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!)

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