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!

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