Monday, April 18, 2011

TARC Spring Classic 50K.

Race Report: TARC Spring Classic 50K - Weston, MA - 4/23/2011

It's been three years since I ran my first ultramarathon, the 2008 Pineland Farms 50K. Despite the leaps and bounds I've made in running since then, my 50K personal best has stood at my original time of 5:34, mostly because I hadn't bothered to run another comparable race. In the last six months I've demolished my personal marathon, 50 mile, and 100 mile records - the time seemed right to bring my 50K record in line. Half the fun of racing, besides the intrinsic pleasure I get from pushing myself with friends, is the satisfaction of continuous improvement. I've found this to be the the case whether I was trying to run 10 miles for the first time ever, qualifying for the Boston Marathon, or pushing for a new 100 mile PR.

Being in the midst of a heavy training schedule for admittedly ambitious goals at the upcoming Massanutten 100, I can use any excuse for a structured long weekend training run. The Trail Animals Running Club (TARC) Spring Classic fit my schedule perfectly and let me scratch a couple itches at once...

Forty five degrees and overcast seems like pretty good weather for a trail race, not too hot and not too cold, but it's also supposed to rain today. As soon as that starts I know that ground conditions on the loop course we're running will deteriorate pretty quickly.

With five loops of roughly 6.54 miles in length, the course is a bit longer than 50k, but I'm told it's almost entirely flat and should make a great place for a personal best. I've decided to approach this race less like an ultra and more like an extended marathon. Instead of taking my time and saving energy, I intend to run every single step of this race. Hard. My fantasy goal is to break the four hour barrier, a tall order to be sure, but plausible given my 3:06 marathon time from last fall. I need lap times of 48 minutes or better to accomplish this.

There are several other races being held at the same time, from 10 to 50 kilometers, depending on how many loops you want to do. The 10K-ers are sent off early at 8:00 am while everyone else gets to leave at 8:15. For the first mile of so of the race this makes things a bit difficult to get a read on, somehow I'm running at the head of a pack of about a dozen people and I know that many of them are not going nearly as far today. I've never lead a race before and it's a good feeling, but when a handful of people pass me it's easy to let them go and focus on my own race. The goal today is to establish a strong 50K time - any finishing position is a bonus.

The course is indeed quite flat, except for one notable hill that's fairly steep. There's lots of winding single track with a pine needle footbed that's quite fast, it reminds me of the Rocky Raccoon course. However, to keep things interesting, there are several rocky and swampy sections that are not so easy. Mud is not too difficult to deal with, and rocks are manageable by themselves, but when combined things can get pretty tricky. There are plenty of places to
slip off a mud slicked rock and into puddle or stream crossing or ankle busting hole.

It's right around the first of these rough sections that I begin to catch the back of the 10K pack. A few of them are trying to very slowly pick their way around the sides of a muddy rock garden. I'm in a hurry so I blaze right through the center, working hard to tip-toe on the rocks without losing momentum. When I can spare the breath, I offer encouragement and "nice work" comments to those I'm passing. Positive comments have helped me since I first starting running, especially from the faster folks, so I try give people a boost when I can.

Lap 1 goes down in an even 47 minutes. As we head out for our second loop, I comment to my friend Ryan that we're just barely holding on to a 4-hour pace but if we work together and pace each other we might be able to sustain it. At this speed we're covering a mile in less than seven and a half minutes. I comment to Ryan that Ian Sharmin held this same pace for 100 miles to win this year's Rocky Raccoon 100 in under thirteen hours. I feel like we're insane trying to match that over a third of the distance. Ludicrous speed!

We complete lap 2 in 49:50, or 1:36:30 for about a half marathon, and are now 30 seconds behind schedule. With margins so tight, I'm appreciating my race strategy of a hydration pack and gel flask. I'm have everything I need to complete the race without stopping for any aid, saving a few minutes and precious momentum. As it turns out, the 2 liters of water and 6 GU packets are exactly enough to get me through all five laps.

Lap 3 passes by in 47:30, we've made a 30 second deposit back into the time bank, but now Ryan and I are both struggling. The field has begun to thin out as the 10K-ers and half marathon runners finish, and we've left many of the other distance runners behind. I know there's at least one person ahead of us, but I'm not concerning myself with him. It starts to rain and I'm glad I'm wearing a long sleeve shirt. I was hot on the first lap, but pretty comfortable now. Ryan has to stop and tie his shoe; I yell back at him to catch me, I need his help, but I don't end up seeing him again until the finish.

I complete lap 4 alone in 51:15, 26.16 miles in 3:15:25 overall. This is less than 9 minutes off my best marathon performance on a dry road. I don't really have the presence of mind to take note of anything but the fact my lap time has slipped badly. The rain has intensified to a downpour and things are getting sloppy. Normally a Brooks Cascadia man, I've chosen a pair of New Balance MT101s for this race; a mixed blessing. These shoes are feather light, easy to run fast
in, and I'm appreciating how well they drain water, but the shallow tread pattern is making things difficult. I nearly fall on my face on the one hill of the loop. Grabbing a tree I haul myself out of the pudding mud and keep going, this will be the only time I break from a running stride for the entire race.

By now I'm all alone, no one in front and no one visible behind. My only company are people who I'm lapping, some of them for the second time. I pass by a course worker who informs me that the only guy in front of me has dropped out and I'm now in first place. This lifts my spirits a great deal and I work even harder to keep my speed up. My legs are feeling like lead and the weather has gotten horrendous. There's a nasty chill trying to creep into my body from my saturated shirt and I'm sure that if I slow down I'll start shivering in short order. Making a fist, I can squeeze the water out of my fleece gloves, they're so wet. The swamps, puddles and streams are no longer a concern, I can't really get any wetter, it makes more sense to just run straight through them now. Why bother trying to step on rocks and logs that I might fall off of anyway?

Despite what feels like my fastest lap, I'm bleeding time pretty badly and it quickly becomes clear that sub-four hours won't be happening today. Still, I crank up my MP3 player and keep up an honest sprint for the last mile to the finish. Every section of trail seems to have gotten much longer than I remember from previous laps, but eventually I burst out of the woods and hammer across a field to the finish.

That's it. I've won with a final time of 4:07:51. There's no ribbon to break and only a few people hanging out in the rain. I didn't get my goal time, and to keep things in perspective I only won because several of the local speedsters weren't at this race, but it still feels damn good. I can't complain about lowering my 50K record, and I'm sure I'll try for an official sub-4 again.

Unofficially, however, the numbers tell a slightly different story. 4:07:51 over the official 32.7 mile distance works out to 7:35 per mile average pace. That same speed over 50 kilometers works out to 3:55:37, so had the course actually been 50k, I would have comfortably gotten a time starting with a 3. I'm not going to complain, I'll just have to run harder next time.

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