Monday, December 29, 2014

Fall Recap: A Wedding, a Fat-Ass, and a Six Second PR



So 2014 has come to a close, and with it, the sudden realization that I haven't posted anything on this blog for nearly three months. While in the past few months I haven't been keeping up the mileage quite so much since Green Lakes, that isn't to say I haven't been keeping busy. The highlight of the fall is not running related, but it wouldn't be right not to mention that Hayley and I got married in early September. Wedding preparations, followed by a honeymoon, caused me to take a running break for a few weeks, and subsequently a blogging break ensued. (Bonus link: Strava GPS data for my flight from Philadelphia to the Dominican Republic.)

The first running-related highlight of the fall season was volunteering at the Virgil Crest Ultras. The day before the 50M and 100M trail races, my friend Rusty and I had the pleasure of checking the already-placed course markings on VCU's south half, AKA the alpine section. This entailed running/hiking up and down the ski slopes of Greek Peak in three different places, then running along the singletrack and dirt roads to The Rock Pile - an aid station at the 25 mile mark of the VCU that marks the turn-around point for the out and back. (50 milers run the out-and-back once, 100 milers run it twice.) The 15 or so miles that we slowly covered was itself a solid workout.

Atop the slopes of Greek Peak

The day of the race, RD Ian assigned me a spot at the Hitching Post aid station, mile 6 and 44 for all the runners, plus mile 56 and 94 for the 100 milers. The 6:00pm shift brought in most of the slower 50 milers who'd been out on the trails for 12+ hours already, and many 100 milers who were only about halfway finished. Some of them looked so fresh like they'd just started out and others looked like death. Handing out food, beverages, and encouragement to these people felt almost like Christmas. For any runner reading this who has never volunteered at an ultramarathon, all I can say is get out there and volunteer. It was such an incredible experience to watch these athletes pushing themselves to the extreme, to the edge of breaking down completely, and (for many of them) still keeping smiles on their faces. Additionally, having been in the runners' position before, I could empathize with them. I could feel the karma that comes with giving back to this running community who has helped me through the trail races I've done. Knowing that I could not have completed a single one of my ultras without the dedicated aid station volunteers, it felt so right to give back to the runners who were pushing themselves to the limit. Spending the evening in a lantern lit tent was highly satisfying, and I would have loved to stay all night if I didn't have a job to go to. I certainly won't forget this volunteer experience and will be writing more on Virgil Crest in the near future. I promise.

Some words of wisdom at The Hitching Post.


***

On October 5, Hayley and I drove out to Oneonta for the Pit Run 5K/10K, which happens to be the first race I've run of any distance, in the fall of 2005. Back then, I had been running for a year and had no idea what to expect. I finished that first 10K with nothing left in the tank and loved every second of it. To finally come back to this race brought a high level of nostalgia.

Hayley's friends invited us to run it with them, so Hayley entered the 5K and I the 10K. I used the road race as a warmup for the Empire State Marathon that I would be running a few weeks later, which I'd neglected to train for. The mile long hill up East Street was worse than I remembered and I suffered dearly for it, quickly dashing my hopes of grabbing an age group award and a 10K PR. The lackluster 43:37 result gave me reason dread Empire State and the long, painful run that was inevitable only two weeks later.

***

A few days later, I drove down to the Catskills and met Adam so we could check Kaaterskill High Peak off our to-do list. Here's a few pics from Kaaterskill.




***

Against my better judgement, I then jumped into the Danby Down and Dirty 20K trail race that weekend, only a week removed from the Pit Run. Held in Danby State Forest in (you guessed it) Danby, NY, the DD&D is the season finale of the Finger Lakes Runners Club Trail Circuit. The reasoning was that if Empire State is going to be Hell on two legs, I might as well live it up on the trails and complete a race I might actually enjoy before the trails get covered in that infamous Upstate New York snow.

The starting line of the DD&D saw many familiar faces, and like many of the races in the Trail Circuit, the only competition was of the friendly nature. The race consists of a 10K and 20K, both starting together and following the same singletrack course along the Finger Lakes Trail's main trail and an FLT side trail called the Abbott Loop. However, the second loop of the 20K is not just a repeat of the first loop, but but an entirely new loop altogether. I ran the first loop at a comfortable pace, then decided to to pick it up a bit and see how many runners I could catch over the last 10K. Surprisingly, I did not encounter a single runner during the second half, despite having 68 finishers and me taking a wrong turn and having to backtrack uphill. I finished in a few seconds over two hours. Another trail run in the books.

***

Next up was the Empire State Marathon, in Syracuse, NY on October 19. This flat road race was the first marathon I ever ran, three years prior. I signed up for the 2014 edition after once again not making the cut in the NYC Marathon lottery.  I had low expectations for myself going into this race, given the lack of high mileage in general (and road running in particular) since late August. Since Greek Lakes, my longest run was a single 20 miler on the roads three weeks earlier. Running hard and breaking four hours at Empire State seemed like a reasonable goal, but it was still no guarantee.

I decided I would run comfortably for the first 20 miles without focusing on my watch and then give whatever was left for the last six miles. I barely glanced at my Garmin until about eight or nine miles and was surprised to see that I was averaging an eight minute pace, good enough for a sub 3:30 finish. I was determined to run by feel and refused to check my watch between mile markers. At each mile marker up through mile 17, I checked my time and somehow every single mile was within between 7:50-8:10.

Somewhere near the halfway point.
Around mile 17, I came to the turn-around at one of the out-and-back sections to cover the same four miles I had just run, but in the opposite direction. This section was on a paved pathway adjacent to the south shore of Onondaga Lake, and the the headwind was horrendous now that I was facing west. My pace slowed considerably over the next three miles, and all of the sudden, the sub 3:30 seemed impossible. As a last ditch effort, I downed a caffeinated GU gel shortly before the 20 mile mark. What happened next was nothing short of miraculous. I felt like Popeye downing that sweet, sweet can of spinach. Within a minute or two, the pain and fatigue vanished and I was in a full on runner's high. I took off in reckless abandonment.





About five minutes later, I came upon a crowd of spectators that included Hayley and her Aunt Nancy. Paranoid that I would lose the high, I simply yelled that I felt great and would find them at the finish. I took off down the road and ran each of the last six miles faster than I had run any of the first 20. I never in my life thought I'd feel that good near the end of a marathon. Most of this stretch was a flat straightaway for several miles. I passed scores upon scores of runners who looked like the walking dead, strewn about the highway while barely able to remain upright. Some were marathoners battling the dreaded wall, others were back of the pack half marathoners who'd been running for almost three hours. Filled to the brim with excessive energy, I shouted encouragement to many of them. I ran a few of these miles with another guy who identified himself as John, and we decided to try and pace eachother to a sub 3:30.

I ended the day with a 3:29:37 official time - good enough for a near-even second half split, and more importantly, a six second marathon PR. Although the only competition here was myself, it once again goes to show that every second can count, even in a long race like this. Two months later, I'm still trying to wrap my head around that last six miles, but for now I'll take it.

***

The final fall adventure of note was my fat-ass debut - The Wagathon Fatass Trail Run. For the uninitiated, a fat-ass is an organized run, usually on trails and of ultramarathon distance, that has a pre-set course but is not really a race. The general consensus is that to truly be a fat-ass, the run must have no entry fee or prizes. Most fat-assses are not timed events, which means that runners can start at whatever time they choose and aim to finish around the same time of day as everyone else. Such was the case with The Wagathon.

From what I can tell, the purpose of The Wagathon is to show off some of the incredible scenery in the Shawangunk area of the Hudson Valley, in southeastern New York. The pre-planned 29 mile course runs point-to-point from Sam's Point Preserve to downtown Rosendale. It runs northeast along the Shawangunk Ridge, through Minnewaska State Park and the Mohonk Preserve and ends in front of the Red Brick Tavern in Rosendale. While atop the ridge, one can see the valley and Hudson River to the east and some of the Catskill high peaks to the northwest.The course also includes five separate rock scrambles, adding to the difficulty of an already technical set of trails.

Adam invited me down to his place for the weekend in order to run the Wagathon. The day before the run, he introduced me to rock climbing at Minnewaska State Park. I learned how to tie the rope to my harness and belay another person, and learned how to look for seemingly invisible footholds and handholds to scale various vertical outdoor rock walls. The experience was kind of painful and at times nerve racking, but it's something I'd definitely try again.

The next day, we set out from Sam's Point around 8:30 AM. Adam was already familiar with the course so we rarely had to check our map for directions. (In true fat-ass fashion, the Wagathon route was sparsely marked. Carrying a map or memorizing the route was critical.) Since time didn't matter, we took it easy, walked whenever we felt like it, admired the scenery, and talked with other runners along the course, including one of the organizers. As a result we didn't finish until the early evening. Upon finishing, we proceeded to gorge ourselves on real food at the Red Brick Tavern and socialize with other runners, while being awarded Wagathon bumper stickers as finishers' prizes. This was Adam's first ultra distance run and we both had a great time running it. I'm hoping to make it back down to the Gunks in April for the Wagathon's sister run, The Springletrack Fat-Ass Trail Marathon.
Ready to roll out. (Photo: Erica Harlec)



One of five rock scrambles.





***

I'm not really one for New Year's resolutions, but I do hope to start writing blog posts with more frequency. As I write this, I am taking a few weeks off for recovery. I'm looking forward to trying out some new gear I got for Christmas and maybe write about some of those items, as well as some big running goals for 2015. In the meantime, happy trails and Happy New Year!

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Just Beat It: Chasing a PR at Green Lakes






They told him don't you ever come around here
Don't wanna see your face, you better disappear
The fire's in their eyes and their words are really clear
So beat it, just beat it

Such was the the gospel according to Michael Jackson that played on repeat in my head for much of the 50K race. The wisdom was a constant reminder not to hang around the aid stations too long, to keep running whenever I felt a walk break was necessary, and most importantly, to finish ahead of my time at the same race last year. "Just beat it." I had blasted the song on the short car ride to the park, and needless to say, the 1982 hit provided adequate fuel and motivation to get me going at the predawn 6:00AM start.

The Green Lakes Endurance Runs 50K and 100K participants started together, with the 50Kers covering four loops around Green Lakes State Park and the 100Kers running eight loops. This allowed for a conveniently placed drop bag at the start/lap area, which could be accessed at the end of every loop, or about 7.75 miles. The course was primarily flat, double-wide park trails, with a bit of hills and single track mixed in. Held on August 23, the GLER also served as the fifth race out of eight in the USATF Niagra Ultra Series. The park is located in Fayetteville, NY, just east of Syracuse, and the race is put on by the club Ultrarunning Matters.


Pre-race, I met up with four of my fellow FLRTC teammates. Craig and Amy were stoked to have arrived at long last at the starting line of their first ultras, as was Amy's friend and training partner Jen. (Amy's race report can be found here.) Chris has run more lifetime ultras than anyone can count, and she was tackling the 100K while the rest of us were "only" there for the 50.


FLRTC teammates. (L-R) Amy, Craig, me, Chris

You better run, you better do what you can
Don't wanna see no blood, don't be a macho man
You wanna be tough, better do what you can
So beat it, but you wanna be bad

The first lap was pretty easy going, with the first 20 minutes or so in limited daylight. I made the mistake of leaving my handheld in my bag near the lap area, thinking I wouldn't need it, but the unexpected humidity had me wishing for water after about a mile. First lesson of the day: "Bring the damn bottle even if you don't think you'll need it." The first loop went easily enough, however, and I finished the lap in 1:08, just a little behind pace for the 4:30 finish I was aiming for. After swapping my shirt for my handheld bottle, I took off again.

Lap two again felt easy, while MJ continued to play on repeat in my head. At times I imagined I was one of those extras in Back to the Future 2, stuffing food down my mouth and peddling hard on the stationary bike in the Cafe 80's. This while "Beat It" blared over the restaurant speakers as Marty walked in and was confronted by an elderly Biff Tannen.



An eclectic  imagination, I know, but it kept me going to a 1:06 second lap. I crossed the midway point in 2:15:18, nearly right on target. I knew a negative or even split in an ultra is a rare feat, but I felt I had the reserve energy to make it happen. I was tempted to linger and rest up at the race HQ aid station, but the King of Pop's words proved more powerful than my will to stay.

Just beat it, beat it,
No one wants to be defeated
Showin' how funky strong is your fight
It doesn't matter who's wrong or right
Just beat it

After cruising down the flat path along side the park's two lakes, I took a left to follow the course up the steepest (and only significant) hill. It was here that I finally felt the onset of fatigue. The funky strong was now gone from my fight. After having twice run up the hill and, presumably, wasting precious energy in doing so, I was reduced a walk this time around. Second lesson of the day: "Walk the damn hill even if you think you can run it." 17 miles in and suddenly I was having my doubts about that 4:30 finish. I made it up the incline, and a mile and a half later came to the course's section the race director likes to call "The Serengeti." This little three mile stretch runs through flat, grassy trails, but lacks the trees to provide any inkling of shade. The lack of cover in the first two laps didn't matter, but by now the air was warmer and the sun was nearly overhead. It was certainly cooler than the previous year, but still no walk in the park.

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The Serengeti

I came upon the midway aid station, toward the end of the Serengeti stretch. The fresh fruit here was so refreshing and hydrating that I just wanted to gorge myself on oranges and watermelon for the rest of the day. Finally I decided it was time to beat it, and a few forgettable miles later found myself at the end of the third loop in 3:31. The 1:15 third loop dashed any hopes of running sub-4:30. I rested a bit, then pressed on thinking maybe a 4:45 was possible if I somehow got a second wind.


They're out to get you, better leave while you can
Don't wanna be a boy, you wanna be a man
You wanna stay alive, better do what you can
So beat it, just beat it

Now 23 miles into the 50K, I was really starting to hurt. I trudged up the hilly section slower than I ever imagined. I felt like my whole body had been kicked and beaten, and once the rain started falling, it just didn't seem fair. The steady rain quickly turned the dirt to mud. I felt like someone was messing with my psyche, but now it was time to show them I'm really not scared. The 4:45 was history, but I still had a reasonable shot to at least better my 50K PR of 5:15, run at Green Lakes the previous year.

You have to show them that you're really not scared
You're playin' with your life, this ain't no truth or dare
They'll kick you, then they beat you,
Then they'll tell you it's fair
So beat it, but you wanna be bad

"Yes, Michael, I want to be bad." 5:15. Just beat it.

This time around, I was in and out of that final aid station in a flash. I still didn't feel that great, but was hoping to finish as high in the standings as I could. Getting passed while taking a lunch break wouldn't exactly accomplish much. After all, they're out to get you. Better leave while you can.

That coveted surge of energy finally arrived in the home stretch. One of two brief sections of the course where runners go in both directions (outbound and inbound) is on the aforementioned hill. As I was now inbound, I had the pleasure of bombing down it at my leisure. It was here that I encountered Craig power hiking up, near the start of his final lap. We exchanged flying high fives. "You got this!" I screamed. "The fourth time is just a victory lap!"

I soon arrived at the level ground and continued around the lakes for the final one and a half miles. As expected, I had to battle with the urge to walk when my body kept telling me to stop running. The home stretch took a little longer than I had hoped, but made it to the finish in 4:53, far from my original goal but still a formidable PR.

Just beat it, beat it,
No one wants to be defeated
Showin' how funky strong is your fight
It doesn't matter who's wrong or right
Just beat it

I stuck around long enough to see Amy and Craig finish and to cool down with a dip in the lake. By now, the rain had stopped, the sun was shining bright overhead, and the music of The King began to fade gradually. Thus began a slow and steady decrescendo that would never truly reach 0 dB, but merely approach the x-axis on the cusp of human perception as time approaches infinity.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

A Tale of Two Races

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. I recently ran a 15K. Then a week later, I ran another, yielding a slower time but much better result. Both races consisted of putting one foot in front of the other with the goal of traveling from point A to point B as fast as possible. However, the two events could not be more different.The purpose of this post is not to write another race recap, but to attempt to explain the vast differences between trail racing and road racing, as well as the pros and cons of each.

***

Held annually in Utica, NY, since 1978, the Boilermaker 15K Road Race is one of the largest 15K races in the United States. The race has become so popular than online registratrion, capped at 14,000, sold out in about an hour and a half. The 15K attracts runners from all over the world, and its sizable purse brings in East African elite runners who usually end up taking the top places.

Every second weekend on July, the entire city of Utica, (population 60,000) becomes encapsulated in Boilermaker fever. The weekend includes a large expo the day before the race, a National Distance Running Hall of Fame induction ceremony, a pasta party, loads of media coverage, and much more. The 15K course is entirely on roads, with about 450 feet of ascent. It also features a 5K race that starts 45 minutes before the 15K main event and draws the maximum of 4,000 runners. The Boilermaker is a big city race with big swag bags and a big entry fee.

Hayley and me at the Boilermaker expo

By contrast, the Forest Frolic Trail Run snakes through the woods on muddy singletrack, with a bit of dirt roads scattered here and there. 15K runners must deal with mud, roots, loose rocks, and 1,700 feet of climbing. Runners may register up to (and possibly after) the official starting time for an entry fee of $5-$15, depending on whether or not you pre-register. (The exception being in 2013, when the race's 25th anniversary was celebrated with a reduced registration fee of 25 cents.) There is no swag, no prizes, and no finishers' awards save a race bib and the dirt on your shoes.

***

The Forest Frolic starting line brought 146 runners to the woods of Kennedy State Forest in Virgil, NY, and about half of those runners wore a familiar face to me. After some brief announcements, the 7K and 15K runners took off together downhill along a dirt road before turning uphill onto a steep snowmobile trail. The all-too-familiar sense of community was once again present on the trails, and everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves, not worrying at all about split times or passing other runners. No one even seemed to notice the darkening skies and light rain that made its way through the treetops and onto the group of us.

Forest Frolic course map
***

The Sunday morning scene in Utica couldn't be more different. The starting line boasted an additional 13,000 runners, separated into corrals based on expected finishing time. Most were trying to shake off nervous energy, as this was an A-Race for many of them. There was small talk among strangers to relieve some of the excitement, but it was clear that many of my road racing neighbors didn't know one another.

The pre-race announcements were plentiful, complete with the singing of the national anthem, a speech by Utica's mayor, and finally, a gunshot to signal the start. The elites took off immediately, and the endless sea of runners swelled forward as if a dam wall had just been obliterated. The streets became an endless ocean of bobbing heads and brightly colored running apparel. I looked back at the 10,000 odd runners behind me and realized the back-of-the-packers wouldn't be crossing the starting line for another 10-15 minutes. Hayley had already experienced a similar situation 45 minutes earlier, with over 4,000 runners packed in at the 5K starting line.

The scene at the Boilermaker's starting line


***

Less than a mile down the dirt road and and suddenly I was frolicking my way up a 10% grade along a snowmobile trail. I had chosen to run the initial loop in a counterclockwise direction so that the climbing would be short and steep, as opposed the the long and gradual ascent the clockwise trailrunners would need to endure. A $5.00 entry fee AND I get to choose which direction to run! Power to the people. Ten minutes in and I was already left alone with my meandering thoughts and the sound of the breeze through the trees. Ah, the solitude of the trail. I pushed on and occasionally ran along side some other runners and made conversation.

The course here didn't have much for aid stations - just two or three unmanned coolers set up on tables near the road crossings - but really, how much aid do you need? I saw zero spectators along the course and single volunteer, only out there at the crossroads in the center of the figure eight, directing runners where the trails lead in four different directions.

***

The first few miles saw me dodging some runners while being dodged by others. The streets were lined with tens of thousands of cheering spectators, some holding up signs of encouragement aimed at their loved ones. Each mile saw two or three aid stations, and there were plenty more opportunities to grab water, freeze pops, and cans of Utica Club beer from spectators eager to partake in the fun without running in the streets. Every half mile or so brought a live band, DJ, or dance group. The noise along the course was nearly deafening, at least compared to the quiet forest, but it's easy to tune out the din when focusing on one's own performance.

I looked around me, still surrounded by dozens of runners. Many were wearing headphones, trying to power along to their favorite tunes. For a brief moment I almost pitied those that were too lost in their music to take some time to soak in the spectacle that is the Boilermaker - a spectacle in which they are the epicenter. Then I remembered how it can be difficult to distract oneself from the pain and fatigue that comes with running fast. If some people need music to distract themselves and achieve their goal times, then so be it, so long as they don't forget proper race etiquette.

***

A little ways past the 10K mark, I came a to steep climb up Virgil Mountain. I began a fast power hike with the hopes of picking off a few runners that appeared to be struggling further up the incline. I caught up the first first one, but instead of blowing by, made sure he was okay and then helped pace him to the top. I had just climbed some 200 feet to crest the mountain, feeling great and thinking to myself "Please sir, I want some more." The rest of the course was downhill and flat, so I took off at full force hoping to catch another runner or two. About 20 minutes later, I came down the dirt road to the applause of the finish line crowd, comprised  mostly of runners who'd already finished their race and decided to stick around and cheer on their friends and family.

My finishing time was a PR for the course by several minutes, although much slower than any 15K I've ever run on the roads. By this time, the clouds had made way for the sunshine and the sprinkles of rain were long gone. Perfect weather to indulge in some watermelon, socialize, and cheer for the remaining runners.

***

The 10K mark at the Boilermaker found me struggling up an incline feeling deader than a doornail. The winner was likely breaking the tape around that same time. Whenever I took a brief walk break, random strangers would offer encouragement - "Keep moving, you're looking good." "Almost there, keep it up!" "Free beer at the finish." I just nodded and said thanks with a smile on my face. It wasn't worth explaining that I didn't really care about my time and wasn't hurting in the least. It would take more energy explaining why I was out there at all only a week after running a 50 mile trail race.

After crossing the nine mile mark, the final 0.3 miles were downhill between two huge walls of spectators ten deep. I always imaged the finish of the Boston Marathon being something like this. Hundreds of strangers screaming and clapping for everyone coming down that road and through the finisher's chute. The adrenaline rush came from out of nowhere, and as if by magic, the pain and fatigue that plagued me over the last hour suddenly vanished. Looking around, it was obvious that the other runners felt the same energy surge at the same moment. Dozens of us broke into a dead sprint for the final few hundred yards. I followed suit and finished two minutes shy of my 15K road PR.

Each of us was handed a finisher's pin and ushered down the street to the water and food tables, manned by scores of volunteers and vendors. Thousands upon thousands of bottles of spring water and sports drink, packaged fruit cups, and individually wrapped popsicles made for tons and tons of waste. Where were the watermelon, orange slices, and bananas that are found at nearly every trail event?

The aftermath

I kept walking and finally came to the post race party - a live band playing a concert-sized stage, thousands of people walking around, vendors handing out free samples of goods and selling "official" Boilermaker merchandise. I scored some bananas at one of the Price Chopper tables and wandered around until I found Hayley at the front of the stage as planned. Eventually we met up with two of her friends who also ran the 15K, but the other two were nowhere to be found in the massive crowd. We enjoyed some free Saranac beer and stuck around to take some pictures and watch the awards ceremony. When the first raindrops began to fall, it was time to fight our way through the crowd and trek back to the car.

***

Everyone has his or her own preference when it comes to outdoor environments. Some runners enjoy keeping in touch with nature and can't stand the thought of running within five feet of the blacktop. Some live for big city races, massive crowds, and fast finishes. I speculate that whether an individual is more introverted or more extroverted may have something to do with that choice. Others, myself included, prefer to mix things up for a variety of experiences. (Although I do prefer trails, especially during the summertime.) Despite the eco-unfriendly aspects of putting on a large city road race, those types of events certainly have their merits - people who otherwise wouldn't leave their house may sign up for a road race and train for months at a time to prepare, leading to a much healthier and active lifestyle. The prospect of running a road race with friends, a large after-party with free beer, and finisher's awards for all, can be enough to entice people to lace up and head out. So whatever your preference is, get off the computer right now and go make it happen!

Just sipping some beer at 10am on a Sunday



Saturday, July 12, 2014

Keeping the Cows In: A Finger Lakes 50s Race Report

I collapsed into my foldout camping chair with a huge sigh, immediately clawing at my mud soaked shoes. Trying to undo the laces would sap a sizable amount of my remaining energy, but I felt I had no choice. I forcefully sprayed some warm, stale water from my bottle onto the laces to clear away the mud. This allowed me to nimbly pick at the knots and eventually yank both mud ravaged shoes free, tear off my soaking socks, and finally dry my feet. Aaahhh, instant bliss.
After 33 muddy miles on foot, the race offered reprieve in the form of hot food, cold beer, and a respectable 6:10 50K finish. The trail gods gave me a choice: I could simply call it a day here and bask in the sweet summer shade for the remainder of the afternoon, or I could force myself afoot and run/walk/hobble through another 17 miles during the hottest part of the day. So why, then, did I choose the latter? After glancing across the campground to make eye contact with my pacer, it was clear I had unfinished business. Ignoring the Sirens' calls of cold drinks and hot eats, I shoved clean socks and the muddy Kinvaras back onto my feet and Adam and I hit the trail. It was time to get the Hell out of Dodge before common sense set it.

The Finger Lakes 50s consists of three different distances, each distance one to three laps around the Finger Lakes National Forest. Located in the southeast corner of  the Finger Lakes region, The FLNF is the only national forest in New York State. The 16,000 acre forest boasts 30 miles of hiking trails, campsites, fishing sites, and horse riding trails. The race is organized by the Finger Lakes Runners Club and is part of the club's trail circuit.

 

The 50K consists of two 16.5 mile loops around the forest (actually distance about 33 miles), while the 50M is three loops around the same course, plus a half mile "baby loop" to make it an even 50 miles. Both of these races start together at 6:30am, and runners can decide mid-race which distance they want to do. The third option is a 25K single loop that starts at 9:00. Each loop has about 1,300 feet of elevation gain, so the terrain is pretty flat overall. The FL50s course is primarily singletrack, with some dirt roads and paved roads mixed in, as well as three cow pastures and a horse trail. The FL50s is the only race I know of that requires runners to lock fence gates behind them to prevent potential refugee bovine from running amok through the woods. Hence the Finger Lakes 50s tagline - "Don't let the cows out!"

The girls I met during a preview run 3 weeks prior to the race.

Going into the race, I had my mind made up on the 50 mile distance and was determined not to be dissuaded by the reprieve of comfy chairs and abundant hot food at the end of the 50K portion. As if I needed any more motivation, my friend and pacer Adam had driven over three hours to pace me for the final loop, a distance of 17 miles. 

Runners congregated at the Potomac Road starting line shortly before 6:30am. After a few brief announcements, we were underway - 50K'ers and 50 milers together. I tried to hang back as we took off downhill along the dirt road, but also wanted to avoid hitting the singletrack while stuck in the back of the back. After a half mile of downhill, I turned onto the singletrack with the first dozen or so runners and continued to cruise from there. Having run a single loop of the race three weeks prior, I knew the course fairly well. 

Throughout the first loop, I blew through most of the aid stations since it was cool enough that I didn't have to drink much. The two 20oz bottles I carried on my Ultimate Direction hydration vest were enough to get me through the entire first loop. Everyone seemed in good spirits on this loop - the hard work wouldn't begin until lap two. I chatted with some fellow runners, most interestingly a man named Jeff from Pennsylvania. Jeff told me how he is a physiologist and has worked at the Badwater 135 medical tent for each of the past 10 years. 

While the course is mainly in the woods with some dirt roads thrown in, there is one spectacular view of the valley looking out from the second pasture. On a clear morning, one can see the woods and houses below, miles and miles away. I made sure to pause and take in the view each of the three times I passed though this stretch. 

A view of the valley. Photo: Adam Harlec

The main detriment on this course was the mud - and lots of it. There was one stretch about six or seven miles in that was just a mile or so of sloppy goo, the kind that threatens to suck your shoes right off into oblivion. There was no way to avoid it, only to soldier on and try to tread lightly enough to keep both shoes intact and avoid falling face first into the slop. Fortunately I have trudged through this type of mud enough during training runs that I wasn't phased to feel the goo mush through my shoes and between my toes.

Having just run the Cayuga Trails 50 a month earlier, my goal for the FL50 was a modest 11 hours. It was alarming then when I cruised into the Living Room aid station at the end of loop one in a mere 2:45. Knowing the 8:20 finish that I was on pace for was far from my reach, I decided to rest a bit and back it off some for loop two. I'll admit it felt super lame to text Adam my time here, while I had access to my phone. However, he was planning to arrive around noon and I wanted to make sure he'd have enough time to be ready when I finish the second loop. After sitting for five minutes to change socks, refill my water, and down some watermelon and Yerba Mate, I was back on my way. 

I set off for loop two feeling good. The caffeine from the Yerba Mate kicked in right away and the clean socks felt oh-so-refreshing. This time around, the mud was more difficult than ever because of all the runners in front of me plus the 25K runners, who took off from the start about 15 minutes before I got there. I trudged on through at a much slower pace than loop one, all the while thinking how I just had to make it through this loop and then I would cruise home with Adam forcing me to run whenever I'd want to walk. This time around, I spent at least a minute in each aid station and downed food in the form of dates, GU Roctane Gels, electrolyte pills and loads of watermelon. I've decided that watermelon is my new favorite food, at least during trail runs. 

Nice day for a walk in the woods. Photo: Adam Harlec
My pace was dropping fast. I found myself walking even the slightest of inclines, and couldn't force myself to run when I came to the quarter mile stretch up Picnic Area Road. After turning left off the road and out of the overhead sun, I came upon the Backbone Trail - a long, straight and flat stretch designed for riders at the nearby horse camp. This section was easily runnable. I pressed on and came into the Living Room Aid Station/Race HQ to finish loop two in just over six hours. Here, I learned that my FLRTC teammate Ian had won the 50K by a narrow margin, while another teammate, Scott, had successfully competed the 50K (his first ultra. Congrats!) I had the option of stopping and being counted as a 50K finisher, OR continuing on for another loop and completing 50 miles. I did have some doubts about whether or not I'd made it another 17 miles, but considering that I was not yet fully spent and that Adam had driven three hours to pace me, I was determined to try it. Adam was ready to go, so I shoved those doubts aside, ditched my shirt and heavy hydration vest for a handheld, and we were out.
This was my first experience racing with a pacer. I ran the FL50 last year without one. In fact, most 50 milers don't even allow pacers; they're usually only found in races 100 miles and further. As defined by the FL50s race rules, a pacer is allowed to run with a 50 mile runner for the third loop and the half mile baby loop (17 miles total), but can't "mule" for the runner. That is, the pacer can't carry gear, food or water for the runner. Pacers don't pay an entry fee, but must register and sign a waiver. They are given a pacer bib so the volunteers can keep track of people at each checkpoint. 

As we trotted on down the trail, I caught Adam up with how my morning had gone. A time of 3:50 for the remaining 17 miles would net me a sub 10 hour finish. We agreed that, unless the wheels fell off, a 10:30 finish was reasonable. Unfortunately, there was no guarantee the wheels would remain intact at all.

The end stage here was nothing like the last third of the Cayuga Trails 50, where in the absence of a pacer and addition of way more vertical, I reverted to a walk fairly often. I let Adam run on up ahead and imagined I was chasing him for first place. My immediate goal was to keep him in sight, which meant very little walking. Whenever I did have to walk, I'd yell ahead and he'd drop back until I was ready to pick up the pace again. 

Adam snapped some pictures in the second cow pasture, the scenic one. The breezy air in the open field felt amazing on my skin. After exiting the field, I led at my own pace while Adam ran behind me. The walk breaks were becoming more frequent, but I tried to keep them to one or two minutes. At this point I still believed it was possible to break 10 hours. Sub 10 was a huge psychological barrier. I had switched my Garmin watch out for Adam's at the start of the loop, so the math was simple. The watch had to read 17.00 miles in under 3:50. That meant holding a 12:00 minute average pace from our current position to the finish line. 

Photo: Adam Harlec
Don't stop here! This is cow country.  Photo: Adam Harlec

We trotted down the Backbone horse trail and into the Outback Aid Station, with about 36 minutes and 3.5 miles to go. Damn! I had slowed too much and now a 10:15 pace was necessary. My legs were already pretty beat after 46.5 miles, and the hardest part of the course was staring me in the face - the third cow pasture, in which I'd have to run uphill for a quarter mile, through a field of divots and one foot-deep mud. The going became so rough I gave up on the 10 hour finish and decided a PR by over an hour was still a victory. I continued on as the clock ticked down and the mileage climbed up. We made our way downhill through the pines, past the campsites, and around the pond. Despite the futility of a sub-10, I kept close tabs on the Garmin readout and continued to calculate and recalculate the pace I needed to maintain to make it in 10 hours. If only that runners high would miraculously kick in right now. I seemed to be slowing more and more while the necessary pace was getting faster and faster. Hopeless.

Coming in past the pond, I could suddenly hear the finish line music blasting over the PA, right around the corner! Looking down at Adam's Garmin, I realized the distance was way off. It was like a revelation! We had actually travelled a half mile farther than what the watch read, and sub-10 was entirely possible. I turned out of the woods to find the finish line and time clock, 9:54:57 and counting. That meant I had five minutes to complete the half mile baby loop and finish under 10 hours. Tossing my water bottle aside, I felt that familiar adrenaline surge and we took off around the corner, following the baby loop arrow signs. I kept glancing at the Garmin to ensure a sub 10 minute pace. All the while it said my pace was about nine minutes per mile. My legs screamed at me to stop and I could feel my pace gradually slowing, knowing I had plenty of time. Finally, Adam sprinted out of sight to the finish. As I rounded the second-to-last turn, he reappeared screaming "20 seconds! Move or you're not going to make it!" I'd feel smaller than a newborn if I let the Baby Loop beat me now. I dug deep around the final two turns and crossed the line with eight seconds to spare. 9:59:52. 

I couldn't be happier with my time. I bested my vague goal of 11:00 by an entire hour, set a 50 mile PR by 1:22, and beat last year's time at the same race by 2:15. I never knew I was capable of 50 miles in 10 hours, especially after having run another tough 50M a month earlier. 

It feels good to be finished!

I like to think that every ultra is a learning experience for all who run it. (Yes, even for elite runners.) So what did I learn then? 

1. Experience plays a huge part in the later stages of a race this long. Without a doubt. I was able to push my body forward when my brain kept telling it to stop. I knew the running would be minimally painful once I got going. Making progress in this manner helped me in the final third of the Cayuga Trails 50, and I was able to draw from that experience to keep moving on this day. 

2. A pacer can be invaluable. Adam's job was to keep me moving when I was ready to stop, and once moving, to keep me distracted from the pain and fatigue. Keeping an ongoing conversation provided distraction enough. During the final five or six miles, he talked AT me, rather than TO me, while I remained silent or grunted in reply. My energy was too sapped to carry a conversation, but Adam was able to keep me moving.

3. GPS watches can only be trusted so much. Running with them in training or during a race is perfectly fine, but understand they are often inaccurate. The pace displayed at any given moment might be close to your current pace or could be off by several minutes per mile. It's important to be able to run by feel and not rely solely on a watch. (Adam's Garmin Forerunner 110 measured 17 miles as 16.5. For you nerds out there, this means the distance reading was off by 3%.)

Thanks again to the Finger Lakes Runners Club, volunteers, spectators, and Dale Cooper L.M.T. (for the killer post-race massage.) And of course a huge kudos to Adam for selflessly pacing me through the miles of mud. See you on the trails!



P.S. Check out this time lapse video from Vincent Wai Him Hui of Himmhui Photography. It pretty much captures the whole race in under seven minutes.






Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Recovery and Taper

The last couple of weeks I've been engaging in more of a variety of activities to help recover from the Cayuga Trails 50 and prepare for the Finger Lakes 50s 50 miler on July 5. The entire month is sort of a recovery/taper period, without any big training weeks or 20 mile runs. It's important to give the running-specific leg muscles a rest, and this can be done without losing much, if any, fitness. With that said, I did run a couple of local races at a comfortably hard pace in order to get a few "speed sessions" in.

Saturday, June 7, saw the Tortoise & Hare Trail Run at Buttermilk Falls State Park. The course winds up the park's Rim Trail and Bear Trail, ascending about 900 feet in the first few miles, then circles around Lake Treman and descends via the same route. Only a week removed from the Cayuga Trails 50, I felt pretty fresh at the starting line. I definitely felt the fatigue in my legs during the long ascent, but the rest of the way was easy going and I was glad to finish in under an hour. 

I took a few additional rest days and easy runs over the next several days. Thursday evening I again got some speed work in at the YMCA Corporate Challenge in Binghamton, representing the UHS team. I ran pretty well in the 5K road race without going all-out and still felt relatively fresh the next day.

Corporate Challenge 5K. (Photo: Press & Sun-Bulletin)

Saturday, June 14, Hayley and I attended an outdoor yoga class at Cass Park to work on stretching and restorative poses, with some strength work in there as well. That evening I drove out to the Finger Lakes National Forest for a course preview of the Finger Lakes 50s. The race consists of a 16.5 mile loop run once, twice, or three times, depending on which distance the runner signed up for (25K, 50K, or 50 miles, respectively.) The course is a lot of flat single track, but does cross through three gated cow pastures. As part of the trail, the pastures are open to the public provided we stay on the path and make sure to latch the gates at each end of the field as we pass through. I ran one loop through the muddy trails and got stalked by some curious bovines who's home I invaded. Seriously, I was nervous when three or four of these gals started following me up the trail through their pasture, gaining ground on me since it was too muddy to move very quickly. Eventually I made it to the gate and escaped. (Finger Lakes 50s single loop Strava link, for anyone running the race that might be interested.)

The cows started following me right after I took their picture.

Sunday morning I woke up early and decided on the spot to cross-train by biking to Robert Treman State Park, thinking the Gorge Trail would be open by now. It turns out only a small section of the trail on the park's west side is open. The rest is closed indefinitely for trail maintenance after the harsh winter caused erosion, making for dangerous hiking conditions. I did manage to snap a few good pictures of the gorges at Treman. On the ride back home, I felt like a real cyclist when I crashed my bike for the first time since I was a kid, resulting in a skinned knee and sprained pinky finger. The evening brought a relaxing walk with Hayley around Green Lakes State Park in Fayetteville.






The next three weeks will see some pretty easy running and low mileage. It is common for runners, especially ultrarunners, to overtrain when following a regimented training plan or when running by feel, especially during tapering. That leaves the runner arriving at the starting line on race day without 100% in the tank and can make for a disappointing day. I'm trying to avoid this by having some fun with various activities and different types of runs, allowing me to rest up for the next A-race.