Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Classic Rocked

I went into this year’s TARC Spring Classic 50k trail race with fairly low expectations.

All I hoped to do was run the 31 mile course in 4 ½ hours, or less. That’s it! And, to do that, all I needed to do was to average 8:42/mile (nearly 2 minutes per mile slower than my road marathon PR), or 54 minutes for each of the five 10k loops.  Easy, Right? I'd run the course twice previously during training. The first time, I ran it in 55 minutes, while navigating and pausing at nearly every turn to look at my map. The second time, I ran it comfortably in 52 minutes. So, 54 minutes per lap seemed more than reasonable. Of course, that was before the rain made a mess of everything!

The forecast for race day was a rather rough. Rain, heavy at times. 50 degrees and windy. Excellent! On the bright side, a cold rain is a whole lot better for running than hot humidity. Fortunately, the pre-race festivities were mostly dry, with just a hint of a sprinkle. So, I had the chance to hang out with Ryan and Danielle Triffit. Danielle was coming off a great race at the Spring Thaw and Ryan was finally back to racing long again after a frustrating string of re-occurring injuries. They brought with them from Maine, a pack of hungry Trail Monsters for fun and support.

The race started a bit early and, with a howl, we were off. The ½ marathoners and marathoners began at the same time, but were sent for a quick out-and-back before continuing along the same 10k course as the rest of us. Early on the pace felt easy and I made sure to keep it that way, even though runners were passing me left and right. I knew that it was going to be a long day, and I needed to keep a steady rhythm if I wanted to have a chance of reaching my goal. Just about halfway through the first lap, the rain started. And, as expected, it didn’t let up the rest of the day!

The course itself was a 50/50 mix of twisty single track, and wide open double track. The

double track was smooth and mostly flat, the single track was rooty, rocky, rolling and very, very muddy. To make things even more interesting, there were about a half dozen stream crossings. During the early laps, I did some rock hopping over these water hazards. On the later laps, I just plowed right on through. Hey, at least it was better than the snow and ice I had to navigate on my previous two 50k’s. Right?

The first lap was run in a fairly uneventful 53:34. It felt a bit quicker than that to me, but at least it was under the 54:00 that I needed to stay on pace. At the bag-drop I re-filled my water bottle, grabbed a Gu and headed out for lap 2. I saw Ryan on the out-n-back portion. He looked to be about a minute and a half behind me. And running strong. The second loop was a bit muddier than the first, due to the continued rain and the additional foot traffic. This would be a theme that worsened repeatedly as the day wore on.

I don’t listen to music when I run, but usually by this point in a race I have a song stuck in my head. Sometimes, it’s a good song that I don’t mind accompanying me on my journey. Other times (OK, most times) it’s an annoying song from one of my kid’s playlists, or TV shows, and I can’t get it out of my head with a shot-gun. Anyway, this race? No song. It wasn’t troubling, just weird. All alone out there. Just me, the rain, the mud and my ran-dumb thoughts.

Lap 2 was run a bit slower, in 53:51, but still under goal pace. A soaking-wet shirt change, a

Gatorade re-fill and a Stroopwafle later and I was back out on course for Lap 3. This time, with Ryan just a minute behind. He jokingly asked me to slow down for him. I laughed and then proceeded to do just that! Although not by choice. With all the slipping, sliding and turning, my hip and knee started hurting me a little, affecting my stride. And halfway through the loop, Ryan had caught up.

We chatted for a while and I expected him to pull away. He said he was “in over his head” but was “going for it anyway”. And, I felt like absolute crap. It was just past the mid-point of the race. I had run for 2 ½ hours in the messy slop and I still had at least 2 more hours to go. The doubts started creeping in. I did my best to push them out and only focus on what was directly in front of me - which just happened to be a nasty little section of single track. I hit it hard, and before long, I found that I had unexpectedly left Ryan behind. I found a bit of a groove. But, still no song.

Ryan caught back up again on the double track leading to the start/finish. Then he blew by me with a stop-n-go water bottle hand-off from one of his pit crew members. It was a thing of beauty! And, I was left fumbling around in my drop bag. Looking for my bottle of high-test Pepsi, and Gu packet to re-stock my waist pack. Note for next time:  find/buy friends who are willing to hang out for hours on end, in the rain, and give me stuff when I need it, without having their feelings hurt when I shout, or say something rude (or belittling) because I’m tired and cranky.

At 54:14, lap 3 was the slowest yet, and my 4 ½ hour goal felt like it was starting to slip

away. I worked hard during lap 4 to try and catch up to Ryan, but I couldn’t close the gap. I became frustrated and annoyed by this. Finally, after almost giving up, I decided to do what I’ve always done (up until that point) in an ultra race. Just run. Not worry about anybody else. Forget about Ryan. Just let him go and run my race. It was a tremendously freeing moment and I felt surprisingly better - almost immediately! What an idiot. I forgot NOT to race!

Lap 4 was a little bit better, but not by much. The 54:06 I ran, left me with very little margin for error on the last lap if I wanted that sub-4:30. I grabbed some salted potatoes, some more Pepsi and my Gate City singlet and I was off again. Unfortunately, less than a mile later, I was off to the side of the trail puking my guts out. Apparently the salted potatoes didn’t settle too well. After about 30 seconds of “tossing my potatoes” and 30 more seconds of “walking it off” I was back underway. Albeit, a whole lot slower. 4:30 was officially out the window!

With any change to my running rhythm (whether it’s tackling a steep hill, or stopping to re-fill my water bottle) it always takes a few moments for me to get back up to speed. I’m fairly sure it’s a heart-rate/breathing thing. I call it “digesting” – allowing my body adapt and adjust itself to absorb the change. But, in this case, I suppose it was more like “un-digesting”! Anyway, just a couple minutes further down the trail I felt a whole lot better. Great in fact. And, a couple more minutes after that, I finally found my song. And it was a good one!

Your love is like a tidal wave, spinning over my head. Drownin' me in your promises, better left unsaid …”

“You're the right kind of sinner to release my inner fantasy. The invincible winner and you know that you were born to be …”

“You're a heartbreaker, dream maker, love taker. Don't you mess around with me…”

And just like that, with a little help from Ms. Benatar, her driving rhythm section, her blazing guitars, and her amazing set of  …umm  …pipes, I set out to break some hearts ...and take back my 4:30!

I don’t know how many 50k people I passed during the last 5 miles of the race. With the marathoners still out on course, it was kind of hard to tell. Maybe 2. Maybe 10. It was all a blur. Cranking along to “Heartbreaker” in my head, I was finally in the zone and tearing it up. Eventually, I reached Ryan again and passed him with about a mile to go. He was moving slowly, and it was apparent that his recent lack of training miles had finally caught up with him.

I pushed through the last mud/rock/stream extravaganza and up-n-over the final hill to the

finish. As I came through, I was shocked to see a 4:29:xx still showing on the clock. I’d done it and with just 34 second to spare! Despite stopping for almost a full minute out there, I had run my second fastest lap of the day (53:39) and finished with a brand-spanking new 50k PR of 4:29:26! 23 minutes faster than my previous best! And good enough for a top-10 finish!

Looking back (it’s been almost two weeks since the race) I think I’m most proud of the consistency that I managed to maintain throughout. Even though I was emotionally all over the place, my pace never really wavered that much. Over the course of the 4 ½ hour event, there was only a 40 second difference between my fastest and slowest 10k laps. That’s just 6 second per mile! I think (hope) this bodes well for the longer races that I have coming up later this year.

I’m also proud of Ryan. He’s been through a lot over the past couple years and even came close to quitting altogether. But he persevered, and came out the other side a better and more seasoned runner. I suspect that the next time we race (and with a few more miles under both our belts) he’ll be back to beating me by 5 or 10 minutes again. Of course, we were both “out classed” by his wife Danielle who, despite having a tough day, managed to win the Women’s 50k race.

Finally, I want to give a big shout out to the Trail Animals Running Club (and Co-Race Directors Josh Katzman and Bob Crowley) for not only putting on a fun race, but also for cultivating a warm and welcoming running atmosphere - even for a reformed roadie like myself! The low-key, laid-back "trail 'tude" they foster provides the perfect balance against the rigors of pushing yourself to the absolute limit, and beyond. Everyone I've met, from the elite runner to the back-of-the-packer, has been kind, gracious and giving of their time.  And the good (and plentiful) food they supply for the post-race party really hits the spot. Especially, the warm tomato soup after a cold and wet day on the trail! Yum!

Again, just another all-around good day at the ultra-office.

And, until next time …

P.S. ... If you liked this story, please consider supporting me and my effort to raise money and awareness for the Progeria Research Foundation on my 100 Miles For Sam fundraising page. Please and thank you.


  1. Amazing job; so much goes on inside the head while outside you are driving forward, unwavering. Congratulations on hitting and beating your goal!

    1. Thanks Ernesto. I've been told that the most critical part of training for a 100 (even more than the miles) is training your brain to push through when it's screaming at you to stop. Hopefully this race is a step in that right direction.