Tuesday, March 27, 2012

RACE REPORT -- Bel Monte 50 Mile

I hit the starting line with the rest of the runners around 7:30am Saturday morning. The sun had just come up over the Blue Ridge Mountains that surrounded us, although visibility was still pretty low due to the weather. A steady downpour, thick fog and slate gray skies would serve as the conditions for at least the first half of today's race. As I waited for the Race Director to verbally start the ultra I tried to remind myself one last time: "don't be an idiot and go out too fast." I'm notorious for doing such a thing, and this being my first ultra I knew I ran the risk of trying to speed to the top of the pack early on, only to fade out before the 3rd aid station. I wouldn't do that this time, so I started in the back of the pack and as the race started about 7 minutes after 7:30, I gave me dad (my crew for the race) one last fist bump and set out for the 50 mile trek through the mountains.

The first 2 miles were a nice out and back on a dirt road that was cut into the side of a mountain. Fortunately, it wasn't foreign to me since my dad and I had driven the road the day before when we got lost in search of the race start. That was just part of the journey we ended up taking as we visited each crew checkpoint ahead of time so he would know where to meet me and what to expect as far as the terrain went -- a plan that ended up working out really well on race day.

After that out-and-back it was onto the Blue Ridge Parkway for a few miles enroute to the first aid station at White Rock Gap before heading into the trails. I was itching to get into the woods and leave the roads behind so I picked up the pace, bypassed the aid station and began to hammer it in the technical trail section that would bring the runners to Turkey Pen, before making the tough climb up to the top of Mt. Baldy. Once I entered the trail head I immediately began to feel at ease. I was so pumped up to be in the thick of the woods, maneuvering through the roots and rocks on rolling terrain. After some climbing, I was up on the ridge and the trail below me became almost entirely rock. Seriously, I don't think I ever saw so many rocks in my life. This was no New York City trail and it was clearly more technical than any pine needle path I've run on in Long Island. After passing by several runners -- some of them 50Kers and the rest 50 milers -- I soon discovered that my strength was navigating over the roots and rocks as most of the other runners slowed down. I was floating through the gnarly downhill sections as if it was a smooth fire road, claiming no misfortune as each rock became more jagged and increasingly slippery as the rain continued to fall. It was over these nest few miles that I realized how much I truly loved trail running. The terrain served as a playground for me and I could feel the huge smile across my face as I continued to hammer the pace through the rocky ridge. "This is beyond awesome," I told myself as I made a short climb before descending back down towards the second aid station. I reached Turkey Pen with plenty of time to spare before the cut off, filled up my bottle and headed for another out-and-back section where I would see my crew for the first time. At the turnaround I decided I needed a second handheld just in case I ran low on water in between aid stations. My dad tossed me the second bottle and I powered back along the flats to the second visit at Turkey Pen before the push towards Mt. Baldy. I chatted with a 50k runner at this point who knew the course fairly well since he had run the Bel Monte events in he past. Despite this years course changes, he said the climb coming up was still the same and it would be extremely beneficial to preserve myself for the switchbacks that made up the 2,000 foot elevation gain ahead. Having not hit any low points yet (approx. at mile 16 at this point) I figured it would be smart to not take anything for granted and begin adding in some power hiking on any of the uphills that lay ahead through the ascent to the next aid station.

The next spot was where it became much harder. Around mile 18 or 19, and after several creek crossings, I banged my right foot and stopped for about 5 seconds to readjust my pack. During those 5 seconds, I realized 2 things: my stomach was in a fair amount of discomfort and I was about 85% sure I lost a toenail. After I decided that I would not make myself puke I carried on and slogged up the switchbacks to Mt. Baldy and filled up my bottles at the aid station. I soon realized my weakness was power hiking the steep uphills. You would think walking is something anyone could be good at, but that proved to be far from the truth. Two people passed me on the uphills with what looked like a moderate hiking pace. I thought I was moving just as fast, but as they faded away in the distance it was soon clear that I would have to rely on my decent speed on the flats (which there were not much of on this course) and use my strengths of blocking out physical pain and hammering down technical downhill sections if I wanted to pass more people. I stuck with this plan and came through Kennedy Ridge (approx. mile 26) feeling pretty good and still well ahead of the cutoff. This was another aid station where my crew (Dad) met me. I was heating up so I ditched my rain jacket with him and planned on staying wet, yet cooler as the rain had still not let up. It was at this same time where I heard some positive news that would actually end up hurting me. One of the aid station volunteers thought it was a good idea to inform me I was within the top 10 and I was still looking really fresh. Needless to say, that information amped me up and I rushed out of Kennedy only to soon find that my quads were more thrashed than I had previously thought. The next few miles was a steady pace along Coal Road, a gravelly access road that has several trail heads coming off the side of it. Despite the growing pain in the thighs, I pushed through to Stony Run at about mile 29, seemingly still in the top 10 since only one person passed me on Coal Road. I took 5 minutes to refuel and then headed out for the second climb up the back of Mt. Baldy. Little did I know, my wheels were about to come off...

This section of the course, in my opinion, was the hardest. At this point, the weather took a ridiculous turn. The rain stopped, the clouds broke, and out came the sun to crank up the heat to around 80 degrees. Did I mention this was during the 2,000 foot climb to the top of the mountain, with almost a full 9 miles until the next aid station? It was here where I would hit the lowest of lows and begin a death march that would last much longer than I had planned. For the first mile or 2 of the climb I had some company. Two runners, with several ultras under their belts, had fallen into a low point as well and we decided to go into hike mode together until we felt better again. I was getting increasingly worse. The quads were tightening up, my bottles were already low on water, and I noticed the watch on my right wrist getting tighter -- My hands were swelling which means I was dipping into a bout of hyponatremia: not good. I pounded a few Endurolytes to get the sodium back up, just a bit of water, and then decided I would hike for another 10 minutes before pushing back up at a steady pace. After 15 minutes I was back in the groove, until I looked over the ridge at the other peaks and realized the trees in front of my were kind of dancing, moving in an Alfred Hitchcock 'Vertigo' sort of effect. Crap, now I'm probably running the gamut of dehydration -- my thoughts at this point in time, 33 miles in. This is where my training really came to help me out. Over the last few months, my long back to back weekend runs may no have fully prepared me for mountainous climbs, but they absolutely built up my mental ability to power through the toughest situations and fight the low points that are inevitable in the world of ultrarunning. I dug deep, kept consuming calories, and fought my way back up to Mt. Baldy.

According to my Garmin, I only had about a half marathon distance left between me and the climb to the finish line. I'm certain that what made everything easier for me was that I accepted the fact that my legs weren't going to feel any better than they did. They were only going to get worse, but my mind had the ability to get tougher. Once you can conquer that distance between your ears and use your brain to your advantage, then a DNF is usually out of the question and a trip to the finish line is in sight. I left the aid station at mile 36 with this attitude and continued on with the plan of hammering it down the technical descents to make up for lost time on the climbs. After missing a turn at Torrey Ridge, I put my plan to use and blocked out the excruciating pain that shot through my quads like lightning bolts smothered in Sriracha sauce (simply on fire -- an internal inferno, if you will). I came out at White Rock Gap to the aid station where my dad was waiting for some moral support as I headed towards the final 10 miles that separated me from the finish line. "Pain is an understatement," I told him. I had lost a lot of time on the hard climbs so I was going to have to push through the next 5 miles of rolling roads on the Blue Ridge Parkway since I knew there was a steep 3 mile ascent up the access road to the finish line. I caught up with a runner and his pacer after slogging for a few miles on the parkway and soon realized it was one of the many runners I had chatted with along Coal Road before I lost him when we hit the death climb at mile 30. We jumped right back into our previous conversation about his experience at Western States and his finish at the Leadville 100. We geeked out about Tony Krupicka and all things ultra before I finally asked him for advice to help me conquer the final low point before the finish line. His words served me well. "It's true what they say about pain being temporary. You're hurting now and you'll hurt tomorrow, but in a few days you'll look back and be happy that you didn't walk it into the finish." I saved those words for later consumption and met up with my dad for the last time before the finish line at the Reed's Gap aid station. Mile 45 (but everyone's Garmins were already reading 50 miles). I filled up the bottles and grabbed a surprising food choice at the aid station. Given my healthy nutrition I had not had one in a few years. But after 10 hours in the mountains I couldn't stomach another Clif Bar or banana and certainly not another GU. There were no peanut butter and jelly sandwiches at this stop -- a childhood staple that had become a life saver on the trails -- so I told myself to grab whatever my mind wanted. Just something to bring me back from the dead before that final climb. There it was, staring me down on the table. I grabbed one, scoffed it down, and told me dad that it was the best thing I had tasted all day. Thanks to that single OREO I was able to hammer out a sub-6 minute mile down hill to the access road and begin the 2 mile death climb to the final trail section that separated me from the ski slope that lead to the FINISH.

"Relentless forward motion," I repeated in my head, then out loud, and then practiced what I preached. I was making up almost no time during that push up the Wintergreen Resort access road. Something had to be done. I had to make some kind of drastic change to make more headway. I knew I was well under the 13:30 cut off, but I really wanted to hit that sub-12 hour mark that I had my mind set on ever since that last climb up to Mt. Baldy. My legs felt like garbage in the quad department when I pushed uphill, but I took notice to how surprisingly fresh my knees felt. As the clouds darkened and the lightning lit up the horizon, I made the rest of the way up to the trail head by running BACKWARDS. I immediately felt nostalgic as this reminded me of the warm up drills I would have to do during my baseball days in high school. Once I hit the trail head there was a volunteer waiting to make sure no runners missed the turn. He had passed me on the way up the access road and, given his ridiculous amount of experience in ultrarunning, he knew exactly what would help my quads over the last mile. "Take these," he said as he handed me a small zip-lock baggy. No, not drugs, you fool. It was a bag of a few Tums that he had left over from his 50k race earlier that day and he suggested I scoff them down before heading into the trail. "The calcium will do you good. Those stiff legs will loosen up in a bit." I took the advice, took the Tums, and hammered the downhills until the climbing creeped back into my life. It was getting darker much sooner than usual due to the approaching storm. I looked at my watch and say I had about 20 minutes to cover less than one mile if I wanted to break 12 hours. On a slow day I'll do a mile in 8 minutes or so. My normal mile pace is in the low 7's and my flat out single mile pace is around 5:40 -- however, in that final mile of a 50 mile race through the mountains in the rain heading uphill in the trails, it would take everything I had to finish that last mile in under 20 minutes. I climbed. I pushed. I thought of the finish. "If I can get to the parking lot by the 11:56 mark that will give me enough time to fly down the ski slope in time to make a finish still within the 11 hour window." That's what I told myself and that is what I did. I hit the parking lot of the resort at 11:56 and change and pushed hard until it flattened out. There it was -- the entrance to the slope. I was excited for the finish, but just as happy to be able to sprint down through the snow (yes, there was snow on the slope) into the finish. I was flying. I heard the cheers as the rain continued to fall and the lightning flashed in the distance illuminating the peaks of the Appalachians that filled the horizon. The finish line was in sight, and as the thunder rumbled I crossed the finish line in 11:58:37. I was ecstatic to have finished my first ultra and my dad -- the best crew -- greeted me at the finish with a big hug before we dove into a celebratory pint of Fat Tire Ale together. My first Ultramarathon in the bag... and many more to come.


Now, as I sit back in recovery mode and reflect on this incredible experience (with only one blister and just one black toenail to my name -- success!), there are a few things that I have come to realize. First off, to say that I love running is a complete understatement. Within seconds of finishing, there was not a doubt in my mind that I'll be doing several more ultras this year alone, and I also undoubtedly want to tackle a 100 miler in the near future. There is just such a synergy out there in the trails that dances the line between friend and foe that I really have come to enjoy. There are parts of the course where you're almost working together like a tag team, but then before you know it the trails can become pretty devilish, looking to beat you to bits an you're fighting demons of your own. The rise and fall of emotions can't even come close to the seemingly similar changes in elevation. It's all so much to take in, but when you're done you just cannot get enough. That;s how I feel right now and that is how I want to feel everyday. I'll be taking the rest of the week completely off from running, but I honestly am frothing at the mouth waiting to be fully recovered so I can get back out there and log some good quality miles. As for training, I would do it again by doing less overall miles and added more hiking and mountain/trail specific things in for better results. I've become such a volume junkie, but now I have something to train for, new personal goals to achieve, and hopefully a Western States lottery qualification to bag in the near future. The month of April will be a time for me to run when I want to run (which I can assure you will be quite often) but not go too crazy with making sure I hit a certain number of mileage. I loved running before and I love running now, and as long as that doesn't change, then I am a happy man ready to hit the roads of my future. It's also clear that I need and enjoy having a race always in the near future... So I cannot think of a better way to spend my birthday weekend in mid- May than running an ultra on my home turf -- Long Island Greenbelt 50K, here I come. Until then, Stay Relentless...

1 comment:

  1. Love this report, I am running the Bel Monte 50miler as my first official ultra...