Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Ice Age Race Report

I wanted the course record.  I needed the win.  It was never about Western States.

Honestly.  I've already turned down my spot into WS100.  Heck, I was so ambivalent about the Western States slot that my wife didn't even know Ice Age was part of the Montrail Ultra Cup and the top 2 finishers would be granted an automatic entry.  Here's the text message I got from her when she saw all the social media traffic about the auto entry:

Eleventh at WS100 and 3rd at JFK last year...both races I missed my chance to make the starting line again in Squaw Valley by one place.  Heartbreaking, right?  Why wouldn't I accept?

I'll get to that, but I have to tell the whole story first.

It just so happens that the Ice Age course record holder currently lives in Cincinnati.  His name is Andy Jones and I see him regularly as he still trains with a competitive group. (Not to be confused with Andy Jones-Wilkins (AJW) who is also well known in ultra circles.)  Andy Jones is a Canadian-born ultra runner who was very fast back in the late 80s and throughout the 90s.  He's run a 2:17 marathon, is 3rd on the North America all-time performance list for 100k with a time of 6:33:57, and he still holds the North American record for the road 100 mile at 12:05.  Suffice it to say, the dude had wheels.

When Andy saw the success I was having at races like JFK, he mentioned Ice Age.  He explained that he still had the course record, but it had been around a long time and he felt this new wave of ultra talent was bound to be on the verge of breaking his mark.  He suggested that I give it a shot.

What's more is the fact that I consider JFK, American River, and Ice Age to be the Triple Crown of fast, flat US 50 milers.  I've done JFK of course, and I wanted to race American River, but my work schedule prevented me from running it this year.  Ice Age fit into the schedule nicely, so I entered the event simply to run the race.  Western States was little more than an afterthought.

I wanted the course record.

After attempting my first 100 miler and dabbling in a couple more mountainous ultras in 2012, I had a quiet year without any headline wins.  Max King trounced me at JFK, taking my record down just a year after I set it.  I thought I ran well last year, I just felt like I couldn't compete at the very top level of mountain ultras when I had no mountains to train on.  Admittedly, my confidence was a little shaken.  I decided that I should return to my strengths and run races that I could properly train for in 2013.  I had a good start resetting my Mountain Mist CR in January, but that didn't mean much on the national level.  Ice Age was my first real opportunity to prove to myself against a national class field of fast 50 mile types that I still had it.

I needed the win.

The race started fast.  Really it was just the first mile, but still, I had no interest in getting caught up in the early shenanigans.  The leaders settled in relatively quickly about 30 seconds ahead of me, and I stalked them for the first loop of rolling, grassy jeep roads.  I don't think they were more than a minute up at the 9 mile aid station.  Josh Brimhall and Zach Bitter were starting to pull away together while Eric Senseman, Matt Flaherty, Scott Breeden, and Brian Condon trailed in a tight group.

I was now warmed up and starting to get into rhythm.  I slowly started to reel in the pack of 4 in front of me. I was very careful though, and didn't catch the group until around mile 14.  At the time we were in a section of tight single track so I was just content to sit at the back.  A short time later we popped out of the forest and were cruising on some super smooth single track.  This is my natural strength and I started stretching the string just a little here.  Keeping myself under control, but ever so slightly trying to pull everyone else out of their comfort zone.  Zach and Josh were still out of sight in the lead, but now our chase group was beginning to splinter a bit.  By the 22 mile turnaround I was solidly in third and closing on the leaders.  Most importantly, I was just running my race, according to my schedule.

Zach and Josh came into view on the return trip through the same field where I started to pass the chase pack.  I wanted to hold back and relax, but I was closing and could feel it.  I dropped a 6:30 mile and caught them at the 27 miles.  I sat on them for a minute and collected myself, but I had too much momentum and decided to push into the lead.  I felt Josh drop off the pace soon after, but Zach tried to keep in contact.  I knew I needed to back off into a more mangeable pace...I still had a long 22 miles in front of me.

At this point, I was on course record pace, but the relentless small climbs were taking their toll.  I ran a few miles of the course on Friday and knew it was going to be like this, but I hadn't seen the last 13 miles of the course, so I had no clue what I needed to prepare for.  I didn't know if I would be able to continue at CR pace. I could go after the CR, but it was risky, and I might blow up in the process.  I mentally made the switch.  I had to make sure I won.  I would have been very disappointed had I moved into the lead that early then fallen apart and given up the lead later in the race.

I dialed back the effort level a notch and started focusing on my nutrition.  I could tell I was still gradually pulling away from Zach so that was a good sign...as long as I could keep it up.  He passed me late in the race last year at Western States so I knew he could be dangerous.  I was able to pass him back before the finish at WS100, but I didn't want to try my luck again.

Why do you continue to run these stupid races?  This isn't fun. You don't have to do this to yourself.  I battled my own demons from miles 32 to 36.  I had been running too fast.  I had been neglecting my nutrition.  My quads were on the verge of cramping.  I had been listening to those scientists who say salt doesn't help cramps and had not been concerned about my salt intake.  Luckily, I had put a few S-Caps in my Salomon fuel belt as an afterthought.  That probably saved my race.  If my own experience wasn't enough, Meghan Arbogast and Jeff Browning set me straight at dinner that evening...we don't know why salt works, it just does.

The salt and a steady stream of Coke pulled me out of my funk eventually.  Another out-and-back section turned around at mile 40 and I found I had a 5 minute lead on Zach.  Brian Condon and Matt Flaherty were only 30 seconds behind Zach and looked quite good.  I was confident though that I had pulled through the hardest part of the race and I'd be able to hang on.  The last few miles were uneventful.  I knew the course record had slipped out of reach, but I was oddly content with the result.  I found one more 6:30 for the last cruiser mile and crossed the line in 5:56:46.

I haven't been more pleased with a race since I broke the CR at JFK in 2011.  I ran the 3rd fastest time in the history of the race.  Only Andy Jones and Dan Held have run faster.  Coincidentally, both of those guys also have run 6:33 for the road 100k (6:19 pace for 62 miles).  Guess I have a new goal this fall for the World 100k race in South Africa.

It was never about Western States.

The hardest part about turning down my entry is that everyone just assumes that I would accept.  There were so many comments and congratulations that ended in "See you in Squaw!" or something to that effect.  I didn't see AJW's iRunFar column until after the race, but it pretty much sums up what I think the popular opinion is regarding the Montrail Ultra Cup Series...the only reason to run a MUC race is to get into Western States.  But that's just not how I see it.  I treat the MUC like prize money.  Money rarely, if ever, has motivated me personally to run a race.  But money inevitably brings competition, and that's what I want. Same with MUC, it attracts a solid field.  Some folks trying to get into WS100, others just looking for someone quality to race against.

The problem is that the sport of ultra running is changing.  It is becoming more and more specialized.  People have long commented that the MUC races are unfair to 100 mile specialists like SpeedGoatKarl because he'd rarely be able to earn a spot in a fast 50 miler.  Fortunately, more 100 mile races have been added in the past couple years to help those types get into States.  But I have the opposite problem.

I can earn a WS entry in a fast 50 miler, but I can't do anything with it.  If I accepted my slot this year, I'd only have 6 weeks to recover from Ice Age, train for States, and then taper so I arrived well-rested.  If I was lucky, I might be able to crack the top 10 again, but I want more than that.  I want to be truly competitive.  This year I wouldn't be, so I'm not running it.  I believe that by making these tough decisions now, I will extend my career and be healthy enough to have more opportunities in the future. I just hope I can still earn my way in when that time comes.

See you in Squaw...just not this year.


  1. Congrats on a strong race and impressive win Dave, and wise decision on WS100. South Africa/6:33 is a much better goal for you this year.

    Coincidentally, Quad Rock took down another JFK speedster the same day you were killing it at Ice Age: horses for courses, I guess!

    1. Thanks Nick. I didn't see the Quad Rock results until you pointed that out. I didn't blow up quite that bad. My time is still in the top 10 even. But, I still feel like I need redemption on your course. I don't know when I'll be able to get back and do it right, but I want to at some point. Got some different goals this year though. Good luck at States!

  2. Great race report and congrats on the win! It's cool to hear about the view from the front of the pack.

  3. Ditto re: Nick. Good to see you running strong.

  4. Congrats! Thanks for sharing about the S-caps. I've used them and was reconsidering using them in my marathon coming up soon, but now I think I'll bring them along.

    1. Personally, I don't find I need them in a marathon. But if you're running more than 3 hrs in a hot one, maybe they would be good to have. Use them in training and see how they work for you. Good luck!

  5. It was a pleasure and a privilege to be out on the trail with you and the rest of the fast guys. Congratulations, keep running strong and fast.

  6. Awesome race Dave! I'll add that simple sea salt works just as well as any electrolyte pills in my experience; but like Meghan Arbogast and Jeff Browning said, I don't know why but it does! Saved my bacon on many a warm/hot ultra (read: Badwater especially!). Sounds like you're making the right call about proper WS100 training being out of the window for this year. Too bad but totally understandable. Would love to see what you could do to one of Andy's other course records. I'm talking about Strolling Jim 40. While it might not even have the international prestige that Mountain Mist lacks it still is a solid record on a deceptively difficult road course and might be just the thing for you come the first weekend in May 2014! Think about it. CR is 3:59:26 for 41.2 miles.

    1. That's interesting Rob. Meghan and Jeff were saying the opposite, that regular salt doesn't work as well as S-Caps and maybe its something else in the S-Caps like potassium that really is what helps.

      I've thought about his Strolling Jim record, but I really don't know if it is realistic for me. That's sub 5:50 pace which is almost my marathon pace...for 15 more miles on a hilly course. I would have to get my marathon down to 2:20 first I think. Who knows, I've been thinking about doing Boston right next year, so maybe the Jim would be a natural fit. We'll see.

    2. I think the trick to "salts" is figuring out what your body is craving. I get the sense that what you need varies person to person and event condition to condition. Could be the potassium in one instance, could be more sodium in another. I think it's probably good to try a few of the different types of electolyte pills out there as they are all formulated a bit different. I just know that S-Caps didn't sit well with me and have done better with the Salt Stick caps and just pure sea salt. But that's just me, your mileage may vary.

      Would love to see you put up a strong effort at the Jim. While it doesn't have the cache these days, it is still a known route well respected by the old timers at least and has the history and legacy. Part of how we are measured as ultra runners is how we perform at the same events and SJ is no exception; you can put your mark up on the wall to compare to what others have done before you. That should be enough incentive to give it a go if it fits in your schedule.

  7. So that's what it is like in front - congrats on your CR! It is fun to read about u speedy winners who r home & done with the 3 s’s by the time I finish, lol. I adore that the current record holder brought up the race to u. I have a friend who drove half way across the country to pace someone to crush his CR in an ultra-tri. Things like that make athletes more impressive than just being winners, which is kick itself. Congrats & keep on doing what drives u. Heck, I'm just planning another 100 finish next month at Mohican instead of Kettle this year. I bet u can't be on your feet as long as I can, lol. Happy Trails!

  8. Interesting perspective...well interesting for me, I am jealous that you have the opportunity to pick and choose! Congratulations on the win!

    Good race, and even better race report.


  9. Wise decision regarding WS. I don't think anyone out there could crack Top 5 at WS without training in mountains

  10. Thanks for the kind words Dave. Really thought you were going to take down this record. I agree with your racing schedule. I'm convinced that the reason I was able to run fast Ultras was that I only did a few each year and only 2 or 3 hard efforts.

  11. Nice race David and good solid judgement on Western. It will always be there, no need to rush it. P.S. Think I can get your entry ;)