Ok, so I”ve been a horrible slacker when it comes to blogging, I’m going to set a New Years Resolution a month early and try to get back on track with this. Please, no one go through my old posts and tell me how many times I’ve said that…I’m just going to try. First order of business, a posting about my race this past weekend (perhaps some reflections on races not yet blogged about will be forthcoming, but for now, this will be a good starting point). When I signed up for the North Face Endurance Series Trail Championship Race (what a long title, huh?) I was a bit bummed out that the 50 mile distance was already sold out, so I settled on the 50K. Reflecting on the weekend, I couldn’t be happier that I “had” to settle on the K distance. For anyone that doesn’t know, the weather in San Francisco this weekend was awful. Pouring rain, flooding, and a trail race in the mountains does not equate ideal running conditions. I’ve done several “mud” themed races, just none of them 30 miles long. The conditions were bad enough that they had to change the course, making this the second race this year to be change days before the event that I’ve run in 2012. Not that it really matters that much to me, since I don’t study maps all that much, but worth noting.
The morning of the race came, it was pretty much pouring buckets of rain and a bit cool (not freezing by any stretch, but definitely enough to be noteworthy). I took the shuttle bus over with my friend Rich, and on the walk to the starting area we slipped and slid all over the place. I quickly determined that my vest over short sleeves would likely not be sufficient, so I switched to my new Craft rain resistant jacket. We were about 45 minutes early for the start, and the weather was too bad (windy and rainy) for there to be any temporary shelters set up. We found the trucks to put our bags in for the finish, and realized it was one of the few dry areas near the start, so we took shelter and tried to stay as dry as possible. We holed up there until about 5 minutes to start, then we made our way toward the start and huddled around one of the fire pits to try to stay warm. There we ran into our friends Timothy and Krista Olson and Carly Koerner staying warm as well. We chatted for a few minutes, commiserated about the conditions and joked about what we were all about to begin. Shortly thereafter, the countdown to the official start began and we shimmied over to the line, getting there just about perfectly time to start running when they said “go.”
From the onset, we were relatively miserable. The rain was steady, the wind pushed it at you from just about every direction, and the course was muddy and flooded in several spots. It didn’t take too long to for us to realize that it was going to be a very long day, and that we were going to be drenched. I tried as hard as I could to make the best of it, laughing and trying to be as positive as I could be given the horrid conditions. Every time the rain would let up a little, I could feel myself settling into a groove a bit, and I remembered how much I used to love running in the rain back in my road running days. Then the rain would pick up, the wind would whip in under the bill of my hat, and I’d forget the glory days and wonder why in the hell I thought this was a good idea. The first chunk of miles clicked away very much like that, good moments peppered into the misery. I told myself this was trail running. This was ultra marathoning. I’ve been spoiled, really. A few ungodly hot races, one pushed off course by wild fires, but this is the first time I’ve really had to run in rain and mud. So, I figured I was due, and accepted my fate.
About the time I made my peace with the idea, we started a wicked climb. Nothing like some of the hikes I’ve done in other races, really, nor does it touch some of the training runs I’ve done locally here in Ashland, but given the rain and mud, it was almost like running on a treadmill, legs churning away but not really going anywhere. And it just kept going and going. When we finally crested the peak, the descent wasn’t a whole lot better. Muddy and slippery, I quickly realized that my shoes were not really made for descending in slick mud. I lost my balance several times, but managed to keep myself upright (thankfully, since my new Craft jacket was white, after all). I tried to stay to the edge of the trail, thinking the grass might help be grab some traction, but quickly realized it was slicker than the mud, so back to the grooves in the trail and a slow slip and slide down to the bottom followed. At this point, we were right near the beach, and the fog had lifted just enough to make the view enjoyable (as much as one can enjoy a view in these conditions). The happiness in the moment quickly abated, though, by the upcoming climb to get back out of this beautiful vista point. Another slow, steady and slippery climb really took it’s toll.
Approaching the next aid station, the trail started to even out, and I picked up my speed to what I thought was a respectable pace, until I was passed by an elite doing the 50 miler (the courses overlapped frequently). He blew by me as thought I was standing still. Humbling, really. A few minutes after that, I realized my stomach was screaming for food…something that seldom happens. Going into the aid station, I mentioned to Rich that I was starving, and he said exactly the same. We managed to devour (I’m guessing) the equivalent of 1,000 calories each in about 4 minutes. It was glorious. Coming out of the aid station, though, my stomach was now full with a huge climb in front of us…so we speed hiked up to allow the food to settle and not destroy ourselves only 18 miles deep. Around this point I realized my hips and lower back were really sore, stabilizing muscles seldom used, exhausted from trying to keep my body upright (the perks of running with an anatomy professor, I get to learn about physiology when I gripe about being sore). The course started to blur a bit, looking slightly familiar, and we settled into a bit of a groove again to the next aid station.
Coming out of that aid station, something strange happened. Rich was somehow possessed. I was grabbing a handful of chips to eat while I start walking (my routine leaving an aid station…walk a few steps to get the legs moving again while I devour one last handful of grub), and suddenly Rich was gone. There was a descent that was muddy and slick, one we had done once already, and apparently Rich wanted to get down it ASAP. I found myself bombing after him just as hard as I could, and barely keeping up with him. This lasted easily a mile or two of muddy down hilling, we were passing quite a few people that were gingerly trying to keep themselves out of the mud as we had our first trip down this path. And, much to my surprise, it worked. We blew down the hill, and neither of us fell (although there was plenty of slipping). At the bottom, I asked him what happened, and he simply said “I dunno, I had a mud zen moment…” whatever it was, I’ll take it any race. Shortly after that, we came to another aid station and were pointed toward the road. Arg…pavement. Yes, I’m spoiled, and maybe even a bit dramatic or overly sensitive, I can absolutely feel the difference pavement makes on my running. And it was a climb at that. So away we went, up and away. We realized at this point we were getting close to the finish line, although I knew we had not logged nearly enough miles. Getting closer, we saw a volunteer who pointed to the finish line and said “straight ahead and through the gate” which was flattering given the time we got to that point, but in checking my Garmin (which I hate doing in a race) I realized we had over 7 miles to go, and informed her of, at which point she said “oh, ok, then go down to the bottom and turn around.” So we ran to the start/finish line and were about to turn around (how much does that suck?) when the marathon relay began. So now we were turning around and found ourselves behind about 80 fresh runners. And had to run back down the road with them. Arg.
Thankfully, just past the next aid station at the bottom, the relay runners were routed one way and we were sent back up a now familiar loop. This time, however, we were equipped with the knowledge that running downhill in the mud actually works to stay up. We churned the climb, walking some tough sections but grinding out where we could. We both just wanted this race over, although much to our happiness, the rain had stopped by this point. Getting to the same aid station where Rich began his “zen mud” phase, I asked if he had another one in him, and he said he wasn’t sure, so I said I’d try to lead the charge. After fueling up, and knowing it was pretty much one downhill to bomb, a flat section, one last aid station and then the road to the finish, I tried to let it go as best as I could. I think Rich set a better, faster and more fluid pace, but we were still passing people as we (relatively) bombed down the trail. At one point, while bouncing from one foot to another (this was actually becoming fun, really!) my left foot started to slide while my right foot was in the air, so I skied for what felt like 10 feet but was probably only about 2-3 seconds of one footed surfing. We got to the bottom and got into a rhythm on the flat section. My legs were tired, my hips and back were screaming at me, but I was still trying to make the best of it and live in the moment. We passed the final aid station without stopping and made our way across the road for one last road climb up to the finish. About halfway up the climb, I told Rich I didn’t know if I had this last climb in my legs, and may have to shuffle up. I snuck a peek at my watch to make sure we were done this time (at or around 30 miles) and noticed - accidentally - our time. We were just past the 5 hour mark…which I shared with Rich. We were both stunned. I knew I was having a decent say given the conditions, but my PR (not counting the very flat Omaha 50K I ran two months ago) was 5:10 ish. Granted, this was cut short by a mile (the reroute made it a 30 mile race), but given the conditions, I was stunned. Shocked is more like it. Rich and I both were at a loss - we agreed we both thought it was going to be closer to a 6 hour finish. Fueled by this newfound information, we powered up the hill to the finish.
It was a day that started off with me wondering why on earth I would do this (aside from bragging rights of having run in these conditions maybe) and it ended with me extremely happy with my time, finishing well ahead of of where I would. Great way to finish off the year (this is most likely my last race of 2012). But for what it’s worth, this is the sorest I’ve been after a 50K all year. By far - but it is well wroth it. I ended up finishing 29th overall out of 346. - a spectacular day for me.