Monday, May 1, 2017

Broken Competitive Drive

2017 Promise Land 50K

Image result for promise land 50k elevation profile
(Super old looking race profile from irunfar)

I was excited to come back to Promise Land this year after my wife gave me the go-ahead to abandon her for a day, leaving her alone with an infant and toddler. After 2 years of ultrarunning I can comfortably say that 50Ks really aren't my cup of tea -- I thrive on the longer slogs through the mountains, and the shorter races are just too fast. But Promise Land is a bit different. It has a hard, fun profile that can wear you down, and if I'm paying to go running through the woods I want it to be for something challenging like this.

I knew I wasn't going to have a spectacular performance this year -- GDR was only 4 weeks ago and the joys of newborn sleep deprivation were still in full swing. Then add to that the fact that race day forecasts were predicting temps approaching the 90s. Oh, and I basically reverse-tapered my way to race day and drove 4 hours in the middle of the night to get to the race start. So yeah, peak performance wasn't gonna happen. But ... my spring workouts had been going well and I was still hoping for a solid improvement over last year. I had an ambitious plan for sub-5, a 15 minute improvement over last year. It probably wasn't going to work out, though I was hoping to be within striking distance in the final miles.

(Course map. Courtesy of Keith Knipling)

When the race began I felt tired and sluggish. I was hoping to shake it out, but after nearly 15 minutes of climbing to start the race I could tell that my legs weren't as responsive as I had hoped -- remnants of GDR were still lurking in my quads. So I dialed back the effort a little and just hoped for the best. I came into the first Aid Station less than 3 miles in, about 90 seconds off pace and spot-on to last year's split. By this point I had long since given up keeping pace with anyone up front and had settled in at around 20th place.

After cresting the first major climb, my legs opened up on the rolling trails and I left myself a sliver of hope that sub-5 was still attainable. I rolled into Reed Aid Station -- the Terrapin Lollipop -- got a pleasant greeting from Clark Zealand, and then headed up to the Blue Ridge Parkway crossing. My legs again felt strained from the climbing and I resorted to hiking much more often than if my legs were fresh. Once I hit the downhill into the Sunset Fields Aid Station, my legs again opened up. The effort felt considerably easier than last year, but I was running the downhills slightly faster. I pulled into the Aid Station with a nearly identical time to last year. The main difference: I was in 9th then, and only in 15th this time around. Maybe even a 5:15 finish in this heat wouldn't make the cut for Top 10 ... ugh!

I glided down the rocky and sometimes sloppy single track to the Cornelius Aid Station at Mile 18. I love this section of trail, careening down the slopes and over creek runoff makes me feel like a kid! My downhill pace again felt more controlled and easier than last year, and it was still slightly faster. If I could just survive the final climb, the final 4 mile descent would be a blast!

Leaving the AS, I hit the 2 mile downhill stretch of road that begins the 8 mile Cornelius Loop, focusing on an easy, controlled effort. Last year, I felt like the back half of the loop would never end. I was pushing the pace beyond my abilities, trying to make up ground on runners behind me. This year, I finished the loop in a slightly faster time, feeling considerably less exhausted. I had moved up into 11th place, was slightly ahead of last year's pace, and was focused on staying strong to overtake a couple runners on the final monster climb up the falls. Running down the out-and-back to the Aid Station, I saw Leif Van Acker and not far behind him was a super old dude (and eventual GrandMaster course record holder). I was probably 1.5-2 minutes back. I wasn't sure I'd be able to catch Leif, but I knew the old dude was going down!

Heading back up the out-and-back, a couple of runners flew down, and I instantly got scared.  Just like last year ... I was on the Top 10 bubble with a chase pack right behind me. I focused on the task at hand: catching the old dude. In less than 10 minutes I passed him and secured my 10th place spot. I may not be getting sub-5 hours, but it could still be a good day!

... And then it all went to crap. My legs quickly felt tired. I had been struggling up the climbs earlier in the race, but I was hoping this 2000' climb up Apple Orchard Falls would be different -- I had pictured myself saving my legs so I could crush the ascent. Instead, I found myself walking in places I had no business walking. The rocks and constantly changing gradient were wearing me out. And then a strong runner blew by me. I was in 11th again. And that's when I gave up. I had no interest in chasing down runners; that would be too mentally exhausting. Apple Orchard Falls is my kryptonite.

I lolly-gagged the next mile of climbing. I came across Frank Gonzales spectating and he tried urging me on (but he didn't give me a hug when I asked for one ... jerk!). He said there were multiple runners just ahead of me. It didn't work. I didn't want to be competitive today. I wanted to sit down on the side of the trail and stare at a waterfall. There were a couple moments when I feigned an attempt at running. I even saw 10th place a little ahead of me, but I couldn't gauge if it was 60 seconds, 120 seconds, ...? So I just kept walking.

As I approached the final Aid Station, I could hear Dan Spearin screaming at me, trying to get me moving because there were multiple runners just ahead.

"1 minute! 1 MINUTE!"
I kept walking.

"Top 10! Black Hole Duffel! You got this, Chris!"
I kept walking.

My climbing legs weren't in it today. And even if I miracled my way down the final descent, it was highly unlikely I'd catch anyone. I'd mentally checked out over the past 30 minutes and there was nothing anyone could say or do to inject a competitive spirit back in me.

"This is where we realize I'm just not a competitive person," I proclaimed, hoping that saying it out loud would excuse me for giving up, for sealing my fate as the dreaded first loser. After getting doused with water I meandered my way up the rest of the climb and onto the the final descent.

As I neared the end of the single track before the 2.8 mile road descent, I finally saw 10th place. When I popped out on the road I counted strides and realized I was in striking distance. I've got strong downhill legs. I can do this! I dug deep again. My watch ticked off a 5:44 mile. Push Harder! 10th place was only 10 seconds ahead of me. Push Harder! I had wanted to finish this race with solid 5:30 miles. If I could do that, I'd surely snag 10th.

I rounded another bend in the road. Still 10 seconds. You can do this! My downhill legs finally felt their limits. Shots of pain radiated through my calves and hamstrings. I couldn't go any faster. Another glimpse of 10th ... 15 seconds. Another glimpse ... 20 seconds. That's it! I'm calling it! As hard as I tried, I just couldn't get my legs to turn over like I wanted. I dialed back my pace a bit and cruised along the road to the finish.

When I spied the Finish Line, I noticed I had a chance to at least beat my finishing time from last year. I ever-so-slightly kicked it up a notch and cruised in for 5:14:53. A whopping 8 second PR. And for the second time in 15 months, Horton crowned me First Loser. Afterward, looking at results, there were 2 people 1 minute up on me, Leif was 2 minutes up, and a 4th runner was 3 minutes up. And the climb up Apple Orchard Falls this year was nearly 5 minutes slower than last year ... and I wasn't content with last year's climb either. That hurts more than any physical pain. I mailed it in on the final climb and it was the difference between 11th place and probably a 7th place finish.

After the race, I soaked my legs in the nearby stream, chatted up some fellow runners, chowed down on some food, and then made the 4 hour trek back home to change some diapers. All the while, I tried convincing myself that this little jaunt in the mountains wasn't a waste of time.

Where I need to improve:
  • I can set lofty performance goals for myself, but I am not a naturally competitive person. Which is fine. Except the moment my competitive standing in a race begins to falter, I don't have the mental strength to keep pushing. I turn inward and find excuses. This has to stop.
  • I think on fresh legs my climbing would've been much better, on the order of 60-90 seconds per mile, but even then, it's not where it should be. I need to make treadmill climbs more challenging -- changing pace/grade frequently; running uphill after long, hard workouts; etc. ... And, I dunno, maybe I should figure out a way to find some time for real trail climbs someday.
  • "Race Weight" ... I definitely felt the downhill pounding in my knees. It couldn't hurt to finally shed off some of that excess weight I've never tried to get rid of.

Positive Takeaways:
  • I ran an identical time from 2016, but I did so with much less effort. The day after the race my legs felt as if I'd simply been on a hard weekend long run. My aerobic capacity is increasing!
  • I ran an identical time from 2016, despite temperatures being around 25 degrees warmer. I'd say the temps cost me in the neighborhood of 7 minutes compared to last year.
  • My downhill speed is improving.
  • Everything but the climbing was nearly spot-on for a sub-5:00 finish.

Thanks to David Horton for putting on this spectacular race. Promise Land truly is a Spring Classic. I can't wait to toe the line again next year! (and apologies for not getting Top 10 like I'd promised ... I'll make up for it at Hellgate!) Thanks to all the friendly faces on the course throughout the day, especially the Crozet/Charlottesville contingent. And most of all, thanks to my wife for letting me neglect my parenting duties for a second time this spring to go running through the woods.

Now it's time to put in a solid training block ... with lots of vert!