Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Start Hard and Hang On - 2011 Ice Age Trail 50 Mile

Pre-race: Jennifer Aradi, Dominic Guinta, me, Bill Thom
"I think I'm gonna dial it back a bit. You go on ahead."

That's what I said to Dominic about 7 miles into the 2011 Ice Age Trail 50 mile run as he pulled away from me, running up another hill while I power hiked it. We'd been running together to that point, just yucking it up and having a good time. But, Dom was setting a pace a bit harder than I would have done alone, and running up hills I would have walked. I was worried the damage may already be done and I'd be paying for it later, withdrawing a debt of early fatigue that I'd have no way to repay.

It's not like we were flying or anything. But, pace in these things is entirely relative to the number of miles and hills that lie in wait ahead. And I knew a whole lot of miles and a whole lot of hills were just waiting out there, smirking at us, cracking their knuckles, ready to pummel.

I gotta let him go or I'm gonna blow up. Maybe I'll catch him later. That's what I was thinking.

But, dammit if Dom didn't get but 30 yards ahead and then slow down while futzing around with his iPod earphones. :-) I soon found myself right back on his heels again, chit chatting away while we finished up the initial 9 mile Nordic loop that kicks off the IAT50.

The day before the race I put together a pace chart, both for myself and for my wife should she and the kids find the time to come up to the race after Saturday morning soccer. I'd built a pace chart for a 9:30 finish, then tweaked it a bit down to 9:20. Based on my training and goals for this event, that seemed about right. I told Jenni it could be off plus or minus 30 minutes or so depending on the myriad of variables that come into play during ultras. That would put me pretty much half way between the 8:58 I managed at IAT50 during my first 50 miler in 2008, and the 9:44 I turned in at the same race in 2009 where "long training run" was the mindset of the day.

Finishing the initial loop of the Nordic trail, Dom peeled off for a bathroom break while I pulled over to the aid station to grab a few calories. I soon found myself more or less alone over some relatively mild terrain, on our way to the twisting singletrack of the Ice Age Trail. Alone with my thoughts. Pondering my pace.

I could dial it back, treat it just like another long training day. But, well, I was feeling pretty darn good, actually. I started thinking that it had been quite awhile since I'd really pushed myself in a long endurance event. I thought back to how hard I'd pushed myself during a few half Ironman triathlons 5 to 10 years back, pushing the pace on the second half of the run to "tunnel-vision hard". Okay, maybe I wasn't prepared to go quite that hard, but the thought of pushing myself harder than I'd planned, harder than I'd pushed since starting ultras...well, the idea kind settled in and stuck there. So, I pushed on. Not crazy hard. But hard enough that I knew I might really suffer for it later.

Around mile 15 or so, who did I come up behind but Dominic. Apparently the line for the bathroom was too long when he'd stopped back at mile 9, so he skipped past it and snuck ahead of me. We ran together and chatted a little while. Telling him I was feeling good, I gradually pulled ahead. What I should have kept in mind was that this stretch, between miles 9 and 17, or so, is about the most gentle section of the course. It's easy to cruise pretty quickly through this stretch, almost forgetting what's coming.

The next 10 miles or so, from Highway 12 to the southern turn around at Rice Lake and back, which includes some of the most technical trail on the course, I ran almost entirely alone. This is where I started to feel the fatigue beginning to take its toll, particularly on my hamstrings on the climbs. This was a new one to me. I don't recall having my hamstrings become a limiter in the past. The result of too many treadmill miles this early season, and not enough trails and hills? Gonna have to address that before Cascade Crest in August!

Mile 26:  Running with Meg Rubesch
Returning to the Highway 12 aid station, exactly a marathon into the course, a girl I'd not met before caught up with me and we ran together a couple miles. It was Meg Rubesch, who was currently running in 4th place among the women. Turns out this was Meg's first attempt at a 50 miler. She had the look of a lean mean cross country machine, was running smooth and easy, and I suddenly felt out of my element, in a place I didn't belong. But we each confessed we were starting to drag. Meg and I ran together for a few stretches on and off to mile 37 at Horseriders aid station.

I moved quickly through Horseriders and would run the remainder of the race alone, my confidence building as the number of miles remaining gradually started ticking down toward zero. I'd taken an Aleve around mile 30, and a second around mile 37, confident that I was well hydrated in the cool temperatures, and so not fearing risk of kidney damage that has been associated with taking NSAIDs during ultra endurance events. The effect of a couple Aleve over the final 10 miles of a 50 miler is almost magical in my experience. On the return trip from the northernmost turnaround at Emma Carlin back to the finish, I was able to run, hard, on all the downhills. I was walking pretty much all the climbs, but I kept pushing hard on the flats and descents.

With about 7 or 8 miles to go, I did something I've never done before during a race. I texted my wife, letting her know I was currently about 40 minutes ahead of the pace chart I'd given her. I didn't know if she was going to be able to come up to the race, but just in case, I wanted to let her know that she'd best just head to the finish rather than any of the last few aid stations. She replied that they were indeed headed up, and they'd be there at the finish. This boosted my spirits further, and I now really just wanted to be done, hanging with my family, enjoying that addictive post-race buzz (gently aided by some fine post-race micro brew :-)

Nearing the Finish!
I didn't even break stride through the last two aid stations. I wanted to be done. For sure, one of the great joys in my life is the distant sound of a finish line, still out of sight in the woods, but gradually getting louder, closer. And, when the finish comes into view, there's nothing better than seeing my family there, cheering, smiling, and happy to see me.

I have a "thing" with my son, Derek. We finish races together, hand in hand. It started when he was two months old, tucked securely in my arms. This year I was prepared for a first. If Derek was going to cross the line with me, there was no way little two and a half year old Darcie was going to stand by and watch. She'd be joining in the fun, and this would be non-negotiable. She's, how to put it...strong willed. But, not seeing Darcie with the rest of the family, I knew exactly why. She was sound asleep in the van :-) So, Derek and I joined hands, he still in his soccer kit from his earlier game, and we ran across another finish line together, while Jenni cheered, with Dustin in the stroller. A blessed finish indeed.

The time on the clock was 8:24:18, a 34 minute PR, 24th out of 222 overall, 3rd out of 33 in my age group. I could not have been happier with my day. How great it was, too, to see so many friendly faces from the Chicago area ultra running community, both running and cheering.  These are good people!

Another very special day, in a very special place, the Ice Age Trail!

Happiness: Finishing with Derek, Jenni on left cheering with Dustin in stroller.