An hour before the race starts I’m sitting in my car in the parking lot. It’s pitch black out — I had to drive into the park with my high-beams on. My water and gels are ready, I’m dressed and ready to go, there’s nothing to really do but sit and wait for the start. How on earth did I get to this point?
TransRockies. Going through that ordeal really gives you some perspective. For instance, I used to be super picky about having my race number pinned to my shirt the night before a race. Gotta be prepared! By about day 4 of TransRockies I was pinning my crumpled up, dirty, sweaty race number onto my shirt in the starting coral: I am prepared. Numbers are details that don’t actually matter.
As I’ve mentioned, day 5 of TransRockies was the day that wouldn’t end. We ended up doing 37.8km in ~4:35. So by the time we did that, we’d done ~130km in the days leading up to it. We were exhausted, we were walking around on shredded feet, and there was no oxygen in the air. Looking back on that day as we took the shuttle to the airport the day after the race was over, I realized it meant we were fucking badasses. I mean, not really. But we used to consider marathons as being a long way. And on day 5, we were only 4.4km short of a marathon, but we were running over fucking mountains. And tired. And then the next day we ran over some more mountains.
So with that perspective, I thought about other ultras. 50km, on fresh legs? NOT over mountains? How is that even a challenge?
I actually tried signing up for the Deception Pass 50km on that shuttle bus to the airport after that very naive train of thought. But for reasons I can’t recall (bad wifi?) it didn’t work. When I finally got home from Colorado I put my suitcase down, woke up my computer, and signed up for it. Literally within 20 minutes of being home from my first ultra race, I’d signed up for my first 50k. Nevermind that whole part where I would be too exhausted to run properlly for weeks to come, I had a new standard of what was interesting.
Now this isn’t to say that my goal since August was to run a 50km. Infact quite the opposite, I concluded that just finishing a 50km wouldn’t be an accomplishment for me. I thought doing a 50km would be an interesting race, but the goal was more than finishing it. What really surfaced this summer was that I could finish any race I wanted and preparing for that wouldn’t be that difficult. And doing things that aren’t difficult just isn’t entirely satisfying.
What I wanted to do, what I decided would be a good challenge, would be to actually compete at whatever race I was shooting for next. Finishing just won’t be satisfying, whether I sign up for Knee Knacker, or something totally different, like Ironman, I’ll know from my preparation that I can finish it. What I want to shoot for is beating everyone else.
With that vague plan, I started trying to get ready for my first 50km.
Fast forward a bit to mid November. Back to the whole “running isn’t my whole life” concept and I’m exhausted, making huge concessions in my preparation that are mainly driven by work. I barely ran those two weeks. Oh, and I was starting to experience some tendonitis in my right achilles tendon. In the weeks after, when I was pulling myself together a bit, I wasn’t exactly feeling confident about racing a 50km. Not only had I barely ran, but even before then I hadn’t done a whole lot of long runs (which I consider to be 30km or longer)
By late November I was really starting to waffle on the idea of doing Deception Pass. I was doubtful I would get the satisfication I was looking for, and I would be pushing an injury. I kept thinking about it and couldn’t come to an good conclusion. I started bringing up my hesitation with people. Deep down I was hoping someone would say something that would make me have an “a-ha!” moment that I could use to come to a concrete decision about what to do.
On a whim, I called my and Tom’s old coach from Kenyon. Coach Steen deserves his own book, let alone blog post “explaining” him. But I don’t have time for that. You’ll just have to take my word for it that he’s pretty much an expert at peering into my psyche and rearranging things.
At this point I was two weeks out from the race. “Sounds like you need to train really hard for 12 days and then taper for one!“. Which is just the sort of god-awful, wreckless, terrible running advice that a swimming coach would give. Which is also just exactly what I’m prone to react to. Except, I know there’s a lot of mechanical damage incurred with running that swimming coaches wouldn’t naturally account for. So I tweaked it to be 7 days of hard training followed by 5 days of doing almost nothing.
The reason this worked out in my head, was (be prepared for some serious Elliot logic): my issue with doing the race was that I wasn’t prepared well for a hard 50km because I hadn’t done enough hard training or long runs. If I wasn’t going to do the race, what would I do instead? Well, I’d try to fix the issue by doing hard training and some long runs. What better way to do a hard long run than running a hard 50km. Thus, because I felt unprepared to do the race, I would do it.
So there I am, two weeks later sitting in my car. It’s starting to get light out and I’m no longer worrying that I didn’t bring a headlamp with me. I get out of the car and start preparing for the start.
For those that aren’t familiar, the start of an ultra is a solemn event. Silently, the competitors line up at the starting line which is marked out by black flags. On the sidelines, friends and family quietly weep for their soon to be lost loved ones. The competitors face the start line, but with heads bowed out of respect to their comrades. The race director sits off to one side looking like a perverted dictator. Drawing on Roman lore, second before the start the competitors turn to the director and chant “We who are about to die, salute you!” And the director fires a pistol, killing a sacrificial runner. The race is off.
Okay, that was bullshit. It’s actually super low-key. Probably more low-key than you’d imagine. You’d think you’d just line up at the start, all nervous like. Except no one could even see the starting line.
Runners were jogging all around the parking lot trying to sussout where the starting line was without actually admitting to anyone that they didn’t have a clue where the starting line was. Eventually we see the race director start heading off to the far side of the parking lot and we all follow him. He stops at a seemingly arbitray spot in the parking lot where he must’ve previously drawn an orange chalk line. Ah, the start. No electronic timing, no flags at the start. No fluff.
We huddle around. I see my friends Alicia, Tara, Barry. I comment on Tara’s choice of tutu to run in. And then I notice my lower back is wet. I instantly know what’s happened: my super-comfortable, peice of shit, Salomon hydration pack is leaking. This actually happened to Tom in the days leading up to TransRockies so it’s not really a surprise. Not to mention that every other feature on this pack has failed in the six months I’ve had it. There’s nothing I can do about it at this point but let it slide.
There was a short safety briefing which basically consisted of “There’s a big bridge, please don’t fall off it. Also there are some cliffs, try not to fall down those either.” And then we were off.
I don’t know anything about pacing a 50km. Well, now I know a little bit. But on the day I knew nothing. All I was going off of at the start was that it should probably feel pretty easy and that I’d probably be nearer the front than the back.
We started off along a road, which turned into a pretty steep climb. Then onto single track trails which could lazily be described as rolling hills.
The course was a series of 7 “lollipops” (out along the stem, then a loop, then back along the stem). The first four were right along the coast and amazing. The fifth was inland a bit and a bit hillier. The first five were within the first 20km, the last two encompassed most of the last 25km.
I’d gone in with a loose plan of sticking to specific heart rate zones: ~150bpm for the first half, ~155 bpm for the third quarter, ~160 bpm for the fourth quarter. There wasn’t a lot of basis for how I picked these other than their relation to how I was monitoring things at TransRockies. The problem with this plan was that it doesn’t take into account actually running the race. Rolling hills mean I might approach 160bpm and then relax into the 140’s all within the same minute. Not to mention the need to occasionally put on a burst of speed to pass someone.
“Alright, might as well learn as much as I can on this run. I’ll probably pay for this later, but screw it” I thought at about 3km in as I changed screens on my watch so I couldn’t see my heartrate any more. Being a huge nerd, I pictured exactly one thing in my head as I did this:
The first 19km of the course were absolutely breathtaking. We were running out along a few different peninsula. If you can picture some amazing west coast scenery, you’re probably picturing what we saw.
Around the fourth lollipop I caught up to Alicia. She was leading the women’s race and really, really likes to emphasize the low-key nature of these ultras. We chatted for a bit as we ran but got a bit separated when we hit the second aid station and I stopped to refill my leaking hydration pack. By this point it had leaked enough that my entire backside was soaking wet and freezing.
Between lollipops five and six, we crossed the big scary bridge again and that’s when I passed Alicia. As we came back onto the highway just before the bridge a volunteer yelled to her “You’re the first woman!” and she ferociously responded “I’m in fifteenth!”. She wasn’t actually in fifteenth at that point, but her point was the same: it’s a race for first, not a race for first woman.
Lollipops six and seven were repeats and quite large (over 10km I think) which provided for some very interesting race dynamics. On the first loop, close to the front, it was pretty lonely. A couple of km in I bumped into a group of three BC guys running together. I hung with them and chatted for a while until we hit a wide stretch of downhill and decided to move on. After that it was lonely again, I didn’t see a single person until I reached the stem of the lollipop. Then it was just weird.
As I was going back down the stem of the lollipop, other runners were going up it for their first loop. I knew that first loop had taken me around an hour so it was weird to see so many people just heading out on it, but it was so fun to cheer for them and have them cheer for me.
The end of the sixth lollipop was about 32km into the race. This was a big deal for me. Not only was this basically the upper limit to what I’d done in training runs, but I’d also decided to base my nutrition and hydration plans around km instead of time. Figuring that it was a relatively flat course and my average pace wouldn’t be too far over 5:00/km I’d been eating gels every 6km (plus whatever bonus calories I picked up at aid stations).
Every 6km meant that I’d eaten at 24km, just before halfway, and then 32km — “well” past halfway. … which if you’re paying attention, you’ll notice that I should have eaten at 30km. However, I was well on my way to losing my mind and thought 24 + 6 = 32. I actually didn’t catch the error of my ways until writing this.
Prior to the halfway feeding I’d been taking just caffeine-free gels. Beyond halfway I started taking caffeinated gels. Of course, I expected this to have a Popeye like affect on me.
I’d also promised myself that I wouldn’t have to wait for 6km to go by between feedings (thank god, given my apparently deteriorating arithmetic skills). So I started popping gels at every 4km or any boring uphill segment.
The second time around the loop had a totally different atmosphere. With all the runners out doing their first laps I was just constantly passing people. For extra mental stimulation, every time I passed someone I pictured myself eating their soul to gain their strength. Nom!
At the end of lollipop seven I ran into the aid station and a volunteer with the clipboard eyed me and said “You’ve done two loops right?”. “You bet your ass I have, can I go home now?” “Just a few miles left then you can go home”
As I ran out along the road which connected the lollipop six and seven with the rest of the course, and the finish line, I kept checking back to see how close anyone was. I didn’t see anyone tailing me which was a relief because I wasn’t moving very fast any more. In fact, I was really breaking down physically. A few km before the finish was a hill steep enough to warrant walking up. You’d think the excuse to walk up a hill would be welcomed, but by this point it was so much effort to have to change my gait that it was actually painful. And once I crested the top and had to start running again it was a major force of effort to just get started running.
As I ran through the parking lot and into the finish chute I was totally exhausted. I ended up finishing a very respectable sixth. I high-fived the race director at the end and then staggered to a hands-on-knees position while I adjusted to not running any more. The only time I can ever remember being as tired as I was at the end of that race was at the end of my first marathon. TransRockies wasn’t quite there, we weren’t running hard enough.
After just over four and a half hours of running, my hydration pack (with a couple of refills) had leaked enough to completely soak my shorts, compression sleeves, socks and shoes. It was about 7-degrees Celsius out and not the best weather to be wearing soaking wet shorts in.
The RainShadow running races have an awesome atmosphere at the finish. Wood-fired pizzas, beer, other crazy ultra runners. I would definitely do one of those races again.
In retrospect, I think I was right the whole time: I wasn’t really ready for that race. While I did great, and my mental game was dead on the whole time — even responsible for holding my physical game together, my body just wasn’t ready for that. Immediately after finishing I was so sore. Everything from the waist down, plus my shoulders, back, and right arm (WTF? Ultras are crazy) was just aching.
It took me five days of totally recovery to start feeling human again. My body wasn’t ready to recover from that effort. It was more debilitating than I’d liked it to be. That said, this is a great time of year to take two weeks to be a slug.
I would definitely like to do more 50kms going forward. But at the moment I don’t think I’d want to go beyond that. The next typical ultra distance is 50 miles — ~80kms — and that’s a massive jump. Right now, that distance and beyond just doesn’t appeal to me.