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!