Monday, April 28, 2014

Run the Rock 50k: Hunter and Hunted...

The rain fell all night and continued to fall through the early morning.  If the race had been a day earlier or a day later, the weather would have been perfect.  But alas, we DARTers--John, Tim, and myself--were destined to run a hilly, technical 31 miles of trails at Raven Rock State Park in the rainy muck.  We spent the 2.5 hour drive to Southern Pines discussing how "awesome" it was going to be.
I packed light as far as 50k's go: a bunch of gels, some solid energy bars, a lightweight gear vest, a 20oz water bottle, and some dry clothes for after the race.  I came into this race with an eye to win, so my plan was to be totally self-sufficient and not rely on aid stations.  Since we would see the single aid station at the start/finish five times before the race was done, I decided I would shed gear and layers as the race went on.
The course was sort of a figure 8.  The start/finish seemed to be at the highest point, so both loops of the figure 8 would take us down in elevation before making us climb back up, with several undulations therein.  The first 5.5 mile loop was rolling and not too technical, consisting of runnable single track and stretches of wide double track for the most part.  The second loop, although half a mile shorter, was much more technical, with many treacherous climbs and descents and precarious footing ranging from ankle-deep, standing water to mucky quagmires to tangled knots of roots to jagged, exposed granite sawteeth.  This second section also began with a steep, half-mile descent that would be a steep, half-mile climb to get back to the finish.  We would do the figure 8 (made up of both loops) three times.
At the start.  I'm in the middle.  Tim is to my left, and Green Shirt is to his left.

At the start, I stayed close to the front of the field, as did Tim.  A young, fit, stoic runner with a green shirt shot off to an early lead, clocking what I guessed was a 7:30 pace on the trails.  I kept him in sight as a handful of other young runners from nearby Fort Bragg passed me and gave chase.  50k is a long way, and it leaves plenty of time for pacing and strategy, but I kept an eye on the leaders from a safe distance regardless.  After the first 4 miles or so, some of the Army runners had faded back to me, and I knew I was in 4th place.  At about this point in the first loop, there was a mile-long out-and-back section that led straight downhill to the Cape Fear River and then straight back uphill to the Raven Rock Trail.  I gauged how far I was from the leaders on this out-and-back.  I was maybe 1 minute behind them.  I made up some ground on #3 on the uphill, but I could not bring 1 and 2 back into view.  Emerging from the out-and-back, the trail continued uphill for another half-mile before bringing us to start/finish/aid.  I ran straight through without stopping and made my way for the second loop of my first figure 8.
The initial downhill in this section was very fast and treacherous, and I pondered how my legs might feel the next couple times I would have to run it.  After crossing a wooden bridge at the bottom (and smiling for the photographers), I settled in for 3-4 miles of uneven footing and nasty little hills.  After zigging and zagging and tiptoeing over several water crossings, I finally found a long, runnable downhill that led to the river (across from the other loop's out-and-back).  I was relieved to spend 15-20 minutes running at a good clip, but I was ready to be out of this loop.  Finally, I made it to the long hill I had run down, and I ran up the whole thing without a walk break.
The wooden bridge, smiling for the photographers.

Moving quickly over one of the more runnable sections.

When I swooped into the aid station, I spent 20 seconds filling my water bottle and then wasted no more time getting back on the trail.  That would be the only time during the race I would stop for aid.  The first few miles of the second lap were fairly solitary and uneventful.  It wasn't until the out-and-back that I caught sight of my query.  On the downhill, I caught #3 and made sure to pass him at a quick pace to seal the deal.  The green-shirted leader was maybe 5 minutes ahead of me when I saw him on his uphill climb.  The 2nd place runner, I found out, was running the 25k option, and therefore of no concern to me.  That meant I was the 2nd place runner.  That left me with an elevated sense of vigor, but I still was not in sight of Green Shirt as I made my uphill climb, so I settled in for the long game.
Ditching some unnecessary weight at the halfway point.

Once again, I flew through start/finish/aid without a backward glance and made my way for the other side of my second lap.  As I charged down the big hill, some of the back-of-the-pack walkers cheered me on and assured me that the leader was only a couple minutes ahead of me.  I was in no hurry to catch him--yet--but I certainly planned on maintaining a competitive pace.  At around mile 18, Green Shirt appeared ahead of me on the trail.  He was slogging up a hill, almost walking, and he did not look happy.  I believe there's a great significance in passing competitors with confidence, so I took the hill in a brazenly brisk run and maintained that pace until several moments after I had passed him.  With a little over 13 miles left to go, I was in the lead.
I was beginning to pay the toll for the quick pace I maintained at the beginning of the race.  Nearly 20 miles of rugged trail in inclement weather can wear one out on any given day, but I knew I had to suck it up and keep moving.  Losing the lead would hurt worse than any side stitch or muscle cramp.  I walked only the very first part of the last half-mile, and I shuffle-ran the rest.  I called out my number as I came back into aid and proceed directly to the trailhead for my 3rd and final figure 8.  The trails were familiar now, and I knew which sections I could push hard and which sections I could dial back and conserve energy.  As I ran quickly down the hill on the out-and-back section, I saw many walkers still on their second lap.  They cheered me on and I returned the sentiments.  On my way back up the hill, I saw Tim, who had gained 2nd place.  I estimated he was maybe 4-5 minutes behind me...and looking strong!  With nearly 7 miles left to race, that margin was a little too close for comfort.  I thought to myself, "at least I was running when he saw me!"
I spent the next few minutes racing with a new sense of urgency.  I had a feeling Tim was showing up to compete today, so I, who played the hunter for the majority of the race, was now being hunted.  I breezed by the aid station for the final time, this time ditching my water bottle (I had ditched my vest over an hour earlier).  At this point, I had run a hair past a marathon on challenging terrain, and my legs were protesting.  Nevertheless, I gritted my teeth as I bounded down the half-mile hill to start my last 5-mile loop.  I saw John at the base of the hill, and he encouraged me as he started his climb back to the aid station.  The predictability of the 3rd time through this trail did not make the footing any easier.  In fact, my compounding fatigue was making me less and less stable.  I did not fall, but I certainly came close several times.  I had to walk the short, steep, jagged climbs, but I forced myself to run the rest, promising that the race was, indeed, finite.  After the longish descent towards the river, I had a good view behind me for a short while.  No sign of Tim.  Surely he was getting tired too, right?  "No, Chas," I chided myself, "you can't count on someone else to bonk!  He's chasing you down!  He's as hungry as you are!"
I kept the pressure on, trying to expand, or at least maintain my lead.  When I finally got to the steep bottom of the half-mile hill for the last time, I bit the bullet and hiked the first 50 meters, looking over my shoulder every few steps.  With no sign of my pursuer,  I dug in and ran the rest of the hill.  I knew that as long as I ran, I would have the win in the bag.  Once I reached the top, I was a scant quarter-mile from the finish.  I broke out into as much of a sprint as I could manage.  My finishing time was 5 hours, flat.  I was 1st place, overall, and it was my very first ultra-distance win.
I could barely walk by the time Tim finished with a solid 2nd place.  I had expanded my lead to 10 minutes, but it was evident that he maintained a predatory pace, and he looked a lot more energized than I did.  It was a good day for DART with us going 1-2!  John finished in 12th place--still in the top 1/3 of 50k finishers, and he was completely satisfied with his performance on the less-than-hospitable terrain and footing.
Having taken a 12+ month hiatus from Ultras after my one and only 100 mile race, it's a serious boost to my confidence to jump back into the ultra circuit with a win at a homegrown event.  Hopefully, I can stay competitive at these various distances as I start to plan my fall marathon season.
My first ultra-win!

No comments:

Post a Comment