly right. Great day on the trails!
After standing in the ice bath that is Crooked Lake, chatting with the 2nd and 3rd place finishers, I celebrated with a Two Hearted IPA from Bell’s Brewery, and then watched and congratulated the other finishers as they came across the line on this brilliantly sunny Spring day. Trails rule.