Wednesday, October 23, 2013

New England Fall at its best - Bimbler's Bluff 50k Race Report

This past weekend, Brian and I headed to CT to participate in the Bimbler's Bluff 50k.  This was our 4th trip to this race - last year we missed the Bluff to try our hand at Tussey Mountainback...clearly it wasn't our style of racing, cause this year we were back at the Bluff.  And what's not to love about this race - it's during peak fall foliage in southern CT, it's put on by an amazing group of folks, and it's a low key race that in our hectic and stressful life is a welcome relief.

I was pretty excited to have my training buddy Jason also running, so we shared a plan to run the first several hours together.  This would be his second ultra, and I was looking forward to sharing portions of the race with him.  I was also hoping to help hold him back in the early portions of the race so that he could ultimately pace himself for a strong finish.

(Off the line - myself and Brian with Jason, in black)

Brian, Jason and I lined up on the starting line, and Brian took it out hard as Jason and I fell into stride with a pack about 10 runners back.  We easily covered the first few hours, chatting like it was a training run.  I felt strong, I knew the course well enough to know how to approach each section, and luckily I had great company to pass the early miles.  Others came and went, but Jason and I stuck together and had some fun.

The two of us got separated after the mile 12 aid station at the race namesake Bluff, which is the quintessential climb of the course.  I stopped to use the woods on the climb as Jason power hiked away.  I didn't care, he was running strong and I wasn't about to miss the amazing views from the Bluff to track him down (and those views are my FAVORITE part of the race).  After the climb, I was feeling good and put in a bit of a surge to catch back up to Jason.  As I tracked him down, we were cruising an awesome downhill.  Just after I caught him, however, the runner ahead of us stopped dead in his tracks and looked up at us.

(Coming off the Bluff)

That runner was at an intersection, and there weren't any flags.  The three of us scampered around to look for any course markings, as a few other runners cruised the downhill and joined us.  A moment of panic set in as I realized I didn't remember when I had last seen flagging - I had been focusing on Jason's back and trying to catch him!  After several intense moments, we decided we must have missed a turn and started to hike back up the hill we had so recently be pleasantly cruising down.  It took us about 5 minutes to rejoin the course - and we all cursed ourselves for missing a well marked turn in the course.

Once on course again, I worked to calm down and not try to make up all the lost places at once - I had 20 more miles to hopefully make up for my error.  I would have to wait until the next aid station to even get information on whether another female had passed while I was off doing bonus miles - so Jason and I tried our best to be relaxed, get back to our gabbing, and enjoy the course.

Just before the next aid station, Jason let out a yell and stopped suddenly.  He entered the race with a questionable ankle - and on this super rocky course he twisted it bad.  We stopped for a moment to evaluate it, I wasn't about to abandon my friend out there.  After a few test steps, he told me he would be ok, but for me to continue on.  Luckily, I knew that an aid station was just ahead so I was able to reassure him that help was only 5 or 10 minutes up the trail.  I felt bad leaving him, but figured with more than half the race left, plenty of leaf covered rocks and loose stones on the trail, and a painful ankle, that he would hike to the next aid station and get a ride to the finish.

(One of the many views from the Bluff)
At the aid station, I got information that I was now 2nd place female, but only a few minutes behind the leader.  Knowing that the lead female had only a few minutes on me, I left the aid station determined to run strong over the next section and see if I could reel her in.

About a mile out of the aid station, I came upon the first female, and she was running strong.  We fell into stride together, as we chatted a bit.  After about a mile, the trail turned up, and amazingly I ran away from her without trying - she was just there one minute and not there the next.  I happened to be keeping pace with a nice gentleman, and we enjoyed running through the new trail section that featured mountain bike added about an extra mile to the previous course's distance, but it was fun!  I was grateful he was there, because a few time I almost missed a turn or he almost missed a turn, but between the two of us we kept on track. 

(One of the obstacles from the 2009 race - they have since put a bridge at this location)

A few miles later, we saw one of the lead runners coming directly towards us - which was unnerving.  I felt fairly confident that we were on the correct course and heading in the right direction, but we did chat with the 'lost' runner quickly - he felt just as confident that he was correct, so we both went our own way.  Luckily, another 1/2 mile down the trail I saw a familiar site, a lake by the next aid station, and knew we were on trail and going the right way - I told the guy I was with assuming he was just as anxious as I was after the lost runner encounter.

After the lake aid station, I knew I had about 10 rolling and challenging miles to go.  As I glanced at my watch I saw that with getting lost and the new mileage in the mountain bike trails I was well behind my anticipated time - there was no catching my course record today.  So, I decided to enjoy the last few hours, run strong, but the only goal was to see if I could maintain the lead female position.

I caught a few folks along the last section, hung back to stay with them even when they encouraged me to go ahead - I just felt like I would rather have company than finish a few minutes faster.  One gentleman I caught was in rough shape - he was walking a downhill and appeared to have completely bonked.  I stopped to walk beside him for a bit, offering him a gu and fluids - he said he had run out of fluids and was dehydrated, so I encouraged him to take most of what was left in my bottle.  I knew the next aid station was only a mile or two ahead of us.

(Crossing the finish line with 'bonked guy')

Passing the last aid station, I knew I had an easy/downhill half hour or so to the finish.  I ran mostly alone, but was surprised to see the bonked guy catch back up with me with about a mile to go.  The two of us pushed together to the finish line, ultimately finishing in a tie.  As I looked around, I found Brian, but was confused to not find Jason. 

After about a half hour, Jason cruised down the last downhill and across the line.  I was so proud that he stuck with the race and ultimately finished, even if his time wasn't what he expected.  Neither of us had the race we had anticipated, but we both got it done!

Brian had a rough day - he was in the lead group, which got lost several times.  As he tells it, the entire lead back ran past a turn around mile 20, and only one person from the back of the pack saw and took the turn - but didn't alert anyone else to their error, letting them run on by and miss the turn.  The guy who took the correct turn ultimately won, while Brian ran several bonus miles, eventually finishing 2nd.  One of the other guys from the lead back took an incorrect turn bad enough to end up off trail and in the middle of a nearby town.  It was a mess in the top 3 or 5 guys.  Either way, Brian got in a good long training run, but ultimately we're both disappointed with the behavior of the runner who took the turn and didn't alert anyone else (if that's what really happened - I will acknowledge that what is perceived and what actually happened might not be the same thing and it's possible that the runner fell back and wasn't really with the lead group when they passed the turn...I wasn't there so I don't know, but Brian and the other lead guys all remember a pretty similar situation).  Either way, in the name of sportsmanship, I would like to believe that what Brian believes didn't happen, because as much as we might be racing each other, I find ultrarunning to be a sport of challenging yourself to improve regardless of those around you.  It would sicken me to know, for sure, that a runner had acted in such an unsportsmanlike manner to basically 'steal' the win by allowing others to go off course when he could have stopped it.

(Brian on the Bluff)

I did a lot of reflecting post-race about the course marking.  Initially, I was angry and thinking critically about the RD regarding 'poor flagging'.  I mean...Brian, Jason and I, as well as countless others, all got lost out there!  However, upon further thought, I understand that it's fall in New England and the foliage is extremely prominent and colorful.  Further, this race is on trails that are open to the public, so flagging can only be hung off the trees not placed across the trail or the ground - which would be more visible as we stare down at the trail in hopes of not tripping on one of the many rocks.  When I listed every conceivable color of flagging, I couldn't easily come up with a color that would stand out against the foliage and bright sun.  Orange - nope, green - nope, blue - nope, yellow - nope, red - nope...the RD used red and white flagging, which is likely the best option to stand out against the colors of fall.  While I think a few locations could have used a bit more strategic locations for the markings, I think that the RD did the best he could, and that this year was an exceptionally tough year with a bright sun in the sky and colorful leaves on the trees and ground.  All in all, those who are critical of the RD should take the time to try to organize their own race - you'll quickly learn some respect for how challenging it is, and you'll learn to thank all the selfless volunteers and race directors out there that put on the races that we so often enjoy!

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Gunning for a sub-8 hour - Vermont 50 Race Report

Back in 2007, I ran my first 50 miler - the Vermont 50 miler.  It was a month after my first ultramarathon finish - Green Lakes 50k, which I only did to build confidence that I could do a 50 in my heart, I consider Vermont 50 as my first ultra.  In 2007, Brian ran his first ultramarathon on the same day, the 50k at VT50.  We didn't meet until over a year after that first VT50 experience. 
(Finish festivities at VT50 - as Brian cruises in)

The Vermont 50 has become an annual tradition for us.  Brian's had great success at this race (winning in 2009, 2010 and 2012).  I've had successes (winning the 50 miler in 2012 and winning the 50k in 2010 and 2011, and what I consider my 'break through race' at the 50 miler in 2008), and challenges (dropping in 2009), and have run both the 50 miler and 50k races over the years.  In 2012, in our first ultra after getting married, Brian and I both won the 50 miler in our first race as 'the Rusieckis', which was a very special day for us.  This year we were excited to spend another day running through the fall foliage in Vermont, passing miles with fellow runners who have become friends over the years, cruising around on the sweet single track, and sharing the trails with mountain bikers who are as passionate about their sport as I am about running.

Brian and I returned this year as 'reigning champions', but knew that given the stacked start list we would be unlikely to defend our titles.  I didn't care, I was focused on trying to break 8 hours, which was a goal I set for myself back before my 2009 race - I got closest last year when I finished in 8:18.  Brian just wanted to run a strong race and see how it went.

(Hanging out pre-race with Aliza)
The day dawned foggy and cool, but muggy.  I quickly found my friend Aliza at the starting line, I was hoping to share some miles with her, if she wasn't gunning for a super fast time.  As we started, Aliza and I fell into step and gabbed as we passed the early miles.  I was struggling to stay with her on the first few climbs, and after about 6 miles she pulled away from me.  Already, my legs felt heavy and sluggish on the uphills.  I was frustrated - a few guys caught and passed me, only making me feel slower.  By Skunk Hollow (mile 12), I had dropped back in the field and feared I might have a long day ahead of me.  At the first crew stop (Skunk Hollow), I my spirits were lifted by the friends who were out supporting the racers, and by having Jill (who works for Inov8) out there to crew for me.  She handed me a bottle and gu, making my transition through the aid station quick and seemless.

Leaving Skunk Hollow is several miles of uphill on a dirt road - likely the worst thing for me when I'm struggling.  My friend Greg caught up to me, and we worked together to get through the dirt road section.  I kept focusing on getting up Garvin Hill, which was our next aid station.  During my first VT50, I remember that the view from Garvin Hill was incredible - it's the highest point on the course, and with the fall foliage, you just see hill after hill and mile after mile of leaves turning red and yellow and orange.  I haven't seen the view since - in 2008 it was foggy and wet, 2009 was rainy, in 2010 and 2011 I ran the 50k (which doesn't go up Garvin Hill) and 2012 it was raining again.  I was starting to wonder if there really was an amazing view, or if I had just imagined it in my 'oh my gosh, I'm running my first 50 miler, isn't everything beautiful' crazy mind.  As I crested Garvin Hill this year, I confirmed that this was an incredible view and one worth working for - the early morning fog had mostly burned out or settled in the valleys, so there was white clouds with these vibrant hill tops sticking out above.  It helped to turn my spirits around.

(Sharing early miles with fellow runners and bikers)

Running mostly on trails after mile 17, I was much happier and able to take stock of my capabilities.  Folks weren't really passing me anymore, and while I wasn't able to run the uphills strong, I felt great opening up my stride on the downhills and flats - so I focused on doing what I could and managing the best race I possible.  Looking at my watch, I felt that a sub-8 hour finish was still within my reach, I just didn't have much room for error.

After the Cady Brook aid station (mile 23), the trail runs parallel to a river through the woods for a mile or two at a slight uphill (but runnable) grade.  During my first 50 miler, I remember walking this entire stretch and afterwards feeling like I had wasted time there.  The following year, I focused on being able to run up that stretch - knowing it would save me a ton of time and set the tone for the second half of the race - and I didn't even walk when a runner near me told me I was going to burn out by the end of the race if I ran that whole stretch.  I thought about those memories as I easily ran up the now seemingly gentle grade - it's amazing how far I've come as a runner over the years, and great to remember the challenges that are so much easier now.  After this stretch was the last long dirt road section, so I just tried to stay focused and loose as I ran up the road, past Margaritaville, past my friend Kelly (who gave me a hug as I ran by), and closer and closer to the trails.  I knew once I hit the trail that I would be at the Greenall's aid station (mile 32) in no time where there would be crews to cheer me on and that it was basically all trail from there. 

(By mile 30, I was finally loving the day!)
At Greenall's, Jill got me in and out quickly, and I was excited to see that I was still on pace for a sub-8 hour finish.  Since Greenall's is located in the start/finish area for the VT100, I really enjoyed the next several miles - which I only see in the dark at VT100, and which seemed so much easier in this 'shorter' race.  I even got to pass my friend Tammy, who was running the 50k, and get a hug and some encouragement from her as I went by, which put some spring in my step.  I focused on only 9 miles further till I saw my pacer.  I cruised on the twisty single track, passing 50k runners, and enjoying a swig of beer (as I do every year) at the 'party house' located at around mile 35.  I finally had my legs beneath me, these are the trails that inspire me, and it was turning into a beautiful day to be out running.  I also had a fire lit under me during this single track - while it's hard to tell if the bikers and runners you see through the trees are in front of you or behind you, or how close you are to them - I did catch a quick glimpse of another female running strong in this section - and I used that to motivate me to keep the pace strong, convincing myself that the runner must be the 3rd place female in the 50 miler, tracking me down.

Around mile 40, I was cruising a downhill and telling a fellow runner how I have a 'bet' with one of my training buddies Meghan about today's race.  Pineland Farms this year was her first ultra, so we challenged each other - last to the finish line owes the other a beer!  At Pineland, I had a 2 hour head start, and 19 more miles to run.  I think I beat her to the finish line by about 30 minutes.  At Vermont, we decided to have a similar challenge - and to make it tougher, I had to run 19 more miles but only had 85 minutes extra to do it!  I figured I'd never see Meghan out there - but sure enough, just as I was telling a fellow runner about our wager, I came upon Meghan.  While she might not have gotten as good a time as she got at Pinelands, she was having a blast and in great spirits.  I didn't hang with her more than a few strides - I knew I have very little cushion (if any) on my 8-hour goal.

(Brian cruised the entire way)

Just past Meghan, there was a small uphill climb, and we came upon Linda's aid station (mile 41), where my pacer, Sara, was waiting, eager to run with me.  This aid station had moved from last year - and quickly I saw why, in the location of last year's aid station was a beautiful wedding tent on one side of the trail and the ceremony set up on the other side - overlooking a beautiful view of Mt. Ascutney.  Sara and I enjoyed that view, and many more as we wove through the trails and fields in Vermont, creeping closer and closer to Ascutney as it hung in our foreground - it was wonderful to have the company of a fellow runner, and even better to have a runner who is contemplating her first ultramarathon.  Seeing how much fun Sara was having on the trails and with this community of people, I know that she'd love ultras and really do well - hopefully she'll be competing in the Vermont 50 next year! 

As I picked up Sara, I noted that I was about 20 minutes ahead of my 2012 time (with an 8:18 finish), so as long as I didn't slow down (and as long as the course was similar length from here to the finish, which is always a gamble), I should be just under 8 hours at the finish.  Sara and I passed droves of 50k runners (maybe even a few hurting 50 mile runners, who knows) and worked our way through the rocky single track towards the last aid station as I focused on keeping a strong pace.  Once we got to Johnson's (advertised as mile 48), the last aid station, I checked my watch to see how much time I had to reach the finish and was please to see I had 35 minutes to cover the remaining 2.5 "advertised" miles.  I asked the aid station volunteers to confirm the remaining mileage, and got answers between 3 and 3.5 miles - which was a bit unsettling and confusing.  Either way, I would have to keep the accelerator pressed to reach my goal.  As Sara and I worked our way up Ascutney towards the finish, the aid station volunteer's story was confirmed - we passed the '3 miles to go' sign.  I glanced at my watch to see I had about 31 minutes.

(With my pacer, Sara, closing in on the finish)

I focused on trying to run as much of the uphill as we climbed Ascutney, and kept glancing at my watch as the minutes ticked off.  We passed the '2.5 mile to go', and I about 26 minutes.  '2 miles to go', about 21 minutes.  I ran with determination up the last few climbs, and by '1.5 mile to go', I had about 16 minutes.  Finally, the trail turned down.  With 1 mile to go I had 12 minutes.  I breathed a sigh of relief.  Then, my friend Brad, who was doing the mountain bike race, passed me and told me there was a woman right on my tale.  Sara glanced back and confirmed, but couldn't tell what race she was in.  Either way, I hadn't recently passed a female, so this runner appeared behind me quickly and made me nervous - was this the woman I had seen through the trees at mile 35?  Was this the 3rd 50 mile female?  Had she been stalking me all day just waiting for the last mile to pounce?  If someone passes me with miles to go, then I accept it and continue to run my own race - but I would be frustrated if someone passed me within the last 1/2 mile of the 50 mile race!  I drew every last ounce of energy I had, with Sara encouraging me and telling me that she was in 'full stride' to keep up, and I hammered as best I could on tired legs.  I crossed the finish line in 7:55:52 - estatic to have achieved my sub-8 hour goal.  As a bonus, I finished 2nd female and 16th overall out of about 290 runners.  My 'female stalker' finished a minute back, but turned out to be a relay runner!

(Women's podium at VT50)
Sara and I quickly found Brian, who told me he ran a solid race to finish 2nd place in 6:33, and I got congrats from Aliza who smoked the course, setting a new course record in an unworldly time of 7:01.  Somehow, I quickly got a beer at the finish (from a fellow racer who I had passed some early miles with) which Sara and I shared as we both basked in the adventure of the day.  Meghan finished quickly after I did, and promptly handed me a beer, simply saying 'I believe I owe you this'.  She had a huge grin on her face and I could tell she loved every moment of her adventure on the trails.  It was great to sit out in the sun, enjoy the atmosphere, catch up with friends, share stories of our adventures, and remember yet again why I love this sport. 

(Men's podium at VT50)

The best prize of the day was a hug from Zeke - who is my favorite volunteer at the Vermont races and has become a great friend and supporter - my ideal Vermont 50 experience was complete after that. 

(Sharing a hug with Zeke!)