Trail Monster Running

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Saturday, November 19, 2011

Stone Cat 50 Miler

My first goal for this race was to beat my time of 8:02 from the last time I ran it, in 2009. This was in no way based on my training or how I actually felt I could run on the day, sort of a default goal to try and do better than before. To prove that I’m stronger now than I was then. On the drive down to the race with Emma, Zak and Jeremy we discussed our race plans, and I admitted that my goal was very ambitious, and that I had no idea if I was capable of making it. My time in 2009 was my fastest time for a 50 miler by a long shot, and more than 2 hours better than my time from this race in 2007 (10:10:13) which was my first 50. I realized, only as we were on our way to the race, that the most likely factor contributing to the success of my race in 2009 was that that race was my one big goal for the year. Everything else I did was about preparing for that 50 miler, my training was very specific, and it paid off. This year my goal was a 100 miler, and I expected my fitness from all the training that went into the Maine 100 Mile Wilderness and Virgil Crest 100 to carry me through the Stone Cat 50 miler. In theory that makes a lot of sense, the biggest unknown was whether or not 6 weeks was enough time for me to recover from a 32.5 hour 100 mile finish, get in a little training and then taper for Stone Cat.

With just about every race I do, no matter the distance, I struggle with setting off too fast. More often than not, if it’s a race I’ve done before, I’m trying to beat my previous time, or if I haven’t done the race I’ve set myself an ambitious goal. My typical strategy for this type of goal is to go out hard, if I want to run a fast time then I have to run fast, and why not start that way from the beginning? In a long race I expect to slow down, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I don’t think “normal” people like me can expect to run even splits in an ultra. The question is: what is an acceptable amount of slowing versus an excessive amount?
In my opinion, my 2009 race was a good example of an appropriate amount of slow-down. When I saw my time at the end of my first lap I knew I couldn’t maintain that speed for the next three laps, so I intentionally slowed down for lap 2, then laps 3 and 4  were each a few minutes slower. But I never hit the wall or crashed. My 2011 race was a good example of how not to run an ultra, or any race for that matter, with a completely inappropriate amount of slow-down.

My “training” leading up to Stone Cat didn’t go quite as well as I had hoped, and in hindsight I should have set myself a more realistic goal based on how I was feeling, rather than how I raced two years ago. Following Virgil Crest I took 5 days off from running, took it easy for the next week and then tried to get in a few decent training runs. Less than three weeks after VC I attempted a 20 miler at Pineland, but stopped at 17 because I didn’t have much energy and didn’t see the point of pushing it. I immediately followed that up with 10 and 7 mile runs on the next two days, and a few days later got in in a 20 miler at Bradbury. While my weekly mileage seemed low for 50 miler training I didn’t feel great and I should have seen that as an indication that my body was still trying to recover from the 100 miler. With a two week taper I felt pretty good going into Stone Cat, but I definitely had a lot of uncertainty about what I was capable of. Ultimately I decided that if I wanted to break 8 hours at this race I would have to go out “fast” (compared to 100 miler pace) and try to hang on.

Trail Monster Running had a large contingent of runners representing the group at this year’s race, with 12 of us toeing the line. Most of our runners spent the night at a local hotel but Emma and I drove down that morning with Zak and pacer-Jeremy for the 6:15AM start. The three other times I ran this race it was before the tweakage to daylight saving time so it always started at sunrise, but this year we started in the dark and needed headlamps for nearly the first hour. This definitely changed things a bit, partly in terms of navigation but also being able to get a sense of my position relative to other runners and for overall pacing. Despite having a fair amount of experience running at night I always find it hard to judge pace in the dark. My only other experience racing in the dark is in the context of a 100 miler, and todays pace was significantly faster than that.

The 50 miler is 4 times around a 12.5 mile loop, with two aid stations out on the course and one at the start/finish area where runners also leave drop bags. After much deliberation, and based on previous years experience with this race, I decided to carry my Nathan HPL #020 pack, loaded to the gills with a 2 liter bladder of Nuun, 7 gels, 3 Honey Stinger Wafers, S!Caps and a small bag of trail mix. This sounds like a lot, but my plan was to go as long as possible without stopping at the aid stations or making use of my drop bag. I know that, especially in a 100, I can spend far too much time at aid stations, so I hoped that I could improve my race time by reducing the amount of time that I wasn’t actually running. Since I know a lot of the folks in the GAC who work the aid stations there is a definite risk of spending too much time socializing or doing shots.

I set off at the start pretty fast, worried about getting stuck on the dark single-track trail behind too many people, although most of the first mile was double-track this turned out to be a non-issue. When we did hit the single-track I recognized Amy Lane’s voice behind me talking to another woman, it took me a few minutes to figure out that it was Aliza Lapierre. I was pretty sure I didn’t belong in front of these two talented runners. Amy’s previous times at Stone Cat were similar to my goal, but she’s been having a good year and I didn’t know what she was capable of. Aliza holds the course record of 7:19*, and also has the course record at Pineland of 6:48! I shouldn’t even be breathing the same air as her. The three of us went through the first aid station at 4.2 miles, Al Cat’s Lounge, without even slowing down and shortly after that I let the two of them pass. I asked them what their plans were for the day, to try and figure out if there was any point in me trying to hang on to their pace. I knew this was sort of a silly question, most people tend to be so modest with their goals and abilities that you never know if you’re going to get a realistic answer. They responded with something in the 7:30 to 7:45 range, which I was pretty sure was a bit too far under 8 hours for me, but knowing that they are very consistent runners, and I was going to be slowing down over the course of the race I decided I would probably be OK hanging with them for the first lap.

At the next aid station, Fast Freddie’s Café at 7.5 miles, Aliza and I cruised through again and Amy dropped back just a bit but stayed within ear shot for a while. With about two miles left in the first lap Aliza seemed to pick up the pace a bit and I knew I shouldn’t try to stay with her. It’s also possible, in fact highly likely even, that she remained consistent and I started to slow down. Either way, the result was that I was on my own, and that’s how it stayed for the rest of the race. 39.5 miles is a long time to be running alone, and I hoped that one of the other Trail Monsters would catch up to me and keep me company.

I knew that I would be out longer than the battery life of my Garmin so I didn’t bother with it today, instead relying on my lap times to judge my pace. This was a bit risky because it’s very limited feedback, and doesn’t really give much of an opportunity (only three chances) to make changes to my plan/pace as I go. I could have worked out my pacing based on the aid station mileage but I really didn’t want to be bothered with that, I much prefer to run based on how I feel, which I realize contradicts my overall race goal. Whatever. I crossed the line at the end of the first lap in 1:46:30. This was only a little bit faster than my first lap when I ran the race in 2009, so I thought that I was in good shape. With all that was in my pack there was no need for me to stop at the aid station so I just took off my headlamp and tossed it to Jeremy as I passed by. I had thought I might shed a layer here but it was still pretty cold out, probably only in the upper 30’s. Despite running fairly quickly I was finding it hard to keep warm, my hands were pretty cold and my legs were definitely aware of the cold air. Although my energy level was pretty good my legs felt a bit stiff and inefficient. I usually perform well in cooler temperatures but for some reason I was struggling a bit today. Not that I felt bad, but in hindsight I wonder if the fact that I was struggling to keep warm was an indication that my body wasn’t functioning optimally.

As I headed out on my second lap I got to see a lot of Trail Monsters and other familiar faces coming in as they finished their first lap. Amy wasn’t too far behind me, then Emma, Blaine and Zak, all looking good. I didn’t want to let myself slow down but I hoped that at least one of them would catch up. It never happened, at least not on this lap. I was alone, and without any conversation I didn’t have much to think about except for the trail. Hills that I hadn’t noticed the first time around were making themselves known, and I was surprised by how technical some sections were. It’s amazing how the company of another person can distract you from the trail. I still managed to run the entire second lap without the need for walking or even stopping at the aid stations. So far it seemed that my nutrition/hydration strategy was working well, I was saving a lot of time by not stopping at aid stations and I don’t think the extra weight was a significant burden. My total time at the end of the second lap was 3:40, giving me a lap time of 1:54. Eight minutes slower than my first lap, almost 40 seconds per mile. Not so good, but it looked like I still had a good chance of breaking 8 hours even if I continued to slow down over the second half of the race.

After 25 miles I was finally ready for an aid station break, and I needed to take a few minutes to refill my pack, and adjust my clothing now that it was warming up a bit. With help from Jeremy and Jamie I got my bladder swapped out, emptied some trash, stripped of my long sleeve shirt and put on some Moeben sleeves, then switched my knit hat for a baseball cap. Probably less than a 2 minute stop, which I was happy with. My feet were holding up well, although each lap they got soaked when we ran through a 100 yard section of flooded trail with 12” deep icy water. It took a few miles for my feet to warm up after each time I went through but thanks in part to the Hydropel I applied before the race (thanks Emma) I didn’t have any issues with hot spots or blisters.

I took off on the third lap running pretty fast, I felt good about how the race had gone so far and was confident I’d be able to break 8 hours. That changed a mile into the loop when I turned onto single-track and started to go up hill. All of a sudden my energy was gone and it seemed like an enormous struggle to get up this little hill. For the first time in the race I felt the need to walk. I never expected to run every step of the entire race, but I also didn’t expect to feel this crappy just over half way through. Coming down the other side of the hill I felt fine, but when I got to the next up it was the same story, no energy and I was forced to a walk.

As much as I wanted to stop at Al Cat’s Lounge there really wasn’t any need since I had a full pack of food and drink, so I pretended to feel good and ran past. By the time I got to Fast Freddie’s Café at about 32.5 miles I was feeling pretty low and stopped long enough to grab a few pieces of grilled cheese sandwich. Maybe I wasn’t getting enough to eat and that was contributing to my lack of energy? This was how I felt when I attempted a 20 miler at Pineland a few weeks before with Jeremy. Could it be that I wasn’t recovered from Virgil Crest?

Not long after leaving the aid station I bumped into Jamie who was on his way out to meet Kate. He turned and ran with me for a little while and we chatted. It was a great distraction from the many lonely miles I had been running, but soon enough he turned back to meet up with Kate and I was on my own again.

At the end of the third lap it was time to check my watch again and see the bad news I knew was coming. 5:53, which works out to a 2:13 lap. Damn, I was seriously slowing down. Thankfully there was a big group of Trail Monsters there to lift my spirits and help me get ready for my last lap. Val and Rick helped change the bladder in my pack and Four brought me a big plate of food from the aid station. As I headed out for the final time I felt much better and started thinking I still had a chance of breaking 8 hours. A 2 hour lap wasn’t out of the question was it? Yeah, it was. What a stupid idea. When I hit that hill on the single-track I was walking again, even slower than before. I felt pretty bad. Nothing in particular was hurting, I just felt like I had no energy.
I decided to stop at Al Cat’s on my last time through, just long enough to grab a few pieces of grilled cheese sandwich. I realized there was definitely more to the way I was feeling than a little refueling could take care of. I felt like I was eating and drinking well enough throughout the race, but that doesn’t matter if your body isn’t willing to accept being pushed that hard. By the time I reached Fast Freddie’s my quads started cramping which slowed me down even more. I decided not to stop at the aid station, I had enough in my pack to get me through the last 5 miles, even if it took me a really long time. It did take a long time. I was getting passed a lot on this last lap, and every time I tried to hang on for as long as I could, but I couldn’t keep up with anyone.

When I finally entered the field for the last time and approached the finish I was grateful to be done. My time was respectable but I wasn’t at all happy with how I got it. I finished in 8:17 which meant my last lap was 2:23. That’s 37 minutes slower than my first lap. I knew I was going to slow down, but that’s just embarrassing.

I don’t regret setting off fast, although maybe I should. In hindsight it’s obvious that I didn’t have it in me to hang on to that pace for very long, and I can’t help but wonder if I would have had a better race if I had started out more conservatively. I knew my goal of breaking 8 hours was very ambitious, and I probably should have come up with a more realistic goal based on how I was feeling going into the race. If my goal had been to break 8:30 I would have been very happy with an 8:17, but only if I ran it more consistently. 8:17 is still a good time for me, but I feel like at this stage in my running I should be able to run smarter races and not make this kind of vast miscalculation in my abilities.

The biggest difference between this race and the year I ran 8:02 is that this year I was balancing recovery and training in the 6 weeks leading up to it, and I definitely didn’t get that balance right.


(photos taken by various friends and reused without their permission :)

*Aliza went on to set a new course record of 7:06.