Thursday, June 4, 2015

Cayuga Trails 50m: Unexpectedly Long Slog

I struggled in this race.  I wasn't really expecting to have much problem with this race but when the muscles in my upper, inner thigh tightened up less than 15 miles in -- it was almost inevitable the proverbial wheels were going to come off -- I knew it was shaping up to be a long day.  
Pre-race photo.  Looking pretty chipper here!
The Cayuga Trails 50 was held on Sunday, May 31st in Ithaca, New York so Lisa and I drove up on Saturday, arrived in the late afternoon, met her father and his girlfriend for dinner, then I settled in for a leisurely evening while preparing my gear for the morning.  Race start was at 6am but we were less than 15 minutes drive from the start so I didn't have to get up too early.  (Side note:  Among all the ultras I've run, this one was by far the most accessible to crew and spectators.  The aid stations were relatively close together so hopping between stations was quite doable.)  After checking in and surveying the scene, it was obvious many of the runners were here to compete.  This race, in fact, was the USATF 2015 50 Mile Trail Championship so quite a few of the runners were wearing bibs with "Open" written on them which, insofar as I could tell, meant they were USATF members and were competing for the championship title. 

According to the course specs on the race website, there is approximately 10,000 feet of elevation gain/loss over 47 miles of single track and three miles of road.  There are several sections of stairs and quite a few gorgeous gorge views ("Ithaca is gorges!").  There were also three stream crossings that runners crossed twice so had it been hot they would have been quite the relief (the weather on race day was overcast with bouts of rain and temperatures in the 50s-60s).  In some sections of the course it feels surprisingly remote even though we were never *that* far from civilization.  

When I set out the plan was to see Lisa, her father, and his girlfriend at the mile 12 aid station but when I arrived about 2h:15m after the start -- a little ahead of schedule -- they weren't there so I continued on, especially since I felt good and was moving well.  According to my watch, I was averaging an 11:35 per mile pace but my stomach was a little off so I was keen on finding a restroom.  I finally did at around mile 14 and even though I stepped off course for about five minutes several runners overtook me during that time.  Losing time and distance shouldn't have felt like a setback -- this was a 50 mile race after all! -- but it was and that marked the beginning of a long mental decline that wouldn't bottom out until somewhere between miles 25 and 30.  The muscles in my upper inner thigh were also tightening up -- I've had this problem before -- so I had to occasionally stop and stretch but knowing my muscles would only continue to tighten only contributed to my mounting frustration.  It was going to be a long day!

When I finally returned to the start/finish area as well as the mile 25 aid station -- the course is a circuitous out-and-back with a loop at the end -- I sat and stretched for a while and tried to steel myself for another 25 miles.  I reached the half-way point in 5h:07m so it was almost impossible I would run sub-10 hours but 11 hours was within reach, if not a best-case scenario, so I readjusted my goal and settled on sub-12 hours.  The race has a 15-hour time limit -- I knew I would finish -- but as I slowed and the number of runners overtook me it became obvious I would finish well outside the top-third of runners.  

At one of the aid stations where Lisa met me, she walked with me for a bit and I told her I was feeling somewhat ambivalent about being a more experienced ultra marathoner.  On the plus side, more experience means more knowledge about how to prepare, knowing how your body will cope with the distance and strain, and what to do when things go awry.  On the flip side, though, more experience means more, and higher, expectations.  In my earliest races, I wanted to finish strong but, ultimately, I just wanted to finish.  For better or worse, the sense of accomplishment from just finishing is no longer as satisfying.  I need to work on reclaiming that joy and satisfaction because not every race is going to come together.  Some races are tough, unexpectedly so, and this was one of them so enjoying the experience for what it is sometimes ought to trump finishing fast, or strong, or whatever.   

When I arrived at the mile 47 aid station Lisa greeted me, told me the time (11 hours and 5 minutes had elapsed since the start) and took my iPod, visor, and long-since expired watch off my hands.  I had a little less than an hour to cover three miles so I gulped a couple of cups of Coke and set off for the finish.  I was overtaken by a few runners in the last few miles and as I emerged from the forest onto the service road and the final stretch of grass another runner came out behind me and I could tell he was speeding up.  I didn't want to be overtaken in the last stretch so I picked up the pace -- reaching a near sprint at the finish -- while surreptitiously checking to see how far back he was.  He never overtook me and I crossed the finish line in 11h:45m (seconds aren't reported in the race results).  Among 169 finishers, I was 109th and among the males, I was 88th out of 132 men.  I ran the second half of the race in 6h:38m -- one hour and 31 minutes slower than the first half.  

This was a tough race for me -- mentally and physically.  Ultras, by their very nature, are long slogs but this one was unexpectedly long.  That being said, though, I was pleased with the race organization, the aid stations were well-stocked, the volunteers were helpful and had a sense of humor, and the course was crew- and spectator-friendly.  

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Promise Land 50k: Race PR

The last time I ran David Horton's Promise Land 50k in Bedford, VA was in 2008.  I remember enjoying that race and figured I would run it again since this summer -- like the summer of 2008 -- will feature a slow ramp-up to a 100 mile race.  What I didn't remember, at least not in detail, was that the advertised distance -- 50k (31.1 miles) -- is about three miles shorter than the actual distance (~34.35 miles).  Dr. Horton -- a professor at Liberty University in Lynchburg, VA -- is an ambassador for ultra running but also, I suspect, a person who enjoys dishing out his unique version of sadism.   

The race this year was held on Saturday, April 25th.  Lisa and I drove down to Bedford on Friday afternoon and didn't arrive to the hotel until after 9pm.  I didn't have to prep much for this race so I was in bed by 10pm or so -- good thing since the race started at 5:30am and I had to pick up my race number about an hour before and I needed ~45 minutes to eat, drink coffee, and use the restroom...3:30am arrives pretty early!  

The temperature was brisk at the start line so I considered wearing a long-sleeve tech tee over my short sleeve but I changed my mind at the last minute since I would rather begin a bit chilled and warm up rather than begin comfortable then have to shed, and carry, layers later.  As soon as we set off we were climbing -- some of it runnable, most of it not so much -- but I felt good.  I thought I would be dealing with some low-level hamstring tightness but whatever issue I was having the days prior no longer existed.  

I wasn't too anxious about this race although I wanted to beat my previous time (7:00:42) so I set out at what I considered a respectable pace and hoped for the best.  About half-way into the race I started a conversation with a guy who looked like Mike Wardian and when I told him as much, he replied with, "If I am then I'm having a terrible day" to which I responded, "Or I'm having the best running day of my life."  We chatted for a while and it turns out the Mike Wardian doppelganger is a helluva runner:  he'd run a 50 mile race the weekend before and had a pretty aggressive summer on tap (Leadville for one).  He had also run UTMB last summer and did so after fracturing one of his ribs less than half-way into the race.  He managed to finish the race with less than one hour before the cutoff.  An amazing feat of mental and physical determination.  At any rate, he asked me how fast I hoped to finish Promise Land and I told him sub-7 hour was the goal.  He was running for mid-6 hours (alright!) so I figured all I had to do was, more or less, keep him in my sights.  I felt good about my progress and my prospect of finishing sub-7.  

The Mike Wardian doppelganger eventually pulled away from me and for a short time I was worried I wouldn't break 7 hours but as I approached the last climb featuring several stairs amid a scenic creek I was pretty confident I'd beat my previous time, although still pushing it just in case.  When I rolled into the last aid station -- Lisa was waiting for me -- I remember asking how many miles to the finish ("5sh" was the answer from the AS volunteer but I had to clarify, actual miles or Horton miles?!?), downed some Coke, kissed Lisa, and took off.  The last five miles of Promise Land are mostly downhill with three-ish of those miles on the same fire road we set out on at the beginning of the race.  I wanted to finish aggressively so I hauled ass -- by my standards -- and pummeled the descent.  I finished in 6:45:16, averaging 11:55 per minute, 102nd among 311 finishers. 

I was quite pleased with my run.  I beat my previous time by 15(!) minutes and my body held up well during the race.  I didn't experience any nausea (maybe it was the unseasonable chilliness?) and my hips didn't seize up.  My quads, the left one in particular, were pretty sore for a few days afterward but I think that was just from running the descents (especially the last one) so aggressively.  Nothing more downhill training won't remedy.  

All in all, a great race and one I'll most certainly run again.