Sunday, October 20, 2013

Lean Horse 50M

About 18 months ago I stumbled onto a book in the library that described ultra-running. It was written in a very engaging and humorous style. More than once did I look up from the book and told my wife about this crazy group of people that run much farther than a single marathon. An ultra-marathon is officially any distance longer than the 26.2 mile (42.195 km) marathon.

I loved the book and always felt the urge to go run as well after a couple of pages. Having run a few marathons at this point, I knew what a great amount of effort it takes to run such a race. I couldn't even begin to imagine what it would take to run farther than that. I set my goal to run an ultra-marathon within the next 12 months. 

I looked up local 50 mile races as I wanted to stay within a drive-able distance as well as join a race that doesn't have too much elevation change. Ultra marathons are not only known for their distance but often times have many thousands of feet of elevation gain and loss, so that you can't really compare it to any road race. 

In my preparation, I ran a couple of self-supported training runs of 50 km (~31-32 miles). The first one was in early 2013 in snow and cold temperatures (-18F) and the second was later on in the summer. The second time I ran the 50 km, it was very hot outside and I still I improved my time by almost 30 minutes. This gave me the confidence to sign up for the Lean Horse 50 mile race in the Black Hills of South Dakota only 3 weeks later.

The week prior to the race, I was still travelling in Europe for work and was concerned that jet lag and dehydration from flying will take a toll in the race.  However, the morning of the race, I was still jet-lagged, but it ended up helping me, as I had no difficulty waking up at 4am. My wife Christina and my friend Kyle joined me on my trip and were also ready to go. Aside from me spending hours on the trail, they would too do their own ultra marathon of crewing for me. 

We drove to the trail head for the beginning of the race and I felt calm and relaxed until about 5 minutes before race start. 

Getting dropped off at the trail head
The 100 or so people at the trail head were chatting away, laughing, joking, seemingly unaware of the ludicrous effort we were about to attempt. I realized I should try to use the bathroom before the race started only to run into a line of 25 people. 5 minutes until the start.

I nervously looked around for a place where I could relieve myself, but couldn't find a spot anywhere that wasn't occupied by people and I had no interest in popping up in the background of anybody's picture. 4 minutes to go.

I chat with another runner waiting for the bathroom to get my brain to stop thinking about the impending race and my ever growing bathroom needs. 3 minutes to go. 

The line has now moved 2 people. Dozens of runners shuffled to the start line. However, no one in the bathroom line moved. I got nervous. Maybe these weren't runners, but crew people or spectators. What if I stood here for another half hour? 2 minutes to go.

Screw it. I hurried over to the line. I got the familiar pre-race jitters that I have had in every single high school race and marathon, as well as before each of the hundreds of soccer games I've played. 1 minute to go. 

People were high-fiving, posing for pictures and wishing each other luck. My stomach turned inside out. 30 seconds.

Anxiously I jump up and down. My heart rate is at 180bpm and I haven't run a single step yet. 20 seconds.

I turn on my GPS watch and try to keep my legs from shaking. 10 seconds. 
The crowd starts counting down. 9...8...7...Why am I here?.....6...5...4...This is going to be a disaster...3...I'm going to puke...2....1....


Oh what a glorious feeling! The gun sounded and off we went. I felt weightless. After a few moments of finding a good spot in the crowd, where I wouldn't hit anybody's heels or slow anyone else down, I took brief inventory of my body. Shoes fit perfectly. Legs feel loose and light. Water bottles are full, but don't feel heavy. The shirt is bothering me, so I take it off and stash it in my shorts. Now the sun breaks through and the day officially begins. Looking up ahead and I see the first aid station. This is ~4 miles into the race, but I could've sworn I had only ran for 5 minutes. What a great start to the race. I take my only brief bathroom break, but have no need to refill my water bottles as I had not taking a sip yet. 

My pacing strategy was to run for 3 miles and then walk 5 minutes. This helped tremendously breaking up the distance into small manageable chunks, as well as gave me time to get rocks out of my shoes, stretch a couple of times when needed as well as eat a gel to consume some calories. 

Leaving the mile 16 aid station (backwards)
The next few miles go by without incident and I see my crew for the first time at mile 16. I get to drop off my shirt and refill my water bottles. All of this happens in under a minute and I am off again. 

I look at my watch for the first time at this point and notice that I am ahead of pace. I am glad I got to put some distance behind me before the heat of the day began to kick in.

I would be on my own for the next 10 miles as it was an out and back section with a lone water cooler stationed at the mile 21 marker. The turn around was great to sort out who was running the 100 and the 50 mile distance. Also, I could gauge what place I am in at this point as I see every runner in front of me. The top 3 runners are blazing by. They would end up far ahead of me later on. An impressive display of endurance as the temperature reaches it's highest point of 96F. 

Shortly before the turn around point I hit a low point and begin to think that I am not even half-way done. I was very conservative with my water until this point. However, once I saw the water cooler at the turn around point and guzzled the last bit of water I had in one bottle and poured the other bottle over my head. I must've been at about 15th place or so. Drinking some more at the water station and knowing that I am now heading back to the next manned aid station I got excited and switched from walking to shuffling. After a few minutes this went into trotting and eventually running. I rode this runner's high and ran the next 5K in ~26 minutes. I knew this wasn't sustainable, but I enjoyed it nevertheless. 

I beat my crew to the aid station, which was very motivating as I was still ahead of schedule. I slowly passed a couple of runners and made my way through a very lonely section of the race. The trail did not offer any shade and the sun was beating down. I passed another runner, who had pulled a muscle and told me he'd walk the rest of the way. I passed the marathon mark at roughly 4 hours, which was only 20 minutes slower than my most recent marathon time. I would probably have to slow down later on in order not to blow up at the latter half of the race. 

I reach the aid station at mile 33 and Kyle welcomed me 30 feet earlier to grab my bottles to refill them with water. Christina and my dog Surf were greeting me and she applied some sunscreen. Great idea.

 At this point my brain was fried and I wouldn't have thought of that. I check my split for 50km and notice that I set another personal best by another 20 minutes. Alright. only 17 miles/ 30km to go. 
My feet feel fine and I have no cramps. I eat some watermelon and decide to tackle the next 5 mile portion. I thoroughly enjoy the run now. I feel I can walk it in from here if I needed and would just have fun going forward.

During this time Christina and Kyle encountered some buffallos on the road. This makes me wonder how I would've handled the situation on the trail. I am glad I didn't have to make that decision :)

 Next, I come into the aid station that was a camper and I could choose from an array of food and drinks, but only get down some ginger ale, water and salty pretzels. I also scored some bonus points with my wife for picking a flower on my way to this aid station.

For this I deserved a misting down from the aid station attendant. Throughout the race, the aid station volunteers were extremely helpful and very encouraging. Big thumbs up to them and a big thank you for helping out during the day.

The next section proved to be the hardest as I approached my physical limits as the heat finally got to me and the rolling hills of Argyle Road began. Kyle got a great shot of me during this section.

Christina stepped out of the air conditioned car for a few minutes and re-applied my sunscreen. This was a very encouraging time of the race as I realized how lucky i was to have her to support me through such a crazy adventure.

I slowly catch about 3 people in the next few miles and begin to feel my second runners high. After I pass another runner I start bombing down a large hill and put distance between the two of us. I once again feel weightless and will only have about 8 miles to go as I reach the next aid station. Little do i know that this was the point where I bruised my tow running downhill too aggressively. Now, 3 months later, I still have a black toe nail, which I look at with pride every day :).

Surf is awaiting me at the next aid station and I catch up to the next runner. I do some stretches as I can tell my hamstrings are tightening up. I would have loved to join him on his blanket, but having the other runner so close by, my competitive nature kicked in. I asked for my MP3 player for the first time at this point. Mind over body from here on out.

My race took a literal turn for the worse during the next section. I ignored a well signaled turn (I blame my fried brain after 8 hours of running and the 97F) and ran about 1.5 miles off course. By the time I reach the next and last aid station, 5 people have caught up with me again. Now I was 11th overall. Christina later told me that this was the only time in the race where she didn't see me smile and i was genuinely mad at myself of making this blunder. I ran by a small lake, in which Surf played earlier on. Man this looked enticing. Just a quick dip to cool down. Only I knew, I wouldn't get back up again.

I turned off my music, which allowed me to focus on my stride and footing and dug deep. 4 miles to go.

I caught 2 people only 5 minutes after leaving the aid station. Good, I was in 9th place. During longer straighter sections I could see the next 3 runners. I had a goal and began to reel them in. The first guy did not put up a fight and I realized he was one of the 50KM runners. Meaning he was not in my race. Therefore i was actually in 8th. I got the next guy with about 2 miles to go. Now we entered Hot Springs. The next runner was clearly hurting, as was I. I passed him as he nearly stood still. Making the next turn I tried to speed up to put distance between us. This has worked in the past, as when the runner makes the turn and will see me much farther ahead than they anticipated. This can be devastating and keep people from chasing the next guy up.
However, on the tiniest of elevation gains (2 feet!) over a tiny bridge, my calves and hamstrings cramped up. I stood there like an idiot for 3-4 minutes without moving. I tried to moon walk backwards down to get to a point where I can use my arms as leverage to loosen my legs. At this time the other runner shuffled by me and was soon out of side. I was able to slowly move one foot in front of the next. Alright. I was in 8th place, but I was convinced the guy in front of me was in my age group and I would try my hardest to still get him. After passing each other about 4-5 times, I was able to pull ahead. I asked an elderly lady walking the trail towards me how far the next guy behind me was, as I had no energy to turn around. She said she didn't see anybody. AWESOME! 2 more turns and I pull into the finish.

My official finishing time was 9:04:05h. I had beaten my goal of 10 hours handily and was super elated to place 7th overall and winning my age division of 29& under. I immediately started thinking that next year, I would stay on the correct trail and could run under 9 hours.

Overall, I am extremely satisfied with my first 50 mile race. This includes time, effort level and the amount of fun I had running. The entire day could've gone differently if not for the great volunteers as well as the fantastic support from my crew Christina, Kyle and Surf.