Saturday, January 30, 2016

Riddlebox 50K 2015

The wet cold gravel crunched below the soles of my moccasins. The wind bit at my exposed face and throat. I was headed uphill, lowering my head to shield my face from the sub-freezing temperatures that were thrown at me by a mighty headwind.
I've been in need of some warmth for what seemed to be an eternity...

In need of extra clothing!!!! Even before the race!
...It turned out I was only in the parking lot of the Calico Skies Winery, where the Riddlebox 50K would be held today. I had left my car a mere 48 seconds ago and was wondering about my decision to sign up for an outdoor ultramarathon in South Dakota in December. Several Fat Bike racers where next to me unloading their equipment. I've been intrigued by the fat bikes for a good year now and will likely get a hold of one somehow in the future. A colleague of mine, Eduardo, owns one and has offered it to me for a test ride. I will take him up on it soon and possibly (likely, I mean, they are awesome!) develop a love for yet another sport.
However, these guys seemed better prepared clothing wise than I was. Granted they would be traveling at a higher speed and thus experience a higher velocity induced cold (sounds smart, doesn't it?) than me, but what's this difference between 12 degrees or 5? At some point everything goes numb.

I entered the winery and almost (!) immediately stopped my internal complaining. This was a low-key event to top off a great year in running for me and really just wanted to get another 50K into my results book. For a long time, I've been chasing this elusive feeling of redlining during a race, yet feeling as if you're floating at a seemingly unsustainable pace. That, is to date the best way that I have found to describe the phenomenon that is called the "Runner's High". You forget all pain, and are just moving along, effortlessly, disregarding the previous discomfort and exhaustion levels. Do not make big decisions in this state of mind! It may take a while to pay off :).
Of course, I had my race goals. I always had and always will have a personal goal. I targeted a sub 4hour 31.2 mile (50km) race for the first time in my life. Just this year I improved my 50K PR from 5:07 (last year's Riddlebox) to 4:35h during the Sandhills 50K in North Dakota. Meaning, I thought that my training was good enough for a 36 min PR. Ambitious. I had recently PR'd at the half marathon and marathon distances, so I knew it's possible, but everything would need to click today. The relaxing realization was that if I didn't, I may just not write about it :).

Additionally, it helps to have a B-goal and a C-goal, and depending on your commitment level (D through H goals).

A goal: Sub 4 hours
B goal: PR (sub 4:35h)
C goal: Pace below 8min/mile

It was a small field and we joked around while trying to stay warm at the starting line. The signal was given and off we went. My friend Jill went off with determination and took the overall lead, letting everyone know she means business today. I followed her and we chatted through the early rolling hills. After a few minutes of dialog we both put our heads down and went after our goals that day. Having researched the course, I knew I had some more smaller hills coming and wanted to get through them without expanding too much energy, while simultaneously beginning to gap the remainder of the field. See, I didn't write it down as a goal, but I really wanted to win this one after placing 2nd the year before. However, I would've been happy placing last as long as I got a new PR.

luckily this guy wasn't in the race. I wouldn't have had a shot!

Early on, we encountered a handful of turns at which you were able to look back and see the remaining runners. Usually I use that to my advantage in a chase situation. I hadn't led a field before other than one 5K in the summer. I reversed the situation and tried to estimate the lead I had on the rest of the runners. By looking at my watch while taking a turn, I kept looking back to time the point at which they would hit that same turn. This way I could gauge over a few miles if I was making any progress or not.

Multiple times in the next few miles I remembered the same stage of the race last year, only that I was running behind and not ahead. Looking back (not time wise, but actually over my shoulder, I could see a familiar figure emerging. Ed, in his running kilt was moving smoothly and looked strong.

Good doggy. Please don't bite. I'll run faster because of you
I passed a small farm with a seemingly rabid dog who chased me down the gravel road for a good quarter mile. The same dog helped me measure my distance to Ed once more, as I simply waited until I could hear that all too familiar bark by now and I knew I was slowly getting away. I ran through the first aid station and greeted the people there. I can imagine running in these conditions. I cannot imagine attending to some crazies like us in the same conditions. It takes a special grit to do that. My hat is off to the volunteers. Before the race I gave my wife a map of the race and gave her 3 points of possible with estimated times. I'm happy to say that I had the 5.47 mile mark on the spot at 9:42am exactly. This was extremely encouraging in my pursuits that day.

We had our steepest climb coming up and I made sure to not worry about pace, but make smaller steps and keep my heart rate low. We were just at the 6 mile point and I had 25+ miles to go. No need to burn all the fuel now.

Pre-race planning
I took my pace down that hill quite liberally and extended my gate and really ran by feel and enjoyment. It's a thrill running downhill while having to navigate crevasses, rocks and all other inconsistencies that the trail had to offer.

I was running up a gradual and consistent uphill for the next mile and half and knew that I could really do some damage here. If I didn't exert myself too much here, but still put forth a good effort, I could gain double the time than on a flat surface. My goal was to lose Ed by the next aid station.

We were facing a strong and cold air bearing head wind which made our endeavor even harder than it needed to be. I looked for the positive and thought through the prep I had done leading up to the race. I knew where the hills were on the re-routed race course and the weather for the day. I was headed north and the wind, as predicted, was coming toward us merciless. I skipped the next aid station for two reasons. I had plenty of fluid left until mile 20 and I knew I could gain valuable time by running through this one, anticipating that the pursuit group was going to stop for a brief moment. Also, I was now headed east and no longer had the wind to content with.

On the next bridge crossing, I almost ate gravel because I looked towards the next aid station, which was pretty special. Now, they had water, which is what we runners usually look for. But their line-up of PBR and whiskey was enticing as well. As soon as I tried to zero in on them, I forgot my footing and slid for what seemed forever (one second maybe?) on some ice. I resorted to only water (it was a race after all) and went on my way.

Every road intersection I saw in the distance I targeted as a new goal. Get there before the bikes. The Fat Bike 50K racers were unleashed an hour after us runners. I was clicking off the miles and was super excited that no one was in view. I put my head down and pushed forward. Close to the mile 20 aid station I finally heard a smooth whizzing behind me and knew the first biker had arrived. By the time I turned around, he was past me and sped away. He looked strong and I took a lot of motivation from it. A mere 10 miles from the finish and I could cap this endeavor off.

This was also the turning point and I had 7 miles to go south. That means WITH the wind. I really started throwing caution in the wind and accelerated. Even hitting a small paved road section and I was confident in my race. I hit the marathon mark at 3:20, which was my second best marathon time ever. I knew I was doing well now!

I just had to close out. I was approaching the last few miles that had a few nasty hills and I contended myself by finally running on my special "Running" playlist on my Ipod. It helped my through some twitching calves and before I knew it I was headed down the final descent seeing Christina and Leiana in the distance and a wave of emotions overcoming me. I crossed the finish line in a personal best 3:57 (goal A!) winning my first ultramarathon ever. Having my girls there made it all the more special. My main goal for getting faster is for them not having to wait so long for me :).
One of the few ultras where I actually have both feet of the ground! 

This is a great end-of-the-year race and I look forward to partaking in the years to come. Kamp, the race director, looked out for us throughout the race and really put together and nice course in the Iowa country side.

Looking forward to next year!

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