Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Race Recap: JD Memorial 50K

I signed up for the John Dick Memorial 50K to ease my nerves. A runner friend of mine commented that I was really going to run a 100 miler as my first race of the season, and it sent a signal of doubt into my thighs. In past years, I have always built up to a long, peak race. This year, I would be hitting it hard, 100 miles right from the outset. So I needed something between six and eight weeks out. In swooped the icy, muddy, and snowy JD 50K, held on a snowmobile trail in the Kettle Moraine area of Wisconsin.

The course layout required us to run five loops of essentially and out-and-back course that had a lollipop on one end. The start/finish was on a spur trail that branched off from the middle of this trail. Once we hit the trail, we did the out-and-back first, then the lollipop, and then re-started the whole process. The out-and-back was about four miles, the lollipop was about two.

I took the first loop easy enough. The race director, Robert Wehner, recommended people wear screw shoes or Ice Spikes because the trails were icy. Now, I wear New Balance MT10s and those soles aren’t thick enough to put a sheet metal screw into it without puncturing my foot. And I didn’t get around to asking one of my runner friends if they had some Yaktrax or Kahtoola microspikes for me. So I ran bare, so to say.

Ultramarathon starts are (almost) always informal.

I was running with a pack of six runners throughout the first loop, and we there were seven runners ahead of us. Sometimes I would lead, sometimes hang back, but never in the middle. There were two aid stations on the course. The first was at the turnaround of the out-and-back section. It was unmanned and had a tub of goodies and two water coolers, one with water and the other filled with HEED. The second was at the end of the lollipop on the other end of the course. This aid station was manned and full of a smorgasboard of food. Everything from typical ultra fare to Little Debbies (why you would want one or could stomach one while running is beyond me) was present, and they also had stove going with ramen soup in pot.

When we came into the manned aid station, I hit it and turned around right away. In doing so, I dropped my five companions instantly and put on a several second lead. One runner caught up to me in short order, an man in all black who wore a blaze-orange stocking cap with “Cougars” on the back and “RRR” on the rear, both written in permanent black marker. He would be my companion for the next ten or so miles.

He and I pulled through the first loop in 51:20, a sub-4:25 pace. I felt solid, was running well, and felt no qualms about the pace. I thought on a great day I could run 4:30, and set a goal of 5:00 hours. 5:30 was also acceptable, but only if conditions dictated (see also 2012 Afton 50K at Afton Alps instead of Afton State Park). We were right on track to where I wanted to be. All I had to do was hold on.

He and I battled together without other companions until about one third of the way through the third lap. We came through the second lap in 48:53, a respectable almost-even pace from the first lap (maybe a little negative) and pushed each other on. On the third lap, my legs started to tire, and the race director caught up to us at about just after the turn around on the out-and-back. He ran past us, and got in front of the two of us just prior to the large, shallow hill on the that section. Now heading back away from the aid station, the hill sloped up. I walked, they ran, and I  was dropped.

I ran through the remainder of the third lap myself, and I started to flounder. When I came through I told my wife that things were starting to hurt. My hamstrings occassionally twinged and my legs started to feel heavy. I knew I had a blister or two on my right outside big toe, and the top of my the toes on my right shoe had a blood stain. I didn’t feel anything so I chose not to worry (or tell her about it).

By the time I was done with the third lap, the sun had come out in earnest and was pounding the open areas. Snow-covered trails turned to mush, dirt turned to mud, and ice became covered with shoe-tracked sand. I can through in 53:50. A little slow down, but respectable given how I was running. I was likely in 10th place at this time.

The fourth lap did a number to me, and I had to remind myself to dig deep. I started walking more of the inclines, and started to take short 45-second to one-minute walking breaks to gather myself. Up until the first aid station on the fourth lap, I had consumed four gels. I had been running for around 3.5 hours and was starting to wane. My stomach felt fine, but I didn’t have any zip in my steps. When I got to that first aid station on lap four, I stopped there for the first time in the race. I had been running right around through it. I slammed two glasses of Coke, belched out the carbonation, and trucked along. My step picked up, and I pushed as hard as I could.

The second aid station on that lap was a similar story. Not only did I put down two more glasses of coke, but I grabbed a fistful of potato chips, too. The salt tasted good, a little too good. That meant one thing: my electrolytes were low, and I needed to replenish them ASAP. I grabbed two more handfuls of chips and got out of there.

I felt instantly better as I left the second aid station on lap four. I was right: my electrolytes were low, and it was affecting my running. I ran on, not caring if I stepped in a mud puddle or four. I came through the fourth lap in 1:06:17 - a noticeable drop from the third lap, maybe of two minutes per mile. But I came through at just under 3:40 for approximately 40K. It was about a 3:50 trail marathon pace, and I was all-but guaranteed to hit my goal of running sub-5 hours. There was no way - absent severe mental or physical breakdown - that I was running an 80-plus minute final lap.

To make matters worse, I had watched the eventual winner drop the pack and pass me going in the opposite direction on every loop. Each loop, he gained more and more. First he had a third of a lap on us, then half, and then on my way to the the start of the fifth loop, he passed me coming up from behind. I was in 15th or so place and was lapped. I had been lapping the slower members of the field, but he lapped me. Just an incredible performance.

The fifth loop was my best loop of them all, at least for feel and racing tenacity. Like the third and fourth loops, I took my a walking break or two, but I ran harder (not necessarily faster) than I did on any loop but my first. Two cokes at the first aid station, two more and some chips at the second, and I hard run through the snow and mud throughout. I pulled off the snowmobile trail and onto the pavement and looked back. The person behind me was starting their fifth loop, and I blasted uphill on the road to the start/finish.

Running uphill - even at a gradual incline - late in an ultra is a task in and of itself. Seemingly innocuous molehills become large chores on tired legs. This was my case with this last hill. But with nothing left to put on the course, I ran as hard as I could - likely around a 7:30 mile pace around the hook and into the warming building. Time recorded - 4:45:00 by my watch - and fast enough that my wife wasn't out to cheer me in because she didn't expect me for another 10 minutes and a PR for the distance by 34 minutes.

In the end, I made it though without falling, although I did have my close calls. I also slipped around plenty - especially on the first two laps - costing precious energy each time. However, after the first loop or two, I figured out where I could and couldn’t step and where I should and shouldn’t put run.

The takewaway

I went into this race as a tune-up for the Zumbro 100, now just over eight weeks away. My time and the feel of the race settled any doubts I had about finishing Zumbro,

I also felt strong on the hills, even the ones I power-walked up. I had a zip in my step up the quick inclines, and powered down the descents on every lap. I'll take this as early-season confirmation of running up and down hills on my easy runs.

Finally, as always, I need to work on pacing. Laps one through three went well, and a 4:30 finish was definitely in reach had I not slowed down by two minutes/mile on those last two laps. This was partially an electrolyte deficiency - a rookie mistake, essentially - and partially mental. I'm going to set a 4:30 time goal at Afton and work like crazy to hit it.
Lap 1: 51:20
Lap 2: 48:53
Lap 3: 53:50
Lap 4: 1:06:17
Lap 5: 1:04:39
Finish: 4:45:01 (unofficial)
Recovery time, with a head cold: <72 hours.

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