Preparation for a race can take on many more layers than I ever anticipated when I started taking running more serious about 3 years ago. With every passing race I get a bit more into the data I have accumulated over time and look for new ways to gain the slightest edge over my previous performance (at times geeking out about facts & figures that end up not mattering, but oh well)
|reviewing previous race splits, weather reports, & the impact of daylight savings time on my race weight (not true :) )|
The Sandhills 100K has been on my planned race list for a little over a year. As I prepare for my first 100 Mile (160km) race later this year, I wanted to gradually increase my race distances and improve my times on the shorter distance to build strength to withstand the impact 100 miles can have on your body and mind. The last thing I want is harming my body long-term. A mindful training and racing plan will help prolong my running career.It was a serious enough race to require mandatory gear. To a certain healthy extent, I gained even further appreciation for the distance. We needed:
- 1.5 liter hydration
- headlamp (w/ spare batteries/ oh great, night running!)
- cell phone
- emergency whistle
- extra socks
- extra outer layer
- extra mid layer
Last year I ran the Sandhills 50K in order to re-con the course and race environment to set myself up well for the 100K the following year. Through the 50K, I knew 50% of the course and I was able to explore a little more of the course on a couple of occasions when I travelled to North Dakota for work.
A fresh layer of snow covered the ground at the campground where the racers mingled pre-dawn. Forecast had the wind-chill all day below freezing with 15-20mph wind coming from the North. What else could you be doing on a Saturday morning in March than run 100km in freezing temperatures through North Dakota? (Well maybe sleeping in, eating pancakes and watching Netflix)
It’s an out-and-back course, meaning you run from point A to B and back to A. The first and last 17 miles of the course are through rolling Sandhills (hence the race name) in the Sheyenne National Grasslands 45 minutes outside of Fargo, ND. The Sandhills have the nasty characteristic of being runnable. Larger hills on other courses allow you to slow down and catch your breath while power-hiking. These hills were gentle in incline, but what they lacked in elevation they made up for in frequency.
By the mile 26 aid station, I caught the runner up-front as he stopped for water and I cruised past the aid station and crossed the highway to the next trail head. Here, the first 50K runners were greeting me as they were headed the opposite way. It was a very uplifting feeling to hear their encouragements, but I had gotten ahead of the other runner and was now in the dreaded position I described earlier. I tried to catch a glimpse on where he was whenever I could and this made me stumble over the many cow pies a couple of times as I wasn’t watching my steps. I must’ve had a good 2-3 minute lead now and wanted to use the wind in my back to keep the momentum going into the turn-around point. Now that I knew he takes a few minutes at each aid station, I wanted put a noticeable distance between us to set myself up well for the second half of the race. At the 31mile turn around, I had lost sight of him and rummaged through my drop bag, which I had filled with some Coca-Cola, caffeinated energy-gels and chicken broth (for sodium, as I was diluting my blood by drinking lots of water). My father-in-law met me with some refreshing sweet-tea and I gulped down a good half liter of it. Great thinking on his part! The added sugar would help restore my carbohydrate storage. I spent a mere 2-3 minutes re-fueling and filling up my pockets with exactly the amount of food I needed for the remainder of the race. Heading back out, I immediately noticed the head-wind. The temperature felt like it had dropped 20 degrees and the next 15 miles were going to be nasty. 4:28h had passed and I was 32 minutes ahead of schedule. I felt elated, but knew I wasn’t going to duplicate this time on the way back. My legs were tired and I had a little more than a half-marathon ahead of me going into the wind (before running another 17 through sandhills). Running with the head down for most of this stretch, I finally noticed the numerous cow pies lining the trail. I thought certain spots had felt "squishy" earlier.
On my way out the other runner and I greeted each other and I estimated a 5-6 minute lead on him. The next few miles weren’t so pretty, because my legs were on the edge of seizing up on me and I couldn’t push as much as I wanted. I had to be content with going easy pace until they would loosen up again. I met the 3rd place about 45 minutes later and knew that it meant a 1:30h lead on him, which made me feel confident that I would get away with a podium finish today unless I messed up later on.
The wind was relentless and chilled me to the bone. Having taken off a layer earlier, I was glad that it had dried by this point and it was a much needed relief. Looking at the weather report had definitely paid off big time! After I passed through the aid station at mile 37 I needed to stop every other mile and stretch out my legs. They weren’t getting any better and I rather spent a few seconds on them now than having bad cramps later on that could derail the entire race. A couple of these took longer that anticipated. Time seemed to fly by and I swear I could've watched all of Netflix in that time span. Nevertheless, trudging on, I came across the railroad tracks again and about 7-8 minutes after another train passed. I couldn’t see the end of it and it gave me a boost of confidence as it meant that the next runner couldn’t have crossed the tracks yet and I most certainly must be increasing my lead. However, due to these frequent stops, my paranoia grew that the other runner would catch up with me eventually and I would've not been in any position to stay with him.
I never did see him and eventually got to the mile 46 aid station, where I met Bill again. Filling my empty bottles now with defizzed coke (yum!) I noticed that the other’s runner crew wasn’t there. He must be further behind than I thought! Well, only roughly 16-17 miles to go from here. About 6:54h have passed at this point and since I only had to cover roughly 4 miles, a new 50 mile personal best was definitely happening (previous was 9:04h). I celebrated for a brief moment when I reached that point and must’ve looked pretty funny if someone were to see me from far away. I was leaning against a fence post stretching my ever-aching calves and generally looking drained, but fireworks were going off in my head and I must’ve had the strangest mixture of elation and agony in my eyes. One of the many conundrums I love about running these absurd distances. Another 4 miles later, I started feeling much better and simply waved at the last aid station attendants and knew I was on my last hour of running. My strategy was to use my last „kicker“ once I hit the bridge crossing the little creek. I had chosen a specific fast paced play list on my Ipod (Justin Bieber, One Direction, Taylor Swift :) )and once my ear buds went in and the music started, my feet seemingly got lighter. My previous „kickers“ were the sugar in the sweet tea, the caffeine in my gels in the second half, the sugar & caffeine in the coke and now the music. It was an extreme mental boost each time I reached the checkpoint where I had decided to implement them!
I got additional motivation since I started passing several 50K runners that were at the end of their race as well. Their encouraging words pushed even further. I crossed the final road with 3.7miles to go and Bill was waiting to cheer me on one last time before the finish. In order to shed some weight, I channeled my inner frat party mentality and chugged the remaining fluids out of my bottles and tossed them to him. Checking my watch it was exactly 9h elapsed. I set my goal to finishing in 9:30h. This last segmented goal gave me yet another boost to push further. My calves approached the brink of cramping, but I was lucky to being able to balance the fine line between going at the limit and going just over it.
The last rolling hills were brutal and I kept trying to remember what this area looked liked in order to predict when the finish should be coming around the corner. I couldn’t trust my watch anymore at this point as the GPS got all wonky on me and started showing that i was running 3minute miles (impossible world record pace) and I ended up with 94 miles apparently.
The race director congratulated me and I returned the gesture and thanked him for a great organized race. Bill met me and I got changed quickly as my body was cooling down quickly now. The camp fire next to the finish line was a welcomed sight. Bill and I mingled for a little bit with some of the 50K runners (including my friend Scott, who I ran the 50K with the year prior).
Bill and I headed home and reminisced about the race for a while and I learned that the other runner had dropped at the 37 mile aid station. Had I learned this about 3 hours earlier, I wouldn’t have had to endure that discomfort on the last 20 miles or so. Still, I likely wouldn’t have been able to go under 10 hours either. It’s truly amazing what motivation can get the body to do. I hope he recovers quickly and does well in his 100 miler in Minnesota.
I was very fortunate to finish the longest race I have ever attempted in a decent time of 9:30h and in first place. Surpassing my previous 50mile PR and having a race where everything seemingly clicked made this a truly special event for me. I am very happy that i got to share this with Bill on-site and Christina and Leiana over the phone screen. Now, I rest my legs with some biking, walking and swimming in California for a few days and then back at it!