Tuesday, November 6, 2012

50 Miles from Home

I signed up for the Stone Cat 50 Miler back in June of this year and then spent the next 5 months trying to wrap my mind around it. Being nearly twice as long as any official race I’d ever done, I was both excited and overwhelmed by the sheer “bigness” of it. So many questions bounced around my brain as I formulated my plan of attack. How should I train? What pace should I run? What shoes should I wear? How long will it take? What should I eat? And, the biggest question of all: What exactly happens beyond that mystical 26.2 mile mark?

Well, now that I’ve done it, I’m going to let you in on a little secret. 

Running 50 miles really isn’t all that hard!

Now, before I go any further, I just want to state for the record that this report is about MY EXPERIENCE ONLY. I’m sure that the guys out in front of this race (hammering every mile from start to finish - at course record pace!) found it hard. And, I’m sure that the people bringing up the rear (and sweating out each and every time cut-off) found it hard. But, based on what I expected going into it, I found that running my first 50 miler was a surprisingly easy thing to do.

And, here's a few of the reasons why:

The Inspiration
The Ultra-marathon running community is a tight-knit but welcoming group of nut-jobs, willing to share their experiences, advice and support to anyone bold (or crazy) enough to consider joining their ranks. I met a few of these fine folks a few years back when I ran the Pineland Farms 25k for the first time. And, one of these people in particular, Ian Parlin, stood out among the crowd of ultra-running, crack-pots.

Maybe it was because he was a taller runner, like myself. Or because, he was an Architect – also like myself. Or because, he was co-founder of what has now become one of the biggest (and best) trail running festivals in the country. Whatever the reason, I reached out to him after Pineland and he gladly shared his wealth of ultra-running knowledge with me. Empowered by what I learned from Ian, I figured, “If he can do it, so can I”! Plus, I was tired of beating my head against the sub-3 marathon wall. I needed to try something different. And, this was it!

The Preparation
To ready myself  for the type of trail running I’d be doing at Stone Cat, I mapped out a 5m course through Mine Falls Park in Nashua that somewhat matched the terrain I expected on race day at Willowdale. During my training cycle I did 3, 4 & 5-loop runs on it. Since the 12.5 mile Stone Cat course is done 4 times, structuring my long runs this way helped both with the “acclimatization” to the footing and to the mental fatigue of having to run multiple loops in the same race. In the end, I think my "mini-course" did quite nicely as a sort of home-town training ground.

In addition to my long runs at Mines Falls, I also did some single-day, mountain run/hikes along the Wapack Trail and one multi-day extended version along the Appalachian TrailThese hikes along with a couple longer trail races at Bear Brook, Wapack, and Lewes rounded out my training for Stone Cat. In total, I averaged about 60 miles per week for the 5 month build-up period. Topping out at around 75 miles - on three separate occasions.

One final note on training: I know there isn’t a way to actually measure this, but I am convinced that my endurance base was increased significantly by the “honey-do” lists that waited for me when I returned from my long runs. There’s no training quite like running in the woods for 3-4 hours then coming home to hours of mowing, painting, cleaning, building, putting-up, taking-down, etc that comes with caring for a 75-year old house and two energetic kids under the age of 6!

The Course
Less than a week before the race I previewed the course. I managed to navigate 98% of the 12.5 miles, on my own, without getting lost. I figured it was a good idea to go out there and get a feel for what it would be like on race day. Unfortunately, it was a lot tougher (hillier, rockier & rootier) than I thought it would be and it took me a shade under 2:05 (10:00 min/mile pace) which was my original goal for the race. I left there thinking I can't imagine doing this loop 4 times at that pace - especially after the imminent flooding and storm damage from Hurricane Sandy!

Fortunately, the wind damage from the 2-day storm was minimal. And, what little rain that fell was taken care of by newly-installed culverts. In previous years (without the culverts) there were water crossings in some areas near the swamp that were almost knee high – and ice cold! Thankfully, that did not pose a problem this year. Add to that the fact the many of the trails had been raked out - and the course was in about as good a shape as anyone could (or should) expect!

The Weather
The impact of weather conditions on race day cannot be overstated – particularly for a race which could last up to 10 hours! Fortunately the weather for this year’s Stone Cat was nearly perfect. A chilly (but not unreasonable) 35 degree temperature reading greeted us at the start along with a mostly cloudy, early morning sky. Later on, the temps rose to a very comfortable 50 degrees with partly cloudy skies and a light breeze. Perfect conditions for a “larger” guy like myself to perform at his best!

The Volunteers
A race is nothing without the people that “run” it and the people at Stone Cat are amazing! There are 3 aid stations set up along the 12.5 mile route. The first one is called “Al Cat’s Lounge” at about 4.2 miles. The second is called “Fast Freddie’s Café” at about 7.5 miles. And, the third is at the start/finish line – and clearly needs a clever name. Let’s get to work on this people!

Anyway, before you even reach the aid stations there is someone who comes out to meet you and ask what you need. You name it, they’ve got it! Band-aids, advil, vaseline, gatorade, coffee, soda, water, etc. And, they’ll even fill your water bottle for you while you stand over their vast array of goodies, deciding what you want to eat - or think you can keep down! Speaking of which …

The Food
How hard a race can it be if you get to eat Pringles while you’re running it? And that was just the beginning! They had: salted potatoes, grilled cheese sandwiches, PB & J’s, ramen noodle soup, chocolate chip cookies, fig newtons, bananas, bagels, jelly beans and M&M’s. They even had dixie cups of “something” being poured from a large bottle wrapped in a paper bag.  Who knows what that was! But I did know one thing for sure, this race was unlike any I’d ever run. More party, than race, really! Sort of like a "pub (and grub) crawl" in the woods!

The Support
Because it’s multi-loop, the Stone Cat course is great for spectators. Stand in one spot and you can see the runners go by 4 times – 8 if you don’t mind walking a little bit. Everyone out on course was extremely positive and encouraging, even if they had no idea who I was. And, on the rare occasion I did know someone, the cheering was even sweeter!

In two spots, in particular, I knew I could get a lift from the by-standers. The first was at the start/finish area where a few people I knew, including Ryan Triffitt (and his gang of Trail Monsters), were always there to greet me with words of encouragement. And the second spot was by Linebrook Road where Theresa Berna  rang cow bells and screamed at the top of her lungs! Kurt Berna (her husband) also graciously offered to pace me for the final lap and I was grateful for the company. If only to distract me from the pain of the final 12.5 miles!

The Drop Bag
Another great thing about doing multiple loops in a race is that you don’t have to carry everything you might need for 9+ hours of running. After each lap of Stone Cat you run through a “drop bag zone” where you can grab (or drop off) whatever you need (or don’t) then head out on your way. My drop bag included: 4 shirts (one for each lap), a change of shoes & socks (just in case), vaseline, body glide, band-aids, and 4 zip-lock bags of goodies (again, one for each lap).

The goodie bags included whatever I thought might need for each lap. Powerbars, GU’s, electrolyte tablets, sport beans, Nuun tablets, advil, etc. With the thought being that all I had to do when I came through the drop zone was grab the individually numbered bags and head right out again without wasting time searching for stuff. And, since I wasn’t running that fast it was fairly easy to transfer the contents of the bag into my water bottle waist pack!

The Pace
Whenever I talked to people (other runners usually) about running a 50 mile race, their response was invariably the same. If they had run a marathon previously, they’d say “I can’t imagine doing two of those back-to-back”! And, if they had run a half marathon, they’d say “I can’t imagine doing four of those back-to-back”! But, the thing is, a 50 mile race isn’t anything like its shorter counterparts. It’s something COMPLETELY different and you have to think of it that way – if only to maintain your sanity!

To that end, I decided that my goal pace for this race would be one that I could easily maintain while talking. If I could hear my heart pounding, or feel my breathing become labored then I would slow down (or walk), recover, then continue on my way. For a first time ultra, this seemed like a prudent way to ensure that I would make it to the finish line. At the Bear Brook Marathon, I found this pace to be right around 10 minutes per mile. Which is more than 3 minutes per mile slower than my fastest marathon!

The Pre-Race
A couple nights before the race, I poured over the trail map trying to “break it all down”. I knew that 12.5 miles (and 2+ hours) was much too long to wait to get a reading on my pace and projected overall time. So, I tried to find places on the course that were equally spaced and would help give my some idea how I was doing, pace-wise. Eventually I settled on 3-mile segments - partially because there were actual landmarks out there that would be easy to find while running and partially because (at 10 min/mile) it worked out to about a half hour for each segment – a much easier piece of time to digest!

Speaking of digest, consuming my pre-race breakfast proved to be one of the toughest things I’d have to do all day! The coffee, bagel, banana and pancake tacos (for the road) that I ate at 4:00am did not go down without a fight. But I knew that, at approximately 100 burned calories per mile, I would need to take in over 5000 of those babies in order to maintain my energy level and finish the race! Needless to say, I felt a bit like a competitive eater stuffing food into a stomach full of butterflies!

The registration area at the school was a bit of a mess. A very small gym and a very large number of anxious (but chatty) runners made for a somewhat challenging place to relax. So, I grabbed my stuff and headed outside where an equally large number of runners stood around shivering in the cold. Thankfully it wasn’t too long after the advertised start time that the race official waved the 50 milers over to the baseball field, lined us up and said GO! 140 headlamps lurched forward and bobbed along into the pre-dawn darkness. It was 6:30am.

The Race
Lap 1: With the light from my headlamp glinting off the frosty blades of grass below, I settled into a glorified trot. Still a little unsure if I was awake, or just dreaming. Suddenly a shadowy figure standing where the field met the trail shouted, “Careful of the dip here”! And, at that moment, I started to laugh. I thought to myself, “With the millions of “dips” we’re about to travel over today, why did this one deserve mentioning?!” Anyway, the levity of the situation woke me up a little bit as we ambled along the double track.

About mile into the race the course turned left and became a narrow single track trail. Just before the turn, a couple of people jumped in front of me then slowed to a WALK once the trail angled up. Seriously?! Knowing that this race was too long to get worked up over idiots, I relaxed, then carefully picked my way around them and continued RUNNING up the hill. For the next couple miles it was pretty much “follow the leader” and I was thankful I wasn’t the one deciding which way the trail bent - as it was near impossible to tell in the dark!

Further along, past Al Cat’s Lounge, the trail emptied out onto another section of double track. During that time I ran along side a woman wearing headphones and singing quite loudly. After a bit, we got to talking and it turns out that she was running her first 50 miler too. Her name was Colleen and she began running just 2 years ago. In that time she had lost over 100 pounds and had worked her way up from 5k to her first marathon – completed earlier this year. And 3 more since! If that wasn’t enough, she hoped to use her Stone Cat finishing time to qualify for the Western States 100 miler. Wow! What an inspiration!

I quickly passed Fast Freddie’s Café, doing a “splash and go” refill of my water bottle (with Nuun tablet), when I came up on another runner eating a handful of Pringles. His name was Justin and we both laughed at the fact that we could eat crap like that and still “technically” be running a race. We also joked that the marathoners (who started after us and were now beginning to fly past) couldn’t possibly be having as much fun as we were!

Lap 2: With the first lap complete I quickly dropped my headlamp, changed shirts, grabbed my Lap 2 goodie bag and headed out for another round. In total, I probably spent about 30 seconds at the start/finish aid station and another 30 at my drop bag - which turned out to be pretty typical for the day. Quick in, quick out. And, don’t get comfortable! Every minute spent standing around is another minute I’d have to run later on!

During this lap I could feel my pace increasing slightly, but my effort level seemed to stay about the same. I attributed this to being able to clearly see the trail ahead and actually being warmed to the task at hand. My split times corroborated this feeling and, as a result, I spent much of Lap 2 passing runners who had started a bit too quickly. One of whom, named Jaime,  was shirtless – owing to the fact that his nip-guard band-aids had fallen off and he was starting to chafe. Ouch!

The next time past Fast Freddie’s I grabbed the first solid food that I hadn’t carried into the woods on my own. A quarter slice of a PB & J. Unfortunately, I hadn’t practiced eating a sandwich while running and I promptly inhaled a chunk of it into my trachea. I do not recommend this. I hacked and coughed my way through the next half mile vowing to be more careful while eating on the run!

Lap 3: Despite the sandwich snafu, I finished the second lap about 2 ½ minutes faster than the first and still felt really strong! I was halfway though my first 50 miler and hadn’t really had to work very hard to get there! I crossed the start/finish line in just a hair over 4 hours and for the first time all day I thought, “I’m really going to do this!” Of course, this is also where I made my first (and only) real mistake of the day. I started racing!

During the hilly, single track section of Segment 1, I started going back and forth with a runner, named Pete. It really didn’t feel like I was going all that much harder, just having a bit of fun now that I was “convinced” I would be able to finish the race. When I came through the time check I also came to my senses and slowed down. I had run the toughest part of the course with my fastest split of the day.  2 minutes faster than the last time through, and 3 minutes faster than the time before that.

Coincidentally, later on that lap (somewhere around mile 30), I started feeling like the going was becoming a tad more difficult. Nothing too serious, but my legs were getting a bit heavier and my attitude was getting a bit darker. Right about then, a few of us came upon a woman riding a horse. The horse became startled and the woman shouted, “You! You in the green shirt! (meaning me) Stand still!” Seriously?! Stand still?! I’d been running for almost 5 hours and I wasn’t about to stop for her, or her horse! Of course, later on, I felt bad. I mean it’s not fair for a horse to have to carry a cow like that!

Lap 4: Near the end of the third lap I picked up Kurt Berna who would pace me though the rest of the race. On my last pass through the start/finish area, I spent a little extra time bathing in Ben Gay and lubing up with Vaseline. 37.5 miles in and things were starting to get sore & chaffy! A final change of shirt, a couple of shots of Coke and we were on our way! I had slowed down a bit towards the end of Lap 3 (coming though in a shade under 6:03) but still felt surprisingly good - despite already having run my longest race ever!

We made it up and over the hills for the final time (walked once) and got through Segment 1 with a time pretty close to my first lap split. Just after that (around mile 41) I hit my only real bad patch of the day. Things started getting a bit fuzzy. Kurt’s voice sounded far away and I was having a bout of tunnel vision. Thankfully, Al Cat’s was just around the corner and I was able to collect myself with the help of a couple more shots of coke, a cup of tomato soup and a heaping helping of GU. Mmmm!

The last 8 miles were kind of a blur. I remember that I ran most of it and walked a couple of the smaller hills. Had some M&M’s on my last trip through Fast Freddies and came somewhat close to my previous splits at each time check. This horse had "smelled the barn"! At the cornfield I heard Terry Berna screaming, “You’re less than two miles from finishing your first fifty miler!” I swear the goose bumps from that carried me along at another minute per mile faster!

As we came over the last hill (with about a mile to go) I thanked Kurt for guiding me through the toughest part of the race and put my mind to reaching the finish as fast as I could manage - without passing out, or seizing up! The cheers from the people lining the course lifted me over the final stretch of field and across the finish line. I stopped running, thought about everything that had brought me to that exact moment, covered my face in my hands, and wept.

The Results
Below are my splits for each of the 16 segments (4 per lap) – with the corresponding pace per mile. Segments 1, 2 & 3 were each 3 miles long and Segment 4 was 3.5 miles long. Also, Segment 1 was the only one that didn’t include time spent at an aid station. But, it did include the two biggest hills on the course, so it was a bit of a wash!

Lap 1: 2:01:36 (9:43) - 12.5 miles
1 - 30:46 (10:15), 2 - 28:32 (9:30), 3 - 27:54 (9:18), 4 - 34:22 (9:47)  

Lap 2: 1:58:57 (9:31) / 4:00:33 (9:36) - 25 miles
1 - 29:06 (9:40), 2 - 28:30 (9:30), 3 - 27:38 (9:12), 4 - 33:41 (9:38) 

Lap 3:  2:02:22 (9:56) / 6:02:55 (9:41) - 37.5 miles
1 - 27:22 (9:06), 2 - 28:58 (9:39), 3 - 29:32 (9:50), 4 - 36:28 (10:25) 

Lap 4: 2:10:10 (10:24) / 8:12:05 (9:50) - 50 miles
1 - 30:50 (10:16), 2 - 33:27 (11:09), 3 - 30:21 (10:05), 4 - 34:31 (9:51)

For the most part, I stayed consistently within the 9:15 - 10:15 min/mile range. With the three exceptions being: Segment 1 of Lap 3 when I foolishly started to race, Segment 4 of Lap 3 when I took a little too much time at the start/finish transition area, and Segment 2 of Lap 4 when I hit my only real “bad patch”. Other than that, the pacing was pretty even throughout.

My total elapsed time of 8:12:05 put me in 15th place overall (out of 136 starters) and 3rd in the 40-49 age group. More importantly, this finishing time far exceeded my pre-race expectations of 8:20 – 8:50. Of course, now that I’ve got one 50 miler under my belt, next time I can safely try for a sub 8:00!

Here are the results from some of the other 50 Milers I ran (and talked) with:

12 Peter Lawry   8:04:09
35Colleen Murphy     9:27:53
42 Jamie Adams 9:39:15
46 Justin Ellenton 9:49:42

Over the course of the 8+ hours I spent running, I consumed the following: 2 Honey Stinger Waffles, 1 Honey Stinger Protein Bar, 1 1/2 packets of Jelly Belly Sport Beans, 16 Hammer Electrolyte Tablets, 9 Nuun Tablets (Tri-Berry Flavor) mixed with water, 2 bottles of gatorade, 1 bottle of water, 4 cups of coke, 1 1/2 grilled cheese sandwiches, 2 cups of tomato soup, 1 1/2 PB & J sandwiches, 1 whole salted potato, 8 fig newton cookies, 6 fists full of pringles, 1 cup of M&M's and 1 packet of GU.

I haven't done the math (and probably won't) but I don't imagine this added up to the 5000 calories that I burned during the race. However, I think the cheeseburger I ate post-race, probably put me over the top!

The Aftermath
I fully expected to be a cranky, limping zombie in the days immediately following this race. But, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that I actually felt better than after running a road marathon. I had a couple of blisters and my muscles were certainly tender, as expected. But, I had no real problems negotiating the dreaded “stairway of doom” that had plagued me after many a hard 26.2 mile race. I guess even at twice the distance (and countless more roots & rocks) trails really are much more forgiving than asphalt!

By the way, I was also very happy with my last-minute change of trail shoes. I was originally going to go with my ROCKLITE 315's by INOV-8. - a very gripy and sturdy shoe. But, lately they were leaving me with a good number of "hot-spots" on my heel and bunion areas - even after just a few miles. So instead, I went with the WAVE ASCEND's by MIZUNO - as recommended by BJ Bottomley at Runners Alley in Nashua. And, they worked out great!

When I got out of my car after getting home from the race, I glanced down at the odometer (which I initially punched before heading out to Ipswich that morning) and it read 100 miles. 100 miles! That meant that the 50 mile race I had just run was exactly 50 miles away from my house. And, in that moment, it kind of hit me that, “WOW, 50 miles really IS a long way to run!” It was weird to think of the distance that I'd run in that sort of context and it made me feel kind of overwhelmed by the accomplishment! Proud, even.

Of course, the odometer could also be trying to tell me what my next challenge should be …
50 Mile Start - By Keith Magnus


  1. That's awesome Mike! You've inspired me to go for this after I fix my ACL. I definitely had that "head in hands" weeping moment after my first marthon. Thanks for sharing.


  2. Great Jon! Good luck and be sure to check back when you're ready to give it a go. It's an awesome experience!

  3. Nice Job Michael! I knew you'd find it easy and after seeing you at the Granite State 10 miler on my heels I also knew you would do well. Congrats!

    1. Thanks Dan. Running slow for a long time felt very natural. Maybe, for my next Ultra, we can run the VT88 together. :)

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  5. Great post Michael. I reread this morning. The excitement will make it hard to await the lottery results for the Stonecat this year!