This race is hard. Let’s start things off with some facts.
These numbers compare to 60-70% finish rates for most 100 mile races. One of the theories being tossed around at the finish line was a larger than normal number of inexperienced runners. I look at the demographics for all my races and the number of entrants with one or zero hundred mile finishes (68%) is in line with the 60-70% that I’ve seen in other races. Also, considering that those with ten or more 100 mile finishes went 3 for 6 this year, I’m thinking experience level isn’t the issue.
So why is this race so hard? We’re about to move past fact part of this race report. I think the Devil Dog’s challenges come from the loop format, cold temperatures, and the mostly runnable course format.
First off, looped courses make it easier to drop out. There’s nothing like the lure of your car to entice you off a course. It’s much harder to drop at a remote aid station. Have to wait a couple hours for a ride? Bother. May as well just continue on. The DD100 drops this year bear this out with 51% stopping at the start finish, 33% at the other crew accessible AS (Toofy), and only 16% at Gunny.
People will also underestimate the impact of cold weather in ultras. Goodness knows I did in my first hundred. We get used to wearing certain gear during our training runs and assume this will be fine for the race. In reality, overnight you’re moving much slower than any training run you’ve ever done and generating much less body heat than you normally do. I’ve discovered via
trial and error that I need to dress like it’s at least 10 degrees cooler than the lows are supposed to reach.
And lastly, a runnable course. Devil Dog has five 19.5 mile loops with an extra 3 mile loop tacked on to the first to bring the race up to 100.75 miles. The terrain is gently rolling with 10,500 feet of elevation gain/loss. The trails are fairly easy with the technical sections limited to 20-50 foot sections. The biggest challenges are the random roots and rocks that are camouflaged by all the fallen leaves. It’s a sneaky hard course. The problem is that it’s easy enough to lull you into running more than you should, yet hard enough to punish you later on for doing so.
This wasn’t my first rodeo and I figured the course profile was going to be my biggest issue to overcome. I’ve historically had issues with poor early 100 mile pacing leading to me walking in finishes over and over and over again (and again). My recently devised strategy is to start out no faster than about 1 minute/mile quicker than my best case finish time. Twenty four hours was the dream time for this race so that meant somewhere in the 13-13.5 minute pace range.
After a short loop around the parking lot, the trail drops down and you cross a bridge to the main section of the course. I ended up starting a bit further back in the pack than I was planning, but it was the perfect spot for me as the first couple miles paces were right where I wanted them to be.
Somewhere in through here, I met up with Fabio and Rob for the first time. We would end up running most of the first two and half laps within shouting distance of each other. It was great to chat with them, which helped pass the time.
My strategy of managing my pace worked perfectly until the end of lap one when it stopped working. My average pace was starting to creep outside my target zone and I found myself checking my watch more and more often (pace, elevation, etc.). I do best when I can get into a zone and just kind of run tree to tree. By focusing on my average pace, I was comparing this to potential finish times so was implicitly looking ahead and 80 more miles was starting to weigh on me. When I got back to the start/finish, I switched my Garmin to just show me the time of day and this worked like a charm. I would check my mile splits as I went along, however this was just a confirmation of my present condition so didn’t jog me out of being present in the moment.
Being in the zone means I don’t remember much of lap 2 besides the course starting to look a little familiar. Back at the start of lap 3, I took a couple extra minutes to grab my tech (headlamp, portable battery charger, Garmin cord, MP3 player) and get it situated. I figured the temperatures wouldn’t drop too much before I was back around so decided against adding another layer. This was mostly the right decision though I started getting a little chilled halfway through the lap. I grabbed some handwarmers from the nice volunteers at Toofy and this let me finish up lap 3 in comfort.
For lap 4, I added a rain coat, winter hat, and my secret weapon: chicken broth. I had a couple sips in the aid station, but it was too hot to drink so I ended up dumping most of it. Once I reached Gunny, I had them fill up a bottle with my ultra nectar. It was too hot to drink as well, which just means I had a portable heat source for the next couple miles. I swapped out my hand warmers at Toofy and then spent the next 6 miles trying to decide whether or not to add another layer for my last lap. I wasn’t cold and thought another layer would cause me to sweat too much, however was fearful that if I was reduced to a walk at some point (through bonk or random twisted ankle) I would get too cold. I ended up splitting the difference by grabbing an extra shirt and looping it through my belt just in case. I never needed it, but 100 milers are more about risk mitigation than anything else so it was completely the right decision to make.
It took about 85 miles, but I finally hit the dirt. I was about to pass another runner who had stepped off the trail when down I went. The guy was nice enough to help me up, which I needed as my right knee was pretty sore. Earlier, I had kept another runner from sliding off the trail into a stream when he went down so it was nice to see the instant karma returned for me.
It started getting light out as I reached Toofy for the last time. At this point, I could smell the barn so didn’t spend more than about 30 seconds topping up my bottles and hitting the trail again. I passed a couple runners in the last section, which was odd as I hadn’t seen hardly anyone on the trails for the past two laps. I staggered up the final hill one last time and just past the timing mats was a site for truly sore eyes: a chair.
Sometimes you execute a race well and sometimes it’s the reverse. Devil Dog would fall into the former category for me. I probably went out a smidgeon too fast, but it’s difficult to say how much that really cost me. Twenty minutes invested in lap 1 likely wasn’t going to save me an hour later on. In hindsight, I really don’t know what was going on during lap 4. I was just really tired to start out. After 60+ miles, this shouldn’t be a shock. Once I started supplementing with chicken broth (no, seriously, this stuff is awesome!), my legs loosened up and I felt much more fluid so that largely explains lap 5. That and a relatively conservative start left my body able to bounce back once it found its equilibrium.
Overall, I had a wonderful time at what is a great race. This is a well organized event with amazing volunteers. Just don’t think it’s going to be easy.