In the three weeks leading up to the race I had been focusing my training on flat, fast running to get the legs used to the repetitive, same cadence, same stride length, always pushing nature of this race. You see, in a trail race, you get many opportunities switch up your running approach and end up stressing various muscle systems while attacking various terrain. The muscles and form you use during a technical descent will be different than the form you use on a steep climb for instance - and this allows you to stress some systems while letting others recover. But the flat races don't allow for such strategies and therefore it can become quite painful and debilitating if your muscles decide that they are tired of repeating the same movement over and over again, and instead decide to cramp and save itself from an over-cooking.
I think there is a misconception in the ultra-running community that a flat 50k is easier than a hilly 50k. I would argue that they are both the same difficulty - if you push yourself to your limits in both races. Sure, on paper the hilly race looks much more daunting: 50 km over 7000 ft of climbing might take you 6 hrs to finish, but the flat 50 should take you 4.5 hrs... But I assure you, the pain that you face, and therefore the mental games that are employed, are virtually the same between the two events. I guess it might come down to what completed race sounds more spectacular when recounting your adventure on Monday morning around the water cooler at work. The hilly race usually wins out, because the average person has no idea what the finishing times for these events mean in terms of mastery of the skill.
Well, enough dibble-dabble. What happened at the race? I caught a ride with running buddy (and super-fast 50 yr old runner) Jean Pommier. We got there nice and early so we could watch the 50 mile runners(those who don't believe 50k is an ultra), get started. Then at 8:30 we lined up with over 100 other poor souls looking for some early season torture, and we were off! I settled into a pre-planned 7 min/mile pace and tried to relax as much as possible while jostling for position with the other runners. At the beginning of these races it can be quite chaotic when everyone is full of adrenaline and hopeful dreams. Generally there is a good proportion of runners that start off way too fast (mostly of the male variety). What I mean by way too fast is that they are starting with a pace that they know they can't sustain and it will come back to haunt them in the not too distant future. I have been guilty of this on many occasions and I still can't quite figure out why we do it. Intellectually it makes no sense at all, but I guess when you combine testosterone with jug-heads, sense takes a back seat.
After a while the runners get strung out along the path and you start to really size up your competition. It isn't really time to race yet, there is no reason to try to "beat" someone this early in the race. The primary goal of the early going is to keep as calm as possible - don't loose any unnecessary energy to tenseness in your body. Let it flow and cash in on all of your hard-earned aerobic fitness. But I like to look around and try to spot the usual suspects. Those other runners who I have faced in these races before and know we might be duking it out at some point. It is fun to observe the way they are tackling the race: are they trying to stay with the leaders? are they carrying water and food so they can skip aid stations? Do they look as fast as usual? Etc. These are the silly thoughts that occupy my mind at this stage of the game.
I chose not to carry anything. I thought with two aid stations on a five mile loop that I would be fine just grabbing something quickly and then running unburdened by any extra load. It is an interesting study, to figure out which method is faster. When I stopped at an aid station to chug some cups of gatorade and water, whoever I was running with would put a little gap on me, let's say 5 seconds. If I wanted to get my place back in the race I would have to speed up just to catch him. But I was sticking to my game plan of 7 min effort. And who knows? Maybe if I was carrying that load I wouldn't be as efficient trying to maintain that effort and therefore not done as well. Whatever, I always train by carrying water and food, so it is a novelty to be able to just fly unhindered with all of that support. I mean, what are we paying for with the race fees anyways - I was getting my money's worth. The bums who were carrying their stuff were probably making the aid station volunteers feel sad. See, I care about people...
In the first couple of laps (there are six laps) I had been trading positions with a man named Chris Eide. Chris is an impressive athlete. He is not very tall in stature, but he is built like a tree trunk. Barrel chest with sturdy frame supporting an impressive physique, he looks like he can pick up a car. But here he is, running 7 min miles with the intention of running a sub 4 hour 50k. Talk about versatility. He would pass me, holding his big arms up high near his chest - not wasting any energy swinging those muscles around, powerful quick cadence, it is pretty cool to see. I thought to myself that he must have been doing some really good training lately because I really didn't expect to see him in the mix. I stopped at one of the aid stations, looked up, and he was gone. I figured good for him, either he can keep it rocking, or I might see him later...
As I left the aid station, yet another runner was catching up with me. I started getting doubts about my strategy. Why are these people catching and passing me? What's going on? Mystery man in blue came up beside me and then put on a nice surge of pace and opened up a gap. I decided enough was enough and momentarily abandoned my race plan to see what this guy was made of (this is stupid racing by the way). I caught up to him and trailed is every step. Then I decided to to move to his shoulder, just so I hope he didn't think I was being a jerk. After a while he backed off of his pace and dropped behind me. I kept the effort going and noticed that I was pulling away. On one of the straight aways I looked behind me and he was nowhere to be seen. Don't know what that was all about. Was he trying to write a check that his body couldn't cash? Don't know, but he never made another appearance until the finish line...
Beginning the fourth lap, about 17 miles into the race, I started doubting myself. I wasn't really hurting yet, but I could see it coming. It's a tough time in the race because you still have a long way to go and you start getting glimpses of what you are about to endure. You have been there before, and the thoughts start creeping in: You know, I could just stop/ There isn't a really good reason to finish this race/ nobody will care anyways/ I will probably end up in a death march... The negative thoughts can wreak havoc on the confidence. But in the end you have to make the decision and let's face it, you don't want to wuss out, so you have to keep moving.
I grinded out that fourth lap and then beginning lap five I thought I could spot a white singlet off in the distance. I got a little hope that maybe I was catching Chris. Turns out I wasn't the only one starting to hurt. The chase was on. I was trying to speed up, but the body wasn't cooperating. Every time I tried to pick up the pace a little I would get the little twitches that were the calling cards of potentially pace destroying cramps. It is a delicate thing when you get to this point in the race. You have to ride that edge. The edge between destruction and potential victory. In this case it was a very distinct line that I have learned over the years not to mess with. Regardless of my troubles I was still catching Chris. I finally caught up to him right before Guy west bridge.
I was trying to think of something clever to say and came up with: Shot your wad a little early, didn't you? Funny this came out of my mouth because there is a preacher at our church (who shall remain nameless), who delivers sermons on sunday, who will throw that phrase into his messages every now and then. Every time I cringe. What did he just say? Yeah, anyways. Chris then explains the cramps that are forcing him into a hike on the pathetic little hills that are interspersed on the course. I know what he is talking about. Then he said yes, he did in fact shoot it a little early...lol. I then pulled away and tried to keep the pedal to the metal.
On the final lap I caught up to Chuck (that famous Chuck from the 4 mph challenge last year). He was running the 50 mile and deep in the pain cave at that point as well. I told him I wouldn't mind slowing it down to about 4 miles per hour right then. We shared some laughs and then I was off to finish this thing! I crossed the final bridge, sped down the off-ramp and hit the final straight away at full speed:
|My face is hiding the truth. I am in complete agony, well, mixed with a lot of joy with almost being done. Thumbs up down the final straight away! (photo credit: Jean Pommier)|
I guess I could end this post by attaching some interesting music video sorta like ultra-hipsters like Anton Krupicka does, but I can't imagine anyone besides like eight people who think that Grimes is a genius, Fleet Foxes is tops, and Mountain Men is real music (not just backup vocals for Feist). But I digress. Time to start hitting the hills!