This has been a really great start to my race season in the sense that I'm about five races in and I have yet to run in an event that I have previously participated in. Usually my Spring is really quiet and Pittsburgh marks the kick off of my race schedule. With Pittsburgh just over the horizon and several races already behind me, I feel like I'm a stronger runner than I have ever been. There are still some deficiencies though... in my training, in the way I have handled nutrition issues, and in my approach to race day strategy.
Going into this last race, The Capon Valley 50K, I knew it would be the hardest I had seen so far this year. Up to this point I really hadn't done anything with much elevation gain or loss since the Masochist back in November. I know I don't train enough for climbs, but it didn't stop me from forming the idea in my head that I could break 5-hours.
I had run the Tie-Dye 50K just two weeks prior where I ran a personal best of 5:23, so I was looking to make a pretty radical jump on a much harder course. When I think about it now, it seems stupid in a way, but I always show just enough fight in the first 2/3 of a race that it makes me believe the next one will be different, so why not keep aiming high?
I tried to convince some other runners to come down with me, but between the registration cost being a little higher than average (definitely worth it though) and the long drive away from Columbus, it ended up being just Mikayla and myself. She's been battling injury off and on for months now, but decided to still see what she was capable of. She, despite being from West Virginia, forgot that it can be a bit hilly in her home state. I was the one who was fully aware and simply refused to give the devil his due.
Driving down to the race start on Friday proved to be an adventure in and of itself as we were going to a very rural area without cell phone service or accurate GPS information. Mikayla showed up to my house like 3 or 4 hours late because she had to put in her weave or something equally as ridiculous as that, but I foresaw her sabotage efforts and we still made it down in plenty of time, even after thinking we were lost on more than one occasion.
After setting up our tents, getting our gear organized, packets picked up, and everything else taken care of, I went on a short 3 mile run up the road to get my legs loose... which felt like complete crap and actually kind of scared me... I think sitting in the car for so long threw me off. Once the formalities were over, Mikayla and I drove into town to get some pre-race carbs. We only had about three places to choose from, and I'm pretty sure we picked the most non-vegetarian friendly place of the bunch. I had a decent pasta dish, but it was super heavy with egg and some sort of cream sauce. That was probably a bad idea and I think I can blame some of my in-race stomach issues on that choice. Mikayla had a fish of some sort that we had never heard of... when we asked the waitress about it she said that the type of fish had a personality similar to a barracuda. I'm not sure that was relevant, but it sounded compelling enough that it was Mikayla's choice. I guess if you are a "flexitarian" you can choose to only eat animals with angry personalities?
Sleeping in a tent is actually my preferred pre-race rest... it's cheaper, you are close to the starting line, and it feels like an adventure. When all was said and done I probably clocked out for about 6 or 7 hours of decent sleep and woke up without an alarm around 6 AM. I had done pretty much all there was to do the night prior, so I simply drank a small coffee and milled about the area until the start.
I wasn't planning on staying with Mikayla or anyone else for that matter, so I began my race in the middle of the pack. We went through someone's yard, up onto the highway and then up a dirt road. I used the first stretch to get in position as I knew any passing would soon be done on single track which isn't always ideal. After shooting off in the woods we had a short climb and then a nice long descent into the valley. An early stream crossing had me disoriented as I looked down at my footing instead of up at the course markings, and I ended up leading 3 or 4 runners astray in addition to losing all the ground I had gained in the downhill (which is traditionally where I make my $$).
|The beginning and the end...|
It was probably only 45 seconds of lost time, and though a bit frustrating, it was early enough in the race that I didn't let it get to me too much. If I have any criticism of the race, I would say that it would have been better to use a solid color to mark the course instead of striped ribbon. The whole course was well marked in frequency of ribbons, they were just difficult to see in some lighting. After that slight mishap there were some nice variations of ascents and descents through mixed forest and open meadows. Most of the course was very runnable, but the diversity of it kind of thinned out the pack as different weaknesses and strengths were exposed. I am an average climber, a slightly above average grinder (the runnable sections), and as I said before, down hill running is where I shine. Some non-runners that might read this might question how hard it is to run down hill, but with a bit of experience you will soon realize that going down is sometimes just as bad if not worse than going up.
After several miles in and a few aid stations (that I pretty much ignored in the first half), there was only a handful of runners in my view. One who pretty much just swapped spots with me every quarter mile or so and then two who were some distance ahead of us and taking advantage of climbs. A big hill would come up and they would widen the gap on us, then on the other side we would close it back up again.
It became really close when we came to a section of gravel road that ran under the power lines. The roads were so steep that it looked as if the people in front of me were jumping off a cliff. I was running so fast that if I had fallen it would have almost certainly ended in a trip to the hospital, complete with broken bones. The gravitational momentum was bordering on the scary side, where I wasn't sure if I should try to slow myself down or just keep going with it. The gravel footing didn't help things at all, I would have actually preferred dirt.
When we hit Aid Station #2 just before 11 miles, the volunteer said something that I didn't quite catch as I refilled my water bottle. I didn't linger there but left the station side by side with the runner I had mentioned I had been switching spots with. He then informed me of the info I missed, that I was in 7th place overall, and he was, for the purpose of distinction only, in 8th. I couldn't believe we were that far up in the field, and on top of that we were well in range of catching 5th and 6th. We scurried along through some creek crossings, rejuvenated by our surprising placement.
I was hoping that the two runners in front of us were pushing each other faster than either wanted to be going and that they would both burn out, enabling us to overtake them. No more than 3 miles from the second aid station, one of them did indeed fizzle out, putting our competition now between our newly acquired 6th and 7th spots. As we made our way onward, we travelled with a pretty even pace through the still well varied course. My new acquaintance told me that he had run this race a few years back in 5:15 and his goal was the same as mine, to PR and break 5 hours. Looking at the results of previous years, I wondered to myself if we were going too fast. I still felt good, but I wasn't sure if I could keep it up or not.
Not too much after we passed Aid Station #3, there was a sharp turn past a hunting cabin where a man on the porch asked us if we needed anything. In retrospect I should have stopped for about 5 minutes and had a beer with our friendly spectator, it would have probably done me a world of good. Just past his cabin was a pretty nasty climb, it wasn't so much steep as it was long, which in my opinion is way worse... perhaps it reminded me of Long Mt. and Buck Mt. at the Masochist? This one can take 3rd place for things that piss me off and it's called North Mountain... I see a theme, do you?
As we climbed, homeboy was pushing the pace and running more than I wanted to on this climb, I would imagine this was because our elusive prey was in plain view. Sometimes even though you are already gaining steady ground on someone, you trade your patience away once you smell blood in the water. I could say that I saw the mistake he was making and that's why I chose not to pick it up and follow, but I'd be lying, I was simply getting worn out. Ohio being flat isn't a legitimate explanation, it's that I neglected to properly train for climbs. Few as they may be, I could have found just ONE and done repeats, or found a nice tall building with a stairwell, or attempted to train on a machine at the gym. I didn't do anything even close to specific training in preparation for this race and it showed.
As I went up and saw the runners in front of me slowly vanish into the trees I could hear that I was being caught from behind. I was someone's prey now. I forced myself up the hill, running for any distance I could. When I reached the top I turned to see my pursuers and then I jetted down the hill. The descent was long, almost an annoyingly runnable stretch. I thought I would gain ground back but I didn't. One of the guys behind me finally caught up, and then I kept pace with him and distracted myself with his conversation. We turned out of the woods and onto a dirt road that took us down to Aid Station #4.
I stopped to refill my bottle and to down some bananas. We were at mile 19, well over the half way point, just 12 miles from the finish. Two runners passed me up who didn't stop at the aid station and then I ran with my new pacing partner, letting him lead. I was now in 10th place, which was still awesome, except for the fact that I began to buy into the struggle that my mind and body was trying to sell me.
After a good stretch of mild elevation loss and really runnable trail we came to the next climb. My legs seemingly stopped working. They weren't hurting, they weren't even tight, it was like reaching for something that just wasn't there. I should have just kept them moving, looking in the distance instead of at the ground, playing my games instead of letting myself doubt. There was no way that I was going to drop out of a 50K after doing 20+ miles, especially when I was still in 10th and had less than 10 miles to go, but I lost the faith that I was going to meet my expectations or even do well at all.
It's such a toxic thing your mind can do to you... and when you look back you always ask why you weren't able to give yourself a nice mental thrashing and plug on.
Everything started to go wrong... I was annoyed by my ankle that was acting up, annoyed that my shoes were wet, the thought of eating another gel disgusted me, and I pretty much just wanted the race to end. Walking became more frequent, and not just on hills, but on runnable sections too. As people passed me they asked how I was doing, I gave different answers depending on what was pissing me off right that second... "Oh just cramping up a bit." "Damn stomach acting up." "Hitting the wall for a minute." "Shaking out some ankle pain." It was all mildly true, but the all encompassing truth was that I lacked the motivation to deal with any of those minor issues, which made them all really big issues.
I tried running more, but I couldn't force myself to go more than a few minutes. Several times I straight up stopped on the course, which is a huge personal no no of mine, hell, I even mention it in the title of this blog... "Life is Like an Ultra... JUST KEEP MOVING FORWARD." I stopped at one point for a solid ten minutes, even took my shoes and socks off to wring out water. I don't know what got into me, because I've ran harder races, further races, ones with more pain. At one point I had considered laying down on the side of the trail to take a nap and wait for Mikayla so I could help her (so she could help me) finish strong. I really considered it, but then I thought about the potential of her dropping out, which would result in me waiting for someone who would never get to me, and then I'd be swept off the course for a DNF. I immediately thought about what happened at Laurel last year and thought about how it would be a bad sign for this year if I dropped out of a 50K just a month before trying to tackle Laurel again. So I wisely kept moving forward.
Being a huge Pittsburgh Penguins fan, I know that at least once a year my team will get crushed to the tune of 7 or 8 goals. Every team gets blown out at least once a year, and it's not that big of a deal usually since it's an 82-game schedule, but it still freaking sucks. Even if you're on top of the standings and the game has little meaning, even then, it still sucks. That's what I am writing this race up as, a lapse, a blowout, a suckfest. It was certainly a hard race, don't get me wrong about that, but I am a better runner than I showed last weekend. I got blown out, I shouldn't have, but I did.
The last 4 or 5 miles were complete garbage. I walked a lot. The miles went by excruciatingly slow. People passed me left and right. I bitched a lot to myself. It wasn't until I reached the last aid station (which had also been the first) that I mustered up anything positive. The aid station volunteers noticed I wasn't sweating, which might be because I was refusing to exert myself rather than because I was dehydrated, but what did it really matter with less than 3 miles to go? After spending about 5-minutes sipping some Mountain Dew and conversing with the aid station people, I went on my way and actually conjured up some running.
As I left the woods I was in full stride, knowing exactly where I was in relation to the end. I flew down the hill to the intersection where some local police were stopping traffic for runners and then took a left to cross the bridge and come into view of the finish line. The course cut across the same yard we started out on, one last stream to hop over, and then down the gravel road to the timing station. I crossed the line with a time of 6:01:48 for my fourth 50K finish. For all the crap I pulled on the trail, I should consider my time a blessing. From 7th place to 46th in the last 1/3 of the race was a hard pill to swallow.
The good news in all of this is that I have at least two more 50K's to run this year, and with the distance quickly becoming a favorite of mine, I expect to have some sort of redemption. I have some big fish to fry this Summer with Laurel (77 Miles) and Burning River (100 Miles) which I think I am actually better trained for than a 50K at the moment, just because the strategy will be so much different. My first race after those adventures is another 50K, which I will be anxiously awaiting to tackle.
After sulking a bit like a little girl, I took a shower, ate some vegetarian lasagna that they had included with registration, and then went to inquire about Mikayla. I found out that she was still on course, so I waited outside to see her finish. I knew this was the hardest race she had ever attempted and I knew she wasn't anywhere near 100% going into it, so I was nervous that this might have been too much.
Nearing the cut-off, I was probably pissing the volunteers off with asking them every 2-minutes if Mikayla had made it to the last aid station. Once the time hit 9-hours they told me the sweep had begun and she had not made it to the aid station in time. This was proved incorrect less than 5 minutes later when I saw her pink shirt in the distance moving down the road towards us. I would have went out to encourage her to finish strong, but she shoved me aside and made a mad dash to the finish line and then immediately pulled a Brandi Chastaine just before doing a 50 pushups right there at the end. Freaking rock star.
|Yeah, pretty much like this.|
Well next up is Pittsburgh for another crack at the marathon. I should be excited because there's a good chance of me getting a PR, but I have to drive in Pittsburgh to get to the race, and I HATE driving in Pittsburgh. I'll be hanging with the 3:30 pacers hopefully until the last 4 or 5 miles at which point I plan on making a break for it. Who knows though, anything can happen. Until next time.