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Once a padawan, now a freaking Jedi. I run really far, I write a bunch, and have super powers that allow me to grow amazing facial hair.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Race Report: MMTR 2011

Apparently my body and mind thinks that the 2011 race season was only 6-months long. After posting some solid efforts in the early months, I went on a tear, shattering personal records and completing new distances that were previously beyond my reach. The pinnacle of my year was the Laurel Ultra, where in June I placed in the top 20. Laurel is a race that I failed to finish the year prior, but it's also the race that is essentially the reason I run ultras. After being atop that mountain (quite literally), I apparently made the unconscious decision to put on a suck-fest of performances and non-performances for my remaining races. Sure, I was overly ambitious with my crowded race schedule, but my failures since June are really starting to piss me off. A few were poorly thought out decisions not to run, a few were the result of last minute cold feet, and the rest were just terrible showings that I would never have expected of myself.

It started with the Dawg Gone Long Run 50-miler that I failed to find the starting line to... no big deal, it was a low key, cheap race, that was supposed to be more of a prep race for Burning River than anything else. At least that one wasn't my fault, but then when Burning River came along, despite being just hundreds of feet from the starting line on the morning of, I decided not to run at literally the last minute. Sure I was undertrained and nervous to go for my first buckle, but to be there and not even get out of the car? Shameful. Next on the docket was the YUTC 50K, which I skipped so I could pick up just 4-hours at work. That seems acceptable, but for half of a shift I missed a really good chance to better my 50k PR. Then in Columbus, where I fully expected to beat my marathon PR from Pittsburgh, I ended up running my slowest marathon to date (outside of the one where I pulled my groin a few years back). After a great 13.1, I just collapsed mentally and really gave up long before my body. Then there was the Marine Corps Marathon just a week later... no expectations or time goals even involved because we were running as a team to raise money for Semper Fidelis Health and Wellness. All I had to do was finish... easy, right? Well it may have been, except for the fact that I went out to the bar the night before with some of the other Marines, drank too much, and woke up the next morning 30-minutes after the start, never even making it to the starting line. What was happening to me? What IS happening to me?

All my chips were in for the Masochist. 50-miles was the only distance I had left this year without a new PR attached to it. The MMTR is a course I know well, and despite being undertrained as always, I was still in better shape going in than each of the previous years I had finished. It was a sure shot. Redemption for all the missed opportunities since June, just one race away... or so I had hoped.

 The severe lack of training might seem like a big deal except that my best Masochist was ran without any miles in the two months leading up to it and I was smoking about a pack a day at the time (I actually was smoking a cigarette with my brother at the starting line). I wasn't confident in good training as much as I was confident that I had trained more than the last two years.

My good friend and fellow Masochist alumni, David Emch, volunteered to crew for me, which was particularly helpful since my favorite sidekick, Mikayla, couldn't make the trip because of work. I did everything right the day before. We got to Lynchburg early enough for me to hydrate and do some last minute carb-loading at Olive Garden, get all my gear and supplies prepped, a plan in place for David to assist me, and I actually had a fair amount of rest. I don't always prep for races so efficiently, but when I do, it certainly reduces my stress level going into the event. I felt good and was certain this was where things would turn back around.

Waking up at 4am, I had the typical race morning butterflies, but everything was smooth. I woke up with more than enough time to eat something small, get a coffee, and get to the race start with an hour to spare. It was a chilly morning with the temperature just around 32 degrees, but not so cold that running wouldn't warm me up. I chose my place in the middle of the pack as the clock neared 6:30am. My plan was to resist the temptation of running the opening road section too fast. I kept an easy pace and though everything in me wanted to run them, I walked the hills. Running down to the first aid station where the course finally heads to the trail just as the sun was coming up, I was excited to kick some dirt. Knowing my tendency to go out too fast and to trash my quads on the descents, I was extremely conservative. I wanted all the energy I could save for the two major climbs on the course. The plan was to play it safe until after Long Mountain and then shift gears to hopefully run a negative split for the second half of the race.

Plumbing issue at the hotel, everyone went to a nearby
construction site to use the port-a-potties.


I was passing a fair amount of runners and moving up in the field, but I knew I was still going slower than in years past. Even though I was sticking to my plan, I hated it. Typically I latch on to groups of runners and piggy back off their pace until I find a better group, only straying when I know they are holding me back or going faster than I feel comfortable with. Going out as timidly as I did, I never found a group of runners that I could gauge well. As much as I know about racing at this point, I should rethink this strategy. It works out with marathons, because they are regulated, sterile, and have guaranteed pace groups. In an ultra, there are too many variables... in the course, in the runner, in everything.

Using my mix of water, chia seeds, and maca powder, I was staying well hydrated and didn't have much muscle fatigue or other body issues for the first 14 miles. When I saw David at an aid station, I asked, "I'm going a bit slow huh?" His reply was, "Just a little bit. Just be consistent." Lingering at aid stations is never part of my planning unless it's for a gear issue, so I quickly headed back out, knowing I would soon reach the first big climb with Long Mountain.

Long Mountain is basically a gigantic switchback that brings you up about a thousand feet. You're running up a gravel road, trying to get to what you think is the top. When you get there the road turns... and keeps going up. This happens enough times that you begin to believe God is playing a cruel trick on you. It's not so much steep as it is just long. You can, and almost have to, run sections of this to make it bearable. In years past I have always navigated this section poorly, not running nearly enough. This time around I was planning on strict 40/20 intervals, so I would end up running at least 2/3 of the climb. This worked until the first bend when I began to notice some pain in my left ankle when I would push off. General ankle pain is no big deal, if you're running long distances over uneven terrain, there is a high probability that your body isn't going to like it, and tweaking your ankle a bit along the way isn't at all uncommon. This pain was different though and it was also familiar.

Just in case you were wondering why they
call it the Masochist.

Last year the day after the Masochist my right ankle swelled up and ached like I had ninja kicked a brick wall. I hadn't remembered anything in particular that I had done to injure it during the race, but nevertheless, there I was with a bum ankle. After taking a break from running, icing it, and popping some ibuprofen twice a day the pain persisted. I eventually went to the doctor who suggested that it may be a hairline fracture. They fixed me up with a brace, some painkillers, and a command to not run on it for at least 6 weeks. The only problem with not running for 6-weeks, other than the fact I am hard headed and would probably do it anyhow, was that I had planned on helping my friend Debbie complete her first ultra just 3 weeks after the Masochist. It should go without saying that I ended up running a 50K on the very much still injured ankle. It was a bad choice for my ankle, but considering that I met Mikayla there and that I helped birth a new ultra runner getting Debbie across the finish line, I would do it again. I certainly slowed the healing, but my ankle was better by the time my first race of 2011 came around.

Now, a year removed from the original injury, it came back to haunt me. I was in a good deal of pain, trying to alter my stride to negate any amount of it that I could, but I was repeatedly reduced to a less than brisk walking pace. Now instead of moving up in the field, I was drifting further and further back. People, that I at one point probably had at least a 30-minute lead on, were catching me. I hoped to just make it to the top of the mountain so I could reassess the situation, pop a few painkillers, and if I were to be dealt a new set of cards I would try and make some money on the descent to the half way point.

I wasn't in the best of spirits when I reached my self created checkpoint. An ultra virgin, Hollie, who I noticed was struggling with me on the climb asked me where the next aid station was. I told her, knowing, by the look on her face, that she would be dropping out at the half way point. On the way down the back side of Long Mountain my ankle was much worse than on the way up. If the painkillers did anything for me, I certainly hadn't noticed. I started out working the downhill like it was business as usual, but it wasn't long until I realized it was anything but that. Hollie, who I had passed initially, caught up to me again. I started asking her about her running resume, and telling her about some of my experiences on this course and others, thinking maybe it would give her the drive to keep going on after the bag drop. I never brought up my suspicions that she wanted to drop, but I was beginning to share that unspoken thought. I was having a hell of a time keeping up with her, even though she was probably experiencing a new darkness that was probably unfamiliar to her based upon her previous running adventures. Then what was disheartening for both of us, was the onslaught of runners speeding past. My only goal now was to make it to the buses where I knew David would be. Any decision to be made could wait until then, and even though I was falling back, the generous cut-off time would give me a nice chunk of time to weigh my situation.

When the road started to wind through farmland and I could see houses up ahead, I knew I was close to the valley floor between Long and Buck Mountains, but more importantly, the half way mark. Closing in on the last half mile, I saw David running up the road to me. He knew something was wrong, because we both were expecting me a whole lot sooner than I arrived. I sat down in the grass, started to change out my wet socks for dry ones and wrap a brace on my ankle, while David retrieved a handful of Pringles and some Mountain Dew for me. He was all about speed of service and getting me back on hunt, but I was mulling over the heavy decision to either drop right then, or see how far my bum ankle could carry me up Buck Mountain. I told him what I was thinking, embarrassed that the thoughts in my head had become words spoken. I decided to drop. David got up to tell the race official, but I stopped him. I still had time enough to reverse my decision if I wanted to. Several minutes passed in silence until Hollie came over, already changed over to normal clothes to tell me good luck. Her race was already over, and mine was about to be. I got up and walked over to the official to tell him I was dropping out.

My day was done, after less than 5 hours on the course. There were plenty of people still out there though, plugging away at the miles of trail ahead, no one had finished yet. I checked with David to see where the leaders were, and then we double checked with the official to get the best estimate of who was where. Not to my surprise at all, fellow Ohian and friend, Sandi Nypaver had a big lead in the women's race, with some thinking she had a shot at the course record. Eric Grossman was leading a tight pack of the guys, who were at the time, somewhere on the Loop. With my DNF already cemented in place, the new race was to get to the finish line in time to see the winners.

We arrived in Montebello in a much different fashion than I had wanted, in my car rather than on foot. None of the other drops had come to the finish line yet, so when I went into the general store near the finish line I had to begrudgingly explain to a number of spectators that no, I hadn't broken Geoff Roes's course record. I briefly spoke to Clark Zealand, who was setting up the time clock, making a promise that I would return to Virginia and someday have a performance there that I would be proud of. I also finally got the chance to meet Shaun Pope, who I have admiringly (and jealously) watched from afar as he has smashed course records all over the Ohio ultrarunning circuit.

Eric Grossman, getting better with age.
We had gotten there with plenty of time, but didn't have to wait terribly long before Eric Grossman came flying down the road for his 7th Masochist finish and 3rd win with a time of 6:58:22! Hot on his trail though was Brian Rusiecki at 6:59:34. Both runners are now top-10 all time finishers for the Masochist. Even though I didn't get to finish my 3rd MMTR, it was awesome to see people finish that I will probably always be behind. David and I were sticking around to see if Sandi could hold her lead. She made us wait a little longer than I had wanted (I was hoping she would get the course record) coming across the line 12th overall, winning the women's race, and securing the 5th fastest MMTR time by a woman with 8:05:11!


Sandi, rockstarring it to the finish line!

Of course looking back to last weekend, I wish things had played out differently, I wish I would have been able to finish, and wish that I had been able to get a new PR. What I need to remind myself though is that I had a great race season overall, with great memories and great people. Even with all the mishaps in the second half, it all adds to my experience and will make me a better runner and a better person. The title of this blog is, "Life is Like an Ultra" because the highs and lows and the pain and elation that come with both. This years Masochist was certainly a low, but my race isn't over, not by a long shot. On to the next one gents!