Tuesday, October 11, 2011

This is Why 'Ultra' is Different

A note... I wrote this race report over three days, and didn't realize I was going to broach 4,000 words!  Be forewarned, this post is long, like the race!

Shortly after completing the second marathon of my life, I wondered what would be next.  I sat in my seat on the flight back to Boston, and I quickly realized that running another road marathon was not something I'd be interested in.  I am not about to say that all marathon experiences are the same, and the challenge and accomplishment of completing a marathon are still very inspiring to me, but as I looked at my medal from the Marine Corps Marathon, and looked over the clouds, set aflame in crimson and pink hues by the sunset, I knew that the next challenge for me would be the first true distance rung of the ultramarathon ladder - 50 kilometers.

So I committed my 2011 running campaign to the ultramarathon, and found my shivering self standing on the start line of the GAC Fat Ass 50k just eight days into the new year.  The goal was to complete 50k, but I did not make the cut off to start my final 10k loop (not sure I would have done another) and in the end I finished the day having completed a very tough marathon distance over trails covered in ice and snow.  It was a bittersweet event, but given the tough conditions, a couple tactical errors, and some physical issues, I was satisfied with the result.

Three months later I found myself standing on the soggy start line of the TARC Spring Classic 50k.  Though the conditions were a challenge, I jovially crossed the finish line having finally completed that first 'true' ultra distance.  It was a challenge, and I spent the next few days wondering if I'd ever do another 50k, and how 50 miles seemed over the horizon of possibilities. 

Having completed one 50k, I came into this past weekend's TARC Fall Classic 50k with a more calm sense of what was about to unfold.  In addition to knowing what the distance 'feels' like, I had a handful of long, multiple hour training runs logged in recent weeks in preparation for the Stone Cat 50 Miler, so I felt comfortable thinking about spending at least 6 hours of time on my feet as well.

I snagged a ride to the start with Breakheart Dan, who decided to take on the challenge, even though he was feeling a little wary of his lack of training over the last few weeks.  Nevertheless, Dan is a seasoned ultra runner who embodies the 'show up and see what happens' attitude that so many other trail and ultra runners live by.

We arrived at the Estabrook Elementary School in Lexington, MA about 45 minutes before the start, and like most other ultras, had to be careful not to do too much socializing instead of making sure all gear and food and bags were squared away before we were sent off on the course.  That is definitely part of the allure of the trail and ultra community.  The more deeply you get entrenched in the community, the more faces and names you learn.   

There is almost always none of the 'fast people staring content' that happens between many road races.  You know, at the start line, all the alpha dogs doing intense striders and staring down the others on the line as to say, "This is my race!"  Instead, the start of an ultra is like a hundred people showing up to some random location in an open field or trailhead, doing fist bumps and passing along greetings, wandering around looking like they are wondering when the keg is going to arrive, just as much as when the race is going to start.  It's great!

Eventually I got my gear squared away, and the biggest challenge was wondering how long I'd need my long sleeves and gloves, as the high temperature for the day was forecast in the high 70's, yet the early hours of the morning were clad with a classic New England autumn chill. 

I made my way over to the start and found Dan chatting with our friend Karen.  We were waiting at the back of the pack, where we figured we should be, out of the way of all the 10k, half marathon, and marathon runners in the group.  The TARC Trail Animal began approaching me, and Dan mentioned I might know the identity of the Trail Animal - who knew I would be placed in the TARC's version of trying to identify the Mummer!

Josh Katzman gave a great race briefing, we all collectively gave our best animal calls, and the race was on!

Loop One - Discovery!

The course for the TARC Fall Classic was a 10k loop beginning and ending at the Estabrook Elementary School in Lexington, MA, but most of the course was in Burlington's Landlocked Forest.  After departing the school we followed the playing fields to the a short section of single track in Lexington's Paint Mine Area, and on to the trails beneath a string of power lines that led to the Landlocked Forest.  The start was a bit congested with many runners approaching the same bottle neck at the trail head, but most of us at the back of the pack didn't mind - just an early opportunity to add a little walking!

The power line trail brought an opening ascent, which was not terribly tough or technical, but it was a harbinger of things to come on the rest of the loop. 

I stuck with Karen, Dan, and Pam, a friend of Dan's and Karen's that I hadn't met before.  I would later learn that Pam is a fellow trail running blogger, check out her adventures at run home pam.  We rolled along at a comfortable pace through the first mile with a conga line of other runners.  Quickly some of the other runners in the shorter races came along the trail after completing their shorter loops on the playing fields to get them square with the distances they'd be racing for the day.  This made things a bit more interesting, and eventually Karen and I lost contact with Dan and Pam.  We were both in no hurry to catch up, as we both knew we had long days ahead of us.

A view of Route 3 from the trail.
Once in the Landlocked Forest, we found lots of single track, not terribly complicated, but ever-undulating.  Though I'd agree the terrain was not technical, there were enough rocks and roots to warrant special attention to each foot placement.  The woodland landscape was interesting, with lots of rock escarpments and boulders deposited by receding glaciers from millions of years ago.  Another quirk of the course was that it ran adjacent to Route 3, and, in some places we found ourselves running single track trails literally feet from the highway guard rail. 

As we moved along the first loop I began to wonder how not wearing my Garmin would effect me during the race.  I was a little concerned because, like most trail races, there are no mile markers, and part of the mental game during the middle and end of a longer race is having landmarks to help with motivation and staying positive.  Fortunately, about halfway through the first loop I was running with another person who had a Garmin, and he informed me that we were at 3.1 miles, which was really all I needed for the rest of the day!

This was about the same time I came up on another trail friend, Michelle, carrying her log on her shoulder.  She carries the log for many different reasons, and as a visually impaired runner, I really appreciate the log, because it helps me know that it is indeed her!  We chatted for a little while, and she totally saved me on a second of the course that was a labyrinth of shadowy switch back that were quite tough for me the first time around to visually navigate.  The Beatles were right, I did get by with a little (lot!) of help from my friends!

After the labyrinth, the loop featured one of the lone flat and easy sections of trail, featuring some really nice boardwalks.  From the boardwalks we got back to the roller coaster of undulating terrain, which eventually led back to the power lines, and back to the school.

When I arrived back from the first 10k loop, I grabbed a turkey sandwich and refilled my bottles with GU Brew.  Dan and Pam were getting ready to head back out, and it was nice knowing I wasn't too far behind from them.  I took a little more time in the aid station taking off my long sleeve shirt and grabbing a few other items from my drop bag.  Unfortunately I also grabbed a Dunkin Donuts Munchkin from the aid table as well, which was not a good choice as I tasted it for the next twelve miles!

Loop 1 - plus some transition time - 1:20:15

Loop Two - The Crowd Thins; Catching Up (with) to More Friends

The beginning of the second loop was a little easier to navigate as many of the runners in the short races were well into their second loop.  I did a little status check of all systems and felt decent and plodded along.  I had grabbed my iPod and headphones from the drop bag, and was considering throwing on some tunes, but it seemed way too early in the day to do that, so I tucked both in the front pocket of my RaceReady shorts.

Things went along fairly uneventful for the next couple of miles, and I started feeling a bit zen as I glided along the trail, until before I knew it I felt my body become airborne and briefly suspended in mid-air, realizing I was about to land hard on face!

It has been a while since I have fallen during a trail race, and some might argue it has been too long, but there I was, stunned, covered in debris - thankfully not bleeding, and in a little shock.  I had rolled both ankles during the first loop, and Karen mentioned she should probably stay behind me, just in case!  Thankfully, when I fell I was alone, so no one was brought down with the ship, nor was I trampled by a herd of half marathoners.

I got up, laughed, and realized that I fell on the same side as the pocket where my iPod was stored, talk about thinking about the important things first!  Hell, I am not worried about my femur sticking out over there; I can't listen to 'Little Red Riding Hood' by Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs later on!

All in all, I was fine, very lucky actually that it wasn't worse with all the rocks and roots on the forest floor, ready to apply a little blunt force trauma.

Not too much longer up the trail, I came across a conga line of runners, clearly re-entering the course after taking the scenic route for a little while.  I then noticed that part of that lost conga line were Dan and Pam!  I was pumped to see the both of them, and was able to tag along for the labyrinth section of the course that had completely befuddled me earlier in the day.  We also met up with Trail Pixie, who was kicking some serious butt on the second loop, powering to a nice half marathon finish on a sneaky tough course.

It is always awesome running with Em, totally makes the miles go by quickly.  I got to play the role of 'Pixie's Pusher' during the race, as she was looking for S-Caps, and like some weird trail side drug deal, little white capsules were passed with a nod, and the deal was done.  Must have been the S-Caps, because Pixie blew us all away, and sped on down the trail to her finish line for the day.

Dan, Pam and I ran together for the rest of the loop, and ran three-wide as we coasted into the transition area.  Two down, three to go... it was getting warm!

In the aid station, I snagged a couple turkey sandwich quarters, and a couple PB&J quarters, along with refilling my bottles.  I will say, I thought I was over-doing it by bring the awkward 'handteen' I had received at a race as a raffle prize last year, but the extra 12 ounces of fluid were essential to get me through this one!

Dan and Pam were off on loop three before I knew it, but I needed to replenish my supply of S-Caps for the rest of the day and spent a little extra time going through my drop bag to get a few more.

In a jiffy, I was back on my way!

Loop 2 - plus all transition time - 1:24:41 [2:44:56]

Loop Three - Somewhere in the Middle

I basically gave up on catching Pam and Dan at the beginning of the loop, as I decided to walk the first section and eat my sandwiches.  It was really interesting seeing pedestrians with their kids and dogs looking at this crazy person with a half of turkey sandwiches hanging out of my mouths, while I adjusted my sunglasses and unzipped my jersey for a little more ventilation... I was praying the race number pinned to my shorts would provide the slightest bit of ethos!

The third loop was cool because I was able to meet a few new people.  One guy I came up on, let's call him 'Green Shirt Guy', was having a hard time.  We chatted for a little while, and I made sure he didn't need anything I might have to help his race day.  He mentioned this was his first 50k, and he didn't care how long it took, he was going to finish.  He then added he had done a 24 hour race before, and that convinced me he'd be fine!  Again, not too many races where your gut reaction when you come across a hurting runner is to ask if there is anything you can do to help.

A little farther up the trail I was coming up one of the short, steep ascents that led to a narrow crossing between two culverts via an esker.  I secretly named the steep ascent the esker-lator during loop four, when I really started going bat-shit crazy.  Yep, geological humor... that is where it's at.

Anyway, at the top of the esker-lator, I saw two runners going in the wrong direction, and I was able to get them back on the right path.  Shortly thereafter, I found myself hopeless lost in the labyrinth section of the course, and after a few minutes of wandering I found myself back at the beginning of the labyrith, meeting the runners I had helped earlier.  We completely the labyrinth section together, I was grateful!

As it turns out, they were both also planning on running the Stone Cat 50 in a few weeks as well, and we had a nice time chatting about training and how unexpectedly tough the day had been so far.  After a little time together, I wished them luck, and picked up the pace a little.

As I came back into the section of trail that led back to the school, I saw Pam heading out for her fourth loop, but didn't see Dan, and wondered if he was calling it a day.  Sure enough, as I came into the aid station area, Dan was hanging out, and let me know his IT Band was acting up, and he was done for the day.  Nevertheless, I think it was awesome.  Dan wasn't even sure he was racing, yet he showed and snagged 30k!

As I turned my attention back to the aid station, the volunteers hooked me up with some more turkey sandwich quarters and topped off bottles of GU brew... volunteers are no doubt the oil that keeps the engine of an ultra marathon running, and without these awesome people, these events are just not possible!

I started feeling like trash a little here, but never thought for one second about dropping at 30k and headed out for loop 4.

Loop 3 - 1:27:49 [4:12:45]

Loop Four - Hello Crapulence!

I figured I'd walk as I ate my sandwiches, and I took a shot of pure maple syrup - a little trick I was trying out for the first time, which I have borrowed from Steve 'The Bard' Latour.  I will say, I think it was successful, but after a while the sweetness was a little too much to bear, and I early on in the race I realized my flask of syrup was nicely shaken into a froth of mapley foam... no, I am not complaining!

After I finished my food, I still felt like walking... then I walked some more... and then a little more.  In fact, the first mile I basically had no interest in running whatsoever.  This was tough, because my brain was going into DNF drop mode, but my heart was scrambling for ways to get the rationale part of my brain drunk and delusional.  It was sort of like that scene from Animal House where Chip Diller (Kevin Bacon's character) is screaming, "All is well!  Remain Calm!"

Snugly in survival mode for the first three miles, I just let it all go, and accepted the fact that muscles were sore, and I was not in a pleasant place.  Once I made it to the halfway point, I found some energy, and started playing a little mental game I learned that definitely helps both mental and physical states, and will definitely been needed for Stone Cat!  I saw a few other runners out there, but we were all quiet and just focused on the task at hand.

On the bright side, I finished the labyrinth section all by myself, and felt like I was on the home stretch.  Unfortunately, just about this time, I felt the hot spot on the side of my heel actually pop, which was a blister opening on it's own, which shot needles of pain up my leg.  This had a chain reaction, because it was like a cold shower for rationale brain - awakening it from it's stupor, and the last couple of miles I was entertaining, "I will drop at 40k if..." and "I will only start a 5th loop if I do this..." thoughts.

As I descended the power line hills back to the school, I felt every step with the blister, and thought I might have one option to switch out my socks and shoes.  Then there was the fact that I had no desire to eat another sandwich, but knew I needed calories.  I also realized from my cotton-like spit, and the more obvious deeper yellow hue of my pee, that I was dehydrated, and didn't have much left, but was pretty sure another 10k could be completed.

Back in the aid area, the volunteers, including Josh Katzman, Dima Feinhaus and a very nice woman whose name I never got, but was really supportive, helped get me moving forward and not dwelling on dropping out.  I ate a little ginger candy, which helped the stomach, and get as much GU brew as I could.  I also drank a cup of mountain dew, which was seriously as close to nectar of the gods as I have ever been!

I then attempted to switch out socks and shoes, but the second I sat down, muscles were cramping, and I needed to figure out how the hell to put my socks on that wouldn't completely immobilize me.  Amid, cat call from Dima: 'This is a running race!  The course doesn't start there!", I got my Cascadia's off and my New Balance MT 101s on, with a fresh pair of socks, and didn't even think about the other doubts and headed off to go get that 50k.

Loop 4 - 1:37:41 (full transition with shoe change and heckling) [5:50:26]  

Loop Five - Just One More.

The last 10k loop actually felt a lot better than I had anticipated.  The little mental game I had devised for my run-walk strategy worked well early on in the loop, and I was feeling confident.  I also was able to look at each little section of the course in the light of this being the LAST time I had to deal with that particular terrain, especially sweet finishing the labyrinth section in that respect!

I ran this loop almost entirely alone, save a short section where I was able to chat with one of the barefoot runners in the race that was also running his fifth and final loop of the day.  It was just amazing hearing him talk about his experience running a course with so many roots and rocks, and without any protection on foot.  He actually said the worst part of the course were the sections of gravel on the power line trail, which to us shod folks were some of more forgiving sections.

I moved along the course I had become so familiar with over the duration of the day, and reflected less and less on the pain, or my watch, or anything formal, and simply thought about how the forest had changed distinctly as the sun moved across the sky.  The 'labyrinth' section of trails was now completely covered in dull light, without shadows like the other laps, and it was much easier for me to navigate.  It was probably only 2:45 in the afternoon, but it seemed a lot later with the fading light in that section of the course.

As a neared the last boardwalk of the course, which signaled the final ascent to the power line trails, I was surprised that I felt the urge to make a trail side pit stop.  I took care of business, and as I was 'putting things back together' two walkers came around the corner.  Again, I was hoping a dirt and salt caked face with a number on my shorts boosted my ethos as I tied the drawstring of my shorts as I walked up the trail, and they seemed unfazed and said 'Great job!' - 'For peeing?', I thought. 'I do that every day!'.

As I made it back down to the school I was psyched that I made it through so much doubt and discomfort after realizing I was going to be out on the course for over 7 hours, which was a huge wall for me.  I sprinted to the finish and crossed the line, a repeat offender for 50k!

Loop 5 - 1:32:53 [7:23:19, unofficially]

First, I ran a lot of this race alone, but I could not have done it without the support of my trail friends.  I feel so fortunate to have friends out there that are so supportive and eclectic and interesting!  We all come to these races from our different worlds, carrying out different challenges, running for so many different reasons. 

Second, I learned a lot out there this weekend.  I learned a couple different strategies to mentally deal with those low moments that will inevitably come on during an endurance race.  I never felt 'good' at any point during the course of the race.  Even after a couple miles I felt sluggish, partly due to lack of sleep the night before and partly due to the events of the week that drained me on many levels.  50 Miles at Stone Cat still seems like a long way off beyond what I am capable of accomplishing, but if it seemed easy it wouldn't be much of an accomplishment.

Above all, I am beginning to dream a little bigger than I had been, and really can't wait for Stone Cat to make a whole-hearted to become a 50 mile finisher.  I think I can do it, and I know that when I arrive at the start I'll have plenty of friends in toe to help me get there!

Happy Trails!


Joe said...

Great job Rob! I think you'll do just fine in the 50-miler. I'm trying to get back into ultra mode after about 2yrs off with a 50K this fall/winter.

Keep up the good work!

pathfinder said...

great race report Rob...it felt almost as if I were there...but without all the fatigue and pain....so pretty enjoyable from my perspective.

Hey I will be at Stone Cat attempting to run the marathon with almost no training...yikes.
See you there