Saturday, February 16, 2013

Race Report: Louisville Lovin' the Hills 50k

Hang out with ultrarunners for 30 minutes and you’ll probably realize that they are the worst (best) influences. Race names and distances get rattled off in casual conversation -- Western States, Hardrock, Pine to Palm, 31 miles, 50 miles, 100 miles -- as if they were the names of Grammy winners. This kind of chatter lights a fuse in the brain leading to a single thought, “must register for next ultra.”

As endurance fiends, speedsters, and purportedly reasonable people, Jon Clinthorne and Scott Breeden are, in fact, pro dealers. They sling endorphin like crack rock in Biggie’s day, and I find myself responding “gimme the loot!” when they bring up a race. So when these two started peddling the Louisville Lovin’ the Hills 50k to me, I knew I’d be buying.

The course was originally designed by ultrarunner, Eric Grossman, who must have sought out every quad crushing hill in 20 miles of Louisville for this course. LLTH has had some course changes since he left the race director position, but the race remains one of the most difficult and beautiful 50ks in the country.
5,500 feet of elevation gain

Our band of runners gathered in Louisville and enjoyed a pre-race meal at Za’s Pizza on Bardstown Rd, which is a great Louisville neighborhood for finding food, drinks, and shopping. I never feel more relaxed than when I’m with running friends, for the conversation is always good and spirits high. The Bell’s Hopslam they had on tap didn’t hurt either.

Morning of the race, after a geriatric breakfast -- Ensure, bowl of cereal, and greek yogurt -- I was ready to run. Packet pickup was right at the race start, making for a very low stress pre-race. I skipped around to warm up in the 30F temps and made a last minute shoe choice of Rogue Fly over Peregrines because the possible muddy conditions were actually frozen and firm. The race director, Cynthia Heady, shouted out directions from atop a picnic bench to the 250ish runners doing the three different races (6mi, 15mi, 50k), which all started at the same time. Becky was doing the 15mi, and Scott and I were doing the 50k.

Feeling skippy. Photo: Jon Clinthorne
Someone yelled GO and we ran down a wide gravel road, good for seeding yourself in the pack before hitting the single track. I hung back from Scott and the leaders and found good company with Becky for a few miles before she started absolutely crushing the steep switchback hills, and although I could sort of keep up with my power hike, she was flying on the flats too. Go Becky go! We ended up going back and forth and running together for a while with some runners who were up for some smiles and laughs.
L-R: Becky, Me, Jeff, Scott. Photo: Jon Clinthorne
I was glancing at bib numbers for 6/15/50k people, and some 15mi runners were passing me along with a couple 50kers on the flats but I reminded myself to keep it easy early on. There was plenty of race to catch them and I had my secret pow hike for the late climbs.

After a 6 mile loop, I came through the start/finish area and was greeted by hearty cheers from Alaina, Cody, Jon, and Hillary. Around the 10 mile mark I'd caught up to Becky who was climbing a hill behind another 15mi guy who was super happy and positive. I passed on the uphill and kept moving, passing some 50k guys on another uphill. I thought I was in 6th or 7th now and feeling really good. The pain was lurking, but quiet.
Finishing the first 6mi loop. Photo: Jon Clinthorne

Around a few more bends, I ran up to a couple 50k guys. I started talking with Jeff Yoder who turned out to be a friend of Scott's. We shared stories and he was awesome running company. Jeff remarked on staying on top of nutrition, so I downed a couple gels. I had 6 gels with me, 3 in my handheld bottle and 3 in my shorts. There are periods in every race when I fall behind on nutrition and these times rarely coincide with aid station locations.

After a road crossing we were climbing yet again and I started pulling away from Jeff. My legs were feeling really strong on the climbs and my power hike was groovin. I hit the ridge on the Siltstone trail and took in the beauty. The views on both sides of the ridge were awesome, the ground cascading away and the lumpy horizon visible through the naked trees. Long dry grasses grazed my calves and the wind rushed over them with a shhhhhhhhhhh. It seemed I was all alone up here.

Every time the course's relentless hills started chewing into my legs and lungs and I wanted to slow down, I thought to myself, 'what if this is the last race I ever get to do?' With Jon sidelined by injury for this race, that mantra kept me in the moment, focused on this incredible experience and how lucky I was to be here.

The trail pitched back down to Scott’s Gap aid station, so I refilled my bottle and started up a steep, washed out climb that began a 3ish mile loop. I caught a 50k guy that I hadn’t seen since the start. We wished each other good running and I tried to keep up the pace and create some distance. The vistas opened up and there was large rock underfoot, reminiscent of last year's Smoky Mountain run adventures.

Back at Scott's Gap aid, I started the out-n-back section where runners heading out would be passing. Runners were telling me "good job" and "nice work" and I returned the encouragement. The level of camaraderie out there was incredible. "2nd and 3rd are just ahead!" many shouted, so on top of Siltstone, I tried to keep up 8m/m pace on the flatter stuff and bomb down the descents.

I finally saw the 3rd place runner, Harvey Lewis, at the Welcome Center with a few miles to go. The closest I got was at an aid station, but then he took off up the hills and I was cramping in my quads, groin, and hamstrings. If I pushed any harder I risked cramping to the point of walking, so I kept running where I could, pow hiking the steep climbs, and running right on that razor's edge.

As I climbed another 200'+ hill at mile 30, my legs were collapsing, nails surging into my quads, and I was breathing like a horse. Harvey was out of sight around a few corners.  At the top of the hill, I saw the RD who said I had one1 mile to go. Ok, I'm sure that was the last hill. NOPE. The trail went down to the dam and then came the final pitch upward, a 230’ hill over the last ¼ mile. I could see Harvey again up the switchbacks, but he was too far to catch. So close!

So happy to be done! Photo: Clinthorne
I crossed the line in 4th place overall at 4:42 and gave Scott a slap and then got an awesome greeting from Alaina and Cody pup. I was totally spent and couldn’t believe my legs hadn’t seized up. I went into this race with a 50 mile race mentality because I knew how hard it would be, and this race lived up to its name and reputation.

LLTH is well organized, perfectly marked, and attracts incredible runners for competition. I’d definitely head down there again. The RD said Ultrarunning Magazine would be covering the race, so I hope this brings even more runners down to experience the beautiful and challenging trails.

Scott Breeden won the 50k, destroying the course record in 4:07. Jeff Yoder finished 7th overall in the 50k. Becky Boyle won the 15 mile race and also set a course record. Katie Yoder earned 3rd OA in the 6 mile race. Jonathan Clinthorne, Hillary Woodworth, Alaina Neary Case, and Cody kept everyone in high spirits all weekend. This was an incredibly fun experience that will keep me smiling for a long long time.

Me, Becky, Scott, Alaina, and Cody. Photo: Clinthorne