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Friday, September 14, 2012

McKenzie River 50K 2012 - Race Report

It's been nearly three months since Western States, so I figure it was time to race again.  Despite being fitter, stronger and more efficient than '11, the post-WS recovery has been slooow: leg-feel and energy were down, and breaking free from the "hundred-mile old man stride" has been a challenge.

Mentally, it has also been difficult: Western States hurt a lot.  And the brain has had a hard time letting go of that pain memory.  But the prolonged break, along with flat-landish course like McKenzie set a perfect scene for my return.

The McKenzie River Trail Run is Oregon's oldest continuous trail ultra, and the '12 race was the 25th edition.  It's a teriffic race on an incredible 25-mile single track that runs along the icy-cold, crystal clear McKenzie River, which originates from volcano-filtered snow melt of the Central Oregon Cascades*.

*Also noteworthy, it is the watershed for some pretty incredible Ninkasi and Oakshire beers

While the trail grade is quite pedestrian - note even rising to "douche-grade" status - it makes up for it in footing and flow: several miles run through young volcanic rock, and the trail serpentines through rocks and trees like it was made for a downhill slalom course. 

After a fire year in 2011, we were back on the original course: starting at Carmen Reservoir, six miles from the northeast terminus, the course runs (relatively uphill) to the end, before turning 'round and heading clear to the southwest end - a net downhill of 1700'. 

Pre-race: I camped out with LB and Hannah at Ice Cap CG, right near the start.  Mild temps made for great sleeping, even though I forgot both my sleeping bag and pad at home.  The swag blanket really came in handy! 

Race-Day

Got in a little shuffle warm-up with Jeremy Tolman, a local friend and running stud who's podium'd several times at this race.  Coming off a serious injury, he's the most fit he's been for a year.  Given another year of sustained running, and his ultra potential is enormous.  He's a strong guy, for sure, with a serious (<4:00 mile) speed background. 

I knew he'd be there to push it up front.  We'd also heard of Mario Mendoza, another speedy Salomon guy from the Bend-area, who was signed up to run.  His status was unknown 'til we saw him striding out just minutes before the start. 

I welcomed the competition and speed-push in this race: after a year of shuffle races, I was eager to truly run hard and [relatively] fast.

Brad Putnam gave us the go and we were off.  I pushed out front and set what felt like a sub-six effort along the easy dirt road along Carmen Reservoir.  Mario and Jeremy came up on either side of me and thankfully took the lead, in that order, in front of me as we hit the trail.

My overall fitness, after three low-key months, is down.  Moreover, it typically takes me several miles to feel strong, so it surprised me little that I felt worked early.  We hoofed it upstream, up and over several sets of wooden stairs and rocky inclines as we passed close by the river and a pair of falls.  I wasn't climbing well, so both Mario and Jeremy would get 10 meters on me on the short ups that I'd have to recapture on the flats.  This was efforted, but I knew a fast race depended on running with these guys at all costs.

Stairs and ups ceded to the volcanic rock of the upper McKenzie trail: sharp, uneven and sometimes loose volcanic rocks comprised several segments of the winding trail.  Both Mario and Jeremy were moving fast, and it was all I could do to keep my feet moving quickly enough to keep them in sight.  Mario gradually pulled away along the shores of Clear Lake, and I struggled to keep within shouting distance of Jeremy.  A well-placed Cher Lloyd number in my head helped me "want them back", but it wasn't quite working. 

Finally, after a long, mega-douchey upgrade of 1-2%, we arrived at the first AS (mile 5.7).  I grabbed two gels and a Coke, make a bee line for the turnaround cone, then chased after the guys.  By the time we got back on the straighaway, Mario was long-gone.  I opened up my downhill stride and was able to reel in Jeremy, but not without effort.

The stride felt pretty good all day, but it took serious focus to keep the stride "open" and trunk forward to fully "gobble up" the downs and maintain consistent speed around the little ups, downs, and tree slaloms.  Jeremy set an excellent tempo and I had to work to keep it going.

This is a prime time to get negative: early in the race, less than 20% in, and already struggling with the effort.  But what I've learned about trail ultras is that early feel means nothing -- and that early aerobic or anearobic pain will cede to other things - or in the very least these systems get periodic breaks, allowing for several hours of intermittent suffereing.  I also remembered that I always feel better about 15 miles into an ultra than I do early on.  So I gutted the discomfort and focused on efficiency and consistent fueling.

Leaving Clear Lake behind, we crossed OR-126 for the final time and got back on the meat of the course.  Once across the road, the trail became quite technical once again, especially on the north side of the river near Carmen Reservior and the 2nd AS (11.2 miles).  Jeremy and I hit it in tandem (1:19:14 overall for 11.2 miles) and were quickly in and out and primed for yet another segment of technical single track.

More tree slalom, more lava rock, more roots - it is evident why mountain bikers love this trail.  It's enjoyable running but damn hard to go fast.  I felt as though I was flying, but knew better - we were lucky to be going sub-7s.  However, the highly technical elements allowed for my aerobic/anaerobic system to rest.  When the track finally mellowed, I got right on Jeremy and feeling pretty good. 

I could sense he might've been fatiguing so I tried to pump him up by singing some Jessie J:


"...Oooh-oooh-oooh-OOOOH!  Dirty dancin' in the moon LIEEEGHT!  Take me down like I'm a domino!..."

Dunno if it helped him, but it got me pumped up!  :)

Now in full groove, I felt ready to pass him and do my share of the work.  But with every tight turn and up-and-over, I would fall back a stride.  So I waited...

We hit Trail Bridge AS (16.7 miles: 40:12/1:59:27) together, but I was quickly in and out and took the lead.  I knew I was feeling stronger with more stride momentum, so I took full advantage.  However, I hoped Jeremy would tuck in, but he ultimately fell off.

I really wanted to get after Mario.  We'd heard "two minutes!", "50 seconds", "A minute!" many times over the past 10K, and with my stride primed and energy good, I was ready and eager to reel him in.  I pushed aggressively on the ups and gobbled up the downs with a big, "Hungry-Hungry Hippo" stride as I call it - big, high heel recovery with windmill strides.  Outside of some nagging left inner knee soreness, I felt strong.  I knew he wasn't running faster, but I could only hope he was slowing down...

The technical stuff ceded to runnable single track - flatter, smoother, less slalom-turns. I pushed and pushed and pushed.  The aerobic fatigue returned; muscle fatigue also built in my hamstrings and gluts. And some back pain.  Oops - I was slipping into "Old Man Stride".  I worked hard to relax the trunk forward but extend through the pelvis and hips.  Both my back and knees felt better.  I pushed...

More soda and gels at Deer Creek AS (21.8 miles: 36:11/2:35:39), and more pushing.  The course flattened and straightened, allowing faster running but harder efforts.  I fought "the bind" and worked to keep the stride open as I hit the dirt road a couple miles before the final AS at Buck Bridge.  When I finally got there (25.1 miles - 23:20/2:58:59), I got a last bump of soda, and another "two minutes!" update.  Frustrated, but determined, I took off for the last 10K.

I wanted to get him.  I wanted to win!  So, channeling my Inner-Jimothy, I said it out loud, "I wanna win!".  I even threw in some well-timed growls and grunts as I pushed along the winding trail and ups and downs from Buck to the river's edge.  Several rolling ups and downs punctuated this early segment, but I churned and pushed, elbows flying and "GRRR!"s reverberating off the old-growth.  I pushed powerfully up and over the rollers, hard around the corners.  I was moving.  More talking, and grunting and pushing. 

Eyes ahead on the trail, I was hoping for a glimpse of Salomon red - but only an ocassional black and white of a couple random runners on the trail.  I pushed past and down the trail.  Two miles from the finish, I got my last update..."two minutes".  Sheesh! 

I pushed and pushed, focusing on all the mechanics and toughness I could muster.   But it wasn't quite enough - for first, anyway.  I rolled along the rushing waters of the icy cold McKenzie and up the final little climb to the surprising finish in a hard-earned 2nd place, in 3:37:51.  Mario won in 3:35:58.

I do think I closed on him in the second half, but I could never pinch that two minutes.  He ran hard and smart; my hat's off to him. 

Post-race: I was tired!  My back was sore from old-man flexing, but that subsided quickly after some relaxing and a couple Pepsis...and a couple bumps of Oakshire Espresso Stout (a wonderful post-race beverage).  Jeremy was 3rd overall after falling back in the second half. 

Other notable finishes included:

LB finishing his umpteenth McKenzie - albiet a bit more leisurely this year!
- Tommy Atkins running a strong 50K in front of LB
- Denise "The Sparkplug" Bourassa winning the 50M and finishing 5th overall
- Andrew Miller - a 16-year old high schooler from Corvallis, winning the 50-mile outright! 

Overall, I was pleased with the day.  It was exactly what I needed: legitimately fast, hard running on challenging, technical trail, devoid of huge hills that give one the excuse to shuffle or hike.  I got a good dose of what it takes to run hard and compete at a fast pace on the trails.  Moreover, it was good feedback on what is working and what's not, mechanically. 

And it was good to be able to rumble with a guy of Mario's caliber - 2x podium for the 15K trail championships as a sub-ultra trail stud.  My time, while slower than I was hoping for, still ranks well, historically.  I now have a ton more respect for Braje's 3:33!

The Grades
Pacing: A-.  Solid.  I had trememdous help from Jeremy early.  The only demerit comes from my lack of aerobic strenght right now - I need to be able to run harder, uphill. 

Mechanics: B+.  The good: Excellent forward trunk and arm use, excellent leg mobility and "gobbling" up huge chunks of trail on the flats and downs - absolute musts for fast, competitive trail running.

Not great: flexing the pelvis -- namely the right (see the pics below).  I know what I need to do, and how.  It's just a bad habit I have to keep working on it.  If I do it, I'll run faster, my feet will feel better, and my back won't hurt.
 
Hydration/Fuel/Electrolyes: A+.  NAILED IT.  Did a gel every 20 minutes, and some soda at every AS.  I took S'Caps at :60, 2:00, 3:00 and an "insurance cap" at 3:20.  I wore my Nathan 1.5L (~50oz) but only drank maybe 35oz of it. 

Here's a fun-fact: first-ever ultra where I neither went "#2" or "#1"!  Never stopped, or went.  It was perfectly minimal and awesome. 

Mental Toughness: A-.  Solid.  I hung tough early but had some low points.  I pushed hard solo over the second half, but still have a lot to learn to really, really push.  Again, a good experience race, both physical and mental.

Joy:  A-.  I had some low points, but otherwise had a blast!  I was able to use some "fun" mental strategies to stay positive, including a bit of serenading and some excellent self-"talk", Jimothy-style at the end.

Significant kudos to Mark and Brad for putting on a great 25th edition, as well as the McKenzie locals, including Jeff Sherman.  Way to go in keeping going the oldest - and among the very best - trail ultras in Oregon!  Thank you!

Some excellent photographs, courtesy Michael Lebowitz at LongRun Pictures:

The Start

Clear Lake (~Mile 6) - on a mercifully paved volcanic area.  Notice the nice L hip "opening"...

...and the same point on the right side - not so "open"...Stuck!

On the other side of Clear Lake (~mile 8).  Jeremy putting the hurt on me.  Ouch.

In the technical downriver section near Carmen.  Pickin' my way through...

Mario at the finish - glad he was hurting, too!

"Is this the finish?"

T-Bag finishing strong!

The teenage Andrew Miller, age 16, winning the 50-mile! 

Denise, carving up the trail.

LB looking good on the shores of Clear Lake.  And we know that's most important...

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