|Photo: Auburn Journal|
It's not a favorable position to be in when one realizes they have heavy legs right from the start of a 50-mile race. My body immediately wanted to throw in the towel and accept the fact that I was in for a long day. However, if there is one important truth I've come to realize in running ultras, it's that having a disciplined, persevering-type mind with whatever is testing you, is of valuable significance.
Leading up to this years race, unlike last year, I knew Sierra Nevada wasn't going to be a critical focus race, therefore, my typical two-week taper was cut down to about 5-6 days leading up. On top of that, last week saw some harder running which may or may have not had an effect on my legs come Saturday. Nevertheless, I began the race with a comfortable rhythm and kept keen awareness of who my competitors may be. Such heightened awareness of competition, as you'll see, may have been the driving force I needed to keep plugging away.
|Galen Farris and I standing on the startline. Photo: Anthony Brantley|
After rolling a bit from the start, we veered left and briefly climbed up to Mooney Ridge. There was a pack of 6 ahead of me (most of which I figured were 25m runners), while I hung back and respected where my legs were, it seemed, for the day. After descending Mooney, we finally hooked up with some single-track and my first blessing of the day pulled up right behind me. His name was Mike and he was a 25m runner who figured I was running the exact pace he wanted to. Mike was on the rebound from a prolonged bout of back issues which had sidelined him from running. This was his comeback race and from what I could tell, he was running well.
I ran straight through Granite Bay Aid (2.5mi, ~20:00) and 3/4 of a mile later we passed Twin Rocks and entered into one of the more funner sections of the course. The section between TR and Horseshoe Bar is pretty techy at times and based on splits during training runs, I always figure that if you can run 9min/mile through here, that's pretty darn good as this section really is a momentum killer. Mike continued to hang on my heels as I was content to be a pace setter for him. Again, legs had absolutely no pep in them, but it seemed the gear I had for the day was allowing me to cruise comfortably and efficiently. Because there was no bounce in my stride, I felt I had to compensate with a more intent focus on form and efficient leg turnover. Thankfully, my increased form-work as of late was really paying off.
A few miles out from Horseshoe, we came up on a few guys, one of which I recognized as Galen Farris (who was running the 25). The 4 of us ran together for a bit and it appeared Galen's legs were maybe starting to fatigue some as he dropped a little behind and I tucked in with the other 25m runner. We made the brief climb up to Horseshoe Bar (8.75mi, 1:17), I refilled my bottle and was back on the trail in no more than ten seconds. Mike made a quick in/out and was right behind me again as we made the short hop over to Rattlesnake Bar (10.67mi, 1:34). I ran through Rattlesnake as there was another aid just 3.5 miles ahead.
As we passed through, someone yelled, "2nd place just went through!" I asked Mike which one of us they were talking to (since I didn't recognize some of the other guys, I had no idea what place I was in up until this point). Mike replied, "They were talking to you." This came as good news to me due to the fact -- based on last years experience -- going out more conservative seemed to be the best plan of action. Shortly after passing through Rattlesnake, I spotted a runner up ahead with a "Fleet Feet Ultra Running Team" shirt on. After a bend in the trail, he was jogging back toward us and asked, "Is this the right way? I'm not sure?" I assured him we were on the right path, asked him his name (Brian Miller), and if he was running the 50 or 25. "I'm running the 50." Brian replied. And with those words, my competitive gear kicked in and I immediately noticed I was running with a little more passion and fire. And with those words, my less-than-fresh legs suddenly became an afterthought as my new focus became entrenched in race-mode.
Brian and I left my buddy Mike as we cruised past the hydroelectric plant and got onto some really runnable terrain. I recognized Brian's name as he was the 50k winner of the Cool Trail Run's event back in February. I asked him if there were any other 50 guys ahead and he mentioned just 1 guy who had a decent lead. I set the pacing duties for Brian and I and without a moments notice, we pulled into Dowdin's Post (14.22mi, ~2:00). Brian was carrying 2 bottles so it took him a little longer to refill while I got in a quick refill, grabbed a cliff-shot and was off. That was the last time I would run with Brian for the day and my sole focus from here on out was to try and stay consistent, and cut into whoever was out front's lead on the climb up Cardiac.
I spotted the guy on a more open section and figured his lead was right at 3min. Sure enough, as I made that left (as all you former AR 50 runners know quite well) and engaged the short, semi-steep climb up from the river; I pulled into Cardiac Aid (18.76mi, ~2:30) and was told, "He's only 3min up on you!" With some positive competitive juices flowing, I started climbing up Cardiac (~.9mi climb and ascends ~850-900') and was suddenly taken aback at how efficiently my climbing legs seemed to be clicking. I figured I had to be cutting into this guys lead, however, as I made my way straight through the 3-way intersection, which appeared to not have any flagging, I thought to myself, 'ok, if you weren't familiar with this climb, it would be easy to take a wrong turn without any flagging to guide you.' With feeling pretty good on Cardiac and throwing down a 10:40 clip (:12 last year and 1min off my pr), I got back into rhythm on the canal and kept focus on reeling this guy in.
|Just approaching the Overlook. Photo: Anthony Brantley|
I pulled into No-Hands (25mi, 3:27) to see a whole heap of family and friends. Coach Parker along with the WJU cross-country team were there; Connor, Tyler, and Austin were working the aid-station; my mom, grandma, and wifey; and also Tucker Hoffman (who was going to run the last 20 with me). At the turnaround, Connor checked in with me while my wife swapped out one of my bottles for a fresh bottle filled with cytomax. I was in/out quick and got back to business.
| Just coming into No-Hands. Photo: Karen May|
|Photo: Karen May|
After he went by, a few minutes later I saw Michael Fink and Brian Miller. I estimated my lead was around 9-11min at this point and figured it would take me about 20min to get back up to Robie (based on splits during training runs). However, like I mentioned before, somehow, someway, the climbing legs were really clicking and I made it from No-Hands to Robie in 18min (9min miles on this mostly uphill 2mi stretch, I think, isn't too shabby).
One aspect of this race that I get such satisfaction from is seeing a plethora of other runners come flying down the trail by me. Encouraging them and receiving such good vibes is one reason why I love the ultra community so much. If your like me and grew up playing those racing games on Nintendo where you had to keep hitting checkpoints in order to keep your time from running out, such an analogy is proper for how I feel on stretches like that during Sierra Nevada where every person you come across is like one of those "checkpoints" that keep your game and your race moving on.
After seeing so many smiles for miles, I made the brief climb up to the Overlook (28.14mi, 4:01) where my mom, wife, and Tucker were there to greet me. After being tended to by Anthony and the FF crew, it was time for Tucker and I to set off together.
Coming up to the Overlook. Photo: Karen May
The highly anticipated MT 110's really are legit, thank you New Balance. Photo: Karen May
The volunteers are always incredible here and really, at any Julie Fingar event. Photo: Karen May
Tucker and I about to head out. Photo: Karen May
Tucker is a young, talented, and passionate high school runner who has a deep respect for ultras and has a heart to move in that direction as he gets older. As Nick Clark did for me at Western States -- allowing a fiery young runner such as myself to unleash that passion in aid for him at WS -- I felt compelled to provide the same opportunity for Tucker who was jazzed to join me for the last 20. We set out at a good clip and I told Tucker that it's weird to have such a drastically different experience this year compared to last year. Last year, I was pretty fried by the return trip to the Overlook, but this year I was still moving pretty well I thought without any significant low-points yet. Granted it was much cooler this year (88-90 deg compared to 96-97 last year), but I truly believe suffering through those 100 miles at TRT gave me a physical and mental resiliency I had yet to realize until now.
Tucker and I settled into sub-8 to 8min pace along the canal and made the techy drop down Cardiac to the aid (31mi, ~4:20) for a quick refill and shot down the trail back for the remaining 19 mile ride along the river. Tucker said my leg turnover and form were looking crisp and that gave me some positive motivation to continue to keep my bio-mechanics intact and efficient. Tucker also had me on a 25-30min gel regimen and was such a pleasant dude to run with. We just conversed about whatever and ultimately, just enjoyed the run.
Soon enough, we rolled into Dowdin's again (35.52mi, ~5:04) and kept cruising. Again, I was surprised at how fatigue-resistant my legs were this day. As I mentioned before, not that they felt sharp or filled with pep, but I was able to just lock into a pace and keep it flowing.
The next 5.5 miles were more or less the same as we came through Rattlesnake (39.07mi, 5:32) and pulled into Horseshoe Bar (41mi, 5:50). These next 6 miles would be the last test of the race as you have to weave your way through this very slow and technical section. What makes this section a little more challenging as well is that it's usually like an oven in here and it was here last year that I drained both my bottles fairly quickly, went through a deep low-point, and sat down on the side of the trail wanting to quit. Thankfully, I would only be experiencing one of these repeats from last year.
I was sweating a good deal through here and compensated by sucking down fluids rather quickly. I think Tucker was also feeling the brunt of the heat (and he only had one bottle) and 2.5mi out from the next aid, I emptied both my bottles and developed such an annoying stomach cramp. The pace slowed a bit as I thought maybe I needed some salt. Nope, didn't help a bit, it only made me more thirsty. With more fervent focus, I was able to get my mind to dig a little deeper, somewhat block out the pain of the cramp, and count down each .5mi marker until Granite Bay aid. I knew I would be seeing Sara and my fam just before the aid at Twin Rocks, hoping they had some extra water on them. About .5 out from Twin Rocks, Tucker dropped back and told me to forge on ahead. Little did I know, but he was puking from dehydration, but like a champ kept this news from me and sucked it up.
As I saw my wife up ahead, I muttered, "Do you have any water on you?" "Sorry sweety I don't." Sara broke the news to me. "Ah, shit." I replied. "Are you gonna be ok?" She asked. "Yeah I'll be fine, it's only 3/4 of a mile until the aid, I'm just really thirsty." With some departing words of encouragement from my wife, mom, and grandma; I just tried to disassociate my mind from the current state I was in. It helped, not completely, but just enough.
So blessed by an incredible wife. Photo: Karen May
It wouldn't be an ultra without some adversity, right? Photo: Karen May
Ah that lovely cramp. Photo: Karen May
A few hundred meters past Twin Rocks I hear someone up ahead singing a Brittney Spears song. I thought that has to be one of the WJU runners. (Inside joke, but I have a habit of whistling the most annoying, yet catchy songs that happen to get caught inside the minds of my athletes). Sure enough, David Cummings was there and started running with me toward the aid. Mind you, the WJU runners put in a solid run that morning so I was caught off guard that David was wanting to run with me. "Dude, aren't you tired from the workout this morning?" I said. "Aren't you tired from running almost 50 miles today?!" David shot back. Touche, touche.
Once I got to Granite Bay aid (47.29mi, ~7:07) and threw down some water, bam, cramp gone. Alright, I said to myself, let's get this done. I took off from the aid at a much more respectable pace than the previous 3 miles and was simply set on closing well. After weaving along the single-track, it was just one final climb back up to Mooney Ridge, some down, a few more rollers, then flat into the finish. I was moving decently well and was even surprised to see my climbing legs responding on the climb up to Mooney. After descending off the ridge, David and I just plugged away and with a glance at my watch, sub-7:30 seemed plausible with an increased effort. Therefore, I tried my best to increase the cadence and upon approaching the finish, was able to muster up a "5k-like" kick into the finish in 1st place with a time of 7:29:56. Interestingly enough, this time equates almost exactly to my time from last year when converted to 52.4. Only this year, I'm a different runner and it was a confidence booster to empirically verify that by how I felt and ran overall.
|Was able to have a solid kick into the finish. Photo: Karen May|
At the start of the race I wasn't sure how things were going to play out and a large part of me wanted to justify copping out because my legs felt "off", but truth be told, even though my legs weren't fresh, thankfully my mind was. And it was my mind, I believe, that took the wheel and told my body he was driving from here on out. Furthermore, as my mind was behind the steering wheel, it was the fuel of competition that filled up my tank and helped me break through some physical barriers. The mind truly is a powerful tool when filled up with the right fuel and is burning on all cylinders efficiently; getting a high degree of mpg a hybrid could only dream of.
Much love and thanks to those who choose to support me and sacrifice their time and effort. My wife and family for always being there, at every race. WJU XC for supporting their assistant coach. Connor, Tyler, and Austin for always being willing to serve which I know many others and myself are super thankful for. Tucker for wanting to share some miles with me and for toughing it out. Can't wait for your first ultra bud, I know it's going to be epic for you. RD Julie Fingar and team for once again putting on the best events in and around this area. And New Balance Roseville, who just a year ago following this event decided I was someone worth investing in. Couldn't do it without you guys and hope I'm just as much a blessing in return.
Auburn Journal Article