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.

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