47 miles is a long way to run. Too bad the race was 50 miles. That's 47 more miles than I was planning on this weekend though.
Saturday I woke up and surfed the internet as I usually do before my lovely wife wakes up. This also gives me a chance to hatch hair-brained schemes before she can talk me out of them. I was quite jealous reading various blog posts about people who would be racing at the Pineland Farms Trail Running Festival, a race that I have wanted to do, but was always too long and too close to Mt. Washington. What changed this year? Nothing, other than the fact that I've been thinking a lot about ultras for the last year and that my love affair with Mt. Washington has slowly started to wain after years of disappointing results. What better way to mix things up and try and run a 50 miler 3 weeks before my big goal race for the year?!
I packed all my stuff the night before and set my alarm for 3:30AM to allow for the 90 minute drive and ridiculously early 6:00AM start. Later in the day I was grateful for the early start. Arriving at Pineland, the clouds/fog were still blocking out the sun and were keeping things on the cool side. The air was humid, but manageable. After exchanging the usually pre-race pleasantries with racers and race crew, we were off. A group of 5 of us including Ben Nephew, Brian Rusiecki and myself ran easy and relaxed the first 3+ mile loop (23:44). My initial goal was to run 8:00 pace (6:40), but I had no idea what that should feel like and with the undulating terrain, I figured I would run easy with the pack and figure it out as I went. Luckily the pace was manageable and we just clipped along ticking the kilometers away. Brian, Ben and I took turns at the front chatting along, while another guy, Martin, ran with us, often leading, but he seemed to be laboring on the hills. After finishing the campus loop on out first 25k lap, Ben, Brian and I opened up a little of a gap on Martin. At this point I was getting tired of running with my handheld water bottle, so I ditched it at my drop bag and kept running. Pineland is a great race to do this as there are so many aid stations you are never far from food or water. Doing this allowed me to run a more efficient, natural stride. The downside is that I would need to slow down or stop at almost every aid station.
On the Oak Hill side of the 25k loop Ben and I started to open a bit of a gap on Brian on the hills, and just kept running a smart pace. Near the 24k mark Ben was nearly taken about by a flying turkey that took off from the tall grass next to the course! After our adrenaline returned to normal we passed through the start/finish of the first loop in 1:50:51 (7:09 pace). 8:00 pace would have been 2:04. "Looks like I'm all in now" I thought.
Lap 2 Ben and I worked together doing some drafting and taking turns at the front to try to open the gap on Brian. Neither on of us felt like we were killing ourselves, but thought it would be good to put some time on Brian, as he smoked a 6:02 here a few years ago. I was feeling pretty good on the climbs when leading, but lagging when Ben was in front. I have problems with this even in 5k races though. I have a mental problem when it comes to conserving energy. It came back to bite me today.
After entering the Oak Hill side for a second time I was starting to know what an ultra feels like. Ben and I were still running at a good clip, but the legs were tiring. They should have been though, we had been running for over 30 miles. The rolling hills on the Oak Hill side are a bit longer than the ones on the campus loop, and are more my style as I just get in my low gear and go. On the way up the big climb I started to open a gap on Ben and decided it was time to make a move. 32 miles into a 50 miler seemed early, but I was feeling good and the change of pace felt good as I put in a good surge to try and drop Ben. My biggest fear was to be running with Ben at mile 45 then get dropped and have no response.
I kept the pace steady and finished the second loop in 1:54:24, about 3 minutes slower than the first loop, but still a pretty decent pace. 4:09 total (7:13 pace) had elapsed, and I knew if I could scruff out a 2:00 for the last lap I would run a 6:09. Pretty damn fast for a 50 miler, and especially my first one. Unfortunately I still had 15 miles to go.
I knew the last lap would be more of a mental test than anything. I hadn't seen Ben for over 3 miles, hadn't seen Brian for over an hour and just planned on running one kilometer at a time. The k's are marked at Pineland and can be a blessing and a curse at the same time. One foot in front of the other is what I thought. My spirits were still up and I was tired, but still moving at a respectable pace. I just thought "stay ahead of Ben". I took my time at each aid station, knowing that the gap might shrink, but I knew hydration and calories were important at this point. One thing I did not do a good job of was getting sodium into my system. The sun had broke through on the last lap and I was crusted in salt.
I used the runners that I was lapping from the 25k, 50k and 50 miler to keep me moving forward and was pretty confident of holding on and winning the whole thing in my first ultra. The aid station at mile 45 is where things started to unravel though. I stopped for a couple cups of water and a fig newton. I took my time and stretched my quads, which were fatigued, but holding up ok. Local trail racer Paul Young said "Nice job! How long were you leading?" I exclaimed "I'm leading right now!" He informed me that Brian had just blown by the aid station. I looked down the trail and there he was, blasting down the doubletrack ski trail. Talk about taking the wind out of your sails. I knew with the way I was feeling and the pace he was moving at that I wasn't going to catch him, but I wanted to finish this thing and try to get a second place finish. I went at it, but my pace wasn't much faster than the runners that I had been lapping before. Before I knew it my stride had shortened and I had to walk for the first time during the whole race. I just tried to keep moving forward to keep my quads from locking up. My breathing was fine, I wasn't lightheaded and my energy levels were up, but my legs were not responding. After a little walking I was able to run again, but after pounding down the steep switchback on Gloucester Hill, my quads reached their limits. I continued to walk until I couldn't stay in a straight line. I sat on the side of the trail and stopped my watch, about 3 miles shy of the finish line in 6:09:25. 47 miles in the book, but no ambition to finish. I could have walked/crawled the last 3 miles, but I wasn't interested in prolonging the recovery that I would have to undertake after this silly idea. I awaited a ride in the sagwagon back to the start area. Many runners kindly offered me assistance while I waited, but I felt fine other than not being able to move my legs.
As I type this I am excited about running another ultra later this year; now prepared with some good and not-so-good experiences. Salt is your friend, especially on a hot day. Don't run away from the lead pack at 32 miles, especially when it is your friend and teammate. The Inov8 X-Talon 212's may seem like a light shoe, but they worked great for me on the mix of packed gravel ski trails and high-mowed grass.
A special thanks to Ian and Erik for putting on a great race. And thanks to all the Trail Monsters, acidotic Racing crew and White Mountain Milers for cheering me on from the sidelines and on the course.
Week of April 14th - 20th, 2014
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