August 16, 2012

Digging Deep

Saturday was the big day. My "A" race for the summer, Howl at the Moon, an 8 Hour ultramarathon, took place just outside of my hometown of Danville, IL. Most races have a fixed distance and the fastest competitor wins. This is a timed race with a fixed duration and the competitor who covers the greatest distance wins. My wife Melissa and I registered for Howl immediately after the University City 10K and we've both been looking forward to it for months.

Bags packed

My training went well. I knew full well that temperatures regularly soared into the 90's at Howl. So I trained for hours in the 100's. I acclimated to the heat so much better than any previous summer it was almost a shame we had unseasonably cool weather on race day (60˚F at the start, low 80's at the end). Almost a shame.

I didn't sleep the night before the race. And by that I don't mean "I didn't sleep well," I mean "I didn't sleep at all." The combination of a crying and kicking toddler, frequent trips to the bathroom, and good old fashioned nerves really did a number on me. My alarm went off before I had fallen asleep. Fuck it, let's go run for 8 hours.

The course is a 3.29 mile loop with 3 aid stations. Each loop was about 40% grass trail, 40% gravel road, and 20% asphalt road. There was no rugged single-track trail. It was so cool and I was so fresh I opted to run the first lap without my water bottle… or food… or anything else. I wore shoes, socks, shorts, visor and carried nothing. After numerous long training runs carrying my phone, headphones, and all the food and water I could ingest, it was incredibly liberating to start the race with the bare essentials on a cool breezy morning.

I started very easy and just concentrated on relaxing into a comfortable pace. I'm going to be out here all day, I would think to myself. 8:30 for the first mile. Not absolutely fast, though perhaps a bit on the fast side for such a long run. Soon after the first mile I caught up with Don & Tim, two friends I used to run with in Champaign-Urbana. They're both highly experienced, each a perennial top finisher in this race. I decided to stick with them for a while. Towards the end of the first lap we reached a short, somewhat steep hill (the only uphill section on the course). Many ultrarunners swear by walking up hills. I had been debating what to do about this, but since I was with two very experienced runners I decided to cue off them. They both walked, and therefore so did I.

At the end of the first lap I stopped at my tent to pick up my water bottle and take an electrolyte pill. I checked in at the scorer's table and set off on lap number two. Don took a bit more time between laps than me and Tim took a bit less. I caught back up with Tim and ran the second lap with him before becoming separated again. Around this time I also met Travis Redden from the STL area. We recognized each other's names from the SLUG email list, but we'd never met before. It was good to chat with him, but before long I was alone again, just enjoying the run.

5 laps in I saw Melissa for the first time. She was running with Eric, a friend we used to run with in Champaign-Urbana. They were just finishing their 4th lap.

I felt fantastic for the first 25 miles. Running was easy. I was probably still going a bit too fast, but the way I felt I'm not sure I would have saved any energy by slowing. I strolled past the marathon mark at 3h45m, the fastest marathon split I've ever had in an ultra, and this was to be my longest race yet. Just after the marathon point I caught up with two more friends from Champaign-Urbana. This was strange, I hadn't seen them yet. And with good reason. They decided to sleep in and they were on their first lap. I was starting to labor a bit, but I kept the pace high for a little while longer while I chatted with them. I passed the 50K point around 4h25m. To put that in perspective, my last 50K race (on an admittedly much more difficult course) took 7h55m.

After 10 laps I knew something had to change. I wasn't dead yet, but I was going downhill rapidly. My pace was just too fast and I still had too much time to go. I stopped at my tent for a full 5-6 minutes. I applied a fresh coat of sunscreen, I drank, I ate, I grabbed an ice-filled bandana to put around my neck to help me cool down. Finally, I grabbed my phone and headphones and started listening to music (for the first time ever in a race). I was in race mode up until that point, but if I was going to survive I needed to completely reset. The music (Jonathan Coulton) kept me relaxed and put a smile on my face. I slowed way down from 8:30 pace to 9:45 pace. I started over and pretended I was just stepping out the door to do a long training run.

Howl at the Moon

Coming into this race I had no idea how far I could go. I thought I would get 40 miles for sure and I would be quite happy to get 45 miles. My super secret goal was 50 miles. I knew that would be a tall order. 50 miles in 8 hours is one of those magic separating lines in running, like a 5 minute mile or a 3 hour marathon or a 24 hour 100 mile. Sure, elite runners will go much faster, but these lines separate great runners from good runners. I wasn't cocky enough to count on accomplishing such an audacious goal on my first attempt, but I didn't discount the possibility either.

The miles continued to pass. The running was no longer easy. I kept waiting to bonk or to cramp up, but those maladies never came. I was staying on top of my electrolyte pills to avoid the cramping and I was eating well at the aid stations to keep my energy up (surprisingly, grapes were my food of choice at the aid stations). Once I slowed down to my long training run pace I thought my chance to make it to 50 miles was gone. But I kept doing the math in my head and with each lap that passed it seemed more and more plausible. As long as I didn't slow down. And that was the struggle. I was exhausted and the truly difficult part was was the mental aspect of forcing myself to keep running in that state. I could have stopped at any point. I could have walked. But the closer I got to my pie-in-the-sky goal of 50 miles, the more I wanted it… the more I could taste it… and the deeper I was able to dig to keep going.

After 12 laps I switched my playlist to something more uptempo (Less than Jake) and almost immediately I was back down to 8:30 miles. I didn't want this to come down to the wire. Aside from the aid station breaks and walking up the hill, I was able to maintain that pace for three more laps. With one lap to go I didn't even bother stopping at my tent to refuel. I was ready to get this over with. I finished 15 laps (49.35 miles) with 15 minutes to spare. Now it was time to run as many 0.5 mile out-and-backs as I could before the time ran out. I quickly added 0.75 miles, which put me over 50. After that I completely lost the will to keep going. And in the blink of an eye I was done. I walked the last 0.25 miles back to the finish line. I still had 5 minutes left, during which time I could have run another 0.5 miles, but I didn't have it in me. It was over. 50.35 miles. Mission accomplished.

I sat on a park bench and guzzled water. Multiple people asked if I needed help, indicating to me I didn't look so great. I walked back over to my tent and flopped onto the ground. Melissa (who finished with an amazing 40.48 miles in her first ultra) was there chatting with friends. Rather suddenly I started to get cold and shiver. Melissa said my face was pale and my lips were turning blue. Shit. They called the medics over to our tent and they started probing me while I laid down. I was actually feeling fine (well, aside from the shivering and being really damned tired). They covered me with some ice packs and strapped an oxygen mask onto my face for a few minutes. Meanwhile, people were started to gather around the tent to get a good look. They suggested IV fluids or maybe even a trip to the hospital. I really didn't think that was necessary, I've been in much worse condition before. But I knew enough that if I was really as bad off as they seemed to think I was I probably didn't have the best judgment. After a brief debate we decided against it and before long I was sitting up, shivers gone, crisis averted. I was back to normal within minutes.

My distance was good enough to tie for 9th place with… Tim. I hadn't seen him since the first hour, but apparently he was clipping at my heals the entire race. And just as I was calling it quits I saw him go out for one more loop, which allowed him to match my distance. Ha!

Anyway, Melissa & I both had an incredible time at the race. I'm super glad we did it. This was my first timed race, and I have to say I liked the format. Knowing I was going to be out there running all day regardless of how fast I ran helped put me into the right frame of mind. I set a goal and pushed through previously-unimagined-to-me exhaustion to reach it (though, to be perfectly honest, I don't think I would have reached 50 miles in significantly hotter weather). The only downside is now that it's over I have to decide where to go from here.


Melissa said...

Great job. When you passed me for the second time (my 12th lap, your 14th) I knew you were on pace for 50 and I was thrilled for you!

Eric Smith said...

You kicked ass, Rob! It was great to see you and Melissa out there for your first Howl. Now you can see why I come back year after year! Looking forward to seeing you again next year, but hopefully sooner than that. Take care!

Unknown said...

Congrats on reaching 50miles Rob!

Chris Ⓥ said...

Sweet mileage. Well done.

ed said...

Mission accomplished, indeed -- nice run!

Nick said...

great job Rob! That is amazing man!

Scott said...

Great run! You are now qualified to chase food to exhaustion.