Saturday, August 13, 2016

Accepting Failure

Right now I should be over 75 miles into the Eastern States 100, moving my way up through the Top 10, but I'm sitting at home writing this post instead. For the first time in my life I Did Not Finish. I DNF'd, Dropped, Tapped Out, Threw in the Towel ... Failed. Two important questions come to mind. 1.) How did this happen; and more importantly, 2.) How can I learn from this and move forward?

In running, ultra running in particular, there's always some kind of adversity to overcome. Whether it be a sluggish day on the trails, a poor result, finding your way through the pain cave at Mile 80, a bad season, an injury, and yes, even a DNF. What's important in facing these obstacles is that we take the time to rationally assess them and to use them as a chance to learn and grow, so that we can move forward and face our future goals with more confidence and better preparation.

So, what in particular happened to me? And what lessons are there to be had?

Before the Race


Seven weeks before Eastern States, I had the best run of my life at Western States (race report here). It was The Perfect Day, one of the best days of my life, and it gave me a level of confidence in my running abilities that I'd been lacking for years. I made sure to recover carefully. I ran here and there, but always easy and with plenty of rest days. One thing I didn't do much of that I should have was STRETCHING. I'm notoriously inflexible and I fully admit to being lazy, resting on my laurels after States, and not taking the time to keep up the flexibility I worked hard for in the first half of the year.

Twenty One days after States, I went on my first long run: 3 hours of easy trails. It felt comfortable and I walked away from it knowing it was time to get back into my training. Still, I made sure to not overdo any of my runs. A few days later, on a whim I decided to hit the track and try my hand at 4x1600m to see if my speed-legs were back yet. The workout went about as well as I could expect. Nothing noteworthy occurred. But the next morning I had a tightness in my left hip ... the back of the ball of my femur was tender. I likely strained my gluteal tendon, but I'm not quite sure how. Oh yeah, full disclosure: I didn't stretch before those repeats! Full Disclosure #2: It was my first speed session in 3 months.  I can be an idiot sometimes.  So ... I was cautious and took a couple days off.

After some rest and then a pain-free run, I ran a local 50K as a hard long run. It wasn't an all out effort and I made sure to dial back in the latter miles and not overdo it -- it was hard convincing myself not to chase down First Place, only 30 seconds ahead of me with 5 miles to go, but I did, and it was the right thing to do. My hip felt a bit tight at times, but it was never limiting or painful. Never-the-less, I took a couple days off afterwards. More importantly, I started stretching and doing hip strengthening exercises every day.

My next week of running was 3 uneventful runs, followed by an entire weekend off. Then the hip pain returned, seemingly randomly, on a short Monday run. That began a stretch of 11 days with only 2 runs. And the second run was only a mile long, with stinging pain in the hip from the get-go. Suddenly, I was questioning my ability to complete Eastern States.

I did nothing but rest the 4 days before Eastern States...

Race Day


I had no pain in the 2 days before race day so I was cautiously optimistic. I toe'd the starting line feeling fresh and ready to take on a long day of running in sweltering heat and humidity on technical, cambered trails. It was go time!

Over an hour in, I was feeling good. I was in the Top 10, I wasn't working hard, the humidity didn't look to be an issue for me. I had tackled the first 2 climbs and descents with ease. More importantly ... NO HIP PAIN!

About 2 hours in, things started to change. My hip started to tighten ... then ache ... then sting. I was having to work to drive my knee, my stride was shortening, and I was having trouble pushing through my stride on steep climbs. Things were turning sour quickly. WHEN I would finish was now IF I would finish.

No one should be battling with stride problems 2 hours into a 100 miler! Ugh!

By 14 miles it had gotten even worse. My left leg felt like it was just being drug along for the ride, and worse, my hip was losing the ability to prevent lateral movement in my knee. I couldn't climb, the flats felt like I was running in water, and I was reduced to a hobble on the technical descents. I got passed by 3 runners like it was nothing, then another, and another. Then the hip problems started to infect the rest of my leg -- my hamstring started to feel weird, my knee started to stiffen, and the stabilizer muscles in my lower leg were occasionally feeling funny.

At this point it occurred to me that a finish would get me a coveted Buckle. I thought about it for a hot second ... and ... I didn't really care about this buckle. My first 100 -- Grindstone -- I would have done anything to finish, because of what it meant to snag my First Buckle. And Western States, well, that's self explanatory! But this race ... I just couldn't find the value in finishing at the cost of a potential serious injury. I had come to Eastern States not for a buckle, but to compete. I wanted to have fun out there, but hobbling and walking my way to a 30 hour finish, just for a buckle, seemed like a bad decision. My second Grindstone was 8 weeks away and I wasn't willing to potentially sacrifice a good showing there. IF I would finish became WHEN to throw in the towel.

For about a half hour I debated with myself. Do I try to make it to the halfway point? 25 miles? The next Aid Station? All the while, my stride kept devolving into a painful hobble. I made my way up to the Aid Station about 18 miles in, threw down my bottles, and hung my head in shame.

... But ... only a few minutes later I was over it. I had made the right call. This DNF wasn't a reflection of my fitness, it was the result of a weird kinetic chain problem that came out of nowhere (kind of...). Continuing on would've served no valuable purpose. It would've left me banged up and uncertain of how I'd be able to handle my Fall lineup.

For the first time in my life I wouldn't be crossing the finish line. And that's okay.

The DNF is official, now it's time to figure out how I can learn from this experience.

The Lessons


Stretching


I didn't stretch much at all for an entire month after Western States. If I was Gumby then maybe that'd be cool, but I'm not. I NEED TO STRETCH ... DAILY! I'm not a kid anymore, I need to take care of my body and that begins with making sure my muscles and tendons are long and flexible. It's probably not just coincidence that my failed hip is absurdly inflexible -- last year I had a PT gasp in horror at my left hip's limited range of motion.

Strength


I have a decent amount of strength, for a runner. But not necessarily in the ways that matter for a runner. I need to do all of those little tedious exercises to strengthen my core, my legs, and most importantly, my hips and glutes.


Picking My Training Battles


I run ultras. There a time and place for speed work, but I don't do it enough to be able to just jump into a random set of 4x1600s without risking injury. Speed work belongs in its own Training Block, and when I do speed work outside of that Training Block, I need to make sure I've at least been maintaining a speed session every week or so, that way my body isn't shocked by the effort. I can't just pop into speed work right after my multi-week recovery from a 100 mile race!


I Can't Race All The Time!


This spring I had 5 ultras and a marathon. Then I ran Western States. And for the rest of the year I had lined up Eastern States, Grindstone 100, Mountain Masochist 50M, another marathon, and Hellgate 100K (if Horton lets me in!). That's A LOT of racing. My body clearly can't handle that load AND still get in valuable Training Blocks. So for next year ... less racing and longer stretches of training.


What's Next?


Take these lessons to heart.

Head to a physical therapist.

Do whatever it takes to get to Grindstone healthy.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Western States 2016 Race Report

(It's all mine!)


Have you ever had a Perfect Day?

June 25th, 2016 was a perfect day for me.

Western States 2016 was, by all accounts, the most perfect run of my life. Everything went according to plan, I had no low spots, no bonks, no slow-downs, no nutrition problems, no self-doubt.  While I greatly exceeded my expectations, I have to caveat all of this and say that I can’t consider my performance a perfect “race”. Instead, it was just a “run”. But boy was it a great run.

From the moment I learned I made the lottery (with my single ticket!), I knew I was going to have to put together a solid training plan in order to show up to Squaw Valley ready to perform. I executed my plan well, and was improving beyond what I had anticipated. But I came down with a stress reaction in my femur in mid-April and was forced to spend weeks doing nothing or aqua jogging. The likely culprit … a drastic increase in treadmill time while I spent a week single-parenting my toddler, and topping it off with an entirely unnecessary sub-3:00 virtual Boston run-along on the treadmill. As a result, even when I built my mileage back up to my first ever 100-mile-week before the start of the race, I was unable to train with the intensity I had wanted – namely, I was unwilling to pound the downhills in my training or do any sustained 6-12 mile treadmill downhills for fear of screwing up weeks of carefully planned recovery.  Instead, I made sure I was building my endurance, sorting out my nutrition, and getting in some good heat training.

So, I was showing up in Squaw Valley fairly fresh and confident, but also a bit hesitant. As a result, I crafted a race plan that could be best described as cautious. I would take it easy in the high country and use my heart rate monitor to make sure I kept my effort in check and my quads feeling fresh; then I would try and survive the canyons as best I could; and finally I would hopefully have taken enough care of my legs to take advantage of the runnable miles after Foresthill.

I showed up in Squaw Valley on Thursday, partook in the pre-race festivities, hiked up to Watson’s Monument, rested, and tried to settle my nerves. I met up with my wife – my crew – on Friday after she flew into Reno. We soaked in the incredible views of our drive along Lake Tahoe from Reno back to Squaw Valley, had a nice lunch, went over my final race plan, and tried to rest as well as we could. I carefully managed my food intake on Friday and then hit the hay early. I tossed and turned a bit here and there, but remarkably managed to get a decent amount of sleep.

(Picturesque Squaw Valley, complete with some JJ Abrams lens flair)

I awoke around 4am, checked-in and picked up my bib, and got myself ready for the race. As I stood in front of the start line moments before the shotgun blast, I soaked in the moment … a mere 14 months after my first ultramarathon, and only 2 years after getting off the couch and starting to run again, I was about to make the pilgrimage to Auburn! This was really happening!

(Obligatory "kit pic")

Squaw Valley to Robinson Flat



As AJW made the countdown, I lost myself in the moment and don’t even recall the shotgun going off. I heard “Three … Two … One …”, started my watch, and blended into a sea of runners.  As I made my way up to the Escarpment in the pre-dawn light, under the glow of the lit-up ski lifts, I reminded myself to stay calm and take it easy.  It wasn’t long before I found my pack of runners – I had no idea if I was in 30th place or 90th, but everyone around me was putting in an effort I felt comfortable with, and I saw a couple of F bibs so I knew I was in good company (part of my race plan was to run in the women’s front pack).  Between the Escarpment and Watson’s Monument, I must have glanced over my shoulder a dozen times to catch a glimpse of the sun rising over Lake Tahoe. The scene was a mere glimpse of the beauty I would encounter over the course of the day, and it was a perfect way to start the race. I was overcome with a sense of calm.

I crested the first climb and noted that I was 5 minutes ahead of schedule. I didn’t really care about keeping to a schedule this early in the race, but it served as a reminder that I should be taking it easy throughout the early miles and that there was no need to rush things.  As I hopped over rocks and rough terrain on my way to Lyon’s Ridge, I frequently checked my watch to make sure my heart rate wasn’t reacting poorly to the high altitude. My legs felt good, my effort felt smooth, and my heart rate was generally reading 150, well below my red flag of 160.  As the miles ticked by, I carefully maintained that heart rate. I also took care to hike most of the uphills, even if they were runnable. I cruised through Lyon’s ridge still a bit ahead of schedule, so again I reminded myself that the day was long and had only begun, and accordingly controlled my pace. The early miles were so easy that my mind frequently wandered and I honestly can only remember a select few things: 1.) the scenery was jaw-dropping, 2.) my heart rate was well in order and altitude wasn’t going to be an issue today, and 3.) I desperately wanted to run much faster.

At Red Star Ridge I picked up a small drop bag of 2 gels and a Tailwind pouch. The volunteers were amazing and had the contents of my bag waiting for me when I rolled in. They helped me mix my drinks and refill my bottles, and just like that I was off! I rolled through the following miles, into Duncan Canyon and on my way up to Robinson Flat. I drifted around a small group of runners that included a few men aiming for roughly a 20hour finish – my A Goal – and a handful of top females. I rarely ran alongside anyone else, often finding that my climbing pace was quicker than those around me, but my flat and downhill pace was more conservative, owing to the fact that my race plan was to baby those quads like nobody’s business.

I came into Robinson Flat after traversing Duncan Canyon. I remember thinking to myself, that was a “canyon”?! Piece of cake!  As I made my way through the aid station I had a slight moment of panic because I couldn’t find my wife.  Eventually I found her about 100 yards after the aid station in a mass of humanity. I looked at my watch and saw that I had arrived right on schedule for my planned sub-20 finish … 5:30 (10:30am) on the dot. I handed my wife my empty bottles and she gave me my refills: a bottle of Tailwind and a 500 calorie slurry of First Endurance Liquid Shot and powder. I also filled up my shorts with a few more gels and donned my homemade ice bandana. And with that, I was off!

(Ice bandana worked wonders ... complete with hand-stitched ice pouch)


Robinson Flat to Last Chance



As I departed Robinson Flat, I tallied up my water and calories – about 4oz per miles and 250 calories per hour. My nutrition was right on schedule! Not long after Robinson Flat, I began the transition into steady downhill miles. My run through Miller’s Defeat and Dusty Corners felt great – my stride felt smooth and perfectly constrained, my heart rate was low, my energy levels were terrific.  All that said, I felt like I was getting overtaken by runners left and right.  At one point, I jumped off into the woods for my only hole digging of the day (a great improvement over my 7+ stops in my first 100 miler last Fall … thanks a lot, Imodium!). Next thing I knew three women and a man flew by me … and I mean flew by me. Was I really going that slow? From Robinson to Dusty Corners I averaged roughly 10:30 miles, perhaps a bit slower than I should have been running. That said, those miles felt like an easy family hike, not a daunting race. I just knew that being so easy on my legs was going to pay dividends. It was going to be a great day, I could just feel it!

I picked my pace up quite a bit heading into Last Chance ... those miles from 38 to 43 were very runnable. When I got to Last Chance, I grabbed some spare Huma gels and a Tailwind pouch from my drop bag, and downed a tasty cup of pears, my only substantial “real food” of the day. After working with the volunteers to load up my arm cooler sleeves with ice and to restock my ice bandana, I was off into the canyons.  I took a quick look at my watch in the aid station and saw 7:45 (12:45pm). I felt like I had barely broken a sweat and I was still on PERFECT PACE! The warm-up had ended and the real work for the day was just beginning!


Last Chance to Foresthill



After Last Chance, I carefully descended into Deadwood Canyon. As I made my way towards the bottom I again made sure to baby the hell out of my quads. As would be a theme over the next 4 hours, I frequently mumbled to myself: aren’t these canyons supposed to be hard?! I had never stepped a foot on the Western States trail before so I was pleasantly surprised to see a plethora of foliage and shade in the canyons. When I hear “canyons”, I usually think of exposed, dry, hot desert canyons. These canyons were a piece of cake in comparison to the ovens I was expecting to find myself in.  Over the course of the canyons I never once felt the effects of the heat, despite the temperatures undoubtedly climbing up into the high 90s and perhaps even the low 100s.

At the bottom of Deadwood Canyon I crossed the bridge and stopped to douse myself with water in the spring 100 yards after the creek crossing. It was the only time along the course that deliberately stopped outside of an aid station to douse myself with water. Then began the fabled climb up to Devil’s Thumb. I was already in high spirits having realized that these “canyons” were just run of the mill valleys … and things only got better.  As I made my way up the steep 1.7mile climb I found runnable stretches of trail at nearly every single switchback.  I had read a race report / words-of-wisdom article from AJW and recalled that in his heyday of never-ending Top 10s he routinely climbed Devil’s Thumb in 33-35 minutes. I had a suspicion I could hit that mark. About halfway up the climb I came upon a man and two female contenders. I quickly jogged past them as they hiked up the switchbacks and was elated to hear them lightheartedly cheering me on.  As I labored, I reminded myself of a 26 mile run I had done 3 weeks prior, running up and down the 1700’, 1.6mile trail along Robertson Mountain in Shenandoah National Park … that run had felt like a piece of cake, and this one would too! Towards the top of the climb I started to feel a bit taxed, but I knew I was nearly there and that I’d have a long descent into El Dorado Canyon to recuperate.

I finally reached the aid station and tried to get in and out as quickly as possible. I was in high spirits. I had made the dreaded climb in 34 minutes and it had felt easy. Sadly, this aid station visit felt like the most discombobulated of the day and kicked off a small funk. The volunteers, as much as I appreciated their presence, took a heck of a long time to top off my bottles and get more ice into my bandana. I felt like I was ushered one way, then another, then another, without ever getting anything accomplished. At one point I had to rush over to a table to find a place to fill and fold my ice bandana myself because a volunteer couldn’t get the hang of it. Then, one volunteer practically blocked my advancement through the aid station, asking questions and telling me I looked pale. I continually tried to let him know that I was feeling great, that I was nailing my hydration, and that my nutrition was nearly perfect for the day. Still, I was somewhat forcibly moved along to the food table and repeatedly told to get some food. Unwilling to keep arguing with them, I grabbed a handful of grapes, mumbled a thank you, and finally escaped.

After that escapade, I continued to the crest of the climb just past the aid station, when, all of a sudden, everything went to shit!  Well, not really, but I felt a slight twinge in my right quad.  I kept running for a few strides and it happened again.  Great! I took all of this time to baby these damn quads and they’re already acting up! At the top of the climb I found a stump to hold onto and squatted down to stretch out my quads.  I spent a good two minutes working on them. A couple of the runners I devoured on the climb passed me and asked if I was okay – the tone of their voice seeming to imply more head shaking than concern … that idiot tore ass up Devil’s Thumb and now look at him, tsk tsk! After the stretch I was overcome with a sense of doubt. But as I made my way into El Dorado Canyon, my legs began to feel better.

As had been the theme thus far in the race, I took it easy on the 5 mile descent down El Dorado Canyon, perhaps a bit too easy. The downhill pounding massaged the tightness out of my quads, which was quite the relief. I got to the bottom of the canyon and began my trek up to Michigan Bluff to see my wife for the second time.  The climb to Michigan Bluff was more taxing than Devil’s Thumb. It’s not as steep and there are plenty of runnable sections, but you’re a bit farther into the race and the length of the climb is longer.  That said, I still didn’t think it was that big of a deal. And the heat … where the heck was this heat everyone was talking about?!

When I reached Michigan Bluff I looked at my watch and, again, I had nailed my sub-20 arrival time. My wife handed me new bottles and we made sure I had enough gels, then I gave her a kiss, told her I was feeling great, and that I would see her again in just over an hour.  I quickly stretched my quads to be safe and then I worked my way through Volcano Canyon, thinking about a 67 minute split from Michigan to Foresthill that I read Pam Smith was able to hit when she won in 2013. I don’t remember much of Volcano. I had no problems, it didn’t feel difficult, it was just smooth and comfortable running.  At Bath Road I saw a handful of people waiting for their runners so they could escort them up to Foresthill. It was the first time that I felt a bit out of place in the race … all alone.  Though I felt I could have jogged up the entirety of the Bath Road climb to Foresthill, I made sure to mix in some quick walking spurts to keep my effort in check. Despite that, I still passed a couple runners and their crew in this short section.

I finally popped out into Foresthill and made my way down the side of the road into town. There I again greeted my wife, swapped out my bottles, stocked up on gels, and got stuffed full of ice. My watch read 11:45 (4:45pm) … a 69 minute split … good enough! I had made it 62 miles and again had nailed my sub-20 split to the minute. Fantastic!  What was even better was the fact that it felt like I had only run 20 miles, and an easy 20 miles at that.  My legs were feeling good and I didn’t think I’d be needing to stretch them again, my hydration and nutrition were spot on, and I was feeling in the zone. As I gathered myself to leave Foresthill I told my wife that I was feeling amazing and to throw out my timetable. I was going to aim to finish before midnight and get in sub-19, a full hour ahead of planned and a true “100 Miles One Day”.

My run was just getting started!

(Cheesing it up at Foresthill)


Foresthill to Green Gate



I told myself to try and take it easy to the river, and then let loose after Green Gate. So I started my way down to Cal 1 at a comfortable pace. I quickly realized that everything I’d heard about Western States was true … make it to Foresthill and you’ll be rewarded with runnable trails.  When I rolled into Cal 1, I had just passed up Devon Yanko, who was looking strong. I filled up my bottles and restocked my ice bandana as I watched Devon jump ahead of me onto the trails.  Seeing how well she looked got me wondering what my place was, so I asked a volunteer as I was heading out and was surprised to find that I was in 34th place, with 4 women ahead of me. That lit a fire in me because I knew that I’d be finishing strong and had a shot at Top 25 – an achievement I had considered when crafting my race goals, but never harped on because it seemed so otherworldly. I picked up the pace and forged through the 15 rollers – I tried counting them but could never figure out what exactly constituted a “roller”. At one point I got to a steep descent and about halfway through it realized I had happened upon The Elevator Shaft. I’d heard about how daunting it could be, but I hopped my way down the steep descent with ease. This is my kind of playground! By the time I rolled through Cal 2 I had picked off another runner and my legs were really starting to feel good.

By Cal 3, my stride had really opened up. As I made my way along the river road towards the River Crossing, I was pretty sure I was dipping below 9:00 miles. And I was picking off runners left and right.  The 5 mile stretch before the River Crossing was probably my best running of the day. I was working hard, but not too hard, my legs were cooperating, and I had steamrolled over something like a half dozen runners … so many that I lost count. At this point in the race I had crafted a short-term goal to catch Devon as quickly as possible. I knew she was a tremendous athlete and currently a Top 3 female, so catching her was a way for me to keep my pace up to meet my new sub-19 goal.  I’ll be honest, I was a bit confused when I got to the River Crossing without passing her … she was clearly feeling good along Cal Street!

When I got into the American River, my legs immediately felt refreshed. I made quick order of the crossing, thanked the volunteers along the way, and then continued my onslaught up to Green Gate to see my wife once again. It was a solid climb with a mixture of running and hiking – I’d typically run for about a minute and then hike for 15-30 seconds on the steeper sections. After the race I took a peek at Aid Station splits and saw that from the River Crossing to Green Gate I was faster than all but maybe 4 runners on the day. I obviously didn’t know that at the time, but I had a feeling that my climbing was as strong as ever. It was something I had worked hard on over the past 6 months, knowing how much of a weak point it was in my Grindstone 100 performance the previous Fall. Devils Thumb, and now Green Gate, were an affirmation of all the hard work I’d put into my training.

Upon reaching Green Gate, my wife helped me swap out bottles and exclaimed “You got here 30 minutes early!” My sub-20 race plan had me losing some steam in the later sections of the race, but that clearly wasn’t the way things were working out. I had just gained nearly 2 minutes per mile on my planned race pace from Foresthill to Green Gate, and I wasn’t done yet!  My wife told me that Devon had just flown by and that she was looking good.  I know! I’ve been trying to chase her down for the past 15 miles!

I continued the climb up past Green Gate and ran into David Horton, whose brief words of encouragement meant a lot to me. After all, his difficult Hellgate 100K and Promise Land 50K races that I ran in the past 6 months were a big part of my training. I also ran into Sophie Speidel, who was there waiting to help out Bethany Patterson. She snapped a quick photo of me, and sent me off down the trail with even more encouragement. And with that, I was ready to drive it home and snag my new sub-19 race goal.


Green Gate to Auburn

The next miles really did fly by for me.  I just ran, and took everything as it came to me. The daylight was waning, but I was pretty sure I could make it to ALT before turning on my headlamp. I flew by a couple of runners on my way to ALT and while I didn’t notice at the time, one of them was David Laney. I’m pretty sure that if I had processed that I was passing David Laney, my body would have gone into shock, seized up, and I would’ve collapsed right then and there on the trails.  Seriously, how often do you get to say, “Yeah, I passed the top American finisher at UTMB, no big deal!”? Anyways, I finally rolled into ALT with barely a ray of light left in the sky. I filled up one bottle of water, then wasted entirely too much time situating my headlamp.  Only 15 nighttime miles to go!

I continued making good time as I approached Brown’s Bar. I kept crunching numbers in my head, trying to convince myself that I’d be making it in before midnight. At the same time, I hesitated to push the pace much harder even though I felt I had a lot left to give. I was so fixated now on breaking 19:00 that it didn’t matter to me if it was 18:30 or 18:59. I mean, I wasn’t making Top 10, so I just had to prove to myself that 6 months of hard work had paid off … anything under 19:00 was going to be proof enough. Not pushing the pace continued to be my insurance policy, even this late in the race. At one point I came upon a female runner. It was Devon! I finally caught her! It took me 25 solid miles of running to do so, but I finally did it.  I wanted to let her know how much motivation she gave me over the last few hours of running, but all I could muster was "Keep it up! See you at the finish!"

At one point I could hear a bunch of chatter ahead of me, and I knew I was coming up on Brown’s Bar. I shook my bottles and decided that stopping for a top-off would be pointless, so I pushed on through the aid station without breaking stride.  As I ran through, I surveyed the station and it felt like a war zone. I didn’t have time to differentiate runners from pacers, but it felt like there were a lot of people sitting down or standing there like zombies. That’s when it hit me, I’m owning this race right now!

The carnage of Brown’s Bar gave me even more motivation, and I ratcheted up the effort level a bit.  My quads had felt stiff and achy for a few hours by now, but there were no cramps or spasms, so I kept pushing. I made the climb up to HWY 49 in short order and was greeted by my wife for the final time before Auburn. I had moved up enough in the standings that she was one of only a handful of crew waiting for runners, a far cry from the middle-of-the-pack chaos back at Robinson Flat … I felt like we had the whole aid station to ourselves.  She gave me one last bottle of Tailwind and I opted to keep a second bottle of water so I wouldn’t have to fill up again before the finish. I gave her a kiss, thanked her, and told her I’d see her again in just over an hour.

For the next few miles, I focused on crunching numbers again … 90 minutes, 6.7 miles, just keep up the pace and you’ve got this! I felt great coming down to No Hands Bridge and was overcome by the eerie traverse through the light fog. I was in such a groove that I don’t even remember calling out my bib number or checking in and out. I just ran through and started mentally preparing for the final climb up Robie Point.

I passed through the Meadow and wondered how beautiful it might look in the last moments of daylight ... of course, that’d imply I’d be competing for Top 10 … maybe someday … soon?  I skirted along the trail and occasionally glimpsed a headlamp climbing a hill up ahead. I guess that’s Robie Point! The light was easily 10 minutes ahead of me, so there’d be no way I’d catch them. And I had put in enough effort over the last 30 miles that I was confident no one would be running past me. So I eased off the pace and began to reflect on the day of running. Thinking of all the miles I’d traversed up to that point distracted me from the sometimes steep climb up to Robie. When I hopped off the trail and onto the road at the aid station, I just kept running. But I was soon brought to a hike-jog, not knowing that the aid station was nowhere near the top! So I labored on, running as much as I felt appropriate, all the way up the road. The entire time the only thought in my mind was why am I still climbing?!

When I reached the top, I worked my way down the dark neighborhood road. I couldn’t see any reflective streamers or anything of the sort, so I followed the painted footsteps on the ground, which were sometimes obscured by a car parked over them. I came upon an intersection and saw no signs, no streamers, nothing at all … except for some painted arrows pointing left. I stopped, looked around, couldn’t see the stadium lights, and let out a frustrated What the fuck! 99 miles of successfully navigating trails and I’m stopped dead in my tracks in a darkened neighborhood?! After about 30 seconds of wondering what the hell to do, a car drove up and told me to keep heading down the road. My pace had now slowed considerably, and there was no chance of a desired sprint to the track since my eyes were cautiously surveying the road for any sign of course markings. In the daylight I’m sure it was totally obvious where to go, but in the dead of night, after over 18 hours of running, with no one around, it was rather frustrating.

I finally glimpsed the White Bridge and the glow of the stadium lights. I picked up my pace as I approached the track. In front of me was a group of joggers that got in my way as I was coming onto the track. My legs were feeling good and I wanted to push it to the finish, so I jumped past them as I hit the track and resumed my faster pace. As I did so, I flew past a cameraman, not fully processing what was happening until I was clear of him. I looked over and saw Jim Walmsley. What the hell is going on?! Wait, is he just now finishing? What happened? Nevermind, keep pushing to the finish. In the commotion, my ears tuned in to John Medinger on the loudspeaker describing Walmsley’s woes before interrupting himself with “…and now on the track, Chris Roberts.” I pushed on, a bit overwhelmed by my surroundings. As I crossed the finish, careening towards a slew of cameras, I noted the time of 18:45:07 and mustered a single, definitive thought: I’ve got to run this again! Western States may not have been quite as difficult as I had hoped for and expected, but it was an absolutely beautiful course with incredible volunteers and an unrivaled race atmosphere.

(A little dusty, but not too bad!)

Post-Race



In the two weeks since Western States, I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on the day. And more reflecting inevitably means more writing, so this blog is way longer than I had wanted it to be. Oh well!

Western States was an incredible experience. I'm still not quite sure how exactly I've gone from a lazy bum to 19th overall and 18th male at Western States in the span of 2 years. Crazy! I had a great performance. I ran the race smartly and efficiently. Of the top 30 or so runners, I believe that myself and Kyle Pietari (8th Overall) were the only ones to improve our pace from Foresthill through to Auburn. That’s quite an achievement to hang my hat on.

But, despite crushing my A Goal, I know I left a lot on the table early in the race. It’s not unreasonable to think that had I been more comfortable with a race strategy of pushing the pace a bit, I could have finished closer to 18-flat. Each race is another learning experience, and this was just my second 100-miler. I now have confidence going into the second half of 2016 that if I keep up my training I may very well have a shot at a Golden Ticket for 2017 and a chance to crack the Top 10 (especially if it’s an absurdly hot day!). It’s a massive longshot, but then again, thinking I could finish the 2016 Western States in the Top 20 was an absolute moonshot.

I’m excited to keep training, to keep pushing myself, to keep discovering what I’m capable of, and to keep having fun out on the trails.  Now, onto Eastern States in August!

I’ve got to thank my wife for supporting me through my training and for her willingness to hang out in the middle of nowhere for hours on end just waiting to see me for 2 minutes at a time. Then again, I think our trip to Napa and San Francisco after the race was a pretty good Thank You in and of itself! And Thanks to my in-laws for looking after my little kiddo while her daddy was off gallivanting around some California trails. And a huge Thanks to Craig Thornley, the race management, and the hundreds of volunteers who made this amazing race possible!

(Random swag and purchases)

Gear:

  • Altra Superior 2.0s -- my go-to race shoes. A couple times a month I wear non-Altra running shoes just to remind myself of how lucky we all are to have Altra in our lives!
  • Injinji trail socks -- Injinji + running = blister-free
  • Patagonia Strider Pro shorts -- When a 10L rucksack and a pair of running shorts have a baby
  • Boco trucker hat from Grindstone 100 -- my new favorite running hat
  • Goodr sunglasses -- I used to hate running with sunglasses, but these are amazing ... and stylin'
  • Homemade ice bandana -- worked like a charm
  • Random buff -- for when the ice bandana was overkill
  • Columbia arm coolers -- felt amazing all day long stuffed with ice or just wet down
Nutrition:
  • About 16 Huma gels -- omm nom nom
  • 1800 calories of First Endurance Liquid Shot and EFS powder -- my "slurries"
  • 1400 calories of Tailwind
  • 1 cup of diced pears
  • 1 handful of grapes
  • 2 insects


Wednesday, May 18, 2016

2016 Promise Land 50K Race Report

I could go running and racing and dancing and chasing ...



Now I'm not religious ... at all. But the notion of a Promised Land was not lost on me as I found my self traversing the Blue Ridge Mountains of David Horton's Promise Land 50K.

... oh, what's that? You're wondering, what the hell is Rapunzel doing in this race report?! Well, I could opine about how the lyrics to the song When Will My Life Begin in the 2010 Disney instant classic Tangled embody the pure joy I feel when I'm traversing mountain single-track.  But, really, this obnoxious song just so happened to be THE song stuck in my head during Promise Land (for those interested, Winnie the Pooh's The Rain Rain Rain Came Down Down Down drove me crazy for the 7+ hours of Bull Run). Why? How? Well, I've got a 2 year old daughter. That should be explanation enough.  It's better than Let It Go, I suppose.


... Anyways ...


The first third of the race is mostly uphill as you make your way from roughly 1300' to just over 4000'. Then there's a good number of miles of pummeling downhill on steep single track and even a bit of road, flinging you headfirst into The Dark Side of the race. As you make your way to roughly the Marathon mark, you just hope and pray you've saved your legs enough for the brutal 3+ mile and 2000' climb AND the swift final 4 miles that sends you careening to the finish 2200' below. If you've trained right, if you bided your time in the first half of the race, you'll be rewarded with strong legs for the final climb and a swift stride down to the finish line at Promise Land Camp. If not, well, then it just wasn't your day!

Here's the obligatory Keith Knipling elevation profile:



Personally, this race was also an affirmation of my acceptance into the Promised Land of Ultrarunning. My first ultramarathon was almost exactly one year ago -- The North Face DC 50 Miler last April. I went into that race under-trained and still trying to recover from a multi-month bout of PatellaFemoral Pain Syndrome (PFMS) ... who knew you couldn't rush from couch to Marathon to weekly 30 mile runs! I limped my way to the finish in 9:22. A year later, here I was, toeing the line at the Promise Land 50K, already having shaved 2 hours off my 50 Mile effort, having won my first ultra, and having taken the podium in my 2 previous races.

PL50 would be my last of 5 ultras (+ 1 marathon) in 3 months. It would mark my transition from dipping my toes in the ultra waters to being a full-on legit runner, from a year of struggling and learning to a future of opportunities and accomplishments. I was hoping it'd be the final bit of racing confidence I'd need before heading off to Western States. I intended to race this bad boy all out, pedal to the medal.

... But ... 

in the immortal words of David Horton, I was "STUPID!" In my training 2 weeks prior, I ran along with the Boston Marathon live coverage on my treadmill ... ONE WEEK after running a solid 50 Miler. STUPID!  I was cocky and full of myself. I got bored with my casual 7-flat miles and after 20 miles, I said screw it! and kicked up the pace. I ran a sub-18:30 final 5K to finish in a few ticks under 3:00. If that wasn't enough, my treadmill belt got loose at the end, but instead of getting off and tightening it, I started stomping and pushing the belt into place while running sub-6 miles. STUPID! STUPID! STUPID!  For the week and a half between that fiasco and Promise Land, my left femur and quads ached like crazy. I could hardly walk some days. Runs were pain-filled and limp-tacular. I even resorted to drastic measures and went a full 72 hours without running!

... So instead of grabbing life by the horns at Promise Land, I resigned myself to hoping and praying that:
  • the pain wouldn't be too bad
  • I wouldn't cause enough further damage to jeopardize Western States
  • I could still muster a Top 10 (to redeem myself for my painful 11th place finish at Holiday Lake)


I started the race off with a comfortable climbing pace, surrounded by a handful of C-ville / Crozet runners and Clark Zealand (all decked out in his spiffy Patagonia kit ... jealous!).  I was pleasantly surprised that my bum leg only ached instead of sending stabbing pains through the depths of my femur and soul. I made sure to stay well within myself. I didn't climb too hard at the beginning and I was extra cautious on the downhills.

Before I knew it, I was 12 miles into the race, crossing the Blue Ridge Parkway a few seconds back of Ryan Paavola, greeted by the uplifting sound of Horton's voice: "...and ... FIRST LOSER!" I was in 11th place. I just shook my head and shouted that I'd make sure to catch a few guys.  "Be patient, some of those guys are going to die. Just be sure you don't die, too!"  I know, Horton, I know!

I flew through AS3, passing Clark and a runner I felt didn't belong up front. And just like that, I was in 9th!  On the long descent to AS4 I hit some steep, technical single track and found myself running too aggressive ... bounding this way and that, and nearly running right into Ryan Paavola. He kindly offered to let the lunatic by, but I apologized and said I needed to dial it back a bit ... I had a bum leg to be mindful of.

At one point, I got one of my Altra Lone Peak's soaking wet in a stream crossing and just like at Bull Run, the saturation caused my insole to slide around and fold over on itself, forcing my toes into a quasi-hammertoe position. It took an unnecessary amount of wriggling and sliding and pounding to work the insole back into place. I had worn the Lone Peaks instead of the Superiors for the extra bit of padding to protect my leg and I knew I'd run the risk of an insole slip. Going forward, I'll have to glue that sucker down if I run anything other than dry desert ultras with them.

Making my way through AS4, I still found myself behind Ryan, but well within sight of him. I chased him along the painfully hard, paved road for 2 miles before jumping onto the trails of Colon Hollow. I had taken it easy on my legs, making sure to not overexcite myself earlier and give chase to Ryan, and I quickly found that I had a spring in my step when we got back onto the trails. I jumped past Ryan and began to make my way through the rolling single-track and overgrown double-track for the next 6 miles.  I came upon another runner and just like that, I was in 7th.

I was feeling good when I got to AS5 at Colon Hollow and was told that 6th was only "a minute up".  Okay, it's clear my leg isn't going to fall off, so let's pick up the pace!  I thought I had to be making up ground, and then I started to run out of steam. I had mistakenly thought that this section was flat with rolling hills, but in actuality it was rolling hills on an 800' pitch ... I was climbing from 1200' to 2000' in 4 miles AND running rolling hills. It wasn't long before my will-power started to go out the window. This was supposed to be the easy section! I'm supposed to be strong and making up ground here! I kept looking back as I skirted along the densely forested hills ... at least I can't see anyone behind me ... I've got to be increasing my lead over everyone behind me. At one point I reached for my 4th and final gel in my pocket to find it wasn't there. Did I eat it already? Did it fall out? Did I even have 4 gels to start the race? Am I losing my mind?!

When I hit the 200m out-and-back section of trail that led down to AS6, I was hoping to see 6th place. Instead, all I saw was whole bunch of 'nothin. Ugh! And to make matters worse, coming back out of the aid station I passed by FOUR runners -- John Andersen, Clark Zealand, Ryan Paavola, and another runner I didn't know but he looked mighty fresh.

Seeing those guys was like a punch in the gut. Great, I'm running out of energy and instead of growing a lead over the past 5 miles, there's FOUR runners right on my tail and at least three of them scare me! Keeping Top Ten suddenly felt impossible. And to boot, John looked like he was on a mission -- "I'm coming for you and your broken leg!"

I frantically tried to keep running as I began the steep climb up past Apple Orchard Falls, but all that work felt futile. I was quickly passed by the mystery runner ... he was booking it! I thought that at any moment the other three would roll past me. I felt sapped of energy. The panic and fear of getting steamrolled by a hoard of hungry runners was a competitive feeling I'd not felt since high school. I loved it momentarily, and then hated it the rest of the race.

My legs were limp noodles, not high octane pistons. I thought that calories would help so I tried out the Picky Bar I had in my pocket for just this circumstance. I'd never tried Picky Bars before, but figured they sounded good and was hoping to try them out in a race environment. One bite ... my mouth filled with saliva ... and the taste of iron. I tried to choke that single bite down, but it wasn't happening. So much for that idea! (Post-race I ate the rest and it was delicious ... go figure). Then my stomach started to turn. I frantically pulled out my ziplock bag of TP and started searching the side of the trail for a place to go digging in the dirt. I'm running out of steam, there's 3 guys right on my tail, and now I'm going to lose 5 minutes going to the bathroom. Fan-freakin-tastic!

Luckily, my stomach settled and I never needed to stop.  By some miracle, I finally made it through the gauntlet of way-too-steep steps, past the waterfall, and up to the final AS, but I honestly couldn't say what the scenery was like on the way up. I hear it's beautiful, but I was busy hunched over, staring at the ground, hoping my legs would keep pumping.

This is what the internet says I ran past:


I wouldn't know ... I was too busy contemplating collapsing into a heap and weeping like a little baby.

I passed through the final AS and stumbled my way to the top of the climb. Then, the cramps kicked in. Fantastic! I hadn't experienced cramps in my previous 4 races this spring, so it was clear that something was up with my legs.  My right leg was the worst, likely from slightly overcompensating all race to protect the bum left leg. I stopped for a moment to stretch out. Then I stopped for another moment.  Was I going to survive this race at all?!

"Oh don't do that!" John had caught up with me as I was stretching out my quad cramps and offered up some sage advice.  I started to run with him but it was clear I wouldn't be able to keep up. After a few minutes of chatting, he ran on down the trail. I, on the other hand, limped along at pedestrian pace ... And then I bit it! My leg threw a cramp mid-stride and I was flung headlong onto the trail. After a quick roll and pop-up, my legs surprisingly felt better, probably from a quick shot of adrenaline. I picked up the pace as I careened downhill along the final stretch of single track.  As I popped out onto the road to the finish, I could see John in the distance.  I picked up the pace to the point of pain, but not hard enough that I was going to blow out my legs. I had really wanted to run in the neighborhood of 5:30 miles on the way down, but that wasn't going to be happening today.

I kept my eyes fixated on John as I flew down the mountainside at 6-flat pace, breathing calmly, and ever mindful of my weakened legs. 10 seconds back ... still 10 seconds back ... still 10 seconds back ... I'm gonna catch you! 15 seconds back ... One Mile To Go! ... 20 seconds back ... Cramp! Cramp! Cramp! ... There's someone behind me?! How the hell did that happen? Just dig deep ... Almost there. 

And finally ... there it was ... The Promise(d) Land!

I ended the race firmly in 9th place with a time of 5:15. Except, well, actually, it was 8th place!  The would-be 2nd place runner took a wrong turn after cresting the final climb and ended up retracing an earlier section of the race ... his loss, my gain. While I was 15 minutes off of my original goal, I was only 5 minutes back of my pre-race adjusted goal of 5:10, and more than all of those 5 minutes were lost on the final climb and descent. At the end of the day, it was a solid effort that I could hang my hat upon. I was nowhere near 100% physically, yet I stayed within range of many runners I'm now beginning to consider my equals and no longer those lead guys waaay up ahead.  And I snagged a Top 10 to redeem myself from Holiday Lake ... with some sweet Top 10 swag -- an insanely comfortable Patagonia hoodie (I always need a new hoodie!). It was an incredible race and an amazing experience. I can't wait to come back next year -- healthier, stronger, determined.

... and now it's time to go see a doctor about that leg!

Saturday, May 7, 2016

2016 Bull Run Run 50 Miler Race Recap

After a three week reprieve from races, complete with my first ever 80+ mile training week, it was time to take on Bull Run! Since the elevation profile of the course is just a bunch of rolling hills -- or so I had heard -- I didn't create my traditional race plan. To be honest, I wasn't even sure how long the course really was. The race organizers are old school and seemingly allergic to data.  I figured I'd have a goal of finishing in 7:30 with a dream of 7:15. Looking at previous race results, that meant I had a shot at Top 10.

... Oh, and here's proof of how old school this race is ... look at this absurd course map:
(Official BRR Course Map. Compliments of MSPaint, circa 1985.)


Since the BRR is in the DC area, I was happy to get to spend the night before the race at home in my bed instead of in the back of my SUV or in a tent. However, I had to wake up at 3-ish to make the hour-long drive to the race start at Fountainhead Regional Park along the Occoquan River. When I got there I tried sleeping in my car a bit, but ended up just laying there, biding my time before I went to pick up my race bib and get ready.

I went back and forth between wearing Altra Superiors and Lone Peaks, and 15 minutes before the race start I decided to tear off the Superiors and opt for a little bit more cushioning in the Lone Peaks, despite never having raced in them before. And, lucky for us runners, just before the race started the forecasted rain came rolling through, so I threw my Houdini over my thin long-sleeve shirt and headed to the start, not entirely comfortable with my last minute gear decisions.

As the race started, I tucked in towards the front, but I wasn't too sure of my place.  I ran alongside a handful of runners, chatting them up, and just getting a feel for my pace. The section before the first AS around 7 miles had some rocky, rooty sections but it wasn't that bad. Then there was 2 miles out and 2 miles back to the AS, and this section was FAST. An older guy I was running with (that turns out to have been a Grand Slam finisher) advised that we pick up the pace, but I was already dipping into the 7:40s. As the runners reached the turnaround I counted and realized I was comfortably in 7th place. I made sure I maintained sight of a couple runners in front, but I had no desire to try and play catch-up.

When I rolled by the AS that we passed on the outbound trip, around Mile 11, I begrudgingly ran up a packed incline to the AS, just so I could run around a damn chair and head back into the sea of humanity swarming into the AS. I had no need for water or food either time, but was instructed that I needed to run up a couple dozen steps, awkwardly circle a camp chair, and run back down. I felt like yelling in frustration!

I made the way back to the start, at around 16 miles, and couldn't wait to cast aside my second handheld bottle.  I had wanted to run the race with 2 bottles, despite the numerous aid stations, to get a feel for my Western States hydration strategy. But this 50 Miler was running fast and 2 bottles just felt awkward at the pace I was going, so I threw aside the empty water bottle and kept the one still half filled with electrolytes and calories.  As I exited the AS/Bag-drop, I somehow found myself ahead of everyone I'd been running near for the first third of the race. I was probably in 4th or 5th place at that point.

I continued on, making good time. Near the soccer fields, around Mile 20, I found myself bunched up with 3 other runners, likely representing 4th through 7th. I had been needing to go to the bathroom for a couple of miles, but was not looking forward to squatting in the rain, so I held out hope there'd be restrooms near the soccer fields. One was conveniently right along the race course, but another runner beat me to it, so I rounded the fields and took a slight detour to some other restrooms. Right as that happened, the thunder began to boom and little kids and their parents went scurrying off the fields.

When I was done using the restroom, the 3 runners I was with were long gone, but coming up on me was John Andersen, whom I'd run with 3 weeks earlier at Terrapin. I slowed down so he could catch up, and we ran along together through the next 2 aid stations. It was great to have some company in the rain and slop.

At the start of the White Loop, I pulled ahead of John as he stopped to grab a jacket. At this point I was feeling good and could see a couple of runners a minute or two ahead of me. I picked up the pace and kept rolling through the undulating trail. I quickly picked off one of the runners and then came up alongside Brad Hinton just as we entered the Do Loop. I had heard stories of how draining the Do Loop was -- a 3 mile roller coaster ride -- and went in a bit apprehensive. But 3 miles later I found myself wondering that was it?! All of my trail running in DC is on successive 100' - 150' climbs and descents so I was more than accustomed to the trials of the Do Loop and found it to be rather underwhelming.

At this point in the race I had passed a good number of runners and found myself in 4th place. But I started a period of mental disorientation that lasted through the end of the race.  I never bothered to check my watch for times or distances between aid stations on my route out to the Do Loop. It was supposed to be a 50Miler, and the Do Loop was supposed to end at around 35Miles, but my watch was showing closer to 32. What was going on?! Did I cheat?! Did I miss a turn and skip a section of trail on accident?! How much farther do I really have to go?

I kept trudging along, thinking I've got at least 15 miles to go. I passed through one aid station and remembered on the outbound section a volunteer said it was "only 2 miles to the next one." I thought I was on that section and that I'd quickly come upon the next aid station.  But I had lost track of where I was on the course and was actually in the middle of a 5 mile section between Wolf Run Shoals and the Bull Run Marina. It felt like someone had up and moved an Aid Station just to screw with me. I was clearly losing steam.

I slowly rolled into Bull Run Marina, and saw John Andersen's wife, Michelle. She told me there was about 5 miles to go and that Ryan Paavola was a minute ahead of me in 3rd place.  For about 2 seconds I thought Just dig deep and you'll be on the podium!  Then the fatigue crept back in and I started to panic ... How far back is everyone else? Am I going to get swallowed up in the final miles?!

Just before the soccer fields I ran through what felt like a mile of mud. At this pace, there was no way I'd ever make it to the finish. I came back upon the soccer fields, long since abandoned by all the soccer kids, and saw Ryan maybe a minute ahead. I tried to pick up the pace but my legs weren't having any of it. For the next few miles I stumbled through some rocky sections along the river bank, not really knowing how much farther I had to go. My watch read 45+ Miles and I had a panic attack ... wasn't the last aid station only 5 miles from the finish? What is going on?! Then I looked back and another runner was maybe 150 yards back. Where the hell did he come from?!

I kept trying to pick up the pace, and then I'd immediately resign myself to getting passed and taking 5th.  It's okay, I thought, this is a hard training run, not a race. I came upon a long, steep climb and Ryan was only strides ahead of me, clearly suffering. I passed him and told him to hang in there. When I crested the climb I recognized the open grassy field from earlier in the race. The finish line is just ahead! I looked behind me one last time to see the other runner coming up on me, hard. I dug deep and found I had another gear.  I cruised into the finish, capturing my second 3rd place finish in the last 3 weeks. My watch read 7:16 ... and 46.8 Miles. Thank goodness I didn't have another 3.2 to go!

Bull Run was a fantastic experience. It served as an affirmation that I was on the right track with my training and that I would be ready for Western States come June. If I have any words of advice for other runners out there, it's this:

  • The race is well short of 50 miles! Be thankful.
  • If you're not prepared for miles and miles of rolling trails, this race will chew you up and spit you out.
  • The first third of the race can run fast, but don't overexert yourself.
  • Don't fear the Do Loop!
  • There's bathrooms at the Soccer Fields! (Roughly Miles 20 and 42)

(At the awards ceremony. 3rd Place behind winner Brian Rusiecki. How cool is that?!)

Now, on to Promise Land in 3 weeks!

Thursday, April 7, 2016

2016 Terrapin Mountain 50K Race Recap

(Badass post-race photo. Photo courtesy of Natasha Lamalle Photography)

It's been over 2 weeks since I ran this race, so I figured I better hurry up and get a race report written up.

I just ran a road marathon the week before, BQing for the first time. I treated it as a hard workout. My legs never felt sore or tired in the days between it and Terrapin, but I knew that I'd be playing with fire if I gave Terrapin 100%. I've still got the Bull Run 50 Miler on 09APR and Promise Land 50K++ 3 weeks after that, not to mention the fact that none of these spring races are my A races.  So I resigned myself to taking Terrapin easy and just enjoying the solid amount of vertical gain and trail time I'd be getting in.

I did a very light bit of planning ahead of time, mapping out the elevation and using data from my previous 2 races this year to predict my Aid Station arrival times and my finishing time, which was planned out at 4:45. That was comforting to know that a hard-but-not-quite-race-pace would likely yield a finishing time that's historically been in the Top 10 each year. So I figured I'd just jump to the front of the pack and follow along with some folks somewhere around 10th place for the first climb of the race.

(Terrapin Mountain 50K Elevation Profile ... a bit of a roller coaster)

Terrapin Mountain 50K starts and finishes at the Sedalia Center somewhere in the depths of Virginia. It's put on by Clark Zealand, who is also the Race Director for the Grindstone 100. It consists of 3 sustained climbs -- one of which isn't too long but it is rather steep -- and a few solid descents. The overall vertical profile is somewhere in the neighborhood of +7000'/-7000'.

(Start/Finish for Terrapin. The namesake mountain is in the background ... I think.)


I drove out to the Sedalia Center the afternoon before the race, partook in some pre-race pizza, and then hit the hay in the back of my SUV. Race morning was a bit chilly, with temperatures somewhere in the 40s, and a forecast that predicted cloudy skies and precipitation and temps that wouldn't rise much at all as the day went on.  So instead of a t-shirt, I opted for a lightweight Gore long sleeve shirt, and I threw my Houdini jacket in the pouch of my handheld just in case. I opted against gloves and a hat, figuring I wasn't going to be out running for very long. I had my trusty Patagonia Strider Pro 5 shorts, packed with 3 Huma gels, and my feet were decked out with some Injinji trail socks and my go-to Altra Superiors.

In the pre-dawn haze, I lined up near the front of the starting pack and waited for 7:00am to arrive. When it did, I was off! I settled nicely into an easy pace near the front. As it turned out, I ran into John Andersen, owner of Crozet Running, right after the start. His race times last year were roughly where I wanted to be this year, so I figured I'd run alongside him for awhile. We ran together for the first mile or so, until the course jumps off the paved road and onto a steeper trail up to Camping Gap. At this point, John and a few others worked their way ahead of me, but never by more than a few dozen meters. I was working somewhat hard, but well within myself ... no sense in ruining my easy-paced race plan in the first few miles.

After passing through the first AS at Camping Gap, I started my way down the long descent alongside John. We took it fairly easy, keeping up a steady conversation despite steady 6:40 miles ticking by. If I were by myself, I likely would've kicked up the pace another 20-30 seconds per mile, but this pace better suited my objective of treating Terrapin as a hard training run. And, I was enjoying the company.

A couple other runners caught up to us and we all ran and chatted together until we got into the 2nd AS at the bottom of the first Camping Gap descent. The others joked that they were in for a rough go of it if they were some how keeping pace with John Andersen 10 miles into the race, but he made it known that his objectives were similar to mine -- no hard racing today, boys! The question of our placing came up and John thought only 2 other runners were ahead of us, which I adamantly refused to believe.  But as we strolled into AS2 we saw Clark (RD) and jokingly asked what place we were in, to which he responded by slapping the first of us into the Aid Station on the back and shouting "THIRD!"  Well, that certainly makes things interesting!

The next 9-10 miles were pretty much all climbing and I stayed alongside John the whole time. We were occasionally joined by one of two other runners, but it was pretty clear that by the time the dust settled the two of us would be finishing in 3rd and 4th place today. We joked about it occasionally, but kept treating the race as a solid training run, never pushing ourselves outside of the comfort zone.

Coming up to Camping Gap for the 2nd time, we started into the Lollypop, a looped out-and-back of the White Oak Ridge Trail, consisting of a 6 mile trek 1000' up and then back down a mountain. A couple sections topped out at around a 10% grade, and the way back down had a couple sections that were closer to -12%. John, myself, and another runner -- Chris Miller -- worked our way up to the top together. I punched my bib at the top first and headed back down. I took it very easy, waiting for Chris and John to rejoin me. After a mile or so, the loop ended and joined back up with the original trail (the stick of the lollypop). I looked back and John was a few seconds back but Chris was nowhere to be seen.  I kept the pace easy, and John and I linked back up before we came back into the Camping Gap AS for the third time.

The last climb of the day, to the top of Terrapin Mountain, was all that was left. The rest was pretty much all downhill. I'd heard the climb up to the peak, bouncing across the "Terrapin Rocks", and the descent were a bit hairy, so I selfishly continued to run alongside my new running buddy, seeing as how he'd ran this race before. The climb to the top of Terrapin Mountain was a bit steep, but I never felt winded. It had been raining and sleeting for a while, but by this point it was getting cold enough at the upper elevations of the course that snow was beginning to stick on the ground.

We punched our bibs at the top and began the 2.5 mile and 2000' descent -- yeah an average of 800' per mile! We squeezed our way through Fat Man's Misery -- an 18" wide crack in a rock you have to shimmy down -- and continued to hop our way down the mountainside. By this time, I was thankful I'd taken the first 20 miles of the race so easy ... my legs felt fresh as daisies.

After rolling into the final AS, there was a bit more than 5 miles to the finish. A good portion of it skirted the mountainside, jutting in and out of slight ravines. John said there would be 10, and we proceeded to count them down ... but I think there ended up being 11. I ran very much within myself at this point, comfortably hitting about 8:30 pace. It felt weird taking it that easy, weird but enjoyable. As the end came near, John and I debated racing the last bit or jokingly holding hands over the finish line -- something the winners of the TJ100K did a couple weeks prior.  We settled on the latter option ... just a couple of happy-go-lucky running bros skipping and holding hands!

As the finish approached, we picked up our pace to about 6:30/mile over the final 2 miles or so, and cruised into the finishing chute. I had to switch my handheld from my right to my left hand to prepare for the awesome hand-holding ... and to be honest, the bit of off-balance I felt from that slight shift in weight was probably the most uncomfortable part of the entire race ... a pretty good sign I accomplished my primary objective of treating Terrapin as a training run.

When we made the turn into the finishing chute, Clark could be heard over the loudspeaker shouting "There can only be ONE third place!" Sorry to disappoint, Clark! As we crossed the finish in just over 4:45, John and I held hands and jumped in the air to maximize the cheesiness.  Sadly, the race photographer missed us, but I happily recreated the scene in Microsoft Paint...

(Best Friends Forever! Yay! I'm the shorter one on the right.)

All in all, it was a really good day. I took on some pretty awesome trails, got a good workout in, developed a better understanding of just what I'm capable of now that I've stuck to a consistent training schedule, and I got to casually chit-chat for hours on end.  Now, it's onto the Bull Run Run 50Miler on 09APR!

Here's a breakdown of my Aid Station splits:

GPS Distance Race Distance Split Split Pace Duration
Camping Gap (AS1) 4.0 4.0 43:10 10:48 43:10
Goff Rd (AS3) 5.2 (9.2) 5.4 (9.4) 35:25 6:48 1:18:35
Hunting Creek (AS4) 3.9 (13.1) 3.9 (13.3) 38:43 9:55 1:57:18
Camping Gap (AS5) 2.8 (15.9) 3.1 (16.4) 29:26 10:30 2:26:44
Camping Gap (AS6) 5.8 (21.7) 5.7 (22.1) 51:56 8:57 3:18:40
Terrapin Mtn Lane (AS7) 3.5 (25.2) 3.5 (25.6) 40:32 11:35 3:59:12
Finish 5.4 (30.6) 5.5 (31.1) 46:21 8:35 4:45:33


... Oh, and I got some sweet podium schwag!

(My Terrapin Mountain 50K "Top Finisher" schwag ... cuz I'm awesome like that.)

Strava Link (all the cool kids do it):