Saturday, October 31, 2015

Virgil Crest 2015: One hour and twenty one minutes.

In 2014, on my third try, I finally finished a hundred miler, Virgil Crest, in 36:20.  Small problem: the cutoff was 36 hours.  I got my buckle, due to the kindness and mountainish trail goodness of RD Ian Golden.  I floated along for a few weeks, basking in the glow of covering 100 miles in one fell swoop, but a little voice inside kept growing louder.  “You didn’t make the cutoff.  Yeah, you got a buckle, but….”

And so it was that I signed up for this stupidly hard race again.  I had to run clean.  I always chase cutoffs and sometimes miss them.  I had to fix this. I had to finish this.

September 18.  Night before the race.

8:00 pm.  Hotel room in Cortland, NY.  I’m...nervous?  Maybe. Second-guessing myself? Definitely. Wondering why I was going to put myself through this again?  Absolutely.  I’m normally raring to go and never nervous or negative, but not this night.  Not looking forward to the morning.  My training had been spot-on.  I was so ready, yet so not. WTF was I doing?

September 19. Race day.  

4 am.  Warm and dry.  Very un-Virgil like.  I'm here, so what else can I do? Time to finish this thing.

5 am.  Drive to Hope Lake.  Ian, Scotie, Mr. Lampman, Christine.  All the usual suspects.  Love the pre-race energy. Feel like I'm in the middle of a beehive, and we're getting ready to head out on a crazy, stupid, yet somehow important mission.  As usual, my Lisa is here.  She is always here.  She is my rock.

5:57.  5:58.  5:59 am.  Strava, start recording.  

6 am.  Ok, this is finally it.  I’m back, we’re off, it’s on.  

Last year I started off walking, determined to not go out too hard and blow up later. This year, I run easy, determined to put just enough time in the cutoff bank to not run scared all weekend. I’m confident my training will carry me.  My reluctance of last night is gone and I’m in a groove almost immediately.  

7:20 am.  6.3 miles.  Hitching Post aid station.  20 minutes ahead of cutoff.  Feeling good.  

8:56 am. 13.4 miles.  TenKates Crossing.  40 minutes ahead of cutoff.  Feeling great. Here at Tenkates is my Lisa.  Volunteering while waiting to crew me.  She does so much, for so many. Thank you Lisa!  Thank you volunteers!

Now the fun begins. The alpine section at Greek Peak ski resort.  Up, over, around, down.  Lather, rinse, repeat.  Two or three times, it seems (I’m still confused about what exactly happened out there).  And near the top of one of the climbs, here’s the welcome face of Ian Golden, doing what he does--running all over the course, keeping tabs on folks, encouraging people, making it all work. Thank you for being Ian, Ian.

11 am.  20 miles.  TrailsRoc#.  45 minutes ahead of cutoff.  Feeling great.  So happy to finally meet Amy Schwarz Lopata, Facebook friend and wife of Dan Lopata, one of the sweeps (along with Tom Garby) who graced and protected us during that long final 25 miles in 2014.  Dark chocolate espresso beans and bacon.    


1221 pm.  25 miles.  The Rockpile.  45 minutes ahead of cutoff.  Feeling remarkably good.  I’ve run either the 50 or 100 at Virgil every year since 2010 and I’m always 7 hours to the 25 mile point.  This year, 6:21 and feeling strong and comfortable.  This was huge and really set the tone for the rest of the race.  For someone always cutting it close to cutoffs, it’s a tremendous mental boost to feel like I’m ahead of the game and haven’t beaten myself up to get here.  The advice is always don’t go out too fast and while that’s certainly true, for someone that chases cutoffs it can also be important to not go out too slow and feel terrorized by the clock all day.  It’s a delicate balance, this pace thing. 

Now the 25 mile return trip to Hope Lake start/finish.  I don’t remember much from this leg.  Not because I wasn’t lucid, I was.  It was just...well, this is that leg you have to finish to get to the halfway point when you can really focus on the beginning of the end.  A bunch of hours, and miles, and elevation.  

One thing I do remember during this leg was how good my legs felt at 30, 40, 50 miles.  One of my goals in training this year was to do longer long runs instead of back to backs or multiple long runs per week.  I think it helped physically, and it definitely helped mentally because during those runs, I experienced my legs coming back to life after 25 or 30 miles.  I knew even if I got tired, I’d come back.  I know this from other races, of course, but it was really good to have it fresh in my mind from the past few weeks of training.  I recall a little fatigue around 32-34 miles, but then it was gone.  

1:51 pm.  30 miles.  TrailsRoc#.  44 minutes ahead of cutoff.

4:09 pm.  36.6 miles.  Tenkate.  36 minutes ahead of cutoff.

6:41 pm.  43.7 miles.  Hitching Post.  39 minutes ahead of cutoff.

8:40 pm.  50 miles.  Back at Hope Lake.  1:05 ahead of cutoff.  Now the fun starts: the second 50 mile leg.  In the dark.  With a cold front and heavy rain on the way.  This is Virgil, after all.  Put my feet up for a few minutes, eat a cheeseburger my lovely Lisa saved for me.  Don my rain jacket, big-brimmed Outdoor Research rain hat, and waterproof headlamp.  Thankfully, the  unflappable Jim Lampman, the Hundred Mile Machine who so kindly pulled me along with him through the night last year, is here also.  I’m thrilled to be with him again this year as we head out of Hope Lake.  I did not yet know just how happy--and fortunate--I would be.  Lisa runs around the lake with us, gives me kiss as we leave the paved path and head back into the woods, and runs back to the pavilion.  She’s going to meet me in the morning to pace me the last 25 miles, so will go back to the hotel for some sleep.

9:15 pm.  The rain starts and quickly becomes a Virgil-esque deluge.  Rains hard for an hour (or five), then tapers off. A cold wind blows water off the trees for what seems like hours.  I keep moving to stay warm, but I keep getting so far ahead of Jim that I can’t see his headlamp.  I wait, and sometimes backtrack to make sure he hasn’t fallen on the muddy trails.  Problem is, he’s wearing glasses. Glasses suck in the rain and he can barely see where he’s going.  The really stupid part of all this?  I'm enjoying it. It sucks, but I'm enjoying it, living in the moment.  What is wrong with ultrarunners?  

For awhile, I’m confused, thinking there’s a lean-to on this section, where I’d seen some backpackers earlier.  Planning to crash their party to get warmed up, or quit, or something. Alas, the lean-to isn’t in this section, and before I know it, we’re at the Hitching Post again.  

11:08 pm.  56.3 miles, Hitching Post. 32 minutes ahead of the cutoff.  A welcome outpost of dry under the tent.  Warm food.  Volunteers are the best!  As is Erin Klinkman, driving around to every aid station with two big bins of clothes and gear for Jim Lampman.  They kindly lend me a couple dry shirts and some gloves because, unbelievably, I have not put any in my drop bag for this aid station. My race is done without dry clothes here.  I’m cold, wet, and wary of heading back into the woods unless I have dry clothes.  Hypothermia can’t be ruled out at this point.  Jim Miner is here, volunteering--thank you!--and he gives me a space blanket that I tuck into my shorts to make a nice warm skirt.  So fashionable.  And that really matters when you’re running in the woods at midnight in a rainstorm.

2:24 am? Sunday (race website says 4:24 but that can’t be right).  63.4 miles.  TenKate.  26 minutes ahead of cutoff.  Madness in the dark of night.  Crazy joy of being in the moment once again.

5:14 am.  70 miles.  TrailsRoc#.  26 minutes ahead of cutoff. Ok, now I'm ready for sunrise. Cursing at the planet, trying to get it to spin faster.  Not working.  

7:13 am.  75 miles.  Rock Pile turnaround.  52 minutes ahead of cutoff and the sun is finally awake. As planned, Lisa is here.  LISA IS HERE!!  Last year, I called and left her a tearful voicemail about a mile from the aid station, as I stumbled along believing my race was done. It wasn’t, thanks to her and Todd Baum--but it wasn’t pretty the rest of the way.  This year, I’m moving well and in good spirits--why wouldn’t I be, I’m here over an hour earlier than last year and feeling alive instead of dead. Some of Todd’s delicious beef stew, a short rest with my feet up, and we’re out.  Lisa is with me now, and the world is right.  I know she’ll get me to the finish.

We start out on the victory leg.  Not setting any land speed records, but moving forward and feeling ok.  I’m in last place again, and that’s fine.  Every aid station, we’re treated like rockstars.  The volunteers are the rockstars, many of them still here after an all-night shift.  Thank You Volunteers!  


9:31 am.  80 miles.  TrailsRoc#.  59 minutes ahead of cutoff.  Heading to the alpine section for the last time.  Ever.

12:13 pm. 86.6 miles.  TenKate.  1:12 ahead of cutoff.  Almost 6 hours to cover just over 13 miles, and the hard part is behind us.  Feeling good.  I got this. I so got this.  Lisa is doing a great job keeping me moving.

About 2:45 pm.  92-93 miles.  I don’t got this. I’m going to miss the 36 hour finish cutoff again.  How did this happen.  WTF?  

I’m having my only episode of “ultra brain” the entire race, as I close in on Hitching Post at 93.7 miles. I’m thinking I can get there by 3 pm, which would leave me 3 hours to go 6.3 miles.  I correctly calculate this to be 2.1 miles per hour.  My ultra brain converts it to 15 minute miles (hint: it’s about 30 minute miles).  I see no possible way I can do 15 minute miles for 6+ miles.  I am cooked.

2:58 pm. 93.7 miles. Hitching Post. 57 minutes ahead. As we approach the aid station, Lisa wisely runs ahead of me to warn the aid station volunteers that a raving lunatic who knows only the F word is approaching.  “I need water and Coke, NOW.  HURRY UP!.  I have to keep moving.” (And yes, this low carb, high fat guy drank some Coke, because at 93.7 freaking miles,you eat or drink whatever you freaking want.) Joel Cisne is here and gives me a congratulatory hug as it’s clear to everyone--except me--that I’ll beat the finish cutoff with ease. I will have nothing of this celebration.  I dash out, despondent.  Lisa comes racing up behind me, again trying to convince me we're fine on time. Just a short distance into the woods, the light bulb lights. Lisa’s math is right; I’ll easily make it under 36 hours.  Now the problem is water.  In my crazed pass through the aid station, I haven’t let us fill our packs as planned, and we have over 6 miles to go.  Lisa is pissed at me, and rightly so. This takes my mind off the race for a bit, and eventually we decide we’ll be fine as long as we don’t get lost.

We get back into a groove.  Eventually Lisa tells me we’re close to Hope Lake.  I don’t see a lake. Ten minutes later she says it again.  Still no lake.  Ten minutes later she says she remembers this section and that the lake is definitely close now.  She’s lying.  She’s a very good pacer.  

4:48(ish) pm.  Hope Lake!  We exit the woods onto the paved final mile.  If I had much left, I could slide in under 35 hours, but even smelling the finish line, I know this is not possible.  Up ahead we see two others, a runner and his pacer.  Lisa says “Do you think you can run a few steps? Maybe we can catch them.  Let’s finish strong.  Just run a little, honey.”  I try.  It works.  We pass them and apologize.  It’s what ultrarunners do.  “Let’s keep running and not be last this time.”  I keep running. The paved path bobs and weaves around the lake.  We make the final left turn, cross a small bridge and head onto the grass to the finish chute.  Lisa runs ahead and can see the clock.  “Run!!  RUN!!”

I see the clock.  

I run.

I finish.


Thirty FOUR fifty nine.

One hour and one minute under the cutoff.

One hour and twenty one minutes faster than last year.  

I have run clean, made all the cutoffs, finished official.

My hundred mile quest is complete, my buckle, legit.


And so it ends. My work here is done, except to say Thank You. Thank You Lisa (again, and again, and again). Thank You Ian Golden. Thank You volunteers. Thank You everyone that encouraged and supported me during this grand adventure. Woo Hoo--got it done!

Strava stats below and track here.
101.6 miles.
41,802 feet total elevation change (20,901 climbing)

Oh, and for those that want to know how I became so wicked fast this year....stay tuned for Virgil 2015, Part Deux: How I Became So Wicked Fast This Year.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Bear Mountain 2012: The 50 miler that wasn't, but probably was.

I (attempted) to run The North Face Bear Mountain 50 miler yesterday (5/5/12).  I’ve registered for my first 100, Virgil Crest in late September, so I really want to get several 50 milers in as part of my build-up to Virgil.  I ran Bear 50K in 2011, again only as training since it fell on a day I had a 30 miler scheduled, and I didn’t like the corporate feel--very non-ultra-like.  Even the runners were different--too many people wearing iPods and fancy clothes.  The vibe was much more of a road race than an ultra.  But back to this year--I needed a spring 50, I didn’t get in Bull Run as I’d hoped, and Bear was certainly a good course--very, very hard, a perfect “supported training run” just 90 minutes from home.  

I ran 14:32 pace for the 50K last year.  The cutoffs for the 50 miler were about 16:48 pace.  I knew this would be a big challenge for me given the course--14,000+ feet of elevation change and lots of very technical trail.  I went out yesterday just trying to stay ahead of the cutoffs so I’d be allowed to finish (I knew I could finish, physically--I can ALWAYS finish).  Really need to work on race technique, no matter how hard I try I usually go out faster than I think I’m going.  So I used heart rate to control my effort level early and not go too hard too soon.  Wish I could just feel my effort and pace better, but I can’t (yet) and the HRM has been a good tool for me in the past.  My best 50 ever, 11:42 at Bull Run last year, came while I was wearing the HRM and regulating my effort early on.  Surely not due solely to the HRM, but that didn’t hurt.  So, I went with it again.

The night before: Camped in my van near the race and got up at 2:30am to catch the shuttle to the start.  This, too, was good training for the 100--running with almost no sleep!  Gotta say, a minivan is, to me, the ultimate ultra machine.  I’ve taken groups of folks and loads of gear to distant races comfortably, and camped in it countless times.  Lots of room in the back for a bunch of running gear and supplies that just live there year-round.  What’s not to like?  Maybe I need an “Ultra Mom” bumper sticker for it :)

The start: At 5:01 am we were off.  Weather was great, maybe 50 degrees.  It was foggy, so the rocks were wet but nothing too bad.  The dirt was perfect--not too soft, not too hard, just right.  Excellent.  On the down side, I was really kicking myself for not changing the batteries in my headlamp, though I knew they were fresh.  Or maybe I was going to have to spring for one of those 170 lumen suckers before Virgil, because this thing just wasn’t cutting it.  And finally, just before I didn’t really need it any more, I decided to try pushing the buttons--it has all different modes, proximity lighting, red light, yada yada.  Duh.  When I turned on the REAL headlamp it was like the freakin’ sun had come up.  Glad we got that straightened out.

Aid Station #1, Anthony Wayne, 3.9 miles: I was 4 min ahead of the cutoff (this was a soft cutoff, just a pace indicator really--there were only two hard cutoffs where you could be pulled).  Ok, fine to warm up with but I wanted to build a little more cushion.  

Aid Station #2, Silvermine, 8.6 miles: 8 min ahead of the cutoff and running very comfortably.  Picked it up a bit on the second leg.  Felt super.

Aid Station #3, Arden Valley, 13.9 miles.  10 minutes behind the cutoff.  Oops.  Heart rate is great as long as it fits with the pace you want to run.  Not so much on this leg.  Couple runners who knew the course told me (after the fact) that the third leg always kicks their ass.  Now the problem was that the first hard cutoff of the day was at AS #4, and I had to make up some time.  Getting to AS #4 was now my race--miss the cutoff and I was done.  So I got after it. Hard.  Passed lots of runners.  Next comes the first “North Face” moment of the day...

Aid Station #4, Skannatati, 20.7 miles.  I could see the aid station through some trees as I came down a steep and slightly technical section.  It was gonna be close...really, really freakin’ close.  Fortunately, I put the hammer down.  Fortunate, because 50 feet from the AS a guy in a red shirt (as he would become known to many runners that day) is looking at his watch and shouting at me “Hurry up, 30 seconds to get here.”  Huh?  WTF? Are you freakin’ serious?  Yeah, I’d put the hammer down to play it safe but didn’t think they were going to be that rigorous about it.  Twenty seconds  (20 seconds!) behind me came a group of 5 or 6 runners.  Red Shirt pulled them.  I’m surprised they didn’t bury him under some of those Bear Mountain rocks.  We all showed him our watches that all showed it was still 10:47 am, the cutoff time.  But he said he was on the radio with the RD who made the call.  I felt terrible for those people.  And there was another hard cutoff at 2:34 pm.  Why not just let them continue and see if they can make the later cutoff?  For that matter, why even have two hard cutoffs, or at least why enforce the first one so rigorously?  Yeah, if you’re 5, 10, 20 minutes past that first cutoff, ok, but 20 seconds? (I’m not exaggerating this point, they were right on my heels).  So this was my tipping point: Fuck The North Face.  Never running one of their races again, nor buying any of their products.  But I’d made the cutoff (which, apparently, was an “in” cutoff--just get there by the cutoff time and you’re ok....keep reading...) and was allowed to continue.  Whew.

Aid Station #5, Camp Lanowa, 27.7 miles.  Nothing remarkable about this leg.  I was in an out right on schedule. I had to be, as the next and final hard cutoff of the day was at AS #6.  I was on a razor-thin edge and couldn’t dog it.  I will say I was feeling just marvelous.  Mahvelous.

Aid Station #6, Tiorati, 34.2 miles and the second “North Face moment” of the day.  Really didn’t think I was going to make it at several points during this leg, but kept pushing.  About 10 minutes from cutoff time, I thought I saw an area ahead that “felt” like there would be an AS there.  We all know about those hallucinations.  Just a bend in the trail, more trees, rocks, and roots.  T minus 5 minutes, another such hallucination.  Then, resignation.  I wasn’t going to make it.  I didn’t give up, but I was fully expecting to be pulled.  T minus 2 minutes.  There it was!!  I could do it.  A quick turn on the trail and...a quagmire.  Not a lot of mud on the course, but this section had it.  Shoe-sucking mud, but not too much of it.  Got through it, blasted up a short hill and...a road to cross to the AS.  Fortunately, no traffic.  The cutoff was 2:34 pm.  I came in at 2:33.  No problem, since the cutoffs were “in” and not “out” (or so it was at the first hard cutoff, where Red Shirt told me I’d made the cutoff and could leave whenever I was ready).  I made a comment to a volunteer about never having run this close to the cutoffs and he said “oh, you have 10 minutes.”  “No, I just made it.”  “No, they extended the cutoff to 2:41.”  Ok, whatever.  I was filling my pack and refueling when Red Shirt’s equivalent at this AS came over to me and said “It’s 2:35, I should pull you since you haven’t left yet but if you go right now I’ll let you out.”  Gee, how considerate of you.  Fucking asshole.  Two other runners who hadn’t left yet heard this and ran like cats from a vacuum cleaner.  I didn’t argue with Mr. I’m-Big-And-Important-Because-I-Have-A-Radio about whether the cutoffs were “in” or “out.”.  I just hoofed it and repeated my new mantra: Fuck The North Face.  But now I was golden.  No more hard cutoffs, save for the 14 hour finish limit and honestly, I really didn’t care if I got an “official” time.  I knew the course would be a challenge for me and all I wanted to do was run all 50 miles (or more....keep reading...) of it.  

Aid Station #7, Anthony Wayne, 40.3 miles.  Yeah baby.  We got this.  I did have a letdown of sorts after making the Tiorati cutoff.  Not that I felt bad.  It was just like “whew, got that taken care of” and I took a pretty good break between AS 6 & 7.  I was DFL when I got to AS 7, so picked up the sweep here, a very nice woman named Stephanie.  She had never run an ultra, but did run trails some and, having recently moved to NYC, was happy to be back out on trails again for a day.  I was feeling great but wasn’t overly thrilled about running the last 10 miles solo, and she was a great person to talk to, very positive, upbeat, fun.  I felt great physically and was having a blast talking with Stephanie.  All good, cruise control from here to the end, even if we did have to climb Timp Pass and go down the other side.  Alternated running and walking.  No issues.

Aid Station #8, Queensboro, 44.7 miles.  The best AS of the day, the only one that had an “ultra” feel to it.  As I (we, counting Stephanie) approached, a woman wearing a fluorescent pink wig (at least, I think it was a wig), matching pink-themed clothes, and mis-matched knee socks started ringing a bell and cheering.  Others started blowing horns (or some sort of noisemakers, there were several I think), hootin’ & hollerin’ for us.  There was a party goin’ on!  Hung out for a few minutes here just because the people were so much fun and, hey, I was golden, remember?  No more hard cutoffs, I was clear to the finish, even if I was “late.”  Ran out of Queensboro feeling great and looking forward to beating Timp Pass which, as it turned out, wasn’t really much worse than some of the other climbs on the course.  I knew Timp from the 50K last year, but there were 19 miles of trail that were new to me this year and they had some pretty good climbs as well so Timp, even at 45 miles, wasn’t a big deal.  And slow climbs up steep rocky hills are one of the few things I do pretty well, since I train on such terrain quite a bit.  I’m not a good “pure” runner, but I can go (slowly) up and down rocks all day.  One more AS, then the finish.

Aid Station #9, 1777, 47.2 miles.  About a mile out from this final AS, we encountered the two EMTs that were working the AS.  They had decided to hike out and look for us.  Stephanie had a radio and while we could hear people, for some reason they couldn’t hear us so when they kept asking where 197 (my bib number) was, Steph couldn’t get through to them. But all was good, I was running comfortably and in great spirits, very lucid, just having a fine time.  A fine time. Until the radio call came in, about 3 minutes before getting to the AS.  The Park Rangers had decided to call the race and ordered all remaining runners pulled from the course.  It was about 7:10 pm at this point.  I was DFL, so I was the only only one to be pulled.  The EMTs said “gee, if you were to somehow get away from us, what could we do about it?”  Which, of course, is exactly what I did.  I had plenty of running left in my legs, actually, and had no problem taking off at a good gait.  Which was fine, until I got to the AS, which looked like a police blockade.  No rangers, but several big pickups and SUVs, some with lights and official-looking symbols all over them, and about a dozen guys in fluorescent orange vests.  And Red Shirt.  As I approached, they said “Sir, you have to stop.”  It won’t take much imagination to guess the two words I said to them.  I ran through the AS and continued down the dirt road that the course followed at this point.  A bunch of guys took off after me.  Didn’t take long for all but one--Red Shirt--to drop.  Unfortunately, Red Shirt was an ultrarunner (well, so he said, but he had the vibe of a North Face corporate talking (dick)head.  He hung with me for a few minutes insisting that I come back.  I finally acquiesced, not so much for the sake of the race director and the race per se, but out of respect for the Park Rangers since (supposedly) it was their call to close the race and clear the course.  While Rangers can sometimes be assholes, they’re also there to save your ass if you get in trouble, and to ride herd on the other assholes that would otherwise litter up and misuse the open spaces we love.  And, after all, they do have legal jurisdiction over the park--I knew there’d be hell to pay at the finish if I went on.  And so, my day was done.

What was perhaps most frustrating about this turn of events was that I have never, ever felt so strong and been so lucid near the end of a 50 miler.  I easily could have gone another 5 miles, much less the 2.8 miles to the finish.  Still worse: At one point the truck I was in for my ride off the course missed a turn and hit a dead end.  As we were heading back to to the turn...there was Red Shirt, headlamp on (not that he needed it yet, it was about 7:30 pm with an hour of daylight left).  I said “Is he running the course?” and the driver said “Oh yeah, he’s going to sweep the last 2.8 miles to the finish just to make sure there’s no one left out there.”  So we had a race official sweeping the final leg of the course, but they wouldn’t let me run it with him.  WTF?  Are you kidding me? You can’t make this shit up....

If someone had said at the start that there was any chance of being pulled even after making the cutoffs, I would have kept my pace up more than I did.  I easily could have taken some minutes off--and I would have been through the final aid station before the Rangers called the race.  Or if I hadn’t spent several minutes walking with the guy who said he was hypothermic--I eventually decided it was ok to leave him alone but I got his bib number and reported him at the next aid station, which I knew couldn’t be far away at that point (though I’d always spend the time to make sure someone was alright, finish or not).  Of course, all this begs the question “Why didn’t I just keep my pace up anyway?”  To which I say: Beats me.  I was just out having a great time in the woods, covering a bunch of miles, and not worrying about anything once I’d made the final cutoff.  Oh well.

And to finish out the title of this race report: I spoke with LOTS of people after the race who GPS’d the course at between 53 and 56 miles.  We all know GPS is not perfect, but so many people measuring at least 53 miles makes me think the course was indeed well over 50 miles. I didn't hear a single report of it being less than 53. They’d made some course changes this year, including cutting a brand new section to connect a couple of trails.  So it seems likely that by the time I hit 47.8 miles, I’d run pretty close to (or even over) 50 miles.  I wanted a hard 50 mile training run, and I probably got just that.

Random thoughts and other miscellany from the day:

  • It was foggy for several hours, especially at the higher elevations.  This, combined with the vibrant spring green colors of ferns and other plants just leafing out, gave this run a magical, mythical, “enchanted forest” feel.  I don’t know when I’ve enjoyed a run so much, it was sooo cool.  This is why I run trails.
  • Just after Tiorati, I heard a noise.  I knew what it was, but I couldn’t believe what it was.  I knew it was a rattlesnake, but it was sooooo loud and strong.  I stopped dead (lest I BE dead) (ok, rattlesnakes don’t usually kill people but two fangs to the calf sure would put a damper on my race calendar).  I finally spotted it, curled up just a few feet off the trail in the rhododendron--a monster, the biggest rattler I’ve ever seen by far.  Couldn’t tell how long, but thicker than thick through the body.  Snakes don’t scare me, but that thing scared me (sorta), it was huge.  I took a wide berth off the opposite side of the trail--beating the bushes ahead of me with a big stick lest some of his kin be keeping company in the area.  Freakin’ cool.  This is why I run trails.
  • Despite my razor-thin margins on the cutoffs and the debacle at the end, this was easily my best 50.  In particular, I was not just lucid at the end (hey, I could still do mileage and pace math in my head--think that’s a first) but actually felt extremely sharp and focused, not to mention happy and truly having fun.  Physically, I felt really strong and although I hadn’t been running a lot since making the final hard cutoff, I still had a lot of miles left in my legs and actually had started running more during the last few miles.  I was ready to kick it from the last aid station.  Felt so alive.  This is why I run trails.  Long trails :)
  • To what do I attribute feeling so good?  Hmmmm.....
    • The slow start certainly helped.  
    • I religiously S-capped hourly (with one exception when I felt like I was overdoing it), fueled about every 30-45 minutes, and drank.  I know how important this regimen is to me, but I don’t always execute it well during races (read: 2011 Finger Lakes 50 miler...).
    • I used Hammer Anti-Fatigue caps hourly.  I believe in running strong through physical and psychological training and eating/drinking right, not in finding salvation in a supplement bottle.  But I often get “dead legs” for at least part of a long run and I’d read that AF caps prevent that by scavenging the ammonia produced by protein metabolism.  I tried them on a previous long run but didn’t take them after the first hour or two for some reason.  During Bear, I took them before the race, then hourly every single hour, and my legs never went dead.  The times I walked instead of running were strictly psychological (really gotta fix that) and, in fact, it often felt better to run than to walk.
    • I also tried the Suceed “pre-race pack” supplements.  S-caps work so great for me, and Karl King seems to know his shit, so I thought I’d give these a shot (so much for not finding salvation in a supplement bottle, right?).  Did they help?  How could I really know from one race, but they didn’t seem to hurt.  Will I do them again.  Undecided.  Not sure if they’re worth the money--not expensive, but do they really provide any benefit?  We’ll see.  
  • For a race with a big corporate sponsor, they sure had crappy aid station food.  Mostly candy and snacks. The only real food was PBJ squares and potatoes (which I only saw at a couple stations).  Oh, bananas were good, and oranges.  But the volunteers at many a homegrown ultra--the true ultras--put TNF to shame.  From grilled cheese to pierogies to quesadillas to pizza to soup to warm ham and cheese wraps...tsk tsk, TNF.  Spend some of your corporate profits on decent food.  I don’t need another pair of TNF-branded arm warmers for my registration fee, I need good eats on the run.
  • Speaking of volunteers--the food notwithstanding since I”m sure it was TNF-controlled--all the volunteers ROCKED!  Without you, I wouldn’t get to have so much fun.  Thank You, Volunteers :)
  • I managed my aid stations far better than I have in the past.  No dawdling.  Maybe two minutes max, less in some cases. I planned ahead for what I needed (refill my pack or not, restock fuel supplies or just grab and run, etc.) and just banged it out when I got to the AS.  Really feel good about this.  Now I just have to do it again in future races.
  • On the one hand, running so close to the cutoffs, despite the difficulty of the course, is discouraging and makes me wonder if I’m crazy for attempting a 100.  On the other hand, making the cutoffs given the difficulty of the course, on a day when I was just running, not racing, and feeling so good mentally and physically after 14 hours on my feet--well, ok, maybe that 100 isn’t so so crazy after all.
  • I actually slept well after the race.  I think that’s a first.  It was my seventh 50 miler and I can’t remember having anything resembling sleep afterwards.  I’m always tossing and turning, waking up and dozing off (kinda).  I got home, had some more to eat, decided it was safe to do some ibuprofen, and went lights out for 8.5 hours.  Woke up feeling great.  Wonder if the anti-fatigue caps were part of that?
  • Speaking of ibuprofen: I’ve always religiously avoided it during long runs and races due to its potential to induce hyponatremia and renal failure.  Then, earlier this year while taking a doctor-prescribed high dose for a neck stinger, I did a long run.  Wow, did that feel good.  So...I tried it again.  And again.  And I even broke down and did it during the Hat Run.  But it still scares me.  Some people say the AF caps (and Sportlegs) preclude the need to take ibu.  I had some with me yesterday, but was never tempted to take it.  Was it the AF caps?  Hmmm....

So the bottom line is pretty simple: I had a great training run even if I didn’t get a time for it, and The North Face sucks.  I’m feeling great the day after, ready to run some more trails.  I’m surely not losing any sleep over what happened, but I am feeling great about the rest of the ultra season--I’m ready for some more!.  And, like I always say (plus or minus the specifics): I spent 14 hours running in the woods with friends, and there was beer at the end.  What’s not to like?

And congrats to all those who actually did finish this race--great job!!!!!

A few more pics from the day below.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Race Report: Stone Cat 50 miler. 11.5.11. Sometimes you get the Cat, and sometimes....

Stone Cat.  One of the best race names going.  Fitting, as it’s one of the best races.

After a year filled with water falling from the sky making for some serious mudfests, the week leading up to Stone Cat was dry, and race morning was perfect.  Cold.  Calm. Dark (rumor has it that had something to do with the sun not being up yet).  Even the alarm going off at 3:55 am wasn’t bad since I was awake at 3:30.  We must be crazy to do this.  Crazy like foxes.

I’d prepped everything the night before--clothes laid out, number pinned, cooler stocked with beer and Perpetuem (one for during the race, one for after--you guess which was which).

No camping for this race, but the Comfort Inn in Danvers, MA does a great job hosting us and on this day, breakfast was out by 4:30 am.  Not that I would eat.  Coffee and Perpetuem (ok, I gave it away...see last paragraph).

Easy 10 mile drive to the race start at a local school.  Somehow lucked into a primo parking spot just a couple hundred feet from where Chris & Joe Reynolds and the Finger Lakes Running Club gang would set up court.  My friend Lisa--running her first trail marathon--and I checked in, hauled our gear to the FLRC site, and tried to stay warm in the 30 degree morning darkness (that thing with the sun again).

The nominal race start time of 6:15am came and went, but as we approached 6:30, some mysterious energy pulled our sea of headlamps together into a big group, a mix of excitement, confusion, happiness, anticipation, uncertainty, and family connecting us. Then, with a few quick words from awesome RD Marty Sullivan, the race was on, the run was underway, the party was started. We were off.  I love ultras.

A new twist this year was to group the 50 milers and marathoners side-by-side at the start, run them forward a hundred yards, then split them left and right with the 50s heading out to the first of four 12.5 mile loops and the marathoners doing a 1.2 mile baby loop around the school before banging out two of the big loops.  Made for a cool effect to watch the sea of headlamps bob apart through the dark.  Last year, the groups split a short way down the trail.  This year’s method worked much better--we all got to start together, but it was less congested as we hit the woods.

I was hoping to post a sub-12 hour time.  This was my sixth 50 miler (and fourth this year) so I’m still learning to race [sic] this distance.  I don’t have much natural talent or strength, I just love to run in the woods but I do run against myself, the trail, the weather, the clock.  Twelve hours is slow for most, but it’s what I got.  I ran 11:42 at Bull Run Run this past spring and was hoping to get back to that range again (ok ok, I was really hoping to run 6:15 and set a course record...then the drugs wore off...).  

I’d consulted with my local ultra god and IPA lover (is that redundant?) Doug Freese, whom I run with quite a bit, and he suggested about a 2:45-2:50 first loop.  Go easy to start with just a little time in the bank under that 12 hour finish pace. Based on that, my time to the first aid station--the famous Al Cat’s Lounge--should have been roughly 55 minutes.  I was there in 54+.  Check.  Right on and feeling good.  Then again, I’d spent five minutes early on helping a woman try to find her fluorescent pink running shoe that got sucked off by some mud.  Never did find it and as I headed back out I heard her saying “Guess I’ll just have to go on without it.”  Huh? WTF?  But that meant I was probably several running minutes too fast.  Not to split hairs here but it was still early....really early.

Oh, and last year’s water crossing about 10 minutes before Al’s, the one that turned my feet to size 8 EE ice blocks and made them cramp up, the one I thought might be dry this year based on recent weather?  Well, let’s just call it “refreshing.”  

Just another day on the trails.  I've heard some people run on the roads.  Why?
From Al Cat’s to Fast Freddies Cafe (AS 2), the running was pretty sweet and easy. Should have made Freds at 1:38ish, I was there at 1:34.  Too fast.  But it was too fun. No problem, I’d just dial it back for the 5 mile final leg to finish Loop 1.  With a goal of 2:45-2:50, the clock read 2:32 as I exited the woods and crossed the grass back to the S/F area. Fuuuuu....

But I felt great.  I knew my training hadn’t quite ramped me up to this race--I really was running mostly on base and my race season to-date, hoping something special could happen--nonetheless, I was moderately optimistic I could put up an ok time.  I made a pit stop in the school, downed a bottle of Perpetuem from my cooler, scammed some grilled cheese and thanked the volunteers, and headed out for Loop 2.  No physical issues so far.

I was back to Al’s in 55 minutes, which would have been right on schedule had I run the first loop slow enough--but since I didn’t, it was too fast.  The seeds of my destruction had already been planted, and I was watering them.  Cruised back to the S/F, mile 25, at 5:29, about exactly what my average time for two loops should have been--but that fast first loop had taken its toll.  My legs were already feeling a bit cooked, a marked difference from how I felt at mile 25 at Virgil Crest in September when I was remarkably fresh from a slower pace, despite the mud.

Miles 25-30 are my low point in most 50 milers, and this was no exception.  Plus, I’d seen the marathon finisher’s jacket.  It was nice.  If I was smart, I could have run the 1.2 mile baby loop, posted a decent (for me) 5:45 marathon time, and cracked a beer in the beautiful fall sun (yes, it had finally hauled it’s lazy ass out of bed).  No one ever accused me of being smart.

So, back out to Loop 3 I went.  I tried talking myself through those first few miles, reminding myself I always come through this and determined to just keep moving at something resembling a jog until the Second Coming.  But then my left knee, the one I tweaked at the Virgil Crest mudfest in September, started hurting.  Followed by my right IT band.  Right piriformis.  Right foot cramped up.  Neck and shoulders seized up hard.  WTF?  I was falling apart.  But the mental part was the worst.  I’m generally good at staying positive and recognizing that struggle is the nature of the beast in an ultra. But I vacillated wildly, minute to minute, between “Why am I doing this?” and “I can do this” types of thoughts.  I kept beating myself up for not taking a marathon time and calling it a day.  I mean, there was no way I was going to do the fourth loop, meaning I was stuck in the nether-land between finishing a marathon and finishing a 50 miler. Idiot.  Why didn’t I just drop?  You freakin’ idiot.

Then I got to Al Cat’s Lounge.  Someone said “Looking good 50 miler” (they could tell by the bib color).  I made a comment about how I should have dropped to the marathon.  Then someone--I need to find out who he was--took over.  He shook his head at me, handed me some grilled cheese and chicken noodle soup, put his hand on my shoulder and walked me out of the aid station saying “come on, keep moving, down the trail, we’ll see you on the next lap.”  I’ve never been “handled” that way, and it was cool.  This guy was not letting me give up.  He knew where I was at, and what I needed.  The tough love of the ultra family (even if it was only a 50 miler).

So down the trail I went.  I got to Fast Freds and someone said “Just grab and go...oh, you know the drill, never mind.”  Did I look the part?  Well, ok then (fooled them!).  But it was now about 7:40 into the race, with a 9:00 cutoff to start the final loop.   I had about 80 minutes to make the five miles back to the S/F.  I wasn’t sure if I could.  I also wasn’t sure missing the cutoff would be a bad thing.  I spent the next five miles debating this endlessly, all the while “secretly” pushing myself to make the cutoff just so I could have the option to continue if, by some dark majik, I wanted to.

As I left the woods and crossed the grassy field, the first thing I saw was Lisa charging at me.  She had her marathon finisher’s jacket on...Yes Yes Yes!!!!!!!  But then I realized what she was doing.  “Hurry up, hurry up, you’ve only got five minutes to the cutoff.”  Someday I’ll run one of these races and not fight the cutoffs.  But not this day. She ran me in--to wild cheers from the crowd that cared not about my slowness but rather celebrated the fact that I was there and running and giving it whatever I had.  I love ultras.  Funny part is, by this time, all my issues were gone.  No pains.  None.  I felt good physically but was shell-shocked emotionally.  I just didn’t expect to be this freakin’ close to the cutoff again.  It seemed like I should drop, but then again...why?  I felt fine.  It was 3:30 pm on a gorgeous fall day north of Boston.  I could sit down and have a beer, but I’d driven five hours to get here and it was my last ultra of the season. Lisa walked me over to the FLRC gang--most of whom had had a few beverages at that point--who made it clear that stopping was just not an option.  I looked at the clock.  8:59:57.  If I was gonna go, I had to go now.  I went.  

Lisa helped me get my headlamp and warm clothes.  She ran a mile with me while I drank my Perpetuem slowly and took the empty back for me.  I’ve never been crewed in any way before and let me tell you, this was a great experience, minor as it may seem.  She was the final piece of the puzzle.  I went out feeling like part of something again.  I don’t know what happened to my “issues” but they were gone.  My spirits were high and it was inevitable that I would finish.  

The only question now was whether I could still salvage that sub-12 hour finish.  I knew I was DFL as I’d left seconds before the cutoff.  I decided to see if I could catch someone, anyone--not to beat them, of course, but to beat my demons and push myself as hard I as I could.  I used lots of tricks.  Run 30 seconds, walk 30 seconds. Run to that next tree, ribbon, rock.  Run a hundred steps.  Mantras.  Through the water crossing and a sweep on a bike stopped to radio back that he had the last guy.  Fifteen minutes later I got to Al’s for the last time--they were closing up shop.  There were three other runners there.  “Do you want to hang with us the rest of the way?  We heard you were behind us and were hoping you would catch up”  I love ultras.  So I said “sure” and off we went, mostly powerhiking with small bits of running mixed in.  But I kept pulling ahead, and started feeling like there was some gas left in the tank.  Finally, I was off, running again.  

Just before Fast Freddies for the last time--where I was honored to receive the last grilled cheese of the day--I caught two more runners, one of whom patted me on the back as I passed and said “Finsh strong.”  I luv ultras.

On your fourth loop, Fast Freddiess is 45 miles.  Five to go.  I don’t recall my exact time out of the aid station, but I remember thinking I could at least put up about a 12:10. Just before I had to turn on the headlamp, I caught a guy I’d seen heading out on his final loop earlier.  Funny thing was, I caught him at a right angle.  Figured he was just coming out of the woods from taking care of business.  He casually mentioned I’d missed a turn.  “What?”  How could I have done that?  “How much time did I cut off?” “Not more than five minutes--but who cares at this point, don’t worry about it.”  I did worry about it.  We ran together for maybe 10 minutes, then I pulled ahead of him a bit, but I just kept thinking it wasn’t fair.  So, finally, I turned around and ran backwards. “Where ya goin’?”  “I’m going backwards a few minutes to make up the time I cut off.” I eventually came upon the guy who’d patted me on the back and his partner.  “You’re going the wrong way.”  I explained it all.  Eventually turned around and headed back in the right direction, trying to catch all of them again.  I never did.  That’s fine, because it felt fair.
As seen by headlamp somewhere north of 45 miles.  Hats off to the trail marking crew!

Finally, about a mile (?) from the finish, there was a light coming at me in the dark. Lisa!  She’d come to find me and run me in.  Wow! This was too cool.  Plus, my mind was clear, unlike many 50s when I’m a little delerious.  I knew exactly what landmarks were yet to come, in what order, and about the time between each.  It was weird.  Lisa and I ran/walked/talked/celebrated.  Talked about her race and mine.  Reached the “stick” of the lollipop on the course.  Then it was the concrete “bridge” just a few minutes from the finish.  You could see the lights of the school and hear the party. Runnable trail.  We ran out of the woods, onto the grass.  A line of flares led the way. Music was playing, people were cheering.  As I approached the finish line, it got louder and louder, despite closing in on 12 hours and 15 minutes into the race.  You would have thought I was about to win the race.  As far as I was concerned, I was.

In the dozen or so ultras & trail marathons I’ve run, Stone Cat has to be right near the top.  Well-organized yet still grassroots and homegrown, the G.A.C. (that crazy bunch of runners over in Topsfield), all the volunteers, and RD Marty Sullivan put on a super event.  The trail is impeccably marked.  The aid stations well stocked with both great food and knowledgeable, caring, helpful volunteers.  It’s an ultrarunner’s race where the volunteers know how to take care of the experienced runner and also welcome new runners into the family.  Great shirts and finisher’s jackets.  And at the end, nearly 7pm after a 6:30am start, back in the dark and cold, a guy named Kevin was working the grill and, with a smile on his face, he opened the lid and showed me the hot food he was making sure was still there for us final finishers.  A great finish to a great day, one of the most fun 50s I've had yet. Despite having a rough third loop and not quite running my goal time, I'd have to say that on this day...I got the Cat!