Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Holiday Lake 50K++ 2016 Race Report

(Cool kids don't look at the camera! Compliments of Neils Photography)

First Loser
First Atta-boy

That's a pretty good summary of my first Holiday Lake finish.

You see, with about 6 miles left in the race I overtook a runner for 11th place. I had no idea how far ahead 10th place was.  I could hear Horton's pre-race words bouncing around in my head: DON'T BE 11th! Why? Because Top Ten get a fancy-schmancy Patagonia backpack.

As I crossed the Mile-To-Go marker I prayed, Don't let me see Tenth! With a little more than a half mile left, I popped off the single track and onto the road that would take me to the finish ... and I'll be damned if I didn't see the top of someone's head bouncing a few hundred feet in the distance before they descended down the other side of a crest in the road.

I was already pushing my pace pretty hard, but I kicked it into overdrive ... well, as close to overdrive as a 30-year-old who hasn't done track work in over a decade can get.  I quickly closed the gap on Tenth, who was trodding along multiple minutes per mile slower than me at this point. Tenth looked over his shoulder. He was totally caught off guard. I could tell he was a college kid, and the fact that he was out here running a sub 4:10 50K meant he was probably in good shape and, at the very least, still had some residual speed from his high school days. Great, just what I needed!

Tenth changed gears.
Tenth had something left in the tank after all.
Tenth wouldn't let me catch him.
Tenth slowly pulled away.

... 1 stride
... 2 strides
... 3 strides

I was giving it everything I could.  The final downhill was propelling me to what felt like a sub 5:00 mile effort. I wanted so badly to close the gap ... but it wasn't to be.  Tenth finished a few strides ahead of me. I crossed the finish running as fast as my legs could possibly go.

As I threw my hands on my knees, gulping down air, Horton wrapped his arm around my shoulders: I'm sorry to tell you, but ...

I cut him off, I know, I know!

A few moments later I explained that I caught 4 guys on the back half of the race (the next runner to finish was a full 10 minutes behind me), and that had to count for something, right? It had to make up for being Eleventh! Horton's response, a tap on the back and an Atta-boy.  A volunteer chimed in: Well, that's the first Atta-boy handed out today! I guess that counts for something.

So ... how did I get to the finish of 2016's Holiday Lake 50K, a few strides behind that speedy punk college kid, Tenth, with his magical extra gear? Here's a quick race recap...


The race takes place at the Holiday Lake 4-H camp near Appomattox, VA.  Because it was a nearly 4 hour drive from DC and the race started at 6:30am, I drove down the night before and stayed in the bunkhouse down there. The prerace dinner was nice and welcoming. It's nice to have the opportunity to listen to the legendary Dave Horton ramble on.

I made small chit-chat, and the big question on a number of runners' minds was:
Shorts or Tights?!
The next morning was projected to be near the single-digits. In the previous few days I had made a point to do some light runs in shorts at the coldest parts of the morning, and I thought I could reasonably tolerate temps down to 15 - 20 degrees. Multiple hours in sub-15 temps at the start of the race might throw off my body's temperature regulation and I'd just feel off the rest of the race.  So, aligning with the consensus from other runners, I planned on wearing my super comfy windproof trail tights (GORE's Windstopper products are amazing), even though they have a tendency to ever-so-slightly limit my stride when I got close to marathon pace.

The next morning I bundled up and got some prerace breakfast before heading to the starting line.  Standing around in the dark with the windchill dipping into the single digits, I was glad I opted for tights.  That, along with my windproof GORE jacket, would ensure I'd be nice and cozy all race long.

My gear was as follows: windproof tights, lightweight base t-shirt, midweight longsleeve, windproof jacket, beanie and gloves, my trusty Altra Superiors, and a 20oz handheld with roughly 500 calories of electrolyte mixture and 2 gels in the pocket.

Just before 6:30am, we all congregated at the start, nearly all of us wearing headlamps for the meager 30 or so minutes we'd need them before sunrise -- starting a 50K race 30 minutes before daylight ... just another one of those seemingly illogical Horton quirks!

We sang the national anthem and then took off into the night, dozens of headlamps bobbing up and down.

First Half

The race starts at the 4-H camp, and then makes a large clockwise loop around Holiday Lake and the surrounding forest, swinging back into the camp after roughly 16 miles.  The runners then turn around and retrace their steps counterclockwise to complete the 50K++ race.

I quickly tucked into a group just behind the lead pack -- 10 to 15 ambitious runners who separated themselves awfully quick.  After a half-mile, we turned onto the single track section ... and immediately ... CRASH! Some of the roots on the trail had been spray painted green. In the dark they looked a lot like garden hoses. I got distracted double-taking one of these hoses and must have caught my toe on another one. I slammed to the ground, my hand and water bottle breaking my fall. I rolled quickly, popped back up and jumped right back into stride. No harm, no foul ... just a bit of a bruised ego -- I think that was my first official fall on a trail run.

After the first mile, in roughly 7:40, I decided to slightly open my stride.  A guy tucked in behind me, awfully close.  Soon after, I told him to holler if he wanted to swing by, and his hesitant response got me curious.  I looked over my shoulder and realized he was leaching off my headlamp because he didn't have one of his own.  That kind of unnerved me a bit.  I wanted to pick up the pace and try to shake him, just to teach him a lesson!  But my second mile was 7-flat, well below my intended race pace of 7:30-8:00, so I backed off and waited for daylight.

The miles quickly passed by.  I flew through the first AS at Mile 4.  Then, just after Mile 6 came the first creek crossing.  It was only a few inches deep and could probably be long-jumped from bank to bank.  But that was unnecessary as there was a small rock in the middle to serve as a stepping stone.  At roughly Mile 7 was the bigger creek crossing -- shin to knee deep and a good 4 strides wide for me.  When I went through it the icy cold water sprayed all over my legs and up my torso.  At that moment I was glad I opted for tights.

(Smiling and waving only occurs at the beginning of an ultra. Compliments of Neils Photography)

For about a half mile after the creek crossing, my soaking wet feet felt like bricks.  It seemed that I was running with considerable strain just to get my legs moving, those soggy shoes just felt so heavy ... and cold!  The feeling soon wore off and my watch let me know that the slow feeling was all in my head.

Not long after the creek crossings is another AS around Mile 8. They didn't have water in cups so I downed a mysterious red liquid that seemed to be carbonated cranberry juice ... I'll take what I can get.  Then, at about Mile 9 begins a long and runnable stretch of dirt forest road and powerline cuts.  You can really open your stride up here, especially along the powerline stretch, which is from roughly 9 to 10.2 miles.

At around Mile 13 you cut back onto single track and stay on this as you make your way back to the lake, finally getting back to the Start/Finish are at approximately Mile 16.  If you're not ready for it, this single track stretch can be a bit of a shock to your system after multiple miles of flat forest road.

When I got closer to the turn around I began waiting for First Place to come at me head-on.  When I was about a mile out from the turnaround, First and Second flew by in quick succession ... then another runner, and another.  I pulled into the turnaround with a little more than 2:02 on the clock and I had counted 11 runners that came by me.  However, the turnaround path is like a needle's eye, so there's a couple hundred yards where no one can run at you head-on ... I figured a couple folks were just ahead of me but I didn't know how many.

At the turnaround I threw my headlamp off to the side and then topped off my water bottle.  It looked to still be more than half full, meaning that between it and my quick AS stops I'd downed less than 18oz of liquid and no more than 300 calories ... I was starting to fall behind on nutrition ... like always!

Back Half

After the turnaround, a good 3-5 minutes passed before I started running head-on into fellow runners, which meant there was a sizable gap behind me ... I really was in the front pack.  Most of the runners were very gracious, popping off the sometimes rocky single track to let me by -- trail runners have the best manners!

It wasn't until I was off the single track that I spotted folks in front of me.  I made quick work of passing some one and then pulled into the AS near Miles 12 and 20. I downed some more mysterious red liquid and then slowed to a quick walk on a short hill. I used the opportunity to throw down some gel ... or, at least, that was the plan.  I ripped the top off my gel and squeezed into my mouth, but nothing came out. I looked down and there was goop all over my gloves. Apparently my fall at the beginning of the race caused the gel to explode in my handheld pocket. I picked back up to a run, trying to lick off what gel I could salvage before tucking the messy pouch back in my handheld pocket. I contemplated pulling out my other gel, but I wasn't in the mood to risk messing with another sticky blob.

I then spotted two guys running side-by-side a few hundred yards in the distance. I reeled them in, passing at the powerline cut with 10 miles to go. I was feeling good, ticking off sub-8 miles with ease.  Thoughts of negative-splitting danced in my head!

I had planned to hold pace up to the creek crossings and then decide if I should push harder for the last 6 miles or wait for another couple miles before digging deep. So I kept cruising along.  At the big creek crossing I noticed a bit of a dam on the downstream (runner's left) and took a quick second to assess the risk. I went for it and managed to tip-toe-run along it and get to the other bank without a drop of water on me.  That was much nicer than the first time around!

With about 6 miles to go I started to feel a tad bit over-dressed, but I tried to put it out of my mind. I opted to delay my pace increase until the final AS. I quickly overtook another runner, the fourth since the turnaround, and he let me know I was in 11th place.  And so I spent the next 45 minutes filled with adrenaline, wondering if I'd be able to catch Tenth.  Just before the final AS, with 4 miles to go, I crossed paths with AJW, who apparently had nothing better to do than run the course backwards. He informed me that the next runner was a few minutes up. I temporarily picked up the pace, then thought better of it.  There's no way I was going to make up that much time in only 4 miles!

Later, I again tried to push the pace but Miles 30 and 31 felt very sluggish and they rang in at 8:20 each, despite the fact that I felt like I was pushing 7:30 pace. I'm willing to bet right about this time my body was making a transition to fat burn mode, having exhausted my carbohydrate stores. I was desperately trying to crack the Top Ten, but my body just wanted to back down.  I stopped looking at the mileage on my watch and focused on heart rate.  If I really was transitioning to fat burn mode, I didn't want to spike my heart rate and send my body into a panic.

The Mile-To-Go marker caught me by surprise and I immediately kicked it into high gear.  My central governor sensed an end and let me haul ass. I really need to figure out a better way to move up that last jolt of energy in a race because picking up the pace for only the last mile makes me feel like I left time out there on the trails.

The rest of the story is up top, so I won't re-hash the close but no cigar ending.

While I didn't crack the Top Ten, I did come out and achieve a time I was proud of.  I wanted to run 4:00 to 4:15 at Holiday Lake, despite not knowing exactly what the course would be like, and I achieved that coming in just under 4:08. Moreover, according to Strava I had only 40 seconds of non-moving time (quick AS stops), which made the race feel more like a marathon road race.  It was the first ultra in which I didn't have to stop to go to the bathroom or stretch out a cramp. In fact, I didn't even have a single muscle spasm the whole race. All told, it was a pretty solid effort considering I'd ran 50 miles the previous weekend.

One major place for improvement, however, is (still) my race nutrition -- I guzzled down about 100 calories less than I should have, but worst of all I only downed about 50oz of liquid, waay below the 75-90oz I probably should have taken in.  Oh well, no race can be perfect!

Onward to the DC Rock 'n' Roll Marathon March 12th, and the Terrapin Mountain 50K March 19th!

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

ICY-8 2016 Race Report

My First Ultra Victory

Less than 10 months since my first-ever ultramarathon and I've bagged my first victory.  The ICY-8, an 8 hour trail race at Lake Anna State Park in Virginia, was a fantastic experience for me.  I tried out a number of new things and gained a lot of confidence from the outing. It wasn't a perfect race, but I walked away without any real what ifs hanging over my head for the first time ever.  Below is a brief report of the race.

(Unique Winner's Prize)

Race Format

The ICY-8 takes place in early February on the mostly runnable trails at Lake Anna State Park in Virginia, most of which are double-track.  It's put on by Athletic Equation and the RD is Alex Papadopoulos -- the same folks who host the OSS/CIA 50, an awesome 50 Mile night race in June just outside of Quantico, VA (that I took 3rd in for 2015).

The fun quirk with the ICY-8 is that each runner has the option of running two loops, one an extension of the other ... and you can run them in whichever direction you choose.  The Long Loop is 8.0 miles and the Short Loop is 4.7 miles.  This format makes for fun gamesmanship in that you don't really know who's winning until the race is over.  And it makes the race exciting from a tactical point of view -- when it's coming down to the end of the day are you going to get stranded at the Start/Finish with 40 minutes to spare because you didn't run an optimal combination of loops? (You get no credit for partial loops ... you have to be at the Start/Finish before 8 hours expires or your last loop doesn't count)

Race Planning

After signing up for the Virginia Beast Series, I put myself in an odd predicament in that I would be running Dave Horton's Holiday Lake 50K the weekend after ICY-8.  So I knew I wasn't going to be able to leave everything out on the table for ICY-8 ... I'd need to be cautious towards the end of the race and not overdo it so I'd be relatively fresh for the next weekend.

I put together a loop selection strategy to give me a number of Decision Points -- based on my time after X loops, continue with a Long Loop or run a Short Loop, etc.  I'd run 2 8.0mile Long Loops and 3 4.7mile Short Loops for a total of 30.1miles, then iteratively choose the Long Loop or Short Loop to try and finish as close to 8 hours as possible without a high risk of overshooting.  I had 3 50+ options -- 54.1miles, 52.2miles, and 50.8miles.  Each of those options had a sub-50mile fallback option with one fewer 4.7mile Short Loop -- 49.4miles, 47.5miles, and 46.1miles.  I coded up an app for my Suunto Ambit 3 watch to help with the decision-making -- it estimated the amount of remaining miles I could cover before 8 hours expired.

My goal was to break 50 Miles -- Each of my fallback options were, in effect, admissions of failure ... the inability to maintain a pace that I thought was manageable and well within my abilities.  Honestly, it was a bit odd making 50+ a race goal, considering less than 10 months before ICY-8 I had run my first 50 miler in roughly 9:20.  It's amazing how much progress you can make in the sport of ultrarunning with a year of modest training under your belt.

Running 54.1miles was going to be a tall order. In the 8 years the ICY-8 has been put on, that distance has only been achieved twice, both times by Olivier LeBlond, a member of the 24hour USATF team.  52.2miles was what I was really aiming for, and 50.8miles was the lowest distance I thought that I could run and still walk away from the race satisfied.

The Race

I ended up running 50.8 miles, consisting of 4 Long Loops and 4 Short Loops.  For kicks I ran each loop backwards exactly once just to see what it felt like -- I preferred the standard clockwise direction to the backwards counter-clockwise direction for both the Long and Short Loops.

I started out at a rather comfortable 8:00-8:30 pace for the first few hours.  Then I settled into some 9:00 miles. And finally I hit a rough patch of 10:00 miles before throwing in the towel and taking a celebratory final loop.

Here's a table of my loop stats:

Loop Start Dist End Dist Time Loop Duration Loop Running Pace
Long 0.0 8.0 1:07 1:07 8:22
Short 8.0 4.7 1:47 0:40 8:31
Short Bkwds 12.7 17.4 2:29 0:42 8:56
Short 17.4 22.1 3:11 0:42 8:56
Gear Change 3:13 0:02
Long 22.1 30.1 4:24 1:11 8:52
Bathroom 4:30 0:06
Long 30.1 38.1 5:43 1:13 9:08
Short 38.1 42.8 6:31 0:48 10:00
Long Bkwds 42.8 50.8 7:54 1:23 10:15

And here's a graph of my pace:

(ICY-8 Pace and HR)

An important note!  The advertised distances of 8.0 and 4.7 miles for the two loops may be a little off.  Strava has them listed as 8.1 and 5.0 miles.  As for me, I got roughly 8.1 on average for the Long Loop, but something closer to 4.9 miles on average for the Short Loop. Because of the different combinations of loops you can run at ICY-8, folks who pile up on the Short Loop may be cutting themselves short.  For instance, I ran 4 of each loop and got credit for 50.8 miles but my watch registered 52.0.  The person who came in second place got credit for 50.3 miles by running 1 Long Loop and 9 Short Loops, but if you use my average loop distances he may have actually covered 52.2 miles.  That's more than I ran, but he got credit for less. In the end, though, this is just another aspect of the ICY-8 that makes it so quirky.

Race Start

(Sunrise view just before race start)

I woke up around 5:30am, made some oatmeal in one of the cabins I reserved for my family for the weekend, and then headed off to the starting line.  It was around 24 degrees, but was expected to rise to nearly 50 later on in the day.  Since I wasn't going to be racing hard or elevating my heart rate too much, I opted to start the race with windproof tights, a midweight longsleeve shirt, and gloves and a beanie. I was going to practice my Western States hydration strategy with 2 handhelds -- 1 an electrolyte mixture and the other water -- and figured I could conveniently strip down to shorts and a t-shirt when I planned to finish off my 40oz of liquid at Mile 22.1.

We went through the standard pre-race brief, the handful of first-time ultrarunners were given leis to wear for their first loop, and then we were off at 7:30am sharp!

Loop 1 -- Long -- 0 to 8.0 Miles

I quickly settled into second place behind an eager runner, and was happy to let him pull ahead.  Each loop begins with a modest incline on a paved walking trail, complete with "Steep Grade" signs! I felt that the guy in the lead was pushing too hard up this initial climb and figured nerves were just getting the better of him.  By the time we got to the split for the Long Loop or Short Loop, the guy out front was so far ahead I didn't even know which route he had taken. I settled into a comfortable pace at around 8:20-8:30, making sure my heart rate hovered below 165bpm (about 12-15bpm below marathon pace).

A guy named Jon Love came up on me around 20 minutes into the loop and we ran together all the way back to the Start/Finish.  He was running in the Groundhog division, where you could only run 1 of the loops, and only in 1 specified direction. I thought his pace was a tad quick, but was happy to run along with some company for awhile.  We meandered through the double-track, and pushed through the one big climb of the course -- only available on the Long Loop, and then merged back in with the Short Loop, which has some sections of single-track.  At one point we popped off a sub-8 mile, which had me a bit worried.  But my HR was in check and I felt good so I kept on at 8:00-8:20 pace.

The end of the first loop was a lot of fun, and something I was excited to experience more as the day progressed -- the "Steep Grade" we ran up at the beginning really allowed me to open up my stride on the way back down and into the Start/Finish.  It was a nice end to each loop.

I called out "85, Long" to the RD, tapped the Start/Finish gate, and headed back out for a series of Short Loops.

Loops 2 - 4 -- Short Loop -- 8.0 - 22.1 Miles

I switched things up and went for the Short Loop next.  I had already seen 98% of the loop already because the Long Loop is just an extension of the Short Loop.  Nothing of interest really happened for the next couple of hours.  I was able to maintain a steady 8:15 - 8:45 pace (accounting for the slightly longer than advertised distance) while keeping my heart rate close to my target of 165bpm.  When I pulled in after the first Short Loop at 12.7 miles I was greeted with a "you again!" from Alex. And I periodically got shouts from fellow runners to the effect of "Way to go, Speedy!"  Honestly, I was called "Speedy" about 10 times during the race ... I guess people thought I was booking it.

The only real thing of note over these miles was that I developed some tightness in my left calf and achilles around Mile 12. I was very aware of it and made sure to not push my pace for fear of cramping and blowing out my legs.  That tightness prevailed for nearly 20 miles before it finally disappeared.

I decided to string together 3 straight Short Loops because my liquid intake was indicating I'd drain my 2 20oz bottles around 21-23 miles into the run.  By that time it was already getting warm and I was more than ready to strip down to shorts and a t-shirt.  On my way in after the 3rd Short Loop for 22.1 miles, I took my time on the steep downhill at the end of the loop and prepared myself for a quick transition -- I ripped off my gloves and beanie, took off my long sleeve shirt (running for a few seconds downhill with a shirt over my head garnered a few looks of surprise), and prepped my bottles.  When I came into the Start/Finish it was the first time I had stopped moving, which felt a bit weird.  At any rate, I made quick time of stripping off my tights, picking up a new electrolyte mixture, and filling my other bottle back up with water.  I also grabbed a quick swig of ginger ale and a small PBJ sandwich. All told, I was in and out in less than 2 minutes.  Not bad.

At this point in the race, a little over 3 hours in, I had consumed around 45oz of liquid and roughly 600 calories. I was right on pace nutrition-wise.

Loop 5 -- Long Loop -- 22.1 - 30.1 Miles

This was my last loop before I needed to start making tactical decisions to maximize my distance and minimize my risk of getting stranded out on the course when 8 hours rolled around.  I eased into a good pace of 9:00 miles and felt very comfortable.  I even had the legs to tackle the big climb on the Long Loop without hiking.

...I probably should have walked, however.  My HR spiked and then held steady at 175, well above what I wanted.  At this point I was about 4 hours into the race and I think my body was starting to transition to full-on fat burning mode.  Looking back, the big climb + the fat burning transition is likely what kept my HR elevated for the next couple of miles.  But while I was out on the trail I was totally baffled ... my pace felt easy, my breathing was fine, my muscles were okay ... there was no reason my HR should have been cresting 170, much less 180!

About halfway through the loop, right around the point that my HR was acting up, I hit my first 9:00+ mile, ignoring the previous Aid Station stop.  Hmm, that's a bit unexpected! Then I hit another mile over 9:00. What the hell is going on?!  By the end of the loop it was clear that 8:00-8:30 miles were behind me...

When I pulled into the Start/Finish at 30.1 Miles I had plenty of liquids and I really wanted to just turn around and head right back out onto the trails ... but nature was calling and there was a restroom 150 yards from the Aid Station.  Despite taking a slew of Immodium in the 12 hours before the race, it was not at all unexpected for me to have the urge to go scratching in the woods right about this time in the race.  The lure of a porcelain seat was too much to pass up on, so I did my business on a proper toilet instead of squatting behind a log in the woods.  The jog to/from the restroom probably cost me 2 minutes, but I figured if I put myself in a position to finish my final loop in 8:02, well then that was my own damn fault for not pacing properly.

Loop 6 -- Long Loop -- 30.1 to 38.1 Miles

This loop was rather uneventful.  I raced off from the restroom, but once I hit that early Steep Grade I took a minute to fast hike and down a gel (Strawberry Huma chia gel, yummy). Then I got back to it, making a comfortable 9:00-9:15 pace for the entire loop. My heart rate remarkably settled in on 155bpm, well below the elevated rate it was at for the previous loop.

When it came time to tackle the big climb, I took the conservative approach and used it as an opportunity to hike. I still had another 16-20 miles left to run and I didn't want to start inducing muscle spasms or anything.

Overall, my pace was pretty consistent with the previous Long Loop, but I was slowing down.  It looks like the race had broken down into a constant effort of just below 8:30 pacing for the first 22.1 miles, and then something closer to 9:00 pacing for miles 22.1 to 38.1.

I came into the Start/Finish feeling a little tired. I knew that 54.1 miles was most likely out of the question, but 52.2 miles was still a possibility.  That would require 3 more Short Loops.  Knowing my next loop was going to be a Short Loop, I ditched my handheld with the water, thinking it'd be excessive to keep carrying 2 bottles.  I filled my other handheld with some more electrolyte mixture, downed a bit of ginger ale, and snagged another small PBJ sandwich, then headed off.

At this point I was just shy of 6 hours into the race, I had consumed around 80oz of liquid and just shy of 1200 calories. My nutrition intake was still solid but my H2O intake needed to improve a bit.

Loop 7 -- Short Loop -- 38.1 - 42.8 Miles

This loop would be my make it or break it loop.  If I held a solid 9:00 pace I could likely push it for 3 remaining Short Loops and finish with 52.2 miles ... but that's not how it turned out ...

From the get-go, I was a mess.  Right after the Steep Grade climb, my quads started to spasm slightly.  I pulled off to the side of the trail to stretch them out.  Instead of squatting down and stretching them gently, I acted like an idiot and swung my right heel up to my butt for a standing quad stretch.  My right hamstring immediately protested! I started to lose my balance from the hamstring spasming, so my left knee buckled hard and my left quad started to spasm, too.  Crap!  This could be a rough end to the race!  I calmed myself and spend the next minute carefully stretching my legs before heading back off down the trail.

It didn't get any easier for me. I was struggling to maintain 9:00 miles.  I felt like I was exhausting myself to get close to 9-flat.  My heart rate was fine but it just felt like I wasn't running on all cylinders anymore.  Towards the end of the loop I was pushing 10:00 miles and the app on my watch showed my expected mileage dropping 0.1 miles every few minutes.  I was running out of steam!

I stumbled into the Start/Finish with less than 90 minutes left on the clock. That last Short Loop took me a full 7 minutes longer than the first time I ran it.  With the Short Loop running closer to 5.0 miles than 4.7, I'd need to finish hard running a long string of sub-9:00 miles to get 52.2.  I quickly topped off my water bottle just in case, and headed back out on the trail.

Loop 8 -- Long Loop -- 42.8 - 50.8 Miles

I decided I'd push the pace and start running the Short Loop backwards.  Because of how the Long Loop is an extension of the Short Loop, running backwards would give me roughly 3 miles to decide if I should push it for 52.2 miles or cut my losses with 50.8.  If I had ran the standard clockwise direction, I'd only have around 1.5 miles to make up my mind.

Despite walking up the Steep Grade at the beginning, my quads again started spasming along the exact same section of trail as before. So, again, I took a minute to stretch out ... still clinging to the hope that this would solve my problems and give me what I needed to dig deep and grab 52.2 miles.

By the time I got to the turn off for the Long Loop extension it was clear that 52.2 wasn't going to happen.  I might have been able to manage it, but it would've required blowing out my legs and compromising Holiday Lake the next weekend.  The string of 3 straight 10:00+ miles really made my mind up for me.  I would be finishing with 50.8 miles for the day.

... So I dialed back the pace and enjoyed myself.  My stride felt light and loose, my breathing was easy, it was wonderful.  Moreover, because I was running the Long Loop backwards, I had the trails to myself for the last few miles -- at this point in the game no one in their right mind would head off on the Long Loop in the clockwise direction, and I had a feeling no one was going to be sneaking up on me from behind.

With around 30 minutes left in the race my stomach started feeling weird.  Great! Just what I needed.  I tried running through it but quickly realized I'd either need to slow to a crawl or bite the bullet and go scratching in the woods.  I did my business in short order and was back on the trail.  However, I wasn't exactly sure how much longer I had to run. I panicked and picked up the pace. My central governor, sensing the end was near, flooded my system with a jolt of energy and let me dial up the effort.

I steamed into the Finish with about 6 minutes to spare.  I had officially run 50 miles in less than 8 hours for the first time!  No matter what place I was in, I'd be walking away from the race with a sense of accomplishment.

All told, I had consumed around 1500 calories, right on target.  My hydration was a bit low at maybe 120oz, if that.  I should've taken in closer to 150 ... that's something I need to keep working on.


Minutes after I finished, I saw my wife approaching the parking lot, pushing our daughter in the stroller.  They'd missed me finish by a couple of minutes, but it was all good because the kiddo apparently had a stellar nap!  We played at the nearby playground for a little while, as the RD tabulated the results.

When the awards were being announced, I hung out off to the side, playing with my kid.  They started working their way up the finishers list, and at 3rd place they called out 48.9 miles.  If I had my thinking cap on just then, I would've realized I'd won, cuz I'd spoken to another guy at the finish and he said he'd run 50.3 miles.  Instead, I waited for my name to be called ... And when someone else was called up for 2nd place, my wife and I exchanged equally befuddled looks.

I'm not quite sure I can convey what I was feeling just then -- excitement, confusion, relief.  I'd come out to ICY-8 just looking to get a hard training run in, hoping I could verify that I had the legs for a sub-8 50 mile effort.  I walked away with First Place Overall and I didn't even push the pace.  My mind immediately started racing to the next handful of races I have lined up this spring. Here's to hoping I can keep building momentum towards a stellar Western States appearance in June!

Afterward ...

After spending the night in our cabin (which I highly recommend for anyone interested in visiting Lake Anna), complete with a cozy fire, me and the family headed back to DC on Sunday.  But not before swinging by Sonic for a celebratory meal ...

(Mmmmm, Sonic!)

Monday, February 1, 2016

Western States Training Plan

Seeing as how I have a long history of not quite training -- where I desperately hope that aimless and infrequent running will miraculously turn into motivation and dedication -- I decided that I'm going to make the most of my opportunity to run Western States.  So ... I actually put a legit training plan together.

My training plan is not derived from any others out there, and has some unique quirks due to family and race schedules, but the gist of it is fairly straightforward.


  • 50-60mpw base
  • 80-100mpw peak
  • 1400+ miles before Western States
  • Run 5-6 days per week

I've never sustained legitimate mileage (outside of the mediocre running in high school), but I've always believed I would be capable of it if I dedicated myself. To make sure I arrive in Squaw Valley with a proper foundation, I'll aim to achieve my 1500th mile of the year somewhere along the course. That means I will be in uncharted yearly mileage before July -- though I've never before tracked my mileage, I've likely never broken 1500 miles in a year before.

The plan is to start out at 50-60mpw running 5x a week, and then slowly progress into the 70s running 6x a week before a final push in the 80-100 range for a few weeks at the end of May.


I fully admit that I've overdone it on the race calendar. Before making the Western States lottery, I had already signed up for a marathon and two 50 milers. Afterwards, I decided that the three spring 50Ks of the Virginia Beast Series would help me to fine tune my speed.  In February and March I'll have a fairly rough go of it with two separate back-to-back weekend race blocks so I need to make sure I don't give them everything I've got and blow out my legs halfway into my training. My plan is to focus on nutrition strategies, pacing, and hill climbing for these races.  I plan to be competitive in the Beast Series this year, so I'll need to be careful with balancing the desire to run hard and not giving up too much ground in the standings.


  • Lots and lots of hills!
  • 175K-200K in vertical gain before Western States
  • Sustained climbs and descents on the treadmill

My training plan is flush with hills.  DC doesn't have much to offer for vertical training so I have to be strategic with my workouts.  Twice a week I'll run a particularly hilly trail route -- they'll be easy efforts but I'll make sure to run all the hills to build leg strength, and occasionally run the downhills hard and fast.  I've also set up my treadmill to range from +12% to -12% grades, and once a week I will run 8-16 miles, splitting the distance between sustained 9-12% climbs and descents.  There's no other way I'll be able to build up the necessary quad strength for downhills at Western States without these frequent sustained climbs.


  • Weekly runs near Lactate Threshold
  • Infrequent speed work faster than 5K pace

Some ultrarunners eschew speed work, feeling it's unnecessary for longer races. I, on the other hand, want to continue working on my leg turnover and improving my speed and stamina.  I believe that I need this kind of workout to continue developing as a runner at this very early stage in my career.  And, I've still never BQ'd before so hopefully tempo runs and intervals will improve my comfort level with sub-7 miles.

Most weeks, I plan on a weekly tempo run, tempo intervals, or traditional intervals. This run will range from 6 to 10 miles. Tempo runs towards the end of last year went a long way to improving my marathon time and I'm hoping that continued use of them in my training will go a long way to improving my times from 100 miles all the way down to the 5K (not that I really care about 5K times, but they're a good gauge of how my comfort with faster speeds is progressing).

Weekly Format

Monday: 6-8 miles of easy hills on the trails
Tuesday: Rest Day -- yoga and strength training
Wednesday: 6-10 mile tempo or intervals (typically 1-2 mile repeats)
Thursday: 8-16 mile Treadmill Mountains -- sustained climbs and descents, but not during race weeks; yoga and strength training.
Friday: 6-8 miles of easy hills on the trails
Saturday: Long run or race on the trails (limited to 15 miles the week before and after a race), with occasional progression or negative-split road runs
Sunday: Rest Day through February, easy Back-to-Back day March through May

My basic idea is to take it easy in the days after a long run to make sure my muscles recover properly.  Then I'll compress my workload for Wednesday through Saturday, making sure to take it very easy the day before the long run.