About ninety minutes before race start, somewhere between Davis and Granite Bay, I decided that I was going to run my guts out today.
(“guys” = “guts”…)
It could have been the coffee buzz or it could have been readiness to release the mounting pressure around work and life. I just felt like getting lost, and the Lost Trail 1/2 Marathon seemed an appropriate venue.
Pre-Race: I pre-registered for the race, which afforded me one less to-do when I arrived at Granite Bay. I stuck to my pre-race stretching with a foam roller and lacrosse ball. I felt limber and ready to go. I was a little behind schedule getting to the starting line, showing up less than 30 seconds before we were ready to go.
Mile 1-2: I ran quickly from the start. The course exits the start area then cuts through a picnic area, then down to a stretch of pavement before dumping runners into the race trails. I wanted to start quickly so that I could establish position once we hit the trails. The first mile is most flat. The second mile introduces a few rollers that quickly separate out competitors who know what they’re doing on a trail run and those that don’t.
There are a few sub-groups in the first couple of race packs:
- The leaders – 3-5 runners that are supremely fit, capable of torching the course, and will finish a good 5-8 minutes ahead of the next batch of finishers. I’m never in this pack.
- The overzealous gunners – 5-10 runners that fire off too quickly on the trails, thinking that they’ll be able to blast through the hills, when in fact, as they learn later, they have to run over them just like everyone else.
- Experienced runners – 5-10 runners who know that a half-marathon trail run is a long race, and who know how to pace themselves accordingly. I’m usually in this group.
I wanted to maintain a quick pace on the flats and downhills, float on the uphills, and bust through the initial out-of-breath feeling I get in the first 15 minutes of any race. Once I get my body adjusted – “Well, it’s going to be like this for a while? Okay, let’s adjust our heart rate and settled into a predictable steady state….” – I can figure out how the rest of the race is going to go.
A pack developed around me – two women (the leading women racers), a younger gray-shirted guy, a solid-looking red-shirted guy, and a guy with a CamelPack. From the looks of them, I figured we’d be racing together for a good chunk of the race. I observed that the two women were running together and were very strong. One of them in particular was solidly built – muscular legs and torso, and I thought I might have a hard time keeping up with them over the long run (no pun intended…). The other was thinner and later I saw she had a tough time with the constant hills.
Mile 3: I remembered to check the elevation chart before the gun, and saw that there was a steep descent to the lowest elevation of the race. After pushing harder than usual for the first two miles, I knew I could rest a little here without losing time. I’m pretty average at navigating descents – just not a huge fan of the uncertain footing. A few of us where jockeying back and forth in the first two miles, and I knew I’d lose a few spots on this descent, and I knew I’d make them up when the trail ascended over the next two miles.
I did in fact lose a few spots to the women and gray shirt, and even two more women that hurried down the hill.
Mile 4: Now the real hills started, not just little rolling ascents and descents. This is also where I took my first walking break, and as usual, my lean-forward-fast-walk was no slower that the other competitors who ran up the hills burning energy and blasting their heart rates. I love that I have this race strategy in my bag and am ever curious why others don’t employ it.
Mile 5: The big climb. It’s a monster in relative terms. The good part is that there is a short section of flat – about 10-15 yards right in the middle, so I ran up the the hill until the grade became very steep, then walked, jogged the flat, and walked up the last steep section to the top. I passed the two women, and the more solidly-built one waited at the top for her thinner friend. I thought I could use this to my advantage later.
I wanted to put some distance between the two women and myself, thinking that with each hill, they might wear down a little more and I could just out-endure them even if I couldn’t outrun them. I pushed pretty hard in this section, and the course transitions from the south of the starting area past the starting line, to the north side of the course. The first non-optional puddle introduced itself on this stretch, and I chose to plow right through it, thinking it would send a good message to the women and myself that I was in full-scale race mode. I could hear them behind me throughout the this mile – they groaned about the puddle – and finally on a long, open straightaway and the two women caught and passed me. I joked with them – “We should do a relay – I’ll take the hills and you take the flats.” Gray Shirt and CamelBack were right there ahead of me, and I didn’t see Red Shirt anywhere.
While we’re all competing, I do want the other racers to know that I’m a generally nice guy and having fun out there. At some point later in the trail, we might be really racing each other, and if there’s a situation where I need to reach deep and rip out their hearts with a big push up a hill or a sprint along a flat section, I want them to know that I nice guy is leaving them behind.
Mile 7: I started to labor. The course is mostly flat and open, and it took everything I had to keep pace with the two women and gray shirt. I was working really, really hard here and starting thinking that I’d need to back off soon or risk blowing up. My heart rate was hovering about 160 bpm, which is the max I can go for any sustainable time, and a danger zone for me to maintain for as long as we had to go in the race. In a few places, it hit 170 bpm. Red Shirt emerged right around here from what I remember. The women set a blistering pace for this point of the race considering the hills and climbing behind us and nearly half of the course still ahead – easily running sub-8:00s, and from what I could tell, where were in the 7:30-7:45 range on the flats. Looking back, maybe they were trying to put distance between themselves and me, or maybe they didn’t think about me at all and just ran a naturally faster speed than me.
Mile 8: Thankfully, the course turned back into a true trail run, with single-track trails, rocks, hills and everything. I felt like I had barely survived the last two miles trying to outrun and then keep pace with with the two woman. It felt like Gray Shirt was laboring just a little, and I passed him going up a hill, then passed the two women near the top of the next significant climb. The stronger of the two women waited for her racing partner again, and the thin one was noticeably laboring up the hills now. So again, I decided to push hard to try put some distance between me and my pack.
To be clear, I was asking myself to start a kick now, with five miles to go. I was already pushing hard, very hard, especially compared to my typical race strategy. Normally, I would continue running with this pack until mile 10 or 11, and then finish strong to out run them at the them.
I remembered that I told myself that I’d run my guts out today, thinking – “Well, if I’m always feeling strong and the end of the races, maybe I can push harder earlier and completely empty the tank by the end of the race.” So I pushed. I felt mentally fatigued, as it took a lot of focus to pick lines, run tangents, and figure out where the trail twisted and turned ahead. Without a rabbit in front of me, I had to focus on my pace, trail direction, and picking lines to run through and over rocks jutting up from the ground. Parts of the trail were cut well into the ground, creating a V-shaped contour. At one downhill turn, my right shoe gave out and I nearly wiped out.
Mile 9: I could hear footsteps behind me – I just couldn’t shake Gray Shirt at first and then over an ascent and down a descent I looked back and it seemed like I was finally able to put some distance between him and me.
Mile 10: I was in pain and doubting that I could keep a lead for another three miles. I heard footsteps again and finally I figured it’d be best to let him go by. I thought – I couldn’t run from the lead (for my pack) for the entire five miles, and I was willing to sacrifice one spot in the standings to have a pacer/rabbit ahead of me if it meant I could hold off the other four racers behind me. I stepped aside, and to my surprise, it was Red Shirt that passed me – not Gray Shirt. He was looking very strong, and there was no one behind him. “Okay,” I thought. “ Now this guy can carry me to the finish.” My legs felt torched. I had now reached my longest distance in almost a year. My calves started twitching and quads ached.
My only goal now was just to keep Red Shirt in view. This was just endurance math. If I had a good enough lead over the next four runners – say 1/4 mile, it would take a Herculean effort by any one of them to catch me. A quarter mile lead with three miles to go is pretty big – about two minutes. Which means the Pack of Four would need to run almost a 0:45 seconds per mile faster over the past couple of miles to catch me and I didn’t think any of the four racers behind me – Gray Shirt, CamelPack, or the two women – had that kind of reserve. Now my focus was to just keep Red Shirt in view.
Mile 11: We were past the significant hills, with only rollers left. Mile 11 felt oddly sedate. In having a pacer in Red Shirt, I could just focus on breathing and staying calm, and making sure I was running tangents on each curve.
Mile 12: At the aid station, I was just a few paces behind Red Shirt and I heard a volunteer tell him – “Nice job – 4th place.” Then he handed me a drink and said – “Nice job – 5th place.” 5th pace!? Holy crap. I thought I was somewhere around 8th or 9th. This would be an enormous achievement for me if I could hold on to 5th.
Cramps. In every uphill, my calves and hamstrings would reach their edge and start cramping, then luckily the uphill rollers where just short enough that when my legs felt they were about seize up, I’d hit an apex and a downhill stretch saved me. I was happy and surprised to keep Red Shirt in view all along, though I could tell he was started to labor – his torso started to slump and lead out too far ahead of his legs. I noticed he shuffled his stride ever-so-slightly from time to time. I could only imagine what I probably looked like…
Red Shirt turned around at one point to look back for me. He was about 50 yards ahead. I called out – “I’m still here!” I think that surprised him given how I let him pass and then I called – “Don’t worry. I don’t have it to catch you.” I didn’t. At a point in most races where I was feeling strong and started to gain ground on others, all I could do was focus on finishing and maintaining my position.
We turned a corner and there was an opening to the left where we could see another runner up ahead about 1/5 – 1/6 mile. He had stopped to turn around and pick up something. For a moment, I thought maybe Red Shirt and I could track him down if he was struggling for any reason. But alas, the trail turned to the right indicating the 3rd place racer was well ahead, and immediately squashing that thought.
Mile 13: The last mile. I just focused on staying on pace with Red Shirt and making sure I didn’t cramp. Then I had an inkling that maybe, just maybe, I could catch Red Shirt. I had a burst down a flat-to-downhill section where I gained a few strides on him. Then the trail ascended again, and my legs starting cramping again, and I put away those thoughts. I turned for the final stretch, reached down to turned my race belt around so the announcer could see my number, and I crossed the line with a time of 1:46 point something. Just over an 8:00/mile pace.
I had absolutely, positively raced my guts out. Running without anything in the tank for a final push was quite a different feeling than saving, saving, saving for a big finish to pass people at the end.
Post-Race: Gray Shirt and CamelPack crossed the line, then the two women, about two minutes after Red Shirt and me. We all collected with each other and shook hands, exchanging the mutual “good race” congratulations.
I talked with Red Shirt for a bit. Turns out he’s a 10-time Ironman, and just missed qualifying for Kona twice, and is training for IM-Canada now. It was good to know I could keep pace with someone like this. Then he told me that this was his longest run of the year. Yep. Me too buddy. 🙂
At dinner last night, Lena asked me if I liked this distance, and I do. And I also still like the longer distances. I’m thinking about an 18-20 mile trail run in the next two months, and if that goes well, I’ll give a 50k another shot. I haven’t completed an ultra marathon yet, and it’s on the list. If the 50k goes well, I’d like to do a 50-miler by the end of the year. Body willing, that is…
It’s Sunday morning now, and I’m more sore today than the day after my last Ironman. I got up last night to pee, and could barely walk. Awesome.