I woke up before my alarm, and felt the press of chill air. It reminded me that it was hovering around zero outside, and that I was going to go run in said weather. This was not a thrilling proposition. Still, I rose, got on every bit of black technical gear I could fit on my person, and walked upstairs. I made oatmeal with carob powder and Broadway's Yirgacheffe, hoping to invite some East African running magic.
I read a bit then, hoping to distract myself with Yoshida Kenko. His words did nothing to slow the clock, however, and soon enough, I was on my way. I turned to Iron Maiden next, hoping that "Run to the Hills" would make an apt theme song for the day.
Loop 1: Why 10 Miles Does Not an Ultra Make
I pulled my scarf up over my face. A guy standing behind me did the same, and commented that "It really helps, man." I nodded, and turned to face the grassy field. There was no gun, no bell or any other auspicious means of turning us loose, but the race director managed without. With that, I opened up what I felt was a sustainable stride, knowing that I had a day's worth of running to do.
We ran across the grass, and up a stretch of pavement. Already, slight though this was, you got a sense of the incline to come. A left turn, and we were on the bridle trail. There was a small pack in front of me, sprinting across the dirt, keeping a pace I couldn't imagine was sustainable. (As it turned out, this was just a year to yield unprecedentedly fast times.) That being the case, I settled in to my usual role: Guy in between the lead and the mid pack.
Still, I felt as if my pace was respectable. The trail had been massacred in the not too distant past, and had frozen that way. As such, the dirt was pock marked, and difficult to find a steady stride. This was magnified by the fact that I had worn Saucony Hattori, zero drop, 4 oz shoes, with nothing like protection.
After the first aid station, the trail turned in to a much more agreeable stretch of single track, and took on a very wandering personality. There were switchbacks aplenty, ups and downs, roots and felled branches to hurdle. The bulk of the middle miles were thus, and provided the most fun running. This was trail running as I prefer it, a constant varying of stride length and cadence, and with nothing that really murders your feet.
Feeling good - it was early, after all - I opened up a bit, passed a number of people, and sprung in to another clearing. This, again, was a grass field, with a stretch of pavement. It was also a very long - albeit gradual - hill. Here was the halfway(ish) point, which I bypassed without taking any calories. I was feeling spry still, and it simply did not occur to me that the hills could be sapping my glycogen as quickly as they were.
I returned then to weaving through single track, and then back to the gnarly bridle trails. Here were the true monsters of the race, hills that everyone else seemed content to hike. I, full of hubris and nerves, opted to run every single one of them. Brimming with confidence, I thought that this was not so hard.
The first loop ended in 1:29.
Loop 2: A Shit Sandwich
Can I do that two more times? I answered yes, I could, and moreover, that I could do it faster. And so I begun the second loop, running with the lead pack in mind.
That idea was short lived, however, as the early stages of the bridle trail found my stride shortened, my posture hunched, and my side cramping. It occurred to me that I had not yet taken in any calories, and that this, probably, was bonking.
I heard the crunch of footsteps behind me, and turned to look. Distracted just for a moment, I tripped, and landed directly on my right knee cap. "You all right?" asked the guy behind me. "Yeah," I said. That quick, he was no longer the guy behind me, and vanished in front. I worked my knee out, hobbled for a few hundred yards, and found that it was fine.
I continued at my shuffle until the first aid station, where I drank two cups of orange something, and turned on to the single track. This was more to my liking, and the sugar helped. Still, the cramping had not abated, and I longed for the port-a-potty at the halfway point. Such is the glamor of trail ultras.
The grass field preceding the halfway aid station - and my salvation - was a welcome site. At the aid station, I opted for coke instead, and wondered why I hadn't been doing this all along. If nothing else, it tasted like calories, which the orange business didn't; moreover, it had caffeine. And the lavatory was, predictably, quite helpful.
My energy returned, my guts felt (oh so much) better, and the single track beckoned. I opened up again, only to have my energy levels plummet quickly. I attempted some mental math, and decided that the calorie deficit in to which I had dug myself was probably rather massive, and that I was paying for it now. "Eat early; eat often." It's sage advice, and I had ignored it to my detriment.
I used the varying grade to trick myself in to running faster than I could have otherwise, and finally, happily, found my way to another aid station. Here, I downed an entire pack of Cliff Shot Blocks, and the caffeinated little gummy squares did their magic.
This time, I walked the hill, and finished the second loop in 1:46.
Loop 3: Ignorance is Bliss
At the start/finish, I saw my dad, who had finished his 10(+) miler. I told him I felt good, which was not a lie. Despite my idiocy, nothing really hurt, and I had managed to crawl out of my caloric ditch. 1:45, I told myself. Do that, and you can get under 5.
And so I set off, with that singular goal in mind. I would finish, and do so comfortably, I knew. That alone gave me a sense of euphoria, a high that's impossible to quantify and difficult to describe. I tried to harness that, and to get my hips to open up, to manage something like a running gait. It didn't work, really, but I still felt good.
I continued to hit up the coke at every aid station I reached, and to use the downhills for speed, and the uphills for knee saving. I reached the halfway aid station, right on pace - but no faster. I knew that the hills at the end would not allow for a fast finish, so I had better hurry.
I did so; or at least, I did what felt like hurrying at the time. A sense of frustration grew as I realized my goal would not be realized, as the scenery refused to fly by at the pace I desired. It was quickly drowned out, however, purged my the memory of the Heartland sufferfest. I reminded myself that I was 23, and only a runner for about 18 months. I had made progress, I told myself, and it did not feel like cold comfort.
I finished the third loop in 1:54, and the race in 5:10.
Things to Consider
If you're thinking about running the 2013 edition of this race, and somehow stumbled on this report, this is for you. Learn from my mistakes.
- Eat. The race saps calories, and the deficit sneaks up on you. Once it's there, digging out is a bitch.
- Wear whatever you like on your feet, but know that the bridle trails could chew you up. There are rocks on the single track, but mostly, you can avoid them. For stretches on the bridle trail, there is nowhere comfortable to step.
- Train for hills. I did this, and quite a bit of it. I also felt like I handled the vertical sections better than most, and in fact, did all of my passing on hills. Also, do something to strengthen your hips/glutes, as you'll be needing them. Speed is important, but not at the expense of strength. With all modesty, I can note that I've soundly beaten many of the top 50K/20 mile finishers in 5Ks; but this is not a 5K, and this time, they soundly beat me.
- Pace smarter than I did. The distance is hard, and so is this trail. No matter how good you feel early, hold back. It's better to feel good late.
- Know that one of the best ultrarunners is the world has the course record - Andy Henshaw, 4:15 - and understand what that implies: This is not a fast course. Still, know that some people can run it relatively fast. Sub-5 is pretty sick, but doable, if you're smart, and in very good shape. After all, I'm neither of those things, and came close.