The Pisgah 50km trail race was my goal race for the year and I slept horribly the night before. They warn you about that so I knew it wouldn't effect my race performance. It didn't.
My previous attempt at this race, in 2010, consisted of 20 miles of strong running, 10 miles of "death march" and 1 mile of fast finish. Even with all the death march, I PR'd by 30 minutes. My A,B, and C goals for this year were A) go under 5 hrs (15 min faster than last year) B) At least go faster then last year and finally C) if all else fails, please, please no more death march.
When I finished, I found myself weeping tears of joy - a new experience for me after a race. I walked around for a good 5 minutes saying, "I can't believe it," as giggly sobs trickled down my face. I met all my goals.
Before the race, I had ramped up my mileage to an average of 20 miles./week more then the previous year. I also was more consistent about running. Finally, I spent time practicing my race pace. To break 5 hours, I needed to hold 9min40second miles for 31 miles. After track workouts, I would finish with a 9:40 mile. Strangely, it is difficult to run so very slow after doing 1200m repeats at 5:40 mile speed.
Coming around the track as I practiced my pace, as I headed onto another straightaway, I pictured the short section of pavement at the beginning of the race and imagined I was starting the race. I imagined the 50-70 people would would quickly be in front of me at the start, knowing that most of them would start to fast.
I was determined to run a smart race. My practice paid off.
A few minutes into the race, I met up with a few runners I knew from track practice. Very nice people but we would be racing very different races. At this point last year, I would have thought, "Man, I'm going too slow." This year I knew the reality - they were going too fast. After a bit, I passed them when my footwork on stones was faster even though our speeds on the flats was similar.
The first waterstop - a few jugs in the woods, happened at mile 4.8. I had a pace chart on my wrist based on the starting time. I expected to arrive at the water at 9:30 and as 9:29 rolled around, I started to get nervous that I was behind. Then, around the next corner, I saw the jugs. 9:30 - precise. I was very pleased.
It was another 33 minutes until the next stop - this time an Aid station. There was some climbing in this section, which I was careful to walk on the steep parts, knowing that if I was running flat sections with a slight whistle of the wind in my ears, I was on a good pace. I ran with some nice guys - one on his first ultra. They made nice company but soon, I found I was thinking more about the chat than the race. I had made this mistake the year before - running a faster pace because the company was so good. Now, on a slight down, I rolled the pace a bit and found the company was falling back. I decided to let them go.
Soon, the first aid station came up. Like a good triathlete, I was ready for a fast transition - bottle already open as I grabbed cup after cup and dumped them into my water bottle. Bottle top back on, I went trotting off and checked my watch. 10:03 it said. Checked my pacing chart - Wow! - 10:03. I was nailing the pace.
I needed to go over Mt. Pisgah between mile 17 and mile 20. I had decided that if I was on pace after mile 20 and felt good, I could start running by feeling and not by strategy. Things were looking good.
After aid station 2, at 12 miles, there is an incredibly steep section of paved wood road. I downed nearly a 1/2 a bottle of sports drink during the long walk up. My drink strategy for the race was a) only drink sports drink to be sure I get enough electrolytes and b) drink at least 1 bottle an hour. During my 2010 death march, I had assumed under training was the main culprit. Since then, I had decided that not enough fluids was the main culprit. I had done a number of training runs where I found I was drinking about 500ml an hour so on my projected 5 hour run, I needed to down 2.5 liters of fluid. I did.
Not long after the top of the paved section, after I'd started running again, I began to feel a tightness in my lower abdominal area. I tried adjusting my bottle belt and my shorts but nothing worked. Then, I tried something else. I pulled over for my 2nd of 3 pit stops. After 10 seconds (yes, I did count) I was running again and the discomfort was gone.
The next water was at 10:55. After the long walk up the hill, I expected to be a bit behind. I was working the downhills more but wasn't sure if that was enough to stay on pace. Still, I began counting down the minutes. 3, 2, 1, Water. I was perfectly on pace after 2 hours of racing. I raised my arms and shouted "Nice Job Man!" as I passed the water. I had planned on not filling up here.
A half an hour on, I filled my bottle again. 3 hours into the race, I had finished 3 bottles and was loaded with my forth as I headed over the mountain. As I left the station, I looked at my pacing chart and saw :55 but my watch said :27. "What station are you?" I called back. "17!" the volunteer yelled. Oh, I realized. I had looked at the wrong pace and had a momentary panic - I did not want to be 20 minutes ahead of pace. I was in fact 2 minutes ahead, which was fine with the mountain coming.
The mountain is a long, slow grind up mostly runable trails. There was a bit of walking. At this point in the race, I had been passed by one guy - in a green shirt. He had run a 4:48 the year before and hoped to do similar. "I started too slow," he had said as he passed me. I let him go, pleased to run my own race. Other than that, with my pace oriented race, I was continually passing people. About once every 10 minutes, a new shape would appear in the distance and in good fashion, I would catch up, say "Looking good," then quickly distance them.
As I came down off the mountain and my legs were feeling strong taking the impact of my body as I dropped 1, 2, sometimes 3 feet with every stride, I thought again of Dave Wottle. I couldn't remember his name at the time but I was thinking of pacing so much that he was often on my mind. In the 1972 Olympics, he ran the 800m and won in with what seemed a tremendous kick in the last 200 meters. Upon analysis, it turned out there was absolutely no kick. Dave had determined what time he need to win then had practiced and practiced the pace until he could hold nearly perfect 26.5 second 200 meter splits. At the beginning, he was far off the back of the race. As I continued in a race where my splits were holding true, I knew what he was thinking in that world class race. "They all went out too fast."
I came down from the mountain for another bottle fill and a time check. Goal - 11:57. Actual, 11:59. That was fine with me because I had planned that this might be a little slow. The next section,. the Kilburn loop, is known for being fast. Now that I had passed 20 miles feeling good, I came off pace and raced by feel.
This was the point last year where I had totally fallen apart. I stopped sweating (evidence of not enough liquids) and my arms were chafing badly. I also had had trouble navigating any terrain, even flat terrain, that had boulders in it. Now, as I literally charged around curves and powered up hills, I was imagining the pain I had been in the year before.
I began to look for "me." Runners were coming to me quickly now and as I passed them and said, "Nice job man," (only the experienced women were ahead of me - those who wouldn't blow their pacing) I checked to see if they were in as bad of shape as I had been. None were - they were all moving nicely, just not fast.
Coming off the Kilburn loop, I had made up the 2 minutes and gained another 5. And, I was feeling great. After getting my last bottle full, I powered up a dirt road and saw in the distance the next runner I would pass. Rob is an old running buddy and when trained up, a very fast dude. He wasn't well trained and he had talked of a 6-hour finish and here I was, running a sub-5hr time and only catching him at mile 26. He, like so many others, had started out too fast and was running a substantially slower pace then I was. I, as it would turn out, had started out a bit slow.
I soon caught up with the guy in green and he did not look good. He was running without a bottle and now, was sitting on the ground, grabbing at his calf. He had just cramped badly. After asking if he needed anything, I left him behind. There was a rise that slowed me enough that I could take another drink. No cramps here, I thought.
I was now in the final leg. This was a section where the year before, I had stopped at a steep descent and wondered just how I could possibly get down. I finally grabbed a branch and used this as a 3rd leg to hobble down. Travel time - about 60 seconds. This year, I recognized the descent. I galloped down it, please at how well my quads were standing up to the downhill pounding. Travel time- about 5 seconds. Instead of hobbling off after the descent, I powered away. I was actively pumping my arms and working to snap my legs forward for the next stride. When my feet would touch the ground, I would give little thoughts of "push, push" to get more speed out of them.
I passed another guy, in black and white, then quickly blew a turn. I went straight, all the pink flags were left. I soon recognized my mistake and counted the seconds until I was back on trail. 25, 26, 27 - on. I figured I'd lost about a minute. If this was what kept me from breaking 5, I figured it would be fine.
Another runner - oops, the black and white shirt gain. For the second time, I said, "Looking good man," and blew by him. Soon after, I passed my last runner with about 3 miles to go. Later, at the finish, we talked a bit. He said he had remember passing me at about the same place the year before. "You looked in pretty bad shape last year. This year, I was feeling pretty good but you just cooked by me."
At the last water stop, with 2.3 miles to go, I didn't look at my watch. I was moving fast and began to wonder if there was any possible way that I could be beating my goal by 15 minutes. I figured there probably wasn't, given that I'd blown a turn, but I was still "swinging for the stands," as they say in baseball. The dirt road down became a paved road going up. I had been tricked before by an uphill in the road that I had thought to be the last. Now, I knew there was one more, hidden beyond a turn.
Knowing I was in the finish, I was going full bore, like the finish of a 10k race. I turned the corner onto the main road, charged into the chute, and let my momentum carry me to a stop. I was a good 10 strides past the chute when I came to a stop, dropped my bottle, and circled back to hand off my tag.
I lolled around for a minute or two before circling back to the chute to see my time. I was pleased to see not that many names in front of mine and was blown away by my time. In the last 11 miles of running, I had dropped from averaging 9:40 a mile to about 8:05 a mile, making up the 2 minutes I was down and gaining another 15. I had finished in a time of 4 hrs and 45 minutes. In 2010, I had set a PR by 1/2 hr. Again, in 2011, I had done the same. I did not thing this possible.
In 2010, I had run two races - a solid 20 mile race and a horrible 11 mile. This year, I again ran 2 races. A solid, exactly on pace 20 mile race and very strong 11 mile race. Running those last miles, I was hard pressed to remember that I had already been running for 4 hours, I just felt so strong.
I could not believe how well I had done. I had spent a year thinking about this race, thinking about what I had to do to race better, and I had done it. I had run a race that was beyond what I had dreamed of and felt great. I walked away from the spectators, tears dripping from my eyes as I half giggled, half sobbed and muttered, "I can't believe I did that, I just don't believe it."