Would you jump into a 100m race against Usain Bolt without doing any sprint drills or lifting in the gym? How about racing the Boston Marathon with no marathon pace workouts? No? How about running an ultra against the best trails runners in New England with no real ultra prep? I did, for the second time this year.
After my debacle at Pineland, I knew I wanted to do another ultra, I was just unsure when. My summer schedule had me prepping for fall cross country, and I was enjoying my long tempo runs and track work, but I was still feeling the itch for a long race. The Pisgah Mountain 50k had always interested me as it is hilly and pretty technical, but I had never made it to southwest New Hampshire to test myself on the course. I had an opening in my race schedule and thought this would be the perfect year to try it, as my goal XC race, the New England Championships, was still 7 weeks away. I got in some nice long mountain runs this summer, both solo and a few with Jim Johnson, so I knew I wouldn’t be going into the race totally blind. The one thing I hadn’t done was many long runs on the trails at 7 minute pace, about the pace of the course record at Pisgah (3:42:26), held by David Herr.
Race day dawned nice and cool, but my legs weren’t feeling too fresh. I had no intention of tapering for this race, so I did a mountain run each of the last 2 days and a track workout on Thursday; all of this after a demanding win at the Bradbury Bruiser last weekend. The field was pretty deep and the pack, led by Greg Hammett, went out pretty quick right from the gun. I just tried to settle in and tuck in behind everyone while keeping the leaders in sight. Ben Nephew and I watched as Greg, Dave and Jim pulled away on the first downhills. We came through the first self-serve aid station in 33:08. My legs were starting to wake up as we started climbing some hills. After coming through the first manned aid station (58:05), we climbed a semi-paved road that was reminiscent of Mt. Washington. I was able to close the 20 second gap to the lead group pretty quickly without expending too much energy. I latched on the back of the leaders and just tried to cruise the ups and not turn my quads into hamburger on the descents. We came through the second manned aid station in 1:24:31, where I fumbled with cups of water; my inexperience was showing as the other three guys dusted me up the next climb. I eventually made my way back up to them on the wide snowmobile trail and settled in the back again. We turned onto the Reservoir Trail which was the start of a long climb. I felt pretty good hanging in the back and just tried to conserve energy and stay patient. On the way down we started to spread out a little as Greg and Dave were moving on the downhills and Jim and I hung back. I was still trying to save my quads and Jim’s left hamstring and calf were bothering him. We were content to hang back and run together, for a little while anyways.
After running for nearly two hours I was starting to get the itch to race. Jim was struggling on the ups, so he encouraged me to go after Dave and Greg. I started my pursuit and heard Jim go down hard on one of the snowmobile bridges. I held back a little and we came through the 17 mile aid station together in 2:00:28 (7:05 pace), which I knew was a pretty good clip. Jim and I agreed that we should go after Greg and Dave, so we worked together and tried to close the gap. I was climbing better so I went ahead and closed the gap near the top of Pisgah Ridge. I kind of figured that I wouldn’t see Jim again knowing how he was feeling, but was I wrong!
I ran in the shadow of Greg and Dave in a racing mindset. I was just waiting for the right moment to make a move. As we came through the first Kilburn Loop aid station (2:25:51, 19.9 miles, 7:19 pace), Greg and Dave stopped and I decided to make my move and not stop. Jim had warned me about this loop, as the first half is downhill, but you have to climb back up the other side to get back to the aid station. I opened up a gap on Greg, but Dave stuck with me, pushing the pace on the way down to the low point. I was intent on racing, so I kept the pace up, using a little more energy on the downs than I wanted, but I was committed to racing. I let Dave go by near the bottom of the loop, where I planned to catch back up on the climb like I had been doing all day. After crossing the bridge at the low point, I set to work to catch Dave on the ensuing climb. I steadily closed the gap, but was starting to feel the effort. Next thing I knew I was seeing spots, a sure sign of being in full-on bonk mode.
I was able to keep running, albeit at a slower pace, and kept putting one foot in front of the other as I watched Dave pull away. I know Dave is a pretty strong runner, but I kept playing mind games with myself thinking that if I was bonking he could bonk at any point too. At this point I probably should have taken a gel, but I was getting sick of the sweetness and couldn’t fathom trying to chew my Larabar. I just gutted it out until I got to the aid station.
Jim passed me on the Kilburn Loop, and Greg passed me about a quarter of a mile before the aid station. I stopped to refill my bottle with water and eat my apple pie Larabar. Ben caught me here and refilled his bottle with Coke. Before I knew it he was gone and up the next hill. I hit the aid station in 3:06:31 (25.4 miles), covering the last 5.5 miles at 7:23 pace; quick, but skewed by the early downhill. There would be no more 7 minute miles in my future.
When Greg passed me, he told me there were only 3 more climbs left. I tried to pick them off one by one. I managed to run the first two, but had to walk at the top of the second one. I kept sucking down water and started to regain a little energy. I got passed by Dane Mitchell, Brian Rusiecki and Chris Hayhurst, but I was confident I could get to the finish line. It is not a great way to finish a race, but I felt a lot better than I did at the 47 mile mark at Pineland, so I just kept moving forward.
I hit the state park gate in around 3:49, which is about 1.3 miles from the finish. I knew the rest of the course was on road, so I just tried to stay smooth. I was a little surprised at how well I was moving, so I tried to keep the effort up to the line. I rounded the last corner knowing that a sub 4:00 clocking was going to happen, but I kept the tempo up and crossed the line in 4:00:25 in 8th place. I was disappointed to lose 18+ minutes to Dave in the last 10 miles (last 5.4 miles at 9:37 pace!), but I ran hard and smart most of the time and learned more about how my body handles ultra distances.
Lessons learned: Don’t race, just survive. I think I still would have bonked, but I should not have made a move at 20 miles. I should have just tried to outlast the guys I was racing. I was probably the best climber of the group, and there was a lot of climbing in the last 11 miles. I should have played to my strengths. I also need to figure out nutrition and hydration. I don’t even take water in road half marathons, so I’m pretty clueless in these longer races. Practice makes perfect. I also need to respect how hard these races are when you have good ultra training under your belt. They’re even harder when you’ve been training for races that you hope to be running at low five minute pace. The guys that do this stuff on a regular basis are tough dudes, as shown by some great performances out there today. 5:00 mile repeats don’t do shit for you when you’re weaving all over the place at 9 minute pace due to a lack of fuel in your system. I’m looking forward to doing another ultra, but plan on training for it next time.