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!

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Moonlight Double Feature!

For those that are not familiar with Vac & Dash, it's a combination running retail and vacuum cleaning store in Albemarle, NC.  A bizarre combination to say the least, but Peter Asciutto, the owner, goes the extra mile to ensure that his specialty store hosts a slew of equally quirky and awesome road races throughout Stanly County.  One of these is the Moonlight Half-Marathon, 5k, and Movie, which takes place at the Badin Drive-In on the edge of Albemarle.  Participants can participate in the 5k or the Half; or they can register for the Double Feature and do both races.  I chose the Double Feature.
7pm: The 5k
Although the sun was getting low in the sky, the temperature for the evening 5k was still hotter than I would've liked it to be for any road race.  My plan was to go out hard for the 5k and adopt a Devil-May-Care attitude for my performance in the Half.  I sized up my competition.  There looked to be a couple of quick kids there, but Vac & Dash's young, lanky Seth Utley was my pick to be the ringer.  Having done a short warm-up run on the first mile or so of the course, I knew to expect a flat, fast race, with not much more than the occasional gentle rollers one might find in a residential area.  Casual as ever, Peter gave us the "read-set-go" and we were off.  Seth cruised out into an early, commanding lead, and two of the younger runners shot out ahead of me.  Alicia, who would be the overall female winner, kept pace with me, not wanting me to get out of reach.  Within the first kilometer, the youngbloods had run out of bravado and faded back to me.  I settled into a comfortable but distant 2nd place.  Despite the heat, I maintained a fairly quick 5k pace.  I would not PR, and I had almost no shot at winning, but I certainly would have a respectable time and an almost guaranteed 2nd place.
The course was pretty much out-and-back, so I got to see the whole field on a long straightaway after the turnaround.  Seth had nearly a minute on me, but I had nearly as much time on the 3rd place runner.  I saw fellow DARTer Sarah Ferris on her way to the turnaround, and she looked to be running strong and having fun, despite the fact that she admittedly hates 5k's.  The rest of the race was an exercise in lonely pace keeping.  Still wanting to have a good time, I pushed to negative split the last mile.  As I loomed closer to the last turn, I saw that I had an opportunity to go sub-19, so I poured on the gas for the last couple hundred meters.  Official time: 18:53.  Considering all the racing and hard training I had been doing, I was very happy with that.
Running hard on the last mile of the 5k.

The final stretch of the 5k.  I would be here again 3 hours later...
Sarah made a last mile pass and gained 2nd place female.  I was 2nd place male.  Seth had crushed me by over a minute, and Alicia was not far behind me for 1st place female.
Sarah (2nd overall female) and me (2nd overall male) after the 5k
After finishing the 5k, I had about an hour and 40 minutes before the start of the Half Marathon.  I grabbed some water and food from the car (a Bonk Breaker bar and some mini-bagels) and a change of racing clothes.  I donned a fresh singlet, swapped out my ultra-light 5k racing flats for my marathon racers, and I pulled on some compression calf sleeves.  With the sun having just set, I layered up with my warm-up sweats to keep from getting chilled.  The drive-in was getting crowded and it was starting to get dark.  I made sure I had my headlamp and reflective vest and proceeded to meander around for a while, half watching the movie, half shaking out my legs.  The Half was set to start at 9pm, so I went for a shakeout jog at about 8:40, keeping my hoodie on so that I was good and warm for the start of the race.  After one more pit stop, I rushed over to the Badin Drive-In's main entrance for the start.
9pm: The Half-Marathon
A handful of other runners from the 5k were participating in the double feature.  Sarah and Alicia were among them.  However, there were a few runners who were coming into the Half with fresh legs.  Among them was Rob, who I had met the previous week at the City of The Arts Half-Marathon, though I did not know his name then.  Rob was disappointed at CoTA, and I think he was shooting for a top 3 spot at this race.  There also was an intimidatingly tall runner who had a lean, svelte runner's build who looked to be taking his warm-up drills fairly seriously.  So, there definitely was some competition present.
The course was daunting.  Unlike the 5k, the Half Marathon would be rolling hills the whole way, with a mountain in the middle.  Not to mention the fact that the whole race was in the dark, and the waxing crescent moon provided very little moonlight.  We lined up on the road and waited for an appropriate break in the traffic.  Peter briefed us on the course, which would have very few turns, but also very little civilization.  Then, with the same "on your mark, get set, go," we were off.
Rob shot out like a rocket, and Tall Man was not too far behind him as he breezed by me with long, confident strides.  Alicia stuck by my side for the first mile or so.  We each had planned to keep a respectable pace while going more easily than we would for a usual Half.  That plan was failing.  We were doing a sub-6:40 pace without really thinking about it.  Alicia was the first to tap the brakes.  She gave me an encouraging salutation and settled into a more conservative pace.  I slowed too, but only by about 10 seconds per mile.  Rob and Tall Man were lengthening their lead, and I was finding it difficult to make out the features of their persons in the distance.  I could identify Tall Man by the blinking yellow light he wore on the back of his waistband, and I could see the blue-white glow of Rob's headlamp beyond him.  When I glanced back, aside from Alicia being close astern, the rest of the field was far behind and scattered along Highway 701 leading out of Albemarle.
About 1.5 miles into the race, we turned off of the state highway and onto Morrow Mountain Road...and into the darkness.  From here on out, I could count the number of cars along the course on one hand.  The road was rolling, dark, and silent.  As I rounded each curve, I looked out ahead for the distant blinking yellow light and the soft, blue-white glow ahead of it.  I did not always see it.  I had no visible landmarks for reference, so I had no real idea how far behind the leaders I was.  My best guess was a quarter mile...maybe more.  The next few miles reminded me very much of the night legs of the Blue Ridge Relay.  It's not for everyone, but I can reach down and find exhilaration in running quickly in solitude into a dark, arboreal void.
As I passed through the stone gateway leading into Morrow Mountain State Park, the rolling hills began to trend steadily upward.  I caught glimpses of one or both of the leaders here and there, and although I tried to ignore them and pay attention to my own pace, I could not help but notice that I was seeing more and more of them.  I guessed that I was closing the gap steadily.  Despite the dim moonlight, I could make out the profile of Morrow Mountain ahead of me, and I could tell by my GPS watch that I was approaching the race's halfway point which lay at the summit.  The road switched back and forth as the gradient became steeper and steeper.  I knew Seth Utley was volunteering at a hairpin turn that led to the final, steepest part of the climb.  I saw what must have been Seth's flashlight ahead, and I could spot the lights from both runners ahead of me.  When Rob's light reached Seth's, the headlamp turned left and appeared to go straight up.  Great...
I was not too far behind Tall Man when I made the hairpin turn.  Immediately, I settled into a Littlest-Engine-That-Could style short step to just focus on getting to the top.  My pace slowed dramatically, and with the stagnant air, I felt like I was overheating despite the cool temperature of the evening.  My breath was ragged, but consistent.  When I glanced up, Tall Man was right in front of me and fading back.  I was not trying to pass him--certainly not on this stinker of a climb--but I was overtaking him nonetheless.  When I passed him, he uttered a labored "good job," and I managed a gasping "thanks!"
After another 150 meters, we had reached the aid station at the top, and our running had been reduced to shuffling.  Moments before, we saw Rob coming back towards us, also shuffling.  I grabbed a quick cup of water and turned straight around.  Halfway done.  From here, it would be down the mountain and then back from whence we came.  It took me a good 100 meters for my stride to open back up.  Once I broke out into a full downhill run, I found myself going so fast and hard that I was developing a side stitch.  "Breath, Chas!  Plenty of race left," I told myself.  When Rob came into view, he was making a hard right on the hairpin turn, also running fast.  I could not tell how far Tall Man was behind me, but I was fairly confident I had a firm grip on 2nd place.  I shone my headlamp on the corner of the turn so I could cut the tangent as quickly (and safely) as possible.  "20 seconds," Seth shouted, informing me of the gap between the leader and me.   I shouted a thank you back to him but focused only on the road ahead.  20 seconds...I was still very much in this for the win...
The winding road through the park seemed to go a lot more quickly than on the outbound leg.  Sure, I got to enjoy a little more downhill, but I also got to see the rest of the field and hear their encouraging cheers of "Go get'em," and "Reel him in!"  When I passed Sarah, who looked like a neon Christmas tree with her illumination, she gave me a hearty high-five.
I could see Rob now, and I rarely took my eyes off him.  He was close enough that I could time our gap by whatever landmarks were visible.  I was gaining on him.  I appraised myself; the pace was hard, but I felt like I could sustain it.  As long as I had incentive in the form of a blue-white glow ahead of me, I was going to maintain this pace for as long as it took.
I caught up to Rob at about mile 8.  "I knew you'd catch me," he seemed to lament, "I'll try and keep pace with you for as long as I could."  I didn't speed up or slow down.  I just kept the same, aggressive pace.  I was content to let him tire himself out if that's what it took.  When he said "I'd be ok with 2nd place," I shot back with "C'mon, Rob, there's plenty of race left.  Anything can happen!"  I wanted him to keep pushing, partly to lift his spirits, but also because I didn't want to be a sole front-runner with so much of the race left.  When we reached an aid station at mile 10, I found that I did not need water, so I shot straight past it.  Rob slowed down  to take a cup, yielding sole possession of the lead to me.
3.1 miles left.  Now all I had to do was keep my foot on the gas.  This rolling section had a downhill trend in the beginning of the race, so now it was steadily uphill from here to the finish.  I could not hear footfalls behind me, so I just focused on my own effort, reminding myself that everyone had to run the same hills.  "Sustain the pain," I reminded myself, channeling one of the Reckless Running mottoes.  At 1.5 miles from the finish, I made the left turn off of the park road and back onto 701.  I glanced behind me and saw...something.  It could have been a headlamp, or it could have been a volunteer's light, or it could have been nothing at all.  But I didn't like the look of it, and it was not far enough away for my own comfort, so I dug in for my last 10 minutes of running.  It was not just a straight shot back to where we started.  We had to make a couple more turns off the main road to get to the back side of the drive-in where the previous race had finished.  Each of these turns seemed to add another gentle hill.  I was ready to be done!  When I saw the red glow of the LED lights on the gun clock approaching, I gave one last glance behind me.  There was nothing.  I breathed a sigh of relief...well, actually a gasp of exhaustion, and made a beeline for the finish.  I ripped off my reflective vest on the last dash and threw up my arms in victory!  Official time: 1:31:27, of which I am extremely pleased given the difficulty of the course.  This isn't the first race I've won straight out, but it certainly was the win of which I was the most proud!
The final stretch of the Half Marathon...looking a lot worse for wear than 3 hours earlier.

With my 2nd place in the 5k and my 1st place in the Half, I also was the overall winner for the Double Feature competition, a compilation of times for those who competed in both events.  Alicia was the 1st overall female in the Half and 1st place for the women's Double Feature, and Sarah was 2nd in the Half, earning 2nd in the Double Feature.  Tall Man (who I later found out was named Adam) had overtaken Rob to claim 2nd place in the Half, and Rob finished 90 seconds after him for 3rd.
Now, I have to come back next year to defend my title!

From left: Tall Man Adam (2nd place), me (1st place), and Rob (3rd place).  Usually, the winner is on an elevated pedestal.  Here, it looks as if I'm standing in a hole, but I'm not!