Thursday, April 17, 2014

Humanity Check - Bull Run Run Race Report

Due to it's conflict with Boston Marathon, I have only run Bull Run Run 50 Miler once before.  It's a shame, since it's a beautiful course along a river, surrounded by blossoming flowers, and it's put on by an amazing running club (VHTRC).  I have wanted to return for years - and finally 2014 provided the opportunity.  To be honest, I think I was more anxious and excited for my friend, Meghan, who was running her first 50 miler, but I certainly wanted to have a strong race also.

I found my friend Kathleen at the start, and we shared the first hour or so - swapping stories and enjoying the trail.  I was amazed at how effortlessly she ran on the flat trails, while I was struggling to keep pace on anything that wasn't uphill or downhill.  I knew she was in for a great race, and ultimately I let her go on the flats as I settled into my pace. 

(High Five with Kathleen in the early miles, photo by Bob Gill)
I found myself sharing miles off-and-on with a ton of folks in the early sections, and enjoyed the company.  The day was starting to heat up, and my focus was more on fueling and hydration rather than my pace - so I welcomed the company any chance I got. 

Even with my best efforts to hydrate well, just past mile 20, I could feel my body shut-down.  I was bone-dry and overheating...I had stopped sweating.  I was able to keep a good pace through 25 miles, but I was literally cooking as my body could no longer cool itself.  At the aid stations, I would cool myself down by pouring water over my head, but that would last about a mile before I was dry again.

I had to walk - I was too overheated if I ran.  With Meghan at the race, I felt guilty with even thinking about dropping I just kept walking.  Folks passed me in droves, and I kept walking.  Folks asked me 'are you really sponsored by Inov8?' as they easily passed by - gone well before I was able to respond with 'I think I'm representing Inov8 just as well by not quitting when the going gets tough'.  I didn't feel tough.  I wanted to cry, but knew I had no fluids.  I dry heaved a few times, but luckily everything I was taking in stayed down.  I stopped at every stream crossing to throw water over my body.

(One of the infamous water crossings, photo by Mike Bur)
I stumbled across the finish line after 10 hours and 40 minutes of effort - humbled by what a bit of heat can do to me, and scared that it didn't take much to completely destroy me.  I was proud that I stuck it out and didn't give in, I know it was great mental training...but I lost so much confidence in my ability to overcome even something as simple and inevitable as heat.  Turns out, I am only human, and these days happen.

In hindsight, I think I learned that I am not someone who acclimates to heat easily.  It takes me a few days of sweating before I can perform in racing on the first 'hot day' of the year was just never a possibility.  I think I did everything right (fueling, hydration, pacing) or at least to the best of my ability, so this result was inevitable.  It was a rough day, but I survived. 

Unfortunately, Meghan also suffered in the heat, and missed the mile 38 cutoff time.  She is determined to finish a 50 miler, so this hasn't derailed her.

(Meghan, enjoying the early miles, photo by Bob Gill)

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Like a Band-Aid - Leatherwood Ultra 50 Mile Race Report

"You should just do it like a Band-Aid. One motion, right off!" - Jerry Seinfeld

Brian and I kick-started our ultra season this past weekend at the Leatherwood Ultras in North Carolina.  We both opted for the 50 miler - which I was extremely apprehensive of this early in the season, but with Massanutten 100 miler looming in the near future I figured I had to just go for it just as Jerry Seinfeld suggested - 'one motion, right off!'.  With the course actually being about 52 miles, and with 10,000+ feet of climbing (unknown how much, reports range from 10,000 - 15,000 feet!), we figured this was just the type of race to kick our butts and get us prepared.  Of course, the call of dirt trails (as opposed to the ice/snow we're still running on in western Mass) certainly helped make this decision easier.

So, we ventured down to NC, drove to the horse ranch/race head quarters, and camped out.  We woke up to find it misting outside, but otherwise comfortable weather.  It was odd to be getting ready for the race, and realize that I didn't recognize many faces - but grateful to have a few familiar folks to chat with pre-race. 

The RD called everyone to the 'starting line', which amounted to us standing in a semi-circle around him in a field next to the finish area.  He gave a few pre-race announcements, the national anthem was sung, and then he yelled 'go'.  The entire pack of folks stood still for a moment - no one knew which direction the race actually went from that field.  Brian and I happened to be on the wrong end of the pack, so once everyone started actually running, we were both weaving past most of the field.  It was still a bit dark, but I hoped it would be light enough by the time we hit the trails so I didn't bring a headlamp.

Anyway, after the momentary confusion, the race started.  The course started with a mile of pavement, and a lead pack of about 10 (including Brian) took off and gapped the field, I was in the next 'pack' of 2.  The early miles passed quickly, as I fell into stride with a local runner.  It was quickly apparent that the course, mostly on horse trails, had mainly clay underfoot and would be quickly deteriorating with the rain.  The first downhill of the course was a mess of slick slop - much like snowshoe running, I could plant my heel and skid for several feet before bounding to the next foot.  This might be a long day, but with the mud it would also be a fun day.  After 2 hours of running, the skies opened up and the rain started falling in earnest.  I was certainly enjoying meeting new people as we shared miles and laughed about the muddy trails, but glad to have my raincoat on to keep my upper half relatively dry and clean.

(Enjoying the early miles)
While I was apprehensive about my current fitness, I had decided to break the run into manageable chunks to focus on.  I was optimistic that I might be able to run around 10-hours for this course - the online 'predictor' for this race told me that my anticipated finish time was 11:30, and the current women's course record was around 10:45, so I don't know why I focused on a 10-hour finish...other than the fact that I didn't want to run for longer than 10 hours.  So, I decided I was going to accomplish this by running 3 hours for the first (16 mile) loop, 3 hours for the second (15 mile) loop, and 2 hours for the last two (10.5 mile) loops.  My plan was to try to run conservatively early, so I could hopefully save some strength and energy for the later miles.  This is all to say that as I finished the first loop in 3:12, I started to readjust my expectations for the day.  Maybe the prediction of a 11:30 finish was more accurate.

The second lap climbed immediately, giving me an opportunity to refuel and do a quick 'system check' on my body.  Everything felt ok, and I found I was enjoying the sloppy conditions.  It was slow, but at least I was moving and having fun.  Again, I fell into stride with a few local runners and we chatted to pass the miles.  In and out of the 21 mile aid station, and I realized that with my watch reading 4:05, I was officially on my longest run in 4 months.  Our little pack ran a mile up the road, and to the stream crossing. 

Apparently, the stream was typically about ankle deep, not even enough of a race feature to include in the RD's race description.  However, with the consistent rain, this crossing was knee deep at the shallow parts and mid-thigh deep in the deeper parts, and the current was strong.  Even trickier, the turbidity of the water was such that you couldn't see where you were planting your feet.  The three of us took our time to carefully pick across the river.

(Brian and Jonathan, ultimately 1st and 2nd finisher, crossing the river)
After crossing the river, we climbed a few more  uneventful miles to come upon the Rawhide Aid Station - which would be the main on-course aid station for the rest of the race.  From there, we seemed to plunge down 6 increasingly slippery and muddy miles.  I think I lost my companions in this time, as I remember sliding down the steep and slippery slopes alone.  My shoes were suctioned off my heels many times - luckily never coming off.  This mud wasn't just on the flats, as I had experienced at Pineland Farms last year (a.k.a. Mudfest 2013); this mud was even on the steepest ups and downs - I don't know how it was possible, it seemed to defy gravity.  Before long the course merged with the last mile of the first loop and made its way to the start/finish area.

I'll admit, I was a bit confused as these trails merged together.  The first two laps of the course were both marked with pink flagging, and they intersected and crossed multiple times, and even appeared to merged together and separate apart.  I don't know how that was possible with both laps being marked with the same color flagging.  If you want to recreate the course map, I suggest you take a handful of spaghetti and throw it on the floor - that's what the course map looked like.  I am incredibly amazed that the RDs found a way to weave us all around, cross us over trails previously...and yet I never took a wrong turn or ever had reason to question that I was on the correct trail.  Proper marking on a course like this could have easily been a disaster.  It boggled my mind how it was done effectively, but I was impressed.

Anyway, as I cruised in to the start/finish area, my watch read 5:48.  I was thrilled to be ahead of my predetermined 10-hour splits...I don't know how it happened, but maybe a 10 hour finish was still possible.  I quickly refilled my bottle, I wanted to start my first 10 mile loop and keep this momentum going.

(Jason, 10 miler champ, showing how muddy the course was)

I think it was at that aid station that someone told me I was the 1st female.  While I guess I didn't see any females in the lead pack at the start, it was nice to have confirmation - you never know who might sneak away in the cover of dark.  However, without knowing where the 2nd female was, or who she was, and knowing that I was likely going to tire as my training in no way prepared me for the later was of little comfort.

So, off to the same one-mile road run to access the trail for the 10-mile loop.  As I turned onto the trail, I was greeted with the worst mud of the day.  There was a large 10-mile race on this loop earlier, so about a hundred runners had already chewed this climb up.  The mud was so bad that I had to walk portions that I would have otherwise ran - but running just put too much pressure on my footfalls, and I would end up sliding back down again.  I had to hike, being mindful of my foot placement to make forward progress.  It was a long slow hike to get back up to the Rawhide Aid Station. 

From there, the course did a 5-mile 'lollipop', which could potential give me some info on where the 2nd place female was, and who she was.  I enjoyed that this was some of the first runnable, gently rolling sections of the course.  But, my lack of training was starting to catch up with me as I noticed myself getting discouraged at my slow pace and finding excuses to justify walking up a gentle uphill.  Mentally, I was falling apart.  I took a gu in hopes that a bit of sugar influx would somehow fix the problem.  I didn't see another female, but heard she had passed through that aid station; it meant that she wasn't farther back than 30 minutes (my split for the circle in the lollipop), but could have right on my tail for all I knew!  I kept checking over my shoulder, also worrying that Brian could potentially lap me, which would have been a devastating blow to my confidence.

(My muddy legs, post-race.  You can barely recognize the Inov8 Roclites!)

Upon returning to the Rawhide Aid Station, I worried that I had taken too long and that this 10-mile loop would take me longer than the 2-hour anticipated.  Luckily, the downhill was steep and quick; I felt like I literally slid back down to the paved road, and then had the one-mile stretch to return to the start/finish area.  7:54 on my watch - wow, I would be cutting it close, but it looked like I could potentially finish right around 10-hours.  I just needed to hold it together for another lap.

I ran strong out to the start/finish area, knowing that I was about to double back on the one-mile paved road section.  If was I going to see the 2nd place female, I would need to appear to be running strong.  'Hold it together for this one mile' I told myself.  As I ran this section, I saw a few guys that were behind me, but not the 2nd place female.  I saw Brian running fast down the road - about to finish.  We exchanged a few quick words, but he was quickly gone as he cruised to victory in about 8 hours.  As I reached the trail, I breathed a sigh of relief - having not seen the next female, I knew I had at least a comfortable 20-minute lead. 

The last time up the steep muddy climb was the most challenging.  I was tired, and I found myself stumbling around sideways, at times forgetting that I should be trying to make forward progress.  The mud was so challenging and making this climb much more difficult than it should have been.  I reached the Rawhide Aid Station about 5 minutes slower than my previous lap, and I was devastated and spent.  I wasn't quite sure how I would find the energy to finish this thing.

(2nd place 50 mile female, Lee, showing how muddy the course was)
But, I just tried to run the first minor downhill, then ran a bit of the flats, and found my stride was still strong - I didn't have anything physically wrong with me, the only thing holding me back was my mind.  With the knowledge that my legs were still good, I was suddenly filled with the urge to try to finish this as fast as I could - I wanted to be finished and have a beer; my 'finish the f*cker' mentality took over.  Luckily, I have so many friends who inspire me and I focused on that - my mind swirled with thoughts of my WMDP teammates who are all gearing up for Boston and have been running incredibly strong, and of my training buddies who have suffered through 0-degree snow runs at 5am to help me get in my miles...and my pace started to improve as my stride extended and my spirits lifted.  I imagined my friends at home, getting updates on my progress and supporting me from afar.  If I could just continue to draw inspiration from those around me, I knew I would be ok.  Luckily, I was also buoyed by passing runners on their first 10-mile lap and sharing encouragement with them as I went by, as well as seeing some of the runners I had shared previous miles with heading out as I was heading back along the stick of the lollipop.  Seeing familiar faces, even if they were folks I only met a few hours earlier, was an amazing boost of energy - I felt like I was running amongst friends, we slapped hands as we passed and shared encouragement.  I hadn't realized how lonely I had gotten out there.

Back to the Rawhide Aid Station, and I knew it was a muddy 15 minutes to the bottom of the hill, then a one mile road cruise to the end.  I checked my watch, and while I had run the lollipop as fast this time as last, I knew I was going to just miss the 10-hour mark.  I did what I could to come as close as I could - enjoying the last few slides down the steep muddy slopes, marveling at how epic this mud was, thinking that this race would be one that I would talk about for a while, and enjoying that even after 10 hours, physically, I was still feeling fairly solid. 

(Showing off my unique trophy, happy to have survived)
I crossed the finish line with a smile, plenty of mud covering my body, and pleasantly surprised to have had a great day overall.  I had started in about 11th place, and systematically worked my way up to 5th place - final time, officially 10:00:15 (but I'll note that my watch read around 10:05).  It was certainly rough conditions out there, as only 55% of the 50 mile runners actually completed the course.  Brian and I are both been pleased to have our first run on dirt this year go so well (even if it was technically mud, not dirt), to have found that our endurance was solid even after the long and harsh winter, and fortunately we both got the win with our efforts out there.  We were awarded beautiful handcrafted trophies that were welded out of horseshoes - special enough to be displayed on our mantle at home (where we love to decorate with the most creative and unique trophies).

I would highly recommend this race to anyone who wants a fun, low-key but challenging race with a great atmosphere.  Post race, even with the rain and the mud, runners continued to hang out, have a drink, eat some great food, and enjoy the scene as they cheered runners through the finish.  The course was tough, but do-able - not the hardest race I've ever run, but certainly up there.  There weren't any views today, but we passed several vistas where I imagine there are great views on a sunny day.  This is a 50-mile race where you know you ran far and feel incredibly accomplished to complete it!

(2nd place 50 mile female, Lee, shows her shoes post-race - yup, mud penetrated everything)