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!

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