Thursday, September 30, 2010

Eight years ago, I ran a 50 km race. At the time I was competing in 18 - 20
mile races and figured I'd just ramp up to a longer one. Looking back, I realize
that my knowledge about pacing and training was limited. This time
around, I had a clearer sense of what I was undertaking as well as the
kind of preparation required.

I've made a serious commitment to running this year. Due to my
experiments with just how
much abuse my body can take, I can count at least three bouts of
over-training,. Two weeks before
the race, I pulled the IT muscle on the outside of my right leg, an
injury that manifested as knee pain. There I was, thirty minutes into
a run just one week before the big event, when I realized I'd injured
myself. Reluctantly, I trotted the fifteen minutes home and didn't
run for five days. In some ways, this pause could be called a taper.
Psyched as I was about my training and anticipating a strong
performance in the 31 mile race, now I was wondering if I would be
able to finish. That thirty-five dollar registration fee I'd sent in
three months earlier seemed a poor attempt at motivation.

Three days before the race I strapped my two year old daughter into a
jogging stroller and managed a slow run, alternating seven minute
runs with five minute stretches. Afterward I felt only minimal
twinges in my knee which seemed to go away after self-massage,
wife-massage and
icing. But the final verdict would have to wait until the big day.

Leading up to the race, I had wondered about my pace. In my previous
effort at age thirty, I'd finished in 5 hours and 45 minutes. This
would be my fourth big race this year, so I searched other race
results, looking for people who had both run against me this year and
in the Pisgah 50 km race the previous year. One of the strongest
women runners in the area finished her
Pisgah race a whole hour faster than my previous effort. Add to that,
I had beaten her by almost half an hour on a 14 mile race. I knew I
couldn't keep up with the front guys, but surely I could run with her?

I decided to be conservative. I prepared a small pacing chart based on
the times to the water and aid stations. Since the woman had completed her race
the previous year in 4 hours 45 minutes, I built my pacing chart
around a five hour finish time. It's said that going out too fast is
one of the worst sins when running long races. I was not guilty of
particular sin this year, but I had plenty of previous experience. If
I stuck to my pacing chart for the first two hours, I calculated that
that would be enough to get me through the race in fine fashion.

Well stretched and with my knee pre-iced, I lined up with the other
contestants. I knew there'd be a lot of people running ahead of me
for the first mile and a
half. For this interval, the two races, 25 km (15 mile) and 50 km
(31 mile) share the same course. After that, the field in front of
me would thin considerably. Surveying the other racers at the start, I tried
to pick out guys I knew would beat me. Trail running has become
more popular since I started, at least among the fastest runners. A
time that earned me sixth place back in 2002 would, in 2009,
earn me 20th place. Later I learned that a 5:45 in 2010 would have
awarded me 37th place!

When it was time to start, an elderly gentlemen simply said, "Go!" I
didn't hear
him. Then, after finding myself running, I realized I hadn't started
my stop watch, a much easier way of watching my pacing chart -
attached to my watch band - than converting from the 8:45 am start to
elapsed time on the course. After talking with several runners, I
started my timer about four minutes into the race. Now, I only had a
conversion of adding four minutes.

I started slowly. The group ahead of me was intimidatingly large. In
previous races, I had planned to start somewhere between 10th and 20th
place. Here I was in 40th place and not liking it. I remembered reading about
one man's experience in a 50 km race. He reached
the top of one of the early hills in 30th place only to have his son,
standing alongside, call out, "What's wrong, dad?" "Nothing,"
he said. "They all started out too fast." He finished in 2nd place.

I wasn't aiming for second, but I wanted to finish strongly while
holding a good pace throughout. We passed the first mile marking I had
written down - the split of the races at 1.7 miles. At my expected
pace, 9:40 per mile, I would reach this point at a little under
17 minutes. I was 14 minutes into the race as we took the left where a
sign read "50 km." Out loud I told myself to slow down, but
inside, I convinced myself that, since I felt so good, maybe the map was wrong.
Just how accurately would they have measured this muddy junction in the woods?

At about two miles, I caught up to a woman with gels pinned to her
fuel belt. It seemed a strange choice, but, let's face it, any woman
running this pace knows much more about running this type of race than
I do. We chatted a bit; she was running to get ready for a road
marathon in three weeks.
Hearing about her previous 2:57 marathon effort in Hartford, I was
impressed and told her so.
Here was another clue to how I was doing with my pace, a clue I
ignored. After running with her for maybe a mile, I passed and moved
on ahead. This would later prove to be the decisive moment when I
could have run the race I wanted to instead of the race I did.

At the first aid station at 8.7 miles, I was pretty close to my
expected pace. Only later would I realize that my pacing chart didn't
account for the hilly sections in the middle of the race. Now I came
zipping into the aid station with the top
off my empty water bottle and my empty zip lock bag (apple slices
already eaten.) I quickly filled the water and grabbed some fig
newtons and headed off. I passed two people dawdling at the aid
station and felt good about my own strategy. Like a good triathlete, I
knew that transitions and aid stations were time spent not moving
forward; the less time at them, the better.

Around mile 15, I caught up to Amy Lane, the woman on whose times I had based my
pacing chart. I had been running with Keith Schmidt, a friendly guy
I've known since I took up this sport. His brother, who often wins
races of this type, is always content to be
in the top ten. Usually, he beats me. So when I caught up to him, I
decided to hold back and see how it would go. He said he was hoping
to run a nice easy pace, like a 4:30. Oops, I
thought, that’s too fast. I ignored this data for two reasons. First,
I still felt good and second, he’s such a nice guy to chat with that I
didn’t want to drop back. So much for the scientific approach!

Keith and I settled in behind Amy. She let it be known that she was
going for the course
record, set ten years before. Her plan was 4 hours and 35 minutes, a
solid 30 minutes faster than my goal. In her opinion, backed by at
least twice as many weekly miles as I run, she felt she was on pace to
do that. Now, I was running
with two experienced runners, both feeling good about a pace I was
pretty sure I couldn’t hold. More information that I was not running my race!

Continuing in the spirit of "my body feels good, I should keep the
wind whistling in my ears," I passed Amy and Keith on a downhill,
saying I wanted to roll it out a little more. This was at
about mile 19. We hit a rise soon after and I let the two of them go
ahead. I knew I was in trouble. I said my good byes and watched them
charge ahead. Only as my new reality hit did I see just how fast we
had been moving. Less than 30 seconds later,
I couldn't see them and could not imagine ever running that fast.
God, I thought, how can they do it?

As I tell it, I had a good 20 mile race. Unfortunately, there were
still 11 miles to go. Now, for the rest of the story. As my speed
slowed, my right knee held up. Instead, my
left knee, symptom-free the whole season, began protesting. And it
wasn't alone. I had, it seemed,
depleted my glycogen stores. Bonked, as they say. This surprised me;
I had prepared by eating and drinking regularly and taking some solid
long runs.

It later turned out that Amy and Keith finished in female record time of 4 hour 33 minutes, a good 15 minutes faster then the fastest I could expect to finish the race. Where I had planned on running each mile in 9 minutes and 40 seconds, they ran 8:40 miles. So by the time we caught Amy, I was running 20 minutes faster then I should have been.

To watch a struggling runner must be laughable. As one guy passed me, he said, "When you see someone walking with their head lolling to the side, it's not good." I found myself encouraging myself to start running at some predetermined tree. "Oops, you just walked past that tree. OK, this next one, that's the tree to start running at."

In my slowed, enfeebled pace, a pain cropped up that was different from any previous run. While dressing, I had debated whether to wear a shirt or not for the race; decisions like this can make a big difference in a five hour race.
Except when deer flies are fierce, they fly faster than I can run, so I usually run without a
shirt. Now, I was feeling the skin of my upper arm rub against my chest. The dried sweat acted like glue, repeatedly grabbing then pulling at my skin as I ran. I wrapped some duct tape around myself, then
reinforced that with pink plastic trail marker ribbon to increase the effect of the tape’s stickiness. The pain of chafing was slightly reduced, a minor success.

After about one hour struggling to jog, a bit of energy reappeared. I
began to trot, but not for long. The trail's smooth dirt turned to
rocks; I had to walk to have any precision control over my legs.
About this time, though I'd been hoping for a traveled road where I
could hitch a ride back,
I discovered that if I deep-breathed, my body let me increase the
speed of my shuffle to a slight jog. As my pace increase slightly, I
began to sweat and then realized the real cause of the
chaffing - no natural armpit lubricant!

About three and a half hours into the race, I realized that all
was not lost. Even though I was having trouble walking and felt the
weight of gravity – and people were passing me like they were in their
final kick of a 5km race - I saw a glimmer. Glancing at my pacing
chart, it occurred to me that, if I got to the next aid station in
less than 30 minutes, I might be able to beat my personal time. Of
all the races I'd done this year, it would be my
first Pr (personal record). At least one minute faster than eight years
ago, I told myself, that should be enough.

When I approached the last aid station, a man with the clip board
called out, “Number 5, we were wondering where you were!” The course
has a loop around this lake and we pass this same aid station at mile
18 and mile 25. Here he was, reminding me of how badly I’d done for
the past seven miles. I did not feel encouraged. As an attempt to
pick myself up, I asked the man about the quickest way back to the
start. He pointed up the trail, the race course. Now I knew - the
only way home was to finish, to complete what I'd started. Slowly,
shuffling under the watchful
eyes of all those at the station, I made my way up the hill.

At this point, I had six miles to go. I knew I was going to feel
every step. But I also knew that at my current reduced, but not
totally debilitated pace, I was likely to exceed my previous time by a
meaningful margin. Running my own race, I began to feel encouraged.
Even as people passed me, I didn’t mind. I’d stopped thinking about
what place I would finish, but was heartened to note that I was being
passed much more
slowly. One man passed slowly enough that I had a chance to chat, not
simply call encouragements to his receding backside. Now I knew I was
almost in my finishing position in the race.

I scanned ahead at every turn for a glimpse of the final water stop, a
couple of jugs
of water by the trail marking 28.7 miles. From there, it was dirt and
paved roads to the finish. Every turn I anticipated seeing the water
jugs by a forest gate. Every
opening or thinning of the trees made me think we were closing in on
civilization. Finally, I thought, “This had got to be it.” But, no,
beyond was the last nasty downhill. "You have got to be kidding me,"
I called out loud as I came to an abrupt stop at the crest of this
totally unnecessary descent. Speaking aloud was nothing new as I had
my own band leader and excessively verbal coach for some time.
What was new was me stopping, staring, and wondering.

My left knee had been giving me problems for some time and what had
simply been pain was building to the point where it was threatening to
lock up on downhills. Now, standing at the top of this drop off, I
contemplated walking backwards down the hill. Too long of a hill, I
decided, much too long. Instead, I cast around, groaned as I bent
over, and picked up a stout stick. Using this walking pole, I hobbled
down the hill, the stick standing in for my left knee. Reaching the
relative flatness of the bottom, I cast the stick aside and took off
running. I need to trail more on downhills, I thought; I feel pretty good on
the flats. Gotta do something to get my quads stronger.

Then, almost comically, I saw the long-anticipated water jugs. It
seemed they were pulling a prank
to actually show up, there, next to be base of the gate. That, and
the thinning of the trees I'd expected would herald them, only showed
after I’d passed them. I gave them a glance in greeting and strode

Over my shoulder, I saw a man and woman coming up behind. They were
maybe 20 seconds back. Suddenly, I felt that I was in a race again.
Hey, this is my finishing place. You two can’t have it.

I took off. When I describe this moment, it comes off as
a whole new race. I lengthened my stride, picked up my cadence, and
started flying. The dirt road morphed into pavement and
still I charged along. My body was giving me all the energy I wanted,
my quads were happy because there were no rocks to navigate. I was
happy because the race was almost done.

I passed Amy doing her cool down. “Did you get it?” I called out.
“Yeah!” she said. I was moving so fast, her answer needed to catch up
to me as I headed away. The finish line was ahead of me and then one
of the volunteers called out, “You can stop running now.” I was so
focused on not slowing before crossing the finish that I was still in
motion after the race was done.

Stiff, achy and hungry, but pleased with my efforts, I knew I hadn't
run a smart race.
But I did finish in 5 hours 14 minutes, taking a whole half hour off
my personal best. Later, looking at the results, I noted that the
female 2:57 Rhode Island marathoner, Karen, had finished in 4 hours 41
minutes, only eight minutes behind the first female. Even if I had
slowed to run with her, I still would have been going too fast. Only
then did I realize my original pacing mistake.
Women, like older men, get stronger as the race gets longer.
Trying to gauge my fitness for a 31 mile race by comparing myself to a
female on a 15 mile race was simply naive.

Next year, or some year after that, I hope to do better. There is no
hurry; the winner was 46 years old. And two guys ten years my elder
beat me badly. I’ll plan my pacing and take it easier at the
beginning. I won't over train and will observe the hard/easy rule of
injury prevention. I’ll listen to the pacing evidence I get from the
people around me
and not pass runners at mile 15 who are clearly stronger than me.
Finally, I’ll remember what that guy said, the one whom I passed at
the eight mile aid
station, and who passed me back at mile 21 when I could barely
walk. “The race doesn’t start until after mile 20.”