Numbers (Musings on the Thom B 52K)
3:20 – Alarm goes off
4:10 – Start the drive to Ithaca
6:05 – Roll into race parking lot
These are some of easier numbers that don’t get in the way when approaching an ultra.
On May 10th Amy and I headed down to Hammond Hill State Forest where I ran a 52k. Yes they bill this course as a 52k because each lap of the four lap course is around 8 miles. Truth be told, according to my Garmin, each lap is just shy of 8 miles and the entire course measured 31.43 miles; therefore it’s a 50.58k. Also each lap is just shy of 1000ft of climb (depending on which software your using etc., I use Strava’s data, although RunKeeper clocked me in at over 5000’ of climb)
Knowing some of these stats ahead of time, and knowing how well I’ve been running under similar circumstances (climb, distance, trail conditions) I got the stupid notion in my head that if I could maintain sub 1-hour 10k’s I could do this course in FIVE HOURS – mistake number one (never think you can do an ultra in any given amount of time, because every ultra is different).
At just a little before 7:00 AM fourteen of us were given instructions – yes, 14 – and we were then instructed to “toe the line” which was represented by two citronella torches. Everyone then lined up a good 5 – 10 feet behind that imaginary line, and then the ceremonial “Go” was shouted and we were off. The goal for most in the pack was not to be lapped by Cole Crosby, well, at least it was my goal, but as he ran off up the first 216 feet of climb in the first half-mile, most of the rest of settled in for our first hike of the day.
There were about 6 of us in tight little pack, chatting away as we headed up the fire road. I was actually feeling like we were walking too slow and I was a bit claustrophobic, so I quickened my hike to a power-hike and hit the single-track ahead of the rest of the group. I then broke off into a run. I was moving well, but breathing was labored and I was sweating profusely, so I thought that I should back off. The problem was that I didn’t want the pack to catch me and then start a game of cat and mouse where we make the trail more technical than it has to be. I say this because I tend to negotiate downhills better than most, and others tend to catch me on the uphills; I wanted to keep the amount of passing to a minimum in order to negotiate the trail as best as I could with fewer obstacles and in a way that I could run my own race. Do you see the faulty logic here? I took off faster than I should have, therefore not running “my own race” in order to get in a position to run “my own race”. Add to this the evil Garmin that allows me to see my average pace, and the fact that I had numbers running through my head, it was a recipe for an early disaster. Looking at my first mile split (10:29 with 155 ft net ascent) had me disheartened so I pushed even faster clocking in an 8:48 (20 ft net ascent) mile two. But, I was feeling good, just as good as I would on a 14 mile training run, I think I forgot that 14 miles is less than half the distance I was going to run today.
The course is stunning, beautiful long stretches of runnable single track, a small bit of fire road, few mud pits, and about a half-mile of really technical stuff at about mile five of each loop. The day was warm, but not tremendously hot, but we haven’t had enough warm days to properly acclimate. Nice cool breezes greeted us at summits of hills where you could look through the trees over immense, beautiful valleys. It is everything I remember of the Finger Lakes Trail in the Ithaca region.
The event was low key, no balloons, no inflatable arches, no PA systems, or any of that; the course was the magnificent, overwhelming, feature that supercedes any gimmick you might see in road races, and, unfortunately many trail races these days. The cost was a mere $38 making this one of the most affordable races anywhere ($1.21 per mile)
Back to my race. I finished loop one in exactly 1:15 putting me on track for a 5 hour finish. I did some mental math and proceeded to think I should back off just a little, but shoot for 5:15 or 5:20. So my second lap was 1:21ish. Everything was working, or so I thought… I did make some errors. In training I take 1 clif blok every 3 miles, during the race I took 2 every 3 miles. A couple things here, first, I should probably stop being so regimented and fuel by feel, second, why was I doing something different than I do in training?
So I was moving along at an okay clip on the third lap but began to feel things unraveling around mile 18 – 19, and the wheels started falling off in the last two miles of lap three. The shorter distance races began at 10:00 AM and the front runners of the 13k were beginning to pass me, and I began to worry that Cole Crosby was going to lap me, so I continued to push flats and run uphills when I should have been laying back. I came through the start finish to start my fourth loop at 4 hours 7 minutes. Cole finished the race 10 minutes later (I didn’t get lapped!) I started to have stomach issues around Mile 18 – 19 I backed off on my intake of clif bloks. I finished lap three extremely tired and not quite right in the legs. Amy offered me Swedish fish (my favorite) but after two sleeves of black cherry clif bloks the thought of red, waxy, jellyish, sugar was repulsive. She asked how I felt and I said tired but my body was good. This was the truth.
I started the final trudge up the first half-mile of the course and the people who I had pushed past in mile one all started passing me. Doreen Fanton who was running the 26k passed me, and I think I heard her say that I was looking good, if she did she was lying. I got on the single track and assumed the ultra-slog approach, shuffling my feet along minding the roots. By Mile 23 I was done. My stomach was messed up, my legs were shaking, I felt nauseous and flu-like. I think the combination of heat/sun, too much water, too many simple sugars, and going out way too fast all caught up with me.
Death Slog for 6 miles, constantly thinking “should I just vomit?” “should I stop and rest?”, vomiting probably would have helped, but I just couldn’t bear the thought of that taste in my mouth so I forced it back. Stopping would have been the death knell as I wouldn’t have gotten back up. Now I’ve experienced this condition before a few times, but never in a race 50k or less. That said, I just relied on relentless forward progress, and hoped that the stomach issues and leg fatigue would sort themselves out sooner rather than later. It was later; 6 miles of trudging, walking, knowing I’d finish but throwing any number I may have had in my head out, including the sub 6 hour number I told Amy to expect me in. But then the most remarkable thing happened. At 29 miles, things settled down in my stomach and legs stopped shaking. I started running the gentle downs, then the flats, and then the gentle ups, then power hiking the more severe ups, and finally hammered the last mile descent.
The experience of hitting the bottom and then working through it to gain life again is one of the most amazing things in an ultra. I’ve had this happen at Bull Run Run 50, and at Haliburton 100. It is amazing what happens when everything in your head tells you that you can’t go on anymore and you defy it, and subsequently the body figures out it is capable of so much more than you ever thought. I won’t lie, I cried a little during the death march. I questioned my entry into Cayuga Trails 50 (which this 50k is a training run for) I questioned myself on everything from my professions, to how good a parent I am, to my music, etc. everything that is important to me came to a head during those 6 miles. I’ve been trying to process all of my mixed emotions about this race for the past 24 hours, and I think it is locked up in the final eight miles. It’s an allegory for life, I’d pushed hard for much of my life (miles 1 – 23). Then things got dark; alcoholism, bad marriage and subsequent divorce, bad jobs, poverty, difficulties in the music industry… times where I questioned everything about life (miles 23 – 29). But then the recovery happened – slowly at first, then picking up steam, and the hammering downhill to the finish. And, just like ultras, as is life, it’s not one constant arc, there are little highs and lows, big highs and lows, moments of invincibility, and moments of near defeat. Then when one event is over, we move on to the next event and we just keep moving forward come what may.
And, if we’re lucky, even in the darkest moments, we still stop in awe at the crest of climb to look through the trees over an immense valley while feeling the breeze cool us off.
I finished in six hours 17 minutes. I could have run faster, I could have planned better, it wasn’t the race I wanted going into it, but it was the race I got, and coming out of it I recognize that it is exactly the race I wanted, if only I’d known.
Isn’t it amazing what happens when we get past the numbers and just throw them out?
Numbers for those interested:
3912 feet of climb
6 hours 17 minutes 2 seconds
Goal pace (5 hours) 10min/mile
Actual pace 12min/mile
Calories ingested – 600
Calories expended – 5,898
Water ingested – five 16 ounce bottles
Runners starting – 14
Runners finishing – 12
Place – 7th (6th male)
Place after first two laps (4th)
Place after third lap (3rd)
Goal time for CT 50 before entering this race – 10 hours
Goal time for CT 50 now – just finish it
Miles to date 2014 – 685.3
Climb to date 2014 – 42,196
Time on Feet 2014 – 4 days 17 hours 17 minutes
and here’s a couple shots of some of my teammates:
Many Thanks to the support I get from my team at team FLRTC
And from my friends at #trailsROC
Biggest thanks to my wife