Friday, November 6, 2015

Riddlebox Winter Ultra (50K)

Riddlebox 50K

awkward stance stretching my calves

What a fantastic way to end the racing year. The Riddlebox Ultra offered everything I could’ve wanted in a late year ultra-marathon to cap off a very successful year thus far (one 2nd place and one 15th place!). I had never raced a 50K before. 50K stands for 50 KM (kilometers, which is about 31.something miles). You get about 5 extra miles on top of your average marathon distance. Just so you know that you are physically done when you crossed 26.2 miles and tell yourself that another 5 miles isn’t that far (yeah right!). Your body is protesting but your mind is stubborn enough to tell it to go to *$&@ and that you will finish this S.O.B. (sorry for the language mom!!!).

This has been a harder race than my previous 50 milers. The overall pace was more strenuous and I kept looking back to ensure my overall standings starting from about the half way point. More on this later. Mentally this was a good test for my bigger ambitions coming up in the next couple of years.

The day started of beautifully with me waking up next to my beautiful wife and daughter, and they both slept in peace, which didn’t happen too often in those days. It’s like they knew that I needed a good night sleep to compete in the following day’s ultra-marathon just outside of Sioux Falls. I
 was tempted to simply go back to bed and sleep in until 6am! Imagine that!

My gear (with Gloves!!!)
Both how tired I was the morning of the race
and the morning after the race!
No, I got up a good 3 hours before sunrise to make sure that I can prep correctly prior to the race by going through my gear, map and breakfast arrangements. Christina’s dad enthusiastically volunteered to be my crew for the day and my single goal was to not ruin the day for him. If he semi-enjoyed the day, I would be able to count on him in the future for other races. He was up before I came downstairs and coffee was already brewing and the day had started out perfectly. We were out of the door within 10 minutes and back in(!) within another two as he asked me if I planned on bringing gloves, which were just hanging out in the hallway closet. Of course, he thought about the little aspect that I would’ve simply forgotten. But, it was only around 15F outside and gloves would probably turn out to be a good idea.

We conversed on our way out of town on commented on the ever declining gas prices but fell more and more silent the closer we got to the starting line in anticipation of the race start. I anxiously tied my shoes and shouldered my water pouch and we entered the local winery to receive the pre-race instructions. The rules were pretty straight forward and wouldn’t cause an issue throughout the day, It was interesting seeing the competition shuffle nervously from one foot to the next or in quite contrast calmly checking their Facebook newsfeed as the race director let us know what to expect on the course. Shortly after, we assembled at the starting line. As everyone was cautiously holding back, I didn’t mind taking the point at the starting line, and with the sound of the gun we were off.

The first half mile was probably the fastest split of the day for me. Even though I lined up knowing that I should not go out too fast, I always try to break the mile world record at the beginning of the race. So far, no luckJ.

me right after the start, going out too fast
Needless to say, I took the lead immediately. I thought that was quite alright if I now could hold on to it for about 31 miles. Unfortunately we crossed a creek after a half a mile, and since I couldn’t follow anyone, since I was being awesome winning the race and all,  I didn’t’ know quite where to go and stumbled my way back onto the road, where I was quickly over- taken. Alright. Second place is not that bad. Now I noticed my rather high heart rate and that I should really slow down to catch my breath. Otherwise I would definitely blow up later on in the race, jeopardizing the possibility of even finishing. Within 10 minutes of doing so, the next person shuffled by me. The Ultra-marathoner’s fragile mindset set in right way and I knew everyone else was going to pass me, but I was able to catch up on the ensuing downhill and I trailed the leading lady for the next 3 miles to overtake her after the turnaround point to settle into second place. I could only see the leading guy in the far distance. Either he bit off more than he can chew and I will catch him towards the end of the race, or he will easily win the race.

That early turn around after 3 miles allowed me to gauge the remaining competition. I had expected that a couple fast runners from Omaha would show their cards at this point, but I never figured out if they didn’t run hard enough or simply didn’t want to go for it. Either way, I had a good feeling that this was a 3-person race. The leader, myself and the leading lady.

After about 6 miles we returned to the starting line and my father-in-law professionally passed on to me my exchange water bottle, asked me what else I needed and told me that the guy ahead of me was about 4 minutes ahead. A perfect crew chief! The following rolling hills weren’t necessarily my strength and I lost visual contact with the leader. I had a short confusion at an intersection but luckily settled for the correct turn and continued on my way.

For fun I raced a couple of bikers from the Fat-Bike race which happened simultaneously. We went up the next big hill and I actually beat them to the summit, before they left me in the dust on the following descend.

I was surprised to see my father-in-law again after only 10 miles, but it was a great mental boost as the monotone gravel road had taken its’ toll and I slowed down to pedestrian shuffle. After meeting him I stormed up the biggest climb of the day. While climbing, I could see the 3rd place in the distance, which made me feel a strange mix of confidence and anxiety, as it was a good distance after 10 miles, but nothing to feel safe about.

To my surprise I reached the summit, took a left turn and was 30 feet behind the leader! Holy crap! I must’ve mountain-goated that ascend to make up that big difference! I was feeling it!

On the ensuing downhill, the leader looked back and simply left me in his dust. He quickly opened a 2 minute gap, which turned in to a 4 minute gap by the next aid station at the half way point. After the race he told me that he had taken the wrong turn and went off course. That’s why I popped in right behind him, which also explains why he was able to separate so quickly from me again. Turns out he had qualified for Boston before and entered to run the “Boston Marathon of Ultras, the Western States 100 Endurance Run” in California. As with Boston, you also have to qualify to run it, which I have done before, but need to enter the lottery and auction off your first-born in order to have a shot at getting a coveted spot, as only a couple hundred runners every year get to participate.

I spent a generous 10 seconds at the aid station refilling my bottles as I was trying to catch up to the leader. The course at this point was a stretch of 3 miles of straight gravel road. So despite the 7 minute difference he worked up, I could clearly see him straight ahead. What an agonizing feeling. So close, but yet so far!

A local farm dog encouraged me to speed up during the next mile or so as he wouldn’t stop trailing me while barking profusely. I know, barking dogs won’t bite, but why take a risk. That was probably my second fastest mile of the day!

I shed the protective dog and took a turn into the wind coming from the east. From now on I kept glancing back hoping to hear the dog bark at the next runner in order to know how far ahead I was. I never did hear the dog. I didn’t know if that meant that there wasn’t a runner or if they were just too far behind to hear. Either way, the leader was out of sight and I was approaching the 20 mile mark and I noticed that I had neglected my nutrition throughout the day. I bonked pretty hard and was glad that the next aid station had sugar loaded gels to get me back on my feet.  My father-in-law encouraged me to keep going at the 22 mile point, while he had become friends with a local lab, which came out of nowhere. He later told me that the dog vanished as quickly as he appeared in the first place.  At the aid station at 24 miles, the aid station attendant told me that the guy ahead was long gone, but that I wasn’t looking “too bad” (that’s code for: Man, you’re done!)  

Tired, hurting and overall whiny...
I walked the next mile. I am not proud of it, but I conceded the victory to the guy ahead of me. Well, really I was in no place of conceding as he was in a place of clinching victory, Knowing I would completely blow up heading into the wind, trying to keep up with the fast pace I had initiated, I took solace in the fact that I needed that short rest, physically, and mentally in order to keep off the 3rd place runner.

I reached the base of the second climb of the highest peak of the day (same as earlier, but from a different diredction) and started nervously looking back. This is not that mindset you want to have during a race. Look ahead, not back!

Anyways, I could see the next runner about 1.5 miles back and knew that distance could easily be made up if I didn’t keep my pace. The bicycle racers for the 100k started passing me after I was done with the descend and I asked each one how far the next runner was behind me. Interesting enough, each one had a different answer ranging from 10 minutes to a good hour. That turned out to really not be helpful at all. That portion of the race was mentally as draining as could be I ran scared. It is more fun chasing someone than keeping someone off your tail. \

I had about 5 miles to go and more bikers kept confusing me to the point where I told myself that the next runner deserved 2nd place if they caught me. That’s not necessarily a winning strategy, but it kept me going for the next 3 miles. The next biker told me that the runner behind was a lady, and only 3 minutes behind. HOLY CRAP!I could almost feel her breath on my neck!

I had maybe 3 miles to the finish and I started going for broke. I could’ve cramped at any point but altered my running gait from decline to incline depending on the situation and simply started eating up distance. I didn’t dare looking back. I faintly hoped to make out a figure in the distance ahead of me, but had not look with doing so. I was fighting for second place. With about a half mile to go, another biker passed me and told me no one was behind me for another 45 minutes or so (the next runner had taken a wrong turn! This is horrible for a runner’s psyche, but is necessary to develop your mental game!). It set in to me that I was going in for a second place overall after all.

For a moment I got quite emotional as I saw my father-in-law at the finish line taking pictures of me coming in and I was simply elated by breaking my personal record for the 50K and having him in that spot supporting me.

He ended up taking a sweet picture of me crossing the finish line, which he gave me framed for Christmas a few weeks later and is standing on my wife’s desk at work now (makes me feel awesome!).

The leader beat me by a good half hour and I gapped the 3rd place by another half hour. I think if I focus on my marathon training in 2015, I should be able to compete for the top spot next December. We’ll see.

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