Even though things have been going extremely well racing-wise for me this year, I approached the 50 with a certain amount of trepidation. I've run six 50 mile races over the years (Silver Rush '10, '11, '12, San Juan Solstice '11, '12, and Devil Mountain '11) and they have all utterly destroyed me. I have battled stomach issues in all of them, always faded badly, and reached the finish line completely spent. A 50 miler is not a marathon. (And I'm certainly not fast enough to fake my way through one.)
Respect the distance.
My results this year have shown excellent improvement in races that last 5 hours or less, but the only time I've raced longer than that (in the Sage Burner 50K), I blew up big time and staggered to the finish, defeated. So, yeah... me: 0, ultra marathons: 1.
Still, I had just managed to set my biggest PR ever (percentage-wise) in the Leadville Marathon two weeks ago. That was definitely a good sign. Applying my improvement in the marathon to the 50 yielded a time of 9:29. That sounded really, really fast to me. That would be a 1 hour and 25 minute improvement over my Silver Rush PR of 10:54 which I set last year.
So, what I finally ended up doing was taking a look at everyone who finished from 9:15 to 10:15 in last year's Silver Rush and averaging all their split times. When I added up the averaged splits I ended up with a time of 9:51. That sounded like a reasonable goal to me. It would require me to run every split faster than I did last year and it would still be over an hour improvement on my previous PR. Plausible. And a respectable result that I could be proud of.
As I expected, the difference between my new goal splits (i.e., the averaged splits) and my previous splits grew wider as the race progressed. I'd only have to run the first split 4 minutes faster, but then the next would require a 17-minute improvement. The third: 16 minutes. And the fourth: a whopping 26 minutes. Strong evidence that I had faded badly-- falling way off the average pace-- when I had run this race previously.
When I took a closer look at the historical splits, I noticed that out of all those finishers (in the 9:15-10:15 range), only 5 (out of 80) had managed to negative split the first (and last) 14 miles of the course. (That's only about 6%.) Since the first split involves 2,000 ft of elevation gain and the last split only involves 1,000 ft, that seemed like it should be possible if you ran a smart race and paced yourself correctly. (Yes, you have 33 miles under your belt when you begin the last split, but come on! That's 10 miles of very runnable downhill.) Of course, any race plan derived from historical averages almost always skews towards running the first half of the race faster than the second half of the race because, well, that's what most people do. I'm a big believer in trying to run even splits (assuming the terrain is comparable-- which it often isn't in trail races), so I kept this sub-goal in the back of my mind. It seemed theoretically possible given the nature of the course, but it would also require me to run the last 14 miles of the course almost an hour faster than I ever have before!
With my specific split times set, my high-level goals for the race remained pretty much unchanged:
- Stay hydrated! Drink 20-25 oz of water per hour (depending on the temperature).
- Eat! Consume 300 calories per hour, minimum. Generally more earlier on in the race.
- Stay cool! Dip my hat in all streams. Run in the shade. Stuff any snow on my head and down the back of my shirt. Pray for cloud cover.
Basically, take care of myself. The rest will follow.
This year I've basically come to the conclusion that I cannot sacrifice my long run on the weekend prior to a race. Sure, I might not chose the hardest possible route to run a week out from a race, but it should still be an honest effort. My recovery run/bike on Sunday remains unchanged. Then my taper consists of running lower mileage/easier runs during the week. My weekly mileage should never drop below 50 miles/week and I want to maintain 10,000 ft of vertical minimum per week. These guidelines have served me well so far, keeping my training from fluctuating too much when I'm running non-focus races.
The week between the marathon and the 50 was notable in that it was my second highest mileage week (63.5) and my second highest vertical week (14.2k) for the year. On Friday and Saturday alone I ran ~36 miles and over 10,000 ft of vertical. I did not let my foot off the gas until the following week.
Two old high school friends, Andy and Danielle, and their two girls (ages 7 and 11), arrived on Wednesday evening for a long-awaited visit. I was flattered that they would make the long trek out to Leadville from Michigan to see me. It was so great to hang out with them-- it had been far too long-- and fun to play host while they were in town. On Thursday we went on a short hike up to Opal Lake. On Friday we rafted Brown's Canyon down in Buena Vista. Rafting was a ton of fun-- especially for the girls-- and a great activity for a taper week. I ended up breaking my running streak on Friday-- that is, unless you count walking a half a mile up to the new Two Guns Distillery to have a few shots of locally made whiskey and moonshine as exercise! There just wasn't a logical time for me to run. I briefly contemplated going for a short run after the kids were asleep and my wife had returned from work, but I thought better of it. What the hell good would that do? There would've been no purpose to the run other than to artificially extend the streak. So, yeah... time to start a new streak. On Saturday, my final shake down run was the 1.5 miles from my house to the start line (and back) to pick up my race packet. Andy, Danielle, and the girls went for an enjoyable, meandering horseback ride near Tennessee Pass. One of the side benefits of having such good friends visit is that it completely took my mind off of the race. When they finally returned to their campsite on Saturday evening I only had a few hours to get all my gear together. Oh, yeah, right... I'm running 50 miles tomorrow!
I woke up at o' dark thirty and instinctively went about my pre-race routine. Having run ~20 miles every weekend since mid-March, I think my body is now programmed to expect a long run every Saturday. When Sunday rolls around and I haven't run yet, it's confused. So, I definitely felt ready. Maybe a little flat simply because I hadn't exercised much during the week, but that's to be expected. You get so used to the "hum" of tired legs that when they're rested they feel strange.
From my yard I could hear the blare of the loudspeakers at Dutch Henry Hill. As I walked on down to the starting line carrying my drop bag, a generous fellow racer offered me a ride. I politely declined, joking that the race wasn't really 50 miles so I was making up some of the distance.
Start to Printer Boy
After chatting with friends and exchanging words of encouragement, we all lined up and the gun went off. I think I power hiked up the hill a bit too hard as I immediately felt a little queasy at the top. I pulled off into the trees to pee and let my heart rate settle a bit. A hundred runners must have passed by. I jogged along slowly, burping, and waiting for my stomach to settle. Around mile 3 or so I finally felt good and settled into a smooth, sustainable uphill pace. Not exactly an auspicious start!
The good news was that my legs felt fine. There was no residual soreness that I could detect-- which is rare during a peak training period. I began passing folks who were hiking the slightly steeper hills. I felt very comfortable around a 10:30 min/mi pace. Miles 4-7 hold a special significance for me as the course intersects a bunch of the local trails I run every week. Boulders, Elk Run, Old Chub. They're like old friends. Visions of trudging along those trails in the winter snow brought to mind just how long I've been training. Months and months of running. It was time to see what these legs could do.
I pulled into the first aid station and refilled my handhelds. 1+ bottle down. Shortly afterwards, I ducked into the aspens for a quick bio break. That cost me ~2-3 minutes, but it was definitely worth it, believe me! Onward and upward. The wild flowers in Iowa Gulch are truly spectacular this year. We ran through fields of purple Columbines. The sky was cloudy and kept things cool. Along the way I waved hello to my neighbors, Greg and Leaf, who are photographing all the races this year. Jokingly, I shouted out, "West 3rd Street! Represent!" and gave an exaggerated fist pump. There are at least three of us W 3rd St'ers running/biking this year. If I remember correctly, I reached the top of the climb just under the 2-hour mark. I took note of the lingering snow drift at the base of Dyer, knowing it would offer much-needed refreshment many hours later on the return trip. (Did anyone else notice the explosion of Columbines on the slope above the drift? Amazing!) I took it a little easier on the downhill than I did last year, staying in the low-8:00 min/mi range. No rush. I had climbed more strongly than before and I was pretty sure I would arrive at Printer Boy under my goal time for this split. And sure enough I did: 2:33. 1 minute ahead of my goal and 5 minutes ahead of my PR pace. Better yet: I had emptied another 2 bottles of maltodextrin. A total of 900+ calories down the hatch. (Can anyone top that? I doubt it!)
I had a huge crowd of friends and family waiting for me at Printer Boy. Andy, Danielle, and their two girls were there to cheer me on. They were all packed up and ready to drive to Kansas. We shouted some final good byes to each other as I passed by. My sister-in-law, Jennifer, was there with her husband, Jeremy, and my two kids: Ethan and Sierra. (My wife was at work, of course. It's the summer.) Jeremy would be crewing me today. He's awesome. He'll be riding the 100 bike again this year, in pursuit of the elusive big buckle. We quickly exchanged bottles without breaking stride, and I jogged off into the woods to begin the descent down into Cal Gulch.
Printer Boy to Stumptown
I had some stomach issues during this section the previous year, but the drop into Cal Gulch went quickly. I insisted on running all the way up Adelade Road, as it's a frequent training run of mine and I stubbornly refused to power hike it. (I spend a lot of time on the 5th St-Adelade Road-Cal Gulch loop in the spring when the trails are still snowed in. It's a solid 6 mile loop from my house with plenty of vertical.) I mixed hiking and jogging up to the next aid station where I refilled another bottle with my maltodextrin concoction. Along the way, I exchanged a few friendly words with my fellow runners, always a sign that I'm feeling good-- I get chatty. The view from the shoulder of Ball Mountain across Iowa Gulch was beautiful; even as a jaded local it can take your breath away. As I approached the pass, I was playing leap frog with a pair of runners who were alternating between running/hiking while I was just slowly jogging everything. Just as I made a comment that this is where the lead runner usually crosses my path, he crested the pass not 50 yards in front of us-- dammit! I took the steep downhill after the pass pretty cautiously, cheering for Marco (currently in second place) as we passed, dipped my hat in the stream at the bottom, and jogged up the other side. On the way up I passed through a large clump of runners who were all hiking. It reminded me of one of my favorite tongue-in-cheek running observations that anyone who is running faster than you is being hopelessly reckless and will surely blow up, and anyone who is running slower than you is obviously undertrained and won't survive the race. That always makes me chuckle.
In retrospect, I don't think I pushed the downhills into Stumptown quite as hard as I should have, but I was enjoying myself and saying hi to everyone I knew. I grunted up the rock-strewn hill at the turn around, cursing its existence, and soon spotted Jeremy with my next two bottles of energy drink. I also grabbed an extra water-soaked bandanna to help keep me cool. Up until this point it had been mostly cloudy, but the sun was beginning to break through. I made it to the halfway point in 4:29-- running the second split 6 minutes faster than my goal and 23 minutes faster than the previous year. So far, so good.
Stumptown to Printer Boy
Except for one small stretch, I jogged everything up until the stream at the base of Ball Mountain. It was definitely getting tougher to resist the urge to drop to a power hike, though. I stopped at the unmanned, mini-aid station to top off my bottles in effort to keep hydrated. I remembered starting to feel nauseous here last year, which signaled the beginning of a battle with my stomach that lasted for the rest of the race. I was very thankful to be feeling so good. I dipped my hat in the stream again and huffed and puffed up to the top of pass. I never feel particularly strong when I'm power hiking-- which is kind of ironic given the absurd number of hiking miles I've logged in my lifetime-- but I managed to keep my pace under 20:00 min/mi while climbing up to the pass. That's pretty good, I think, though I feel there's still some room for improvement. You'd think that after hiking from Georgia to Maine and from Mexico to Canada there'd be nothing left to learn.
|Juggling... so... much... maltodextrin!|
The trip back around Ball Mountain went smoothly. I was still passing runners at fairly regular intervals. Dark clouds were beginning to form above Iowa Gulch, but it looked like I had plenty of time to get off the shoulder of Ball Mountain before any potential electrical activity. That's the only part of the course that really feels exposed to me. Another aid station, more maltodextrin. I was maintaining my 1 bottle/hour rate of consumption without any trouble. And, given the mostly cloudy weather, I felt pretty confident that I was getting enough fluid. After my legs loosened up a bit, the descent back down into Cal Gulch went quickly. Adelade Road served as another benchmark of my endurance. I was able to run up to the crest and then run smoothly down the other side. I kept waiting for a side stitch to strike or my IT band to flare up or my stomach to rebel or... something, anything to go wrong. At the 31-mile mark I set a 50K PR of 6:07. (Yeah, that's 14 minutes faster than my Sage Burner PR, with about 1,500 ft more vertical.... at 10,000+ ft.)
I crossed the pavement and started the climb back up to Printer Boy. It was then that I started thinking that if I could hold my shit together I might just be able to do something special today. I managed to jog the entire 400 ft climb back up to the aid station, arriving at the 6:32 mark. I beat my goal time for the section by 11 minutes and beat my time from last year by 27 minutes.
Printer Boy to Finish
Jeremy and I quickly exchanged bottles and I set off up the dreaded road to the top of Iowa Gulch. I told myself that I just had to survive 3 more miles of uphill and then I was home free. The weather couldn't have been better. It was cloudy and began to slowly drizzle. Thankfully, heat would not be an issue on this final, never-ending climb. This is where my race has always fallen apart in the past. This was the split where I needed to beat my PR by 26 minutes just to meet my goal time. I seemed to be in a large gap between runners. There was someone in a green shirt that occasionally appeared in the distance that I kept my eye on. I seemed to be closing... slowly. He was alternating between running and hiking. But his run was much faster than my jog. I kept glancing at my GPS trying to figure out what the best strategy was. I seemed to be able to jog around a ~14:00 min/mi pace and hike around a ~16:00 min/mi pace. I alternated a few times between the two, but I'd estimate that I ended up slowly jogging about 75% of the climb. Soon a group of four or so other runners appeared in the distance. Green shirt started to slowly pull away from them, soon I managed to pass them too. Everything was happening in slow motion. One of the group, wearing a blue shirt, kept hiking strong and stayed a few feet in front of me up to the top. I was working hard enough that I didn't really have time to strike up any conversations. I stopped at the snow drift that I had spotted so many miles earlier and shoved snow on my hat and down my back. God, that felt good.
Now the downhill. 10 miles of downhill. Did I have any downhill legs left? The terrain at the start of the descent is pretty rough-- steep, rutted, muddy, and rocky-- so it's hard to get into any rhythm. Eventually though I found my stride. Fumbling, I skipped through the songs on my ipod searching for the most skull-pounding, motivational beats I could find-- trying not to trip and kill myself on the many rocks that littered the trail. I was cruising. Soon I passed the blue shirt. As I bombed past my neighbors, Greg and Leaf, a look of surprise crossed their faces and they cheered me on and snapped pictures. I had split this 3:00 hour section up into two 1:30 chunks-- an hour and half to the last aid station and then another hour and a half to the finish. It was just a guess, but it seemed plausible. As I approached the final aid station, I started doing some math in my head. I was about to finish this split in 1:19. I could still run 8:40 minute miles. There were 7.4 miles left. I took off my hydration pack on the run and waved at Jeremy to get his attention. He wasn't expecting me yet; I was 11 minutes early. I quickly handed him my pack and my bottles and grabbed my last two bottles of energy drink. I shouted out something like, "It's conceivable that I might be able to run this last leg in 1:15!" and charged off down the trail. My watch read 7 hours and 52 minutes.
There'd been a change a plans.
|It's all downhill from here!|
A Very Superficial Analysis
I ran the final 7.4 miles in 1:10 (maintaining a 9:22 pace after 40 miles of running). I ran the final 14 miles in 2:29 and negative split them by 4 minutes! I set a 1 hour and 52 minute PR! That represents a 17% performance improvement over my PR from last year. Seventeen percent?! What?! Are you kidding me? I was ecstatic. This was beyond anything I had considered possible. I finished in 52nd place out of 449 runners-- almost in the top 10%.
What an amazing, amazing day. A big thanks to my crew-- especially Jeremy, who helped me blow through every aid station without stopping. (That alone must have saved me ~10 minutes.) I couldn't have done it without them. And mad props to every runner who finished after ~10:45 or so who had to run through the most apocalyptic rain storm I've seen in Leadville in a long, long time. I'd have needed a boat to cross my street, there was so much water running down it!
This is the first time I have ever (ever!) finished a 50 mile race feeling more confident in my fitness and racing strategy than when I started. What does this all mean for the 100? Well, I get butterflies in my stomach just thinking about it, but I'd be a fool if I didn't at least try to somehow run a sub-25 hour race. That still seems border-line impossible to me, but you only live once, right? Big buckle, here I come!
|I'll let the numbers speak for themselves.|