Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Stone Steps, a step in the right direction

Accepting my sweet custom award from RD Dave Corfman.
(Thanks to Brian Nash for sharing the photos.)

I'm the type of guy that likes to pick out a few goal races during the year and focus on running those really well. I believe you can only get a few truly all-out efforts from your body a couple times a year. I pride myself in being able to time my peak to race well at these select events as opposed to just racing every weekend and occasionally popping a good one. And I'm very deliberate in the way I structure my training plan around these focus races.  

But I frequently use other races as substitutes for regular long runs, fitness checks, or a hard workout. There are many advantages to using races as workouts, but to be perfectly honest, my primary reason is that it just gets boring training by myself. I try to run with friends when I can, but my specific training plans and busy work schedule don't always align well with others' schedules. So I jump at the opportunity to participate in a local event like the Stone Steps 50k that requires no travel and allows me to run around with a bunch of friends all day. Even if I'm not exactly running with anyone most of the time, I really enjoy being around everyone and socializing at the end. I feed off the energy of the spectators, aid station volunteers, and fellow competitors. The convenience of aid stations is also a huge benefit when you're running a really long run.

Cresting the Steps with the sunrise on my back.
I mention all of this because I used this year's Stone Steps 50k as a hard, long, trail run. But the primary goal was to continuing building my fitness ahead of the JFK 50 mile on November 19th. That's the focus race. I didn't taper at all this week. I didn't come in with fresh legs ready to see how fast I could run. In fact, I hit a personal all-time high of 120 miles last week, capped off with the 50k on Sunday. That included a track workout on Tuesday, marathon pace run on Thursday, and an easy 21 road miles the day before. I was definitely taking a risk pushing that hard last week, but I feel it's necessary to push my limits if I want to compete with the guys that are going to be at JFK.

Early in the race, the legs were definitely feeling fatigued. I focused on staying relaxed and happily let Harvey Lewis lead the first 5+ miles. I knew roughly what my course record splits from last year were, but I wasn't sure I'd be fresh enough to better that time (3:44:39). I planned to run relaxed and see what the legs were giving me toward the end. Last year, I blasted the second 5 mile loop (~8.5-13.8 mi), but paid for my early aggression later in the race. I was much more patient this year, running alone after the first 8 miles. (My very first blog post was my race report for the 2010 Stone Steps 50k. Check it out here.)

Relax your arms!
I was definitely having my doubts with 10 miles to go that I'd be able to set a new CR. At times I found myself hoping that my aid station split at mile 22.3 would be slow enough that I could forget about my record and just cruise it in.  Although I felt tired, my splits were still looking solid, so I just kept trucking. With just the final 5+ mi loop remaining, I was less than minute off pace. I knew then that I had to go for it.  But I also knew that I had a mini blowup on the last loop in 2010 because I hadn't been taking my salt tabs and started to cramp a bit. Somehow I found a little extra energy and really attacked the start of the loop hoping to put some time in the bank to prepare for the large withdrawal that the infamous Stone Steps were bound to require. I just about passed out when the GPS watch reported that I ran an 8:15 mile which included the Steps ascent. That's the fastest I've ever run a mile that included that climb. At that point I knew I had my CR in the bag and I could shut it down and cruise in without going to the well. I grabbed some gummy bears atop Gummy Bear Hill as treat to enjoy over the last half mile and then headed for the finish. I crossed the line in 3:40:56 shaving almost 4 minutes off my time from last year.

The real takeaway from my race performance really must take into account the work I did leading up to the race. It is a huge confidence boost to run that fast with no taper and tired legs. I may not have the leg speed that I had last year, but I definitely have another level of trail strength. As long as I can stay healthy, the past week was a big step in the right direction.

Full Results

Friday, October 7, 2011

StumpJump 50k Race Report

Running a race on a technical trail that you've never laid eyes on before is tough.  Well, at least trying to run it fast is tough.  I learned this the hard way in 2010 when I went after Dink Taylor's course record at the Sylamore 50k in Arkansas.  I bonked hard and shuffled to the finish missing his mark even though I was probably fit enough to best his time.

Even a trail you're familiar with can be a very different beast when you attempt to race it all out.  This was the case at the Mountain Mist 50k in 2010.  The Mist was supposed to be my home course -- there was no trail I knew better.  I had spent many hours studying those trails on training runs before I ever attempted to race her.  But she won a decisive battle on race day.  Sure, I beat the other competitors that day, but The Mist had conquered me.

I returned to both of those trails in 2011 and the results were much different.  My fitness may have been slightly better with another year of training under my belt, but it was mostly the experience factor that helped me claim those two course records in 2011.  I knew what the trail was going to throw at me, and when.  I knew where I needed to conserve.  Where to push.  Where I needed to refuel.  And how I needed to feel.

My crew.

So when I entered the Rock/Creek StumpJump 50k a few weeks ago, I was concerned because I was totally unfamiliar with the trail and had never run a course with more than 5000 ft of climb.  I really needed to have a good race to bounce back from my DNF at the IAU 100k World Championship (race report).  As with other important trail races, I had prepared meticulously for StumpJump.  I spent a week examining the course map, studying the elevation profile and reading past race reports.  I use all of the information I gather to calculate my expected splits and prepare my race plan for my support crew (thanks Stef and Dad!).  In spite of all the preparation, I have found it's extremely important not to get caught up in predictions and desired splits.  Running by feel is by far more important than any amount of preparation that you can do.  I felt like I had learned that over the past two years, but now I would put myself to the test.

No pressure or anything.

The race started under clear skies and temperatures in the upper 40s.  Perfect weather for gloves and short sleeves.  A helicopter video taping the start hovered above for the first half mile. Can't say I've ever seen that at a race before.  My plan from the gun was to relax and sit back behind some of the guys who had seen the course before.  Unfortunately an injury had kept expected competition Aaron Saft out of the race, but I anticipated that I would be spending some quality time on the trail with the course record holder, Josh Wheeler.  I ran on Josh's shoulder for a while, but it was clear that he wasn't going to just let me sit on him the whole race.  I was going to have to assume some of the pacing-making duties as we descended the first few miles of trail.

Wave to the camera in the helicopter.

In my plan for the race, I had divided the course into three sections with the Indian Rock House aid station being the logical dividing point.  We passed through it twice (10.6 and 20.3 mi), splitting the trail into three sections of relatively equal length.  My aim was to stay relaxed on the first section, work into a nice rhythm on the second part, and then see what I had left on the big climbs to the finish.  I used Wheeler's race report from last year's race to set some rough time estimates for each section, but when Josh and I came through the Suck Creek aid station (6 mi) 6 minutes off his pace from last year, I didn't panic.  I continued to stay very relaxed on the climb up from Suck Creek Rd, but gradually pulled away from Josh much earlier than I had intended.  After the race I learned that he was still regaining his strength after a recent bout of the flu.

Nearing Suck Creek Rd.  (Thanks for the pic, Jamie Dial.)

By the time I arrived at Indian Rock House for the first time, I was only a minute or two off Josh's split from last year.  That got me really excited because I knew how little I had pushed myself and I still had made up a bunch of time.  After a short stop to grab some water and a GU, I started to roll.  I had been told the loop portion of the course was the most runnable — except for the Rock Garden — and that's where I would need to push the pace.  I ran fast while I could because I had no clue how hard the infamous Rock Garden would be.  I made good time on the loop until the climb at the Hailey Rd aid station, and then came the rocks.  The hardest part about running the boulder strewn, half mile stretch known as the Rock Garden was finding the course markers when you're staring at your feet.  It was definitely challenging, but that's what technical trail running is all about.  (Anyone know who the guy taking pictures in the garden was?  I wonder if he got some good shots.)  When I came out of the garden, though, the legs were refreshed and the trail was wide open.

About to hit Indian Rock House aid for the second time.

I flew from there back to Indian Rock House.  The crowd support was strong in this section and I started to get excited.  I split 2:30 at the aid station and immediately started doing the math in my head.  It only took me 1:18 or so to make it out here, so I knew I was on record pace.  This only got me more excited and I rolled through the aid station without stopping.  Shortly thereafter, the excitement and brisk pace caught up to me a little bit and I had my only brief down time of the day.  But after I chilled out a while, I got it back together on the descent down to Suck Creek.

The last 6 miles to the finish is a pretty brutal climb.  But I knew that if I kept moving, I would be able to get the race record (The race record was faster than course record because of a course change a few years back, but I wanted to break both records).  I chose to walk a few of the steeper sections to save energy, but was able to run for the most part.  When I arrived at the final aid station at Mushroom Rock (26 mi), the volunteers were completely caught off guard.  They said they weren't expecting anyone for another 30 minutes.  I stopped and waited for them to open up a sleeve of cups and pour me some coke.  That's something I would have never done 2 years ago -- stop and wait for some aid.  But I've learned.  Patience is a virtue in ultrarunning.

Cruising pretty good for mile 31.

I was able to run the last 4 miles to the finish with relative ease.  I backed it off just a little because I knew there was no reason to push.  I was going to be well under the record and I wanted to enjoy this one.  As I came back out onto the road and the finish chute came into view, I couldn't help but accelerate.  I was was welcomed to the finish by the largest crowd I've ever seen at the end of an ultra.  It was an awesome feeling.  I recorded a time of 3:49:52 and became the first person to break four hours in the race.  I'm happy that I won and got the course record.  But I am most proud of how much I have progressed over the past two years.  I was finally able to race well in my first attempt on a challenging new trail.  My only regret from the race was not being able to take more time and enjoy the beautiful scenery along the trail.

Post race interview.  Can't wait for the video from Andrew Kornylak.

If you haven't figured it out yet, this was a fantastic race.  A big thanks goes out to Rock/Creek, RD Randy Whorton, plus all the sponsors and volunteers who helped make this event happen.  Those guys know how to put on a race.  StumpJump doesn't hype their overall awards too much, but let's just say they were quite generous in that area as well.  They've got a cool vibe going down there in Chattanooga and I think I'll be back to check it out again before too long.

Links to more race coverage:
50k Results
Interview I did with Rock/Creek
Rock/Creek's Blog Post
Rock/Creek's Flickr Photostream
Times Free Press article