Woke up at 4, made some tea, packed up my gear and was on the road by 430 to Champoeg State Park for the Autumn Leaves 50M, my first ultra. I didn't have any expectations -- other than to finish, in order to notch my 2011 Western States qualifying mark before the November 6 deadline. Without that motivation, I would've still been in bed.
I arrived shortly after 6AM, in the pitch dark, to find a slew of runners shuffling along on an early-start to the race -- a stream of bouncing white orbs piercing the darkness along the first 400m of the course. Conditions were satisfactory, if not favorable: cool, with intermittent mist and light rain.
In the dark, I prepped: olive oil "lube" on the arms and legs, and the usual gear -- short tights and Strands T -- along with a pair of trainer shoes (Mizuno Wave Riders). And, for the first lap: a light jacket and a headlamp.
Minutes before 7AM we assembled at the start -- on a slight uphill ridge near the parking lot, at the head of what would become a very familiar stretch of paved bike trail. We received some last minute instructions, then "toed the line" -- definitely the least-crowded start line I'd seen in a while. And then we were off.
Down the decline along the path, it was me and just one other guy: "Matt". We talked over the first few miles. He's a 2:25 marathoner, running his first race in 4 years, albeit the 50K version of today's event. We were cruising along at 6:40s so we hung together on that first loop: eastbound on the bike path -- the first 2 miles flat, then a mile of twisting, rolling path into the woods along the banks of the Willamette River, before turning 180 at a cone at 5K. Westbound, we ran the same way back until 4.5, then picked up a "single track" trail in and out of woods, back to the start line.
When Matt and I hit the trail, we went single file. At this time, I took some fuel -- some Clif Blok mega-salt gel blocks. I slowed a bit, and Matt began to pull away. Knowing his 2:25 ability -- and that he was running only 50K -- I made no effort to reel him in, but I kept him in my sights.
A half mile later, into the woods, I felt like I needed to pee. Without much thought, I decided I'd try "not stopping": I won't go into great detail the process, but let's just say it was effective at disposing of the liquid -- with only maybe a quarter of it winding up on my legs!
The wooded loop was not fast: it was a mixture of wet grass, leaves, and mud, and the "single track" was a collection of multiple, uneven "tracks", making it difficult to keep footing, especially when the rains increased mid-morning. Despite the relatively slower, winding trail segment, it was by far my favorite -- harkening back to Hoffman Park Trails or the Kinni Trails back in River Falls.
Before long the trail spit us back onto the bike path heading up to the start/finish -- another 180 turn and home to an aid station. I stopped long enough for two cups of fluid -- water and HEED -- and then I was off again.
(I would've had 10K splits, but my watch DIED overnight, and all that info is lost!)
Matt was only several seconds in front so I kept him in sight during the opening mile of Lap #2. However, as I was running along, the pace and breathing felt slight efforted. The mile 1 split: 6:09! Oops! Not good (given our split on Lap 1: 6:48!). I slowed up a bit, but the remaining miles on Lap 2 were in the 6:20s and 6:30s. By then, Matt was long gone, and I'd see him only on the out and back segments (around miles 2.5 and 3.5) when he'd double back on me. From there on, I was running solo.
I peed again in the woods on Lap #2, which was a good sign. At the beginning of Lap 2, I ditched my coat and lamp at the car. At Lap 3, I had my first Boost, which I'd set on the bumper of my car -- literally inches away from the course. I downed that in the first mile. What a terrific high calorie, high-electrolye drink! It's the equivalent of a Clif Bar's worth of calories -- and half a S-Cap's worth of salt -- in an easy to drink volume. And it was TASTY.
I looked at this race -- eight times 10K -- in the same way I would an indoor mile (8 x 200m). And it played out that way: the first two laps were quick and easy, then reality sets in. By mid-Lap 3, the running became more tedious -- and I settled into about 7:00 pace. No significant pain, other than some occasional sharp stabs from my left toes -- mostly from the night before.
The previous night I was in the bathroom getting stuff. I was near the door, so I shut the light off and swung the door open a bit before exiting. However, the door rebounded to a "half-open" status -- wherein I promptly WALKED INTO THE DOOR -- hitting both my head/chest and stubbing toes 3 and 4 on my left foot, significantly. They were very stiff and sore upon waking, but were thankfully "fine" in running shoes. However, I began to feel them on the uneven trail of Lap 3. Thank God that pain subsided with some adjustment within my shoes, or that could've been my undoing.
Lap 4 was all about getting halfway done. I didn't pee on Lap 3, but just before the mile mark I had to go -- and knowing that soon I'd be in a high-traffic area (miles 1.5 - 4.5 was the two-way segment of the loop) -- I figured I should go while there was "nobody" around. After passing an older guy and getting about 100m ahead -- and with no one else in front -- I "proceeded". Right after I finished, I heard him yell,
"That was awesome! Nice job!"
to which I responded!
"I know! I just learned that TODAY!"
The middle laps -- the Sustaining Laps -- were all about mechanics: focusing on efficiency, not only for speed but for minimizing tissue stress. In my mind was "Flick and Pull" -- the extension of the leg forward (slight hip drive and foot in front), then a "forceful" (relatively) extension behind. This was very effective at keeping an "effortless" 7:xx pace going, really the entire day.
Mid-Lap 4, the stomach began to turn a little: excessive salt. This worried me, because when my gut goes, my my legs go. So at the end of Lap 4 -- the halfway point -- grabbed my second boost at my car, then I climbed the hill to the Start/Finish, checked in, and ran an extra 75m to the Porta to "do some business". I also multi-tasked by downing the Boost. I probably lost 2 minutes there, but still clocked in at 2:51 for my 25 mile split, which I split after the bathroom on my way down the hill to start Lap 5.
My gut was a little irritated at the start of 5, but felt much better as I went along. I was mid-7s for the first mile -- this meant I ran <3:00 for the [unmarked] marathon split, which was cool -- especially since the course record was about 6:30 and, if I kept it up, I'd crush that time. However, in the back of my head I knew it would mean nothing if I was crawling the last 10-20K.
In researching ultra running strategy, people talked about "hitting the wall" at 50K. This was not the case for me, which was great. After the deuce and my 2nd Boost, my legs felt the best since Lap 1. I cruised along at low to mid 7:00s, just trying to cover the distance, focusing on mechanics and trying to keep a fuel schedule -- taking "some" liquid each stop (3 per lap) and energy twice per lap.
The only trouble I ran into was having to deuce AGAIN, this time near the end of Lap 5. And rather than have to run an extra 150m -- with no guarantee that the bathroom would be vacant -- I pulled off the trail in the woods and "popped a squat", wiped with some leaves, then kept going! Who knew all my trail running experience would pay off like this. Again, another minute+ lost, but I felt better by the end of 5.
Interestingly, through 50K I had no caffeine -- other than my morning tea. So at the start of Lap 6 -- the dreaded "Misery Lap" for the indoor miler -- I took a cup of "Coke" (Shasta Cola) with water. It tasted pretty good but I didn't notice a benefit.
Lap 6 was, indeed, among the toughest. Like the indoor mile, it represents a critical point -- far into a race to feel true pain, but still too far from the finish to be "almost done" -- a painful place, indeed. My legs were still feeling "OK", and though definitely slowing, I was still running mid-7:00s -- not including brief aid station stops.
At the end of Lap 6, I took my first caffiene shot -- a Clif Shot Espresso (100mg caffeine) right before the Start/Finish aid station. And then there I took another coke shot, along with water or HEED, and was off towards the real pain -- lap 7.
The first half lap of #7 marked the only time I was in any serious "danger". Three things occurred to me in the middle goings of The Penultimate Lap:
- The hamstring and adductors of my left leg were in pre-cramp mode. This was in part due to my anomalous "side-glide left" gait abnormality that I've somehow picked up in the past year +, and that I was short on fluid or salt.
- I forgot about my 3rd boost bottle (my plan was to take on on Laps 3, 5, and 7).
- I had not peed since Lap 4.
All of this occurred to me in "No-Aid Land" -- the stretch of the course from 1.5 - 4.5, where there was no aid station, but plenty of small, rolling hills just ripe for cramping.
There was no one around, so I "tried to pee" -- and it was a very light brown. I got worried.
I did my best to "Lean Right" and "Pull Right", which was to correct my sideglide left and engage my right leg more. That helped the left cramps, but there was no way around the fact that I needed fluid in a bad way.
Down the trail, I ran past several people before coming across a guy walking with a bottle. I approached from behind and "begged" for some fluid, which he gladly and generously provided, even offering for me to take his bottle, outright. I may have, but I didn't want to carry it! He also mentioned getting some more on the way back (when I'd double back on him).
So I did. I hit the 5K mark, then a half mile later found him again, where I stopped for 3 more pulls before thanking him and getting on my way. That helped a lot.
What helped even more: at the 1.8 mark there's an access point to the State Park campground. At that point there's a fence, where someone had put two half-liter bottles of water. They'd been sitting there untouched for 3 laps. Not knowing if they were deliberate "crew supplies" or simply a "trail angel" leaving them out, I stopped and grabbed one, cracked it, and drank half, then kept going.
I thought about how I might've just "stolen fizzy-lifting-drink" from someone else, but, given the fact that I was on CR pace, yet on the verge of "muscle-siezing death", it was an "emergency situation" -- even though I was maybe a K from the real aid station.
By the time I got to the Aid Station, I was already feeling better. But I still took two waters and a HEED before hitting the trail section for the 2nd to last time. The rolling hills of the trail segment became somewhat challenging, but I continued to "Lean Right, Pull Right"
This mantra, in the brain-drunken state of hypoglycemia -- was soon paired, inevitably, to the classic Barney tune, "Clean Up" over those last couple laps.
I hit the Start/Finish for the penultimate time and had refueled. At each of these stops, the aid workers would "take my order", as if waiters at a bar or restaurant:
"What do you need?"
"I'll take two HEEDs and Coke".
This, of course, led my mind HERE.
"Huh-HAAA! Well I AIN'T PAYIN' NO FIFTY CENTS FOR NO COKE!"
And that's how I started the final lap: quoting Caddyshack to myself. Lap 8 was all about survival, if not a bit of enjoyment. I was now thoroughly hydrated -- and without gut-rot, so it was all about maintaining a consistent stride and the "thunk-thunk-thunk" of my feet on the bike path -- the sound a tennis ball makes on a racquet -- over that final ten kilos. At the half way point, and at each of the final aid stations I thanked the volunteers because, frankly, the only thing worse than running for six hours in the rain was sitting or standing in the rain for twelve hours.
I broke down the last half-lap into digestable nuggets: "the winding chunk", "the straight chunk", and "the trail" -- and methodically consumed them. The trail segment, as were the previous seven, was my favorite -- knowing that the toughest parts were over and -- barring a crippling spill over mud or tree root -- I was about to win my first race since at least 2005.
With 600m to go I ditched my jacket in order to proudly display my Strands shirt over the last quarter mile, down the bike path and up the incline to the finish at the parking lot.
When I crossed the line, I think I surprised most, if not nearly all, those in attendance. In a race of this format -- multiple laps with a 50K and 50-mile going on at once -- it's difficult to gauge who's leading or almost done, unless you were lap-counting. Indeed, I had no clue who was in second (and still don't). So when I finished, unofficially in 6:03.xx, I surprised most everyone there.
I staggered around a bit, then went after a few cups of "broth" (undoubtedly some MSG concoction), if only to have something warm. I thanked the volunteers and chatted, then sat down with my MSG broth in a wet lawn chair, in the mist, before staggering to my car before hypothermia set in.
Unofficially, I finished in first place at 6:03 and change. I also broke the course record by roughtly 22 minutes. Overall a terrific debut where I learned a lot.
Pacing: B+. Pretty solid. Lap 2 was too fast, but otherwise my pacing -- for having no clue how to run over 26.2 -- was solid. And, best of all, I NEVER WALKED outside the aid stations.
Mechanics: B+. Big picture, mechanics were the key to success -- it's what kept the pace at 7:xx's all day. Interestingly, I never felt quad fatigue or soreness, EVER. Glut and hamstrings-o-plenty, but that's exactly what should be tired -- the Propellers.
NOT GOOD: on-going sideglide L trunk. It was the reason for my left-sided near-cramping, as well as the lingering L knee pain -- overloading the L leg. I need to fix this, and soon.
Hydration/Fueling/Electrolytes: A-. It went nearly perfect -- I took fluid and fuel regularly. Deductions for the gut-rot and for the 7th lap brain-fart. Bonus points for learning to pee on the run!
Mental Toughness: A-. Overall excellent -- good focus on mechanics and staying positive at all times. Slight deduction only because I never truly pushed myself (nor did I want to in this non-competitive debut).
THE BRAIN iPOD -- tracks for the day: