Monday, July 30, 2012

I ran an ultramarathon, does that mean I get to be ultra annoying about it?

I've decided that running has pretty much become my part-time job these days.  And then I go and spend a full day at the office on Saturday.

The Background

The Catoctin 50k had piqued my interest every since I noticed it on the Frederick Steeplechasers Grand Prix schedule early this year (or late 2011, I really can't recall).  With a little research I realized it was a race that existed back toward the days when I was still technically a county resident.  However, when I did my basic checking it seemed this year's race was full.  I continued to train and plan for my marathon in June and wondered if I could find some small, flat easy 50k for the fall.  I also considered the JFK 50 Miler for a while, particularly since my White Rock 3:35 was A standard and pretty much guaranteed my entry for that one.  But I thought jumping from a marathon to 50 miles was a bit too much.  Fast forward a little while and I realized the message on the website that said the race was full was for the 2011 race, and the 2012 edition had not opened.  If I wanted, the race was very much on the table for my summer.  Still I was locked in to Grandma's Marathon and the 6 weeks between would either be a great thing, or the worst thing possible.  I decided I didn't want to really race the 50k and then it wouldn't be a big deal if I wasn't posting high mileage weeks or high intensity workouts during the times in between.

I did have to familiarize myself with the course, mainly for two reasons.  To make damn sure I knew what I was getting into, and to know the course so when I was attempting the longest distance I had ever attempted, I would not get lost and do 35 or 36 miles instead of 31.  It's a common occurrence, according to the race site, and to my friend Joel who ran back in '05, I believe.  I still had a few months, and decided I could make 4 trips out to the old 'hood and cover the complete course.  This was rather optimistic given my propensity to hop in races at the last minute.  I managed to run on the course twice.  The first was the basic start, going as far as I felt able and returning back.  It was hard to discern how far I really went, but I was confident I was just short of Hamburg Road (the site of the first aid station, 6 plus miles along the course).  The second trip I started at Hamburg and backtracked for about 5 minutes, further convincing myself I had come just short of that on my first run.  I then continued down the other direction toward the manor area.  The total on that run was about 2:40 minutes and had me feeling pretty good about finishing the thing.  It was after Grandma's, and I started later in the morning to get a feel for the heat and humidity.  I also managed to forget the hand-held water bottle I bought and ran all 2:40 pretty much without water.  I felt like death when I got back to the car, but after pounding Gatorade I was human again.  The previous day I had a run a rather fast-paced 7 miles in the heat and convinced myself to bail (it was only $25 fee, and it would get donated to park or a group that maintains the trail if I did bail, I think).  So, three weeks out I was locked in for the fun in shade that is the Catoctin 50k. 

The Course
This is my best attempt at mapping this thing.  I used mapmyrun and several different online sources to get to this point.  Key points are the start and nearly the highest point, immediately followed by a mile or two of steep downhill, followed by immediately climbing back up again.  And then pretty much the same down-and-up sequence again.  Naturally the course is an out-and-back, so those same up and downs return at the very end.  They don't call it high knob because it's lower then the surrounding terrain, and I did not appreciate their candor when I was making my way back up the finish after a long time in the woods.  And, in case you though I wasn't going to mention it, yes that's (by far) the lowest point on the course smack dab in the middle.  Rather genius of them to plan it that way.  At the start they mentioned when one reaches the turnaround, one is basically 1/3 of the way done with the race, despite having covered half the miles.  Finally, the course itself.  Rocky doesn't even begin to describe it.  I think we need a new word to describe the hoping directly from rock to rock down those slopes of the blue trail.  Being part Mountain Goat wasn't going to cut it, you needed to be full goat...

The Race

Race weekend came and I was trying to get myself prepared.  I had bought the hand-held water bottle.  On advice from others I bought a second bottle, but smaller and decided to try and fit in my pocket.  I picked up several cliff shot blocks (gummy version of the energy gels) which I decided I like better on the trails, i'm not really sure why.  I ate a nice meal the night before (with some left over for after when I didn't feel like cooking) and tried to get some sleep.  The Olympics weren't helping as I stayed up watching the athlete's parade.  And round about 5 am I was awake and it was clear I wasn't getting back to sleep.  I took the dogs out and tried to do the rest of a normal routine.  My stomach has tended to not be entirely settled on race mornings, but i've yet to have any of 'those' issues while actually running.  I walked the dogs and hit the road.  I managed to remember everything I needed (they won't let you start without at least one 20 oz. bottle).  I missed getting a speeding ticket by an eyelash just over the border into Frederick County.  Not sure how I missed that one, but I was thinking maybe it was going to be my day.  I also got the last parking space at the top of the hill.  It's just not quite big enough to fit all the cars for a 175+ person race. 

For once in my life, I felt 0 compulsion to warm up.  So I did not.  I found my friend Becky and hung out until the start.  She worried me a little stating the race was more difficult than the JFK 50.  I still don't know about that.  I know the course is much tougher, but 50 miles is such a massive amount of distance to get one's head around.  I might be able to be convinced she is right, though.  The pre-race brief was short and humorous.  They noted people that had done the race 5, 8, 10+ times.  They asked about first timers, and a group of people raised their hands, but they clarified to first ultra period.  It was just me and maybe two others with our hands up (the website strongly discouraged the race as a first ultra, have I mentioned that?).  I was hoping for home field advantage, and being lax about my real goal to get me through. 

At the end of the brief the race director said go, and after a second everyone was off.  It was a loop around the parking lot before departing for the trail, which is necessary cause it was pretty much single track after that point.  I settled into a position behind the lead pack (maybe 20 or so folks).  I might have be overly optimistic cause some folks were stacking up behind me (or at least it felt like it), so I let some people pass.  The 250 or 300 feet of downhill immediately at the start has one feeling great and it was all fun and games as we skipped down the rock path.  But after a mile it turns back uphill and it was a moment of truth.  If everyone continued to blast up the hill, then I was out of my element and it would be a long day.  But, at least where I was by that point, everyone did walk.  Perhaps a little more briskly than I was walking, but walking all the same. 

The first 6 (or 6.8 or whatever) are pretty tough, even on fresh legs.  Walking most of the hills and keeping a good pace we were about where I had turned around on my first trial run, which I though was super close to the first aid station.  I was not correct with that assumption.  I was at least 15 minutes short of the road when I turned at just under 1 hour.  I was about the same spot at an hour into the race (perhaps a sign I was going out too fast, perhaps not).  The cutoff at the first aid station was 1:45 and I was arriving at about 1:15.  I was amazed it was so close to the cutoff time, but I think it was to weed out anyone trying to walk the whole thing.  I had planned on taking full advantage of the aid stations, stopping as long as I felt like it.  This was the first and I stopped and grabbed some watermelon.  They refilled my water bottle (I was still on the hand-held) and I took some time, but I was making good progress so I continued on down the trail.  The course eases up after this point (relative) and it's only 3 miles or so to the next road and aid station.  I actually went through without stopping as I hadn't taking much water and I had taken my first cliff shot block pack. 

The next stretch contained a series of switchbacks, which were my least favorite part of the course.  They weren't that steep, but they were endless.  As much as I disliked them going down, I knew they would be a hundred times worse going back up.  I almost felt dizzy going back and forth.  I was still running in close proximity to other folks at this point, which surprised me a little bit.  I knew from pouring over the past results, most folks were minutes apart and I figured most of the time I would be on my own.  This was not the case in the first half of the race.  There was a third aid station, not really official.  Thankfully it was there as it was mistake to pass Delauter Road.  They filled my water bottle and I grabbed more watermelon.  I also had them open my cliff shot block package, I was having trouble opening them with sweaty hands.  I don't think I ate that package for a while later, though.  I was not really trusting my stomach at this point. Although I did figure out if I took the blocks, I would be able to drink right after, cause in the middle of the race I was struggling to even drink.  The second, smaller bottle became the 'pour water over my head' bottle, which was working well.  I didn't use it much on the way out, but it was pretty handy coming back.

The course rolled for this part, if i'm remembering correctly, and I knew we had to be getting to the big decent soon.  I was past where I had reached on my training runs, and I was in new ground.  I don't remember the order, but there is an overlook along the path which views east onto the valley below.  It's significant as a landmark.  Also at some point I heard the sound of the highway and that was also a big deal, knowing the Manor Area was right off US15.  But there was still a lot of hill to descend, down to the lowest point of course, basically at the valley elevation.  I was also expecting to see the leaders coming back in the opposite direction and they were much later.  When they did pass going back up the hill they looked so strong.  I knew I wasn't going to be running much when I was heading back up that way, so it was impressive to see. The first place woman, who I had briefly ran with at the Lewis 10 Miler before getting dropped like a bad habit, was up in the top 10 and looked strong as well.  Followed by the second place woman not much behind.  It was great to see.


I reached the bottom of the hill at 3:15, just short of the amount of time I think it would take me to run a road marathon these days.  I had a developed a pretty good rhythm, but mostly because the course past Hamburg Road was more down than up.  I probably didn't spend enough time recharging at the stop, as I grabbed a cup of flat coke and some more watermelon.  I think it was something like 3:17 when I started back up, which means only two minutes of break.  Other folks seemed much more willing to take full advantage of the aid station, which was probably the wise thing to do.  After the turnaround, it was pretty much back up the hill we had just come down, so it meant walking back up.  It was a rather long way to walk, at least a couple of miles.  It flattened out a couple places and I would shuffle through those.  Once reaching the 'top' it still seemed to continue to go up.  Plus there was the switchbacks, which were just as awful as I was expecting.  They were filling my water bottle with ice at this point, which was just awesome.  I think I was forcing myself to take some of the blocks as I really only eaten 1 by this point.  As I cross over 4 hours it was getting close to uncharted territory for me.  The longest I had ever been out attempting a race was the 4:15 I logged at Grandma's that was just 6 weeks prior.  But I was not hurt beyond some minor knee aches and the skin that had rubbed off my ankle.  So I continued on the path, occasionally getting passed, but not really caring too much about it.

It was supposed to be 6 miles from the Manor Area to Delauter Road, but it felt like 10.  At one point I convinced myself we were running a part of the trail that was prior to the stop on the way out.  Even the occasional blue blazes were not comforting, I managed to turn that around that we had gotten off and back on missing the station (and basically killing the race, as there was no way in Hell I was going back to the check-in I had missed.  But I was just getting addled by the 5 plus hours out on the course and we did eventually come to Delauter Road.  I took full advantage this time.  I sat down for a minute.  I had Gatorade, I even asked for a band-aid to put on my ankle to try and minimize the damage that was being done (it was pretty useless, though).  It was at least 2 hours from Manor, and I extrapolated that I was heading for 8 hours.  I was a little dismayed, thinking I had a shot at a sub 7 or better, but at this point all that mattered was finishing.  I was off up the trail again (it was generally still rather uphill at this point, not really any significant downs until after Hamburg, 3 miles up the way).  Once I reached Hamburg it was more of the same. A full sit, a couple of glasses of cold(!) Turkey Hill Iced tea.  I even took the salt tablet, which I had never done before in my life.  And just before six hours into the race, I got a kick in the behind from Bob, who I knew from growing up and I just had to tackle the last 6+ to the finish.  If I could managed less than 2 hours back I would even break 8. 

Nothing really good happened in those last 6 miles.  The hills were soul-crushingly steep and long.  I stumbled on a steep down and completely stressed out my right calf.  I stopped and rubbed it back into submission, as the alternative was to crawl back to the aid station.  It was multiple hours longer than my furthest race at this point and I was really just putting one foot in front of the other.  It was also getting to be well after noon and the sun was breaking through a lot places and that wasn't helping at all.  I managed to not use all my water until the very end, i'm not sure how.  I ate more blocks, and strangely still had a full pack which I didn't feel the need to use.  The course has a tease where you reach a lower parking lot about a half mile from the finish.  It feels like you are almost done, but it's still another 100 feet or something up to high knob.  Darn you High Knob for being so high.  But I staggered my way up and finished 7 hours, 46 minutes, and 48 seconds after I had departed from that same spot.  It was a full day at the office.


My re-ward. No shirt. No medal.  Just a card that says I finished.  It's pretty awesome.  Certainly a long way from where I was a year and a half ago.  Maybe even further along than back in 2000 when I took the marathon plunge right after college.  Probably not going to make a habit out of these things, but I certainly don't dread the 50 miler the way I did a couple of days ago.  I think it will be a (mostly) flat one.  If JFK was a spring race it would probably workout, but it isn't.  So it's back to marathon redemption to close out 2012.  Hopefully it will be a little lighter, a little faster, and injury free. 

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Bring on the Night - Rockville Rotary Twlight 8k

I signed up for Rockville Rotary Twilight 8k because I knew a lot of people that were doing it.  I wasn't going to be in top shape, but still had a chance to improve over Celtic Solstice (with an adjustment for the 8k - 5 mile distance).  Plus the after stuff was pretty cool, if it was like when I did it in the early 90's (or late 80's, I don't even know anymore). 

I had a plan to go out at 6:30 pace and after 3 miles, hopefully I would be feeling ok and I could push through to the end.  If I was not feeling ok, I could just try and hang on to the 6:30s.  It's not how I usually race, but I certainly didn't want to start with a 5k-like first mile under 6.  And I managed to start in that ball park, I think the clock read 6:30, although I was maybe 8 or 10 seconds behind gun time, so it was really a tad faster than that.  I was steady through 2, but somewhere between 2 and 3 my shoelace came undone.  Not a huge deal, except the chip was laced through them.  I worried for a bit and then just decided to stop and tie it.  I don't know how many seconds it cost me (probably less than 10?) but it threw off my rhythm for sure.  I picked it back up a bit, but I think the damage had been done.  Miles 3 and 4 had shown quite a bit of dropoff.

I actually had to stop a second time right before mile 4 and I just decided to grab the chip and carry it the rest of the way.  The last mile was straight shot down 355 to the finish and I was fortunate someone passed me going faster than everyone else around me.  I followed his lead and finished up 10 or 15 seconds faster in the last mile at least. 

Overall, the race was fine.  It wasn't a bad race, but it wasn't exactly a 'good' race either.  I'll just take the time and move on.  It was cool and rainy, but it also was very humid and that probably took its toll.  I would like to come back and make an attempt at sub 30:00 next year for sure.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Quadzilla Redux

I'm writing this one while my quads are still sore for once.  And yes, the quadzilla did result in a lot of soreness.  Maybe as much as Grandma's even, which pretty much says it all.  Originally the plan was to hop in the BRRC track meet today, but I thought better of that, and turns out they canceled it in the heat anyway.  Still on a 4 times a week, sometimes 3 times scheduled until after the 50k and then we'll see how it goes from there.

Back to the race.  I was trying to follow a progression last year of races--5k in April, 10k in May, 15k in June.  Turns out there aren't a lot of 15k's in June.  Or July either.  But there was one lone race north of Allentown.  I had a friend from college with whom I could stay, so I singed up without really thinking about it too much.  Well, the 5k was hilly and didn't go as well as planned.  The 10k was hot and I went out fast, so it was a big of struggle to finish.  Quadzilla was pretty much a repeat.  I was not ready for the distance, I went out too fast, and the course was pretty damn tough.  Racing the first couple of miles meant I was walking a lot by the middle of the race.  And then comes the real hills past mile 6.  I took my 1:46 finish (more like a half marathon time than 9.3 miles) and continued on without thinking too much about it.

Since last year was the inaugural race I felt that silly compulsion to make the race a tradition.  I signed up sometime in April and knew that it was after Grandma's, so I wouldn't be in peak shape.  I was also very committed to the idea of the 50k two weeks later, so I knew I would be logging some trail miles and longer runs, if not hitting the same weekly mileage.  Not to mention overall better fitness and the whole weight loss thing (I would say I was still 190+ for the race last year).  I was eying 20 minute improvement, but anything over 15 and I would be very satisfied with the day.  At the start, I believe the race director said only 29% of the people returned for year two.

By doing a little bit of mathematics, I figured out that I could take it very easy at the start.  Even running 10 minute pace, I would be in line for around 90 minutes and my drastic improvement.  Still, I probably did still start to fast (a guy behind me was having a conversation and commented that everyone would be toast later for starting at that pace). And the first rest stop was 3.5 miles or so, and we were through at 31 minutes.  I don't think I took water, or maybe splashed it on my head.  There are some hills in the first parts (in all parts, really) and I managed them pretty well.  But they get steeper in the middle section (the sign calls it the back of the beast).  I walked some of those hills, much more as a strategy to not die than because I was already toast.

I made a friend or two on course and was still going well through the 5 mile water stop.  We were too fast for any watermelon (I could have used some) and I think I took Gatorade at this stop.  Once I was past the rocky part and the sideways hill that goes for at least half a mile, the real race starts.  I don't know if I can accurately describe the hills that start at 6 miles or so.  They aren't that big, but they are impossibly steep.  If you weren't running a race you would still have trouble getting up them.  There are at least 3 and then a water crossing.  I wonder what the leaders are like when they try to run up them.  I have to assume they climb as well. 

The last hill leads up to the finish, but before you do the path turns to the right and goes uphill for at least another quarter of a mile, but probably closer to half.  And then down to the finish.  I came out of the woods at 1:26 and thought I could make 1:30, but I had to stop for a moment before the turn and then didn't have much 'sprint' to the finish.  Still 1:30:38 is a full 16 minutes faster than last year's 1:46:48.  I'll take it.

Next up - the big Willy --  Catoctin 50k.  Not racing, just doing it to finish.  Probably will be luck to finish in 7 hours.  Wish me luck...