Saturday, October 5, 2013

Overconfidence will do that

When I ran the White Tail Trail Half Marathon last year, it had been my longest foot race of my entire life. Today, I ran it again.  After my successful 50k finish last week, I thought a 21k (13.1 miles) would no longer be much of a challenge.  How wrong this turned out to be…

Staging and finish area at Caesar's Creek State Park 

I had a strong start up the first hill and estimated that about two thirds of the runners were behind me when – after mile one – the paved road ended, and gave way to a narrow single track.  I felt that my position within the field was where I belonged.  The runners around me were moving at a brisk but not uncomfortable pace.  I remembered that last year I had been stuck for a little while behind a group of runners who seemed intimidated by the roots and rocks and had slowed down considerably after entering the dirt trail. Clearly this was not the case today.  I focused on keeping in line, and avoiding a gap to the people ahead of me, so that runners behind me would not be tempted to pass.

Caesar's Creek at the start line

The first 5k went by rather quickly.  I had a brief scare when the runner immediately in front of me tripped over a root and fell straight on his face.  Fortunately he did not seem to be injured, and was back on his feet in no time.  Other than that, everything seemed to go very well.

Tiny water droplets indicate close to 100% humidity before the race start 

It was during the second quartile that I first began to question whether my pace was sustainable.  The field had started to spread out a bit and I eased off a little, letting more and more runners pass by.

Although I must have dropped back by at least 30-40 ranks, I reached the 10k mark after 1 hour and 6 minutes.  That’s a very good time for me on hilly dirt trails, and I still felt in good shape.  I remembered that last year the length of the course had been a little shy of a full half marathon; I did some math in my head and thought that a sub 2:30, perhaps even a sub 2:20 finish was within reach.
Dew on wildflowers
Oh, how wrong I was.  The third quartile of the course was much more challenging than the prior sections.  While so far the hills had been mostly rolling, now the trail alternated between steep ups and downs. In addition, the wet leaves on the ground required extra attention on the descents, costing extra “breaking energy”.  That also meant starting every uphill with minimal forward momentum. Before I knew it, I was walking every ascent.

It made me feel a little better that I wasn’t alone in my struggles.  Several others around me did not seem to fare any better.   Our pace had slowed considerably.  Every now and then, however, small groups of faster runners were passing by.  As I watched them disappear over yet another hill in front of me, I quickly tried to get them out of my mind.

First fall colors of 2013. Today felt more like summer: 80+ degrees and 80%+ humidity

The second to last aid station came and went, and I found myself within five kilometers of the finish.  Although the hills were no longer as steep, I continued to struggle.  I remembered that last year during this section I had passed at least 30 runners, who had kept walking even after they had reached the top of a hill.  And now I found myself walking too.   I tried to figure out what it was.  My legs still felt ok.  But whenever I started to push the pace my heart rate seemed to spike up.  I was simply exhausted.  Perhaps last week’s 50k had taken a toll? Perhaps it was just the unseasonably warm and humid weather? Perhaps I was just running out of fuel?

With two or three kilometers to go I forced down a gel, but it took at least another 10 minutes before at least some energy kicked back in.  I glanced at my GPS and noted the 20.5-kilometer mark pass by.  Last year the race had ended at that distance.  Now there was at least another kilometer to go.  I had not noticed where the routing of the course had changed, but it was unquestionably longer than in 2012.  However, with the finish finally within reach, I started to pick myself up again and was able to pass several runners who had previously left me behind.

Before the race: overconfident
It took me 2:46 minutes to complete the 21.7 kilometer (13.5 mile) course, in 154th place out of 244 finishers.  Last year, my time had been 2:30 for 20.5 kilometers.   The longer distance only explains about seven minutes of the time difference.  (Indeed, comparing the overall results of all runners, the median finishing time this year was a little over seven minutes longer than last year.)

Back at home, I confirmed my suspicion that I simply started out too fast.  Last year it took me more than two minutes longer to complete the first 5k.  But I was then able to maintain a more consistent pace for the remainder of the race.  This year, my pace dropped off significantly as the race progressed.  Overconfidence will do that.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Skipping the Marathon - My first 50k

“You got this," Cora told me before going to bed on Friday night.  It’s a slogan the girl’s tennis team uses to encourage each other.  More often than not it has worked.  Despite being the smallest school in their league, they are currently in the #2 spot.  But I digress. “You got this” became my mantra for the Germantown 50k, my first ultra-marathon. Thinking of Cora saying it brought a smile to my face and gave me the confidence that yes, I could indeed do it.

The sun rises above Cottonwood Shelter
Start and Finish area of the Germantown 50k

I had never run as much as a marathon in my life, and now I found myself at the start of something even longer and harder.  Funny enough, what got me here was an accident.   Five weeks ago, I crashed my mountain bike, spraining my thumb. Since then I have not been able to shift gears on a bike or hold a tennis racket; and so I decided that I would instead up my running to stay active.  At the time, running a half-marathon was all I had ever done.  So I wondered: could I do a 50k in five weeks' time?  I checked some websites and found that at least 18 weeks of intense training were recommended to prepare for a 50k.  That could potentially be shortened to at least 12 weeks for those who had just run a full marathon. Which clearly was not the case. The prospect of 50k with more than 4,000 feet of climbing over steep rocky hills seemed a bit daunting to say the least.

The day promised to be gorgeous.  I reached the start area at 7:40 in the morning, right as the sun started to peak above the trees on the other side of Twin Creek.  The air was cool and brisk. Patches of fog lay over moist fields and ponds.

Before the start

Just over 60 runners had assembled at the start.  At the pre-race briefing, I looked around, trying to figure out which of the runners would eventually drop out.  I decided it was impossible to tell, and that the only important thing to focus on was not to be one of them.

Pre-race briefing

I hoped that the ankle I had sprained 10 days ago, on what would be my last training run, would hold up.  It didn’t hurt, but I had taped it up heavily to give it more stability.  Just in case.
Before I knew it, the race director simply said, “Go,” and we were on our way.  I lined up at the back of the pack, determined to start out slow, not wanting to hold up any of the fast runners.  Since this was my first ultra, I resolved not to worry about my time, as long as I would stay within the 9-hour cut-off.  My goal was to finish. Not finishing last would be a bonus.

After the first two miles, the field started to spread out

The first ten kilometers were fantastic.  My legs were fresh, and my pace was relaxed.  The field spread out quickly.  After 30 minutes or so, I was running alone. Knowing there were people behind me made me feel confident.  Soft rays of sunlight broke through the trees. It was beautiful.

Photo by Amy Love

Suddenly, I began to notice that the tape I had put around my big toe to protect a blister was causing a new blister on my second toe.   A rookie mistake.  I stopped to remove the tape and replaced it with a band-aid.  I also put a band-aid on the new blister on my second toe.  This took about 5 minutes, and in the meantime, several runners had past me by.   Had I dropped back to last place?  I did not want to be at the end.

Steps down one of the steep hills.  These were some of the most technical sections of the trail.

20 to 30 minutes later, I completed the first loop.  I was told that eight people were still behind me. Whew!  The bad news was that the band-aids had not stayed in place.  I needed to do more work on my toes.  The paramedic looked through his bag and eventually found some tape that I then used to wrap all of my toes on that foot.  That took another 10 minutes.  When I finally left the aid station, another runner was coming in.  That meant I was still not last: all I needed to know. “You got this,” I said to myself.

Listening to David Sedaris

A few miles into the second loop it began to sink in that this was going to be a long day.  I plugged-in my headphones and began to listen to an audiobook by David Sedaris.  That worked, and the miles flew by quickly as I got lost in a story about St. Nicholas and his six to eight black men in Holland.  I fueled up with Gatorade and PB&J sandwiches at the aid stations and before I knew it, I was back at the start, having reached the halfway point of the race.

One of the few short sections through open prairie

The third loop turned out to be the hardest.  It was getting warm.  My legs started to feel heavy, and I had to consciously lift my feet over rocks and roots.  Every now and then, faster runners lapped me. When I didn’t pay attention, my running form started to deteriorate to a shuffle. Two or three times, I stumbled over a root and hit my toes, only narrowly avoiding a face-plant.  I also started to feel nauseous and had a hard time swallowing any food.  I knew I had to eat, but everything tasted awful.  And when my GPS watch told me that I still had more than 1/3 of the distance to go, I could not help but wonder if I would be able to make it.

Lots of roots in some places

As I finished the third loop, there was a party atmosphere at the shelter.  Only the party was not for me.  It was for all those who had just finished their race.  That felt frustrating at first, but it quickly strengthened my resolve to get back out there and get it done.  “You got this.”

Towards the end of loop three

I started the fourth loop slowly.  However, by the time I surpassed the 40k mark (my longest prior run) and then the marathon distance (42.2k), I began to feel much better.  It might have been the sugary Pepsi I drank at the aid station, but now I was back at it.  Any lingering doubt about my ability to finish disappeared.  In fact, I started to wonder if I would be able to keep going and finish 50 miles instead of 50k. I almost convinced myself that I could.

The last turn - the finish line is in sight

The last two miles or so actually felt easy.  I even began to run during the climbs which I had previously walked.  It was slow running for sure, but it was still running.  And it felt good.  I turned into the spur trail up to the shelter, rounded the last bend, and sprinted towards the finish line.  8 hours and 12 minutes.  It was a long day, but I got it done!

At the finish line - endorphins at work

Although the party atmosphere was gone since most people had long left, I had a good time with the remaining volunteers and the handful of racers who finished 20 to 40 minutes after me.  I have the impression that ultra-runners are ultra-nice people. I even got to know a fellow Austrian who is a 30-year member of the Dayton running club, a member of the Dayton ultra-running hall of fame (she has run ultras on almost all continents, including many 100+ mile races).  At 64 years of age, she finished a few minutes after me. Quite an impressive lady.

Waking up this morning I surprised myself by not feeling very sore at all.  Reflecting upon the fact that three years ago I was not able to run as much as a single mile, I have clearly come a long way.  So, do I know what’s next?  No, I don’t.  For now I am just glad, “I got this.”