Overall Time: 8:35:27
Place: 13 of 300-ish
AG% : N/A
Weather: 40 degrees, slightly overcast
Start Time: 7:30am
Exactly one year ago I ran my first ultra marathon, the 2011 Lookout Mountain 50 Miler. I had found it online and signed up with my friend Mike S. as a training run before the 2012 Atacama Crossing. I had never run 50 consecutive miles, and with Mike at my side I got my feet wet (figuratively and literally — there was a lot of water to wade through last year!).
And I loved it.
The experience was helped not only by the stunningly beautiful scenery atop the mountain, but also by the incredible volunteer staff of the race. It was so clear that so many of them were ultra and trail runners and that they understood the needs of the racers out there. To have that level of support was something that I didn’t expect. I felt like they anticipated my needs before I even knew them, because that had gone through similar races before.
Fast-forward to 2012 and I found myself on the same mountain top, now with a couple of ultra marathons under my belt and the confidence to push the pace. I had run the 2012 Silver Rush in Leadville, CO as a training run in July before the Chicago Marathon, and it was my first ultra that I ran solo. It ended up being a decent run and a successful physical and mental exercise that gave me the confidence to run 50 miles alone. By no means would I have consider myself a super experienced ultra runner, but I had settled into the confidence needed to complete these in a respectable time.
After October with Chicago out of the way, the last “A” race in my calendar was Lookout. I had signed up with most of the friends who had run it last year –with the exception of Mike S, who had done a 100KM race in Hong Kong a couple weeks before this and was not keen on another trail ultra marathon. Thus, I’d be running this one alone like in Leadville. But unlike Leadville I would be racing this one and would have to rely on only myself for the motivation to keep moving forward. I had finished it in 9:32 last year and wanted to break 9:00 this year — with a hope to hit 8:45 if possible. This made me a little nervous.
So there I was on top of Lookout Mountain again at 7:30am. Alone. With one exception my friends running the race had positioned themselves at the back, planning on taking it easy. I had my trusty water bottle in hand, a dozen salt capsules, and two packages of Clif Bloks in my short pockets. Somehow this would get me through the race because in my drop bags I only had a headlamp (in case I fell apart and ended up finishing in the dark), some dry socks, and more salt capsules.
It’s easiest for me to approach 50-mile races by thinking about the aid stations. At Lookout there were 7 aid stations before hitting the finish. They were located at:
Mile 8 : Craven’s House
Mile 15 : Nature center
Mile 22.5 : Covenant College (also the start / finish line)
Mile 30 : Lula Lake Land Trust
Mile 34 : Long Branch (drop bag)
Mile 38.5 : Long Branch (drop bag)
Mile 42.5 : Lula Lake Land Trust
The Start and the first 8 miles:
The gun went off. I remembered the course from last year and had position myself at the front knowing that after about a mile or so the course would turn to single-track and passing would be virtually impossible. Within the first 50 feet I’m already passed by my friend Jonathan W., who in my mind I had decided to try and be competitive with. I was only a minute behind him in the Chicago Marathon back in October but he prides himself on his ultra trail running and I wasn’t sure what to expect out of my legs compared to his. Still, he took off and within a mile was completely out of sight. I told myself that if I saw him again, it would be in the final few miles and not to sweat anything. There was still a lot of race left.
I positioned myself very well, and ended up in a small pack / line of runners that stuck together for the first 8 miles. The first 8 miles are a big net downhill, which was a good way to warm up the legs and not sweat the hard stuff just yet. Before the first aid station at mile 8 I already had to stop to pee, which would be a recurring theme for the first two hours of the race. This meant that the pack I was running with would constantly end up further and further ahead as I ended up taking pit stops 4 times in the first 20 miles.
Miles 8 – 15:
The downhills continued and the field started to thin out a bit as people settled into their rhythm. Except for the nature breaks I stayed fairly consistent in my pace and found myself around two guys, one of whom I knew had done several 100 milers in the past and who I felt no need to try passing just yet. These early miles were for me just about keeping it easy.
Mile 15 – 22.5:
Something I picked up in Leadville was minimizing the time spent at aid stations. It takes maybe a few seconds to refill a water bottle, and I continued this strategy of minimizing time loss by blowing through the first two aid stations stopping only for the five seconds needed to refill my water bottle with HEED. Leaving Nature Center at Mile 15, I managed to pass 3 people who stopped to eat / refill water bottles / rest their legs (at mile 15?!). This is surprisingly when people were starting to fade. Leaving mile 15, the course took a dramatic shift and we began our uphill ascent. Having switchbacked our way down the side of the mountain in the first 15 miles, we were now working our way back up to the start line (also mile 22.5) in one big climb. This stretch was the biggest climb of the race and unfortunately many people were already starting to slow with more than 30 miles left to go. I passed Jonathan W’s father Bill around mile 16, which probably meant that he went out way too fast. I was pleased with my pacing strategy and found that I still had a lot of energy on the uphills here.
I shuffled a jog up most of the hills, walking only a few sections and knowing that when the ascent was done the toughest part of the course would be over with. I kept my head down and my feet moving, and during some of the flats / downhills I really pushed it and ended up passing a half dozen people who may have gone out too fast.
Coming into the aid station at 22.5, I heard the cheers of some friends and that lifted my spirits. But this was a race and not social hour so I unscrewed my water bottle, saw the first pitcher of HEED, filled up my bottle and carried on without stopping to chat. Didn’t even touch the drop bag or bother with getting anything to eat just yet. I just kept running and because I knew calories were being burned I opened the first of the Clif Bloks and shoved about 200 calories down my throat in an effort to avoid bonking after mile 35. Those who I had passed in the few miles previous were almost nowhere to be seen behind me, and I think this is where a lot of people started to hurt.
Mile 22.5 – 30:
In a few miles I saw a course volunteer and he was shouting. “Halfway there. Only a marathon left!” Unbelievably, that was when saw Jonathan W just a hundred meters ahead of me. He must have been hurting if I had caught up with him already considering my conservative start. Worse, I saw him walking some of the tricky downhills that I know he would otherwise nimbly run and jump his way down. He must have been hurting pretty bad, so I offered him the only thing on me — salt capsules — when I passed him. He said he had some and I moved along.
The motivation to keep going then came in the form of staying ahead of Jonathan. Thankfully the course levels out for a bit and the miles leading up to 30 were not too technical and a net downhill. It was a nice relief from the big climb, and the wider trails allowed me to put a little distance with some of those behind me. There was a rough section immediately before the next aid station, but with the sound of water I knew I was close to Lula Falls. I hit the mile 30 aid station and continued with my run-through approach, filling up only with fluids and continuing on. I knew that Jonathan wasn’t going to give up and I wasn’t about to lose because I decided to have a picnic in the middle of the race. I wasn’t going to waste time like I had last year. And if there was a chance of me sneaking into the Top 10 despite a competitive field, I was going to try for it.
Mile 30 – 34 :
Leaving the mile 30 aid station I turned on my Garmin. I had decided to save the battery for the last half of the race, since seeing my splits in the first half would be fairly pointless because obviously I’d be feeling good and keeping up a respectable pace. I was more interested in how much I’d be able to salvage in the last half. I made a mental note that I hit mile 30 at exactly 12:00pm — 4.5 hours after the race start which placed me at 270 minutes over 30 miles, for an average of 9:00 per mile on the very runnable first 30 miles. I was appalled that I could actually do math in my head at this point.
Even more amazing, I was able to figure that if I wanted to break my goal of 9 hours (540 minutes) then I had another 270 minutes to cover 20 miles — which I was able to calculate to be an average pace of 13:30 miles for the last 20. Granted it was a fairly easy calculation — 270 miles over 20 miles was the same pace as 135 minutes over 10 miles, and it’s obviously so much simpler to divide by 10 so 135 minutes became 13.5 minutes per mile or 13 minutes and 30 seconds. Regardless, I couldn’t believe it — this may be the first time a human runner has ever done math in his head correctly at mile 30 of an ultra marathon!!! Someone give me a medal!
Moving on, the stretch from 30 to 34.5 is surprisingly runnable considering that there’s actually a pretty big overall climb. Thankfully most of the climb is a steady incline on wide dirt path and I still had legs to run the entire thing. This was one of my stronger sections, as I passed several people who were walking the uphills. There had been a moderately difficult section with lots of sawed-through downed trees victim of a past tornado; it was a little technical and muddy, but it was short and I didn’t seem to slow me down too much. With a nice downhill section and a flat road leading to the aid station at 34.5 I continued on my merry way and forced the remaining half a pack of Clif Bloks down my throat before hitting the aid station. Yummy.
Mile 34 – 38.5 :
At 34.5 I saw Jonathan’s family, who had also cheered me on at 22.5. It was another grab-and-go operation as I filled up with HEED and only had enough time to tell them that Jonathan was only probably a few miles behind me.
The miles between 34.5 and 38.5 form a single loop out on the far end of the course. They’re deceptively difficult, and were my slowest miles of the race. They appeared to be others’ slowest as well, as I passed a surprising number of people here — including some guy in a pair of awesome red shorts that I wanted — and started to wonder if I was anywhere near making the Top 10 in the race. I was averaging around 12:30 miles here, a stark contrast to the 9:00 pace that I had averaged for the first 30 miles.
While I was running the loop I never thought to myself, “Shit this a hard set of 4 miles.” But looking at my Garmin it was fairly evident that the were. Lots of people were fading and my 12+ minute splits were fairly convincing evidence that they weren’t as simple as they felt. I don’t know what it was about this loop — maybe a few moderately technical uphills, a few small river crossings, the past 34+ miles wearing down my legs — but next year I’ll make sure to keep mentally prepared to push the pace a little but more if possible.
Mile 38.5 – 42.5
Finishing that loop and hitting the 38.5 mile aid station, I was incredible grateful to know that I had only 11.5 miles left and one aid station to stop at. Mentally this was a big stop — only one last “stop” and then I’m home free to the finish. So much of the race was behind me and I had to focus on only two more sections to get through. I took my longest break here, and spent maybe 2 minutes wolfing down a half cup of hot noodles and broth to get some additional calories in me. I also grabbed some ginger candies from my drop bag and stuffed them in my pocket now that one of my Clif Bloks was gone. 11.5 miles was still a long distance, and I wanted to make sure I got in enough energy to guarantee that I’d finish alright. I’m not saying that a half packet of instant noodles is a lot of energy but it’s certainly better than nothing.
Leaving 38.5, I knew that the remaining miles to the finish were the same as miles 22.5 – 34.5 and that I would be running “back” as others were still running “out” on the same path. I was so happy to see people again, especially because so many of them were so positive. I fed off their energy and it really motivated me to keep moving.
I knew that somewhere in between miles 38.5 and 42.5, I would see my running trio of friends Dave, Darin and Daniel. This was Dave’s first ultra last year and this race was Darin’s first ultra and the three of them had run together. Darin, a very good marathoner, was venturing into uncharted waters and wanted to run with Daniel and Dave who are slower in the marathon but have more experience in ultras. Knowing I would see them actually helped me get through a few of the rougher portions heading the 42.5. But I wasn’t helped by the positive emotions that would surly flow forth when I saw them. No — I was helped by the fact that when I came across them I wanted to be running — even on an uphill — and not walking. Show no weakness! The first friend I saw was Manja, who was also debuting at the 50-mile distance. I was around mile 40 and he was probably around 31 and looking very strong still. Thankfully when I came across him I was running. Whew. Shortly after I had a gently downhill and saw Dave, Dan and Darin with enough energy to flash a smile and say hello.
With that out of the way, I hit the last aid station at 42.5 to refill on HEED and continued running. I made it a point to eat a ginger candy every half mile or so to keep up whatever energy levels I had in me. I realized that I hadn’t really eaten much during this race — one package of Clif Bloks, and a half cup of instant ramen was all that I consumed — and I couldn’t run out of steam just yet.
Thankfully — and I can’t believe I’m saying this — the last 7 miles were a net uphill. For whatever reason on this run I was really able to get into a rhythm when running uphill. As long as the grade wasn’t too crazy I was able to power up those hills like I’ve never been able to do before. I was floored that I was actually passing people around mile 48 as I’m running uphill. Me of all people — I’m just not a good hill runner, and there I was passing people. At mile 48! This was almost as impressive as doing math!
My Garmin started at Mile 30, and as the counter approached 20 miles recorded, I started to count down the miles. Hell I was even counting down the half miles and the quarter miles. I needed this race to be over. As happy as I was to be running well, I was tired. We were all tired. I needed to sit and have a beer finally. Soon I saw a photographer and flashed a smile. And soon thereafter I heard speakers. And I saw a building. I remembered this last finishing stretch from last year, but to my surprise it was changed and shortened ever so slightly.
I followed the sound of the speakers and after an abrupt right turn I saw the finish chute and the timer. I couldn’t believe it — I had not only hit my goal of sub-9 hours, I completely smashed it and finished in 8:35:27. I missed my mark of a Top 10 finish, ending up 13th overall, but I couldn’t have cared less because I was so pleased with my time.
I gained a lot of confidence in this race and learned a lot.
First, I learned that I don’t have to eat as much as other people. A little sugar once in a while and some HEED was all that I needed during the race. When I looked around and saw the thousands of calories that people had in their drop bags, or when I saw people stuffing their faces with boiled potatoes I was glad that I didn’t have to spend time eating when I could be spending time running.
Second, I learned that keeping the legs moving uphill is very important. When I saw Bill W (Jonathan’s father) pass people in the early miles, it was always on the uphills. He was never going that fast, but he took these tiny very constant steps and passed people half his age going uphill. I never felt like I was moving fast uphill — and really, I wasn’t — but the people that I passed couldn’t keep up no matter how fast they walked. Sometimes it’s just better and easier to run.
Third, I learned that you don’t have to feel great before the race. My legs were tired the morning of the race. My quads hadn’t quite recovered from the previous week of running, but my bet was that because the race was largely aerobic and because I wouldn’t be approaching anywhere near lactate threshold it wouldn’t matter too much — it might matter on some of the brutal climbs, but otherwise this would be about energy management and aerobic capacity. I don’t know if my reasoning was right, but the results were.
So what’s next? Now that this race is finally done it’s time to train for Boston. And then the Racing the Planet Iceland 250km race in August 2013. The training never stops!