This was going to be my grand experiment to determine whether it was more important to be fully trained for a race or 100% healthy. My knee felt a little on the weak side coming out of my last race (Boulder Field 100k) 2 months ago so I decided to give it an extended rest. This ended up extending right up until the start with my longest run being all of a whopping 5 miles. But my legs felt good even if I wouldn’t necessarily call them fresh so I was excited to find out which was more vital to doing well at an ultra. Unfortunately, it wasn’t until well into the run that I realized there’s a slight difference between being under trained and untrained. Sigh. Life is nothing if not a continual learning experience.
I showed up to check in right before it started at 5am and stood outside Stedwick Elementary School with a couple dozen other runners waiting for someone to come open the doors. The dashboard in my car said the temperature was 21 degrees and it felt that and then some. This was the first time all fall that the temperatures had even been below the mid-30s so it was going to take a while for me to get used to the cold weather. Eventually, the doors were opened and we all filed in and picked up our bibs. Within minutes the race director was calling for the early bird starters to head outside. The race provides an option for people to start an hour early and several decided to take advantage of this. Myself, I was making a beeline for the bathrooms as I remember there being only a couple. This is the one time where the men typically have a long line and the ladies are in and out in no time at all.
We lined up out front of the school and were off and running right at 6am. I went back and forth a dozen times on what to wear and settled on two long sleeved shirts, running tights, and my winter hat. I added hand warmers inside my gloves and was more than comfortable in the frozen conditions. Well, everything except my the poor little toes on my left foot. Several started going numb after a mile or so and I started getting a little concerned. Luckily, they warmed up right before I was about to pull off the trail and toss a hand warmer in my shoe. I went without a headlamp again and while it wasn’t a terrible decision, I did end up taking a fall not too long after hitting the trail (first mile is one road/sidewalks) though this was caused my by my eyes watering up and I missed a root as I was wiping the tears away. I ended up taking two more headers over the course of the day, however all were very gentle as these things go and didn’t cause any damage.
They changed the course a couple years back and there’s now a loop around the lake about 7 miles in. While there had been confusion here last year, there was a volunteer pointing us in the right direction. The entire course was well marked with plenty of volunteers at the road crossings pointing you in the right direction. It seems cliche to mention how great the volunteers where during the race, but they really did do a wonderful job. The aid stations were typically 3 or 4 miles apart with only two 6 miles apart. It was about halfway around the lake that I really hit my groove. The trails weren’t too technical or hilly and I was just cruising along. Unfortunately, this feeling only lasted about 7 miles.
It was right around here that I figured out that my pace was a bit slower than the last time I ran the race. There’s a long section on a sidewalk that connects two trails and I was no where near the sub-9 minute split I had then. I wasn’t too worried about time. Thankfully, I came into this race with no time goals so didn’t feel any pressure to run a certain pace or push myself. This almost felt like a long training run, which may be why it’s taken me so long to get this race report finished.
You hit the canal towpath right before the halfway mark. Like all the aid stations I was in and out quickly though did take advantage of the port-a-potties that were located just past the tables. Once I got onto the pancake flat trail, I realized what kind of day it was going to be. I checked my overall pace at mile 25 for the first time and was slightly disappointed to see I was at 11:29 compared to 10:30 three years ago and what I felt was closer to 11 flat. Sigh. I had long since given up on setting any kind of personal records, but it I had been hoping for a better results. And this is when I made the realization that untrained is entirely different than under trained. I started mixing in walking breaks on the flat trail for the first time and was completely OK with this. It was now all about enjoying myself and just finishing with no regard for time. Well, almost. I still didn’t have a headlamp with me so I was trying to get done before dark. Coming in I had calculated that I would need a 13:30 overall pace to beat the night so now all I needed to do was average fifteen and a half minutes per mile to achieve this goal. Piece of cake, right?
Well, not so fast. My hamstrings had been tight since mile 15 and once I hit the towpath the discomfort shifted up to my glutes. I say discomfort and not pain as while my muscles were definitely fatigued, they were no where close to acutely painful. I was never really pushing the pace, but I definitely downshifted the effort level a bit over the second half of the race. Three years ago I was disappointed that I couldn’t take advantage of the very runnable trails, however now I was just happy to be out for a run in the woods. Often times as athletes we so get wrapped up in turning in a good performance or running a great race that forget to stop and smell the flowers. I’ve been guilty of this a lot over the years, however this wasn’t the case during this race. I ran when I felt like running, walked when I felt like walking, and stopped to take pictures when something interesting came along.
Right around mile 37 was I hit the last water only aid station. They really misname it though because they probably had more alcohol than water sitting on the table. I passed on the whiskey, but did take a shot of Sierra Nevada. Any kind of performance goals had long been tossed our the window so I thought “why not?”. I briefly considered asking for an entire bottle to take with me, but figured that might be bad form. Next time through I’ll definitely stay for a bit longer as it seemed like these guys were having a great time.
Unfortunately, time was beginning to turn against me. My mile splits went from 11s to 15s pretty fast after the halfway point so I didn’t have a lot of buffer against nightfall. I wasn’t too concerned and it didn’t impact how I “raced”, however I couldn’t dillydally too long at the aid stations. I was really only stopping to grab gummy bears or swedish fish, which was the primary source of my nutrition over the last 20 miles in addition to the Mountain Dew I had in one bottle. The steady source of calories these provided kept me emotionally solid right up until the end. This may have been the most even I’ve been during an ultra yet. Typically I hit a low point somewhere along the journey and start cursing myself for getting into this sport, however that was never the case. And after another period of time, I popped out of the woods and hit the sidewalk for the last mile. I hadn’t been checking the time so was pleasantly surprised to round the corner to the school and see an 11:55 was on the clock. For anyone running this in the future, as long as you can get off the trails by 5:15pm or 11.25 hours, you won’t need to bust out your headlamp again.
Overall, I was exceptionally satisfied with my race. While I didn’t hit the time I thought I might (like I ever do), I learned a lot about what I can do with
minimal no training. Checking over the final results, I ended up 83rd of 252 finishers, which isn’t too shabby. It appears they kept the course open till 8pm since there were a lot of runners with 14-15 hour finishes even though they said they would close it at 7pm (13 hours or 14 with 5am start). I don’t have a ton of experience with the race so don’t know if this was a one time thing or they do it every year.
If you’re looking for a fall Mid-Atlantic 50 miler, I would highly recommend this race. I’m sure I’ll be back at some point in the future to give it another go.