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.