Saturday, August 11, 2012

Race Recap - Around the Lake Ultra - 24 Hours

On July 27th I toed the line at the ‘Around the Lake’ Ultra in Wakefield, MA, with aspirations of completing my first 24 hour race.  A couple week removed from the race I continue to ponder the question of whether or not timed races are harder than those that have a set distance.  After dropping in this race, just shy of the 12 hour mark, I have another bit of evidence that timed races are indeed harder.  So why do I keep signing up for them?  I guess the answer is simply that my life as an ultra runner started with a timed race, and as much as I want to stay away from timed races, there is a part of me that feels a loyalty to the race format.

It all started with the G.A.C. Mother’s Day 6-Hour back in 2009 (Has it really been three years???).  It was my first official attempt at becoming an ultra runner, which was moderately successful, covering 27 miles – above marathon – but not exactly what most would consider a true ultra distance (27 can be construed as running a marathon and getting lost for a couple minutes and retracing your steps).  Either way, I was on the course for 5 hours and 57 minutes, which was nearly 2 hours longer than any long run I had ever attempted.  Distance wise it was barely a keeper, but the time on feet made it harder than anything I had ever done, which, in effect, made it an ultra for me.

Since then I have only run one other timed race, the TARC Spring Thaw 6 Hour this past March.  Much like my experience at G.A.C. Mother's Day, I was out there for nearly all of the six hours, but I only covered 25.5 miles.  I am not about to dignify running two timed races and four distance-oriented ultra marathons (two 50k’s & two 50 Milers) as an adequate sample size, but I have had far more success enduring to the end of races where I know the finish exists at a certain mile marker.

This made a race strategy for the 24 Hour Around the Lake next to impossible to generate. 

Nevertheless, in training runs before the race I did all of the needful things, like experiment with different foods and run-walk strategies, and came to the race feeling like I knew what to do, even if I didn’t have a set plan.

Waking up the Friday of the race I felt like I had so much left to do ahead of the start.  I had spent the past two weeks making lists and gathering supplies, but everything was basically piled up in a corner in need of some organizing.  To make matters worse, I kept finding random items that I knew I'd need and hadn't yet gathered or bought.   All day I was under the strange feeling of trying to prepare, knowing the whole time that there would likely be no night of sleep, restless or otherwise, between race prep and the start.  In fact, I had hoped to get a nap before heading to Wakefield, but standing in line at the grocery store at 2 p.m. I knew that nap just wasn't going to happen.

A view of Lake Q...
We left for Wakefield at 4, stopped briefly to buy a cooler and a tarp, and eventually landed at the lake slightly before 5:30.  I wasn't dressed in my running gear yet, and my first tasks at the lake were to get the tent put up and try to organize base camp a little... sure, race related, but it just felt like this was 'other' stuff I had to get done before I could get myself squared away.  To  top it all off I was not in my running gear yet.  All things seemed rushed; I didn’t want to be rushed.  Not tonight.  

Welcome to the Hotel Shamrock
Thanks to some great help from Mike St. Hillaire and his family, eventually ‘Hotel Shamrock’ was set up and organized.  I quickly got geared up and made sure I had bottles of Perpetuem made up for laps 2, 3, and 4.  
As I readied the aid table in the Hotel Shamrock, a familiar face appeared in the entry way – Jeff Lane!  Okay, so admittedly this made me a little star struck, because Jeff is one of those super cool trail folks I know, but didn’t really think knew me all that well.  His and Greg Esbitt’s Fells video from a few years ago is legendary to me as it made me want to be an ultra runner even more, and I really respect the 'Nougats'.

Nougats Fells video here: 

Getting 'Hammered' before the start!  
So yeah, a little ‘fan boi’ moment for me when Jeff says, “What’s up Rob?”  We chatted for a little while and he offered to join me for a few laps later on in the race.  This started a theme of me coming to the race woefully unprepared as far as things like crew and pacers were concerned, but the kindness of friends proved to eclipse these shortcomings.  If I accomplish anything from this post and race report, I want to thank Jeff, Breakheart Dan, Keri Haskins, Glen Green, Bill Howard, Steve Latour, Julie O’Mara, Mike St. Hillaire, and my wife, Jen, for their assistance with pacing, moral support, and putting up with me during this event.

As the time drew near for the race briefing and the start, the gloom of the day’s overcast began to break and give way to evening sunshine.  The temperature was nice, in the upper-70’s, but the high humidity made it very soupy, and we hadn’t even started running yet.

Standing and chatting with Julie O. before the race I felt ready, but still had that nasty feeling of being rushed.  I hoped this feeling would pass after the gun went off.  

The start was minutes away and I made sure I had my timing chip (check), race number (check), tunes (check), and water bottle.... AND WATER BOTTLE!?!?  Rushed indeed, as the most important item I'd need was sitting back in the Hotel Shamrock, which thankfully wasn't too far from where we were gathered for the start. 

ALL SYSTEMS GO!!... and we were off.

During the initial loop everyone follows the same add-on out and back off of the actual race course to get the marathoners their extra distance, so at the completion of their 8th and final loop they have exactly 26.22 miles.  I heard some of the 12 and 24 hour runners complaining about this, but I figured a marathon split time would be a good indicator of what kind of day I was having.  Not to mention, everything after that 8th loop would in the realm of ‘ultra’ and for the 12 and 24 hour participants the question becomes, ‘how deep are you willing to go?’

The first loop was filled with a lot of the same experiences as other races – jockeying for position early, trying to find a groove, and getting to know the personality of the course.  Mike St. Hillaire and I started the race together, and his plan was to use a 10 minute run, 5 minute walk approach for as long as he could sustain it.  I, on the other hand, had little in the way of an allegiance to any run-walk ratio.  I stuck together with Mike and his friend Keri, for the first couple of miles, but eventually Mike’s running pace, and my lack of commitment to 10-5, saw Mike pulling ahead.

One down.....?? to go!
Around the Lake for the first time, I came into the timing chute and crossed the mats with a group of other runners.  Looking down at my watch I saw just over 48 minutes, which was just about 12 minute per mile pace.  Not exactly the 13 minutes per mile I had hoped to start off at.

Once across the timing mats I ran over to Hotel Shamrock to find that my crew had already abandoned me.  I marked off the time on my lap board, grabbed a couple stinger gels and a new bottle of Perpetuem from the cooler, and headed out on to the second lap.

Loops two and three were right around the same pace, as I was still trying to work out a strategy and get into a groove.  As I was finishing loop two I ran right by Breakheart Dan and Jeff Lane, only realizing it was them a few hundred meters after I had passed.  Thankfully I caught up with them on the other side of the lake on loop three, and was able to stop and chat with them for a few minutes.  Seeing Dan out there was also a really big boost for me.  He has been down with injuries for months now, but he is one of the people I met early on in my career as a trail runner.  He knew me before I was even a marathoner, and has been one of the many friends, including all of The Ultra Gang, that has served as a source of inspiration and support throughout my journey as a runner. 

As I started the fourth loop, I noticed my split was about 2 hours and 10 minutes for 10.36 miles, which was well below the 13 min. per mile pace.  I also found myself running on my own and, thus, itching to get to the iPod for support, then, as I increased the volume on a song, my iPod blinked out!!  A minor inconvenience for most days, but during a race, this was bordering on devastating.

This loss of tunes led to the first low moment of the day.  I am not sure if it was the setting sun or the loss of music, but as I made my way around the lake I was left to my thoughts.  I kept thinking about the time and how much longer I had to go, and how I hadn’t been using much of a strategy.  I was definitely my own worst enemy here.  As I started feeling slight discomfort in my legs, my mind made this more epic than it should have been, and started to dread the night… and the next day.

Darkness took over quickly during this loop, and even though Wakefield is a suburban community with well lit streets, there are places where a head lamp was helpful.  I finished this loop in the doldrums, handed off my iPod to the wife to see if she could get it going with the car charger, grabbed another bottle of Perpetuem, and started off on loop five.

The next few loops continued in a seemingly uneventful manner.  I was lucky to have support from others that helped me click off the miles.  Jeff joined me as a pacer for a while, which was absolutely a huge benefit to me.  Prior to the race I had seen pacers as being highly over-rated, but nothing makes the mileage slide by when you have someone to chat with, taking your thoughts away from every little discomfort or negative thought.  Jeff’s pacing was huge for me, and those laps of the race were not the fastest on the clock for me, but they were certainly the easiest.  Jeff volunteering to run a number of laps with me was even more of a classy thing to do considering he had run and finished the Vermont 100 the previous weekend!

Around 11 or 12, Jen eventually had enough of the Hotel Shamrock and the crew life and I told her I’d be able to get by through the night on my own.  She made up a few bottles of Perpetuem and put them on ice so I could simply grab and go over the next few hours, and headed off to her Mom’s for some better accommodations than a mummy bag.

Instead of going lap by lap, here are a few bullet point items and thoughts from the 'through the night' portion of the race.  Nota bene, most of these are garbled in my mind as ‘god-knows-what-loop-it-exactly-happened’ format.  I remember:

-  *  Catching back up with Mike at about 4 or 5 hours. He looked like he was tired and hurting.  This troubled me because it was way too early for him to look tired or hurt.

-  *  Bill Howard showed up and joined in the fray, helping to pace me and Mike in the early a.m. hours. Bill was more awake and speedy after midnight than anyone out there, and walking with him was a challenge.  He and Mike left me in the dust.

   *  Speaking of walking fast, Jeff and I caught up to G.A.C.ers Norm Sheppard and Melanie Haber.  Norm was pacing Mel during the 12 hour, and Norm was telling me about his VT100 race, and all I could do was half listen because their walking pace was faster than a slow jog for me!

-  *  I note my marathon split time was 6:05, which is damn near 14 minutes a mile... not a good sign considering I had a 'fast' start.

-  *  I believe I changed my shoes at 23 miles, which ironically is when the real 'BIG' mistake happened because my feet were swollen, and I could not get them back into a pair of trainers.  I had to resort to a pair of racing flats, which helped with the soreness in my foot for a little while, but eventually, after 22 more miles in their relative light cushioning, brought me to my end.

-  *  I met a 'Marathon Maniac'.  We talked about how I-95 in Connecticut is awful, because she was stuck in the traffic their Friday and she was a 1/2 hour late to start.  We also had a 'small world' connection regarding Bucks County in Pennsylvania.  We shared stories about Peace Valley Park.  That was a good conversation that happened at a very early hour of the morning, it was sort of surreal, and I never once asked her what her name was...I feel like a dufus for this!

    *  There is a Honey Dew Donuts on the course... I could smell the fresh donuts being unloaded at 3 a.m. from a quarter mile away... it was delightful. 
Beyond the Bullet points, here is a little more about some of the bigger moments of the through the night and into the dawn portion of the race.

After doing some serious work for me, Jeff decided he had to get back home and get some rest.  At this point I was on my own, as Bill and Mike were working well together, and I was still having some general foot and stomach issues to work through.  I will take this opportunity to say that pacers and crew are also valuable from the standpoint of getting you in and out of the aid stations.  Once Mike and I were back together on a similar pace during the middle of the night I think we subconsciously were using each other to linger during the times of changing gear and refueling.  It sort of reminded me of a night out with the guys, when mass quantities of certain beverages had been consumed.  There was much laughter and joking, but little in the way of purpose and progress.  It wasn't a bad thing, because the night can be the toughest part, and the company and help Mike provided was great, but we definitely were violating one of the principles of ultra running:  Relentless Forward Progress.  Then again, at that point we had another 17 or 18 hours to go, so there was plenty of time to make up the lost time! 

Eventually the sore feet made me think a lot about dropping out of the race.  These thoughts started trickling in my mind around the marathon split at 6 hours, but I tried to push that away and keep moving.  As the next two loops rolled by, and Mike and Bill seemed to push further ahead, I started to feel the next low point settling in.  Then suddenly, somewhere on the loop where we made it past the 50k mark, I got a surge of energy.  My running intervals became more effective, and in no time I could see I was gaining ground on Bill and Mike.  Mike was wearing sun glasses with multi-colored, blinking LED lights, and even with my visual impairment I could see him off in the distance.  Holding on to this new found energy I surged by Bill and Mike, and kept efficiently moving forward.  I wanted to slow down and run with them, and I certainly was not interested in competitively putting distance between myself and them, but I wanted to ride the wave of energy as long as I could. 

When I finished this loop I didn’t even think about stopping by the Hotel Shamrock.  Instead I filled my bottle with Heed from the race's aid station just after the timing chute, grabbed some Hammer Gel and Endurolytes, and made my way out on the course for the next loop. 

This strategy worked well because it got me back on to the course without any thoughts of dropping as I marinated in my own sweat and self-loathing in the tent.  In fact, as I started this next loop I decided I would dedicate the next three laps to my Grandparents that have passed away.  No thoughts about dropping because no matter what I owe loops to Nana and Grandpa O'D, and Grampa Mac.  Along the lake I kept looking back expecting to see Mike’s glasses advancing toward me like some ‘Christmas lights’ version of the Dread Pirate Roberts’ ship, but to my amazement there were no signs of them.

As the hours passed and the world started to slowly go from the suspended animation of overnight, to the slow and sporadic trickle of folks waking in the pre-dawn hours, my feet were getting progressive more and more sore.  Upon completion of the next loop I tried to find a remedy back at the tent and the race aid station, but it just seemed like I’d have to bear it.

The next loop was progressively slower, but I could see the horizon beginning to change from the tar paper blackness of deep night to a dawn-harbinger purple.  It was a good sign, and I had hoped all the stories of runners getting a lift at dawn were true.

As I finished this loop, I ran into a familiar face climbing out of his car – Steve Latour!  It was awesome seeing Steve, as he is another old trail friend that I don’t get to see often enough, and it helped me to not think too much about my feet.  Steve was looking to pace Julie O. for the last couple hours of her 12 hour run, but also offered his pacing assistance later on if I was interested.  I certainly was, but I was not sure my feet were going to allow many more miles.

Once again, I used the 'avoid Hotel Shamrock' strategy, and just relied on the aid station’s Heed and Hammer Gels to get me through the next loop.  About halfway through the loop I noticed a familiar sight off in the pre-dawn light – Mike and his Technicolor glasses!  As I pulled alongside of him, he was not in good shape, he looked ragged and worn out, and he admitted he fell asleep a couple of times, nearly ending up in the lake on one occasion.  We walked along together for a little while, but after a while it was clear he was in need of a nap or some caffeine.  As for me, my feet just wanted to be done with this loop, and I did my best to just shuffle along during what was supposed to be a running interval.

When I completed my second to last loop I noted it was approaching 5:40 in the morning, or 10:40 in race time.  This was about the time I realized I was not going to miraculously make it to 24 hours, and 100k seemed very much in doubt. 

Steve was there to pace, and as I prepared what was to be my final bottle of Perpetuem, it was hard to answer Steve when he asked how I was feeling.  Sure, I want to be tough, but I felt broken inside, and I just wanted to push myself out for another loop.  As a matter of perspective, my split times for each loop had started in the low 40’s and since the 'inspired' loop when I passed Mike & Bill, my splits for the 3.17 mile course were as follows:

- 45:35 'inspired loop'
- 58:08 
- 60:24
- 76:19, final loop

Steve fought like a warrior-poet to keep me going past this last loop, but ultimately the degree of pain that was being inflicted on my feet simply from walking was too much to endure and at 45.25 miles and 11 hours and 52 minutes I called it quits.

As I sat there in the lobby of the Hotel Shamrock I was disappointed, but satisfied that I endured the sore feet that started nearly 6 hours and 19 miles earlier.  Even with the satisfaction amid the disappointment I have been left in a world of wonder…  I wonder how much more I could have given; I wonder how much more I’ll ever be able to endure; I wonder if I’ll ever be strong enough, physically and mentally, for a 100 miler.    

Jen arrived about 15 minutes after I dropped, and was amazed that I was done.  She looked like she was dressed to join me for a loop or two, so that made me a bit disappointed that I dropped.  Then again, my feet, even with shoes off, were in howling for cushioning.

All told, I loved the experience of running through the night and seeing all of the changes from dusk until dawn.  I also learned the importance of pacers and crew, and how I have way more support and friends out there than originally thought.

In a purely evaluative moment, when I look at how I fueled during the race, I feel like I had lots of success with everything I ate.  The Hammer Perpetuem seemed to work really well for the majority of the race, though, at about six hours the bland taste was too much for me, and I drank a bunch of Gatorade for some added sweetness.  Oddly enough, I had very little of the burritos I made, and got by through the night with Honey Stinger gels, Hammer gels, gummie bears, and chocolate covered coffee beans.  I also had a couple quarters of peanut butter and jelly early on, but relied on the other items above for the majority of the rest of the twelve hours.  I was drinking about 24 ounces of fluid an hour on account of the humidity, mostly Perpetuem, with a couple bottles of Heed, one mixed with Coca-Cola.  I was clearly hydrated the whole time.  Since I was fueling with mostly Hammer Nutrition products, I stuck with Endurolytes during the race, too, which I hadn't really used before, but seemed to do what they needed to do.  Unfortunately, nothing I ate or drank could cure sore feet!

As I have said above in a few different places, many thanks to everyone that supported me; Your assistance and friendship are things that are priceless in my eyes, and are appreciated more than you can know.

Also, congrats to Mike St. Hillaire, who came back from his zombified form early in the morning to finishing the 24 hour strong, completing 80+ miles in 23 + hours, and, most importantly, raising over $1,000 for Children’s Hospital.  Here’s a link to his account of the day:

This ragged trail animal is done with the road ultras for a little while.  I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t interested in redeeming myself around the lake, but I need better cushioning for my paws the next time around (and around and around....).

For now, I am going to curl up in the corner and dream of the next trail ultra….

Until next time, (shhhhhh….) Happy Trails!