Monday, November 18, 2013

Bootleggin' it. My 50k race report.

I’ve never gone into a race before without a decent taper.  I’m a big proponent of the concept that it’s better to be 10% under-trained, than 1% over-trained.  In fact, I’ve only ever run one other race that I would say I “trained through” it.  That race, while I didn’t perform up to what I knew I could, ended up going pretty well as far as my placement overall (even though I felt fatigued and beat up pretty much the whole time).  

That last race that I trained through, was the Big Bear Ridge Run 24 miler (actually around 27 miles with a last minute course change).  You can read how that went here.  Aside from what I would call “lackluster” race management, and pretty tired legs, I consider that race quite a confidence booster for what I perceived my fitness level to be, both mentally and physically.  I placed well overall, and podiumed in my age group, so I was pretty happy with where I ended up.  Knowing that you can perform decent, even on tired legs (that race capped off what was a series of consecutive 60-70 mile weeks), mentally helps you to know that you are improving, and on the right track.

Bootlegger was going to be another race that I would train through, and my last “big” outing in preparation for the upcoming The North Face Gore-tex 50 miler in San Francisco next month, which will be my first 50 mile race.

I didn’t taper for Bootlegger, although I will admit I had a slightly lighter week leading up to it, having only put in around 24 miles for my mid-week runs, and then taking the day before the race off.  I honestly had no idea how the race would play out.  I felt good and strong, but I also knew I wasn’t as fresh as I could be.  But that’s what this is about, right?  I purposely scheduled it to be my last big “catered” training run; however, I’m really bad at taking it easy and not trying to “race” an event, regardless of how I feel physically.  We would see how things went come race day, but if nothing else, my spirits were high!

Here’s a brief synopsis of race details for those who are unfamiliar with the Bootlegger 50k:

This race is directed by none other than the ultra-community legend Ian Torrance.  Ian definitely knows his stuff when it comes to trail and ultra races, and his stature in the community, as well as his results prove that.  

This year, the race was held on November 9, exactly 4 weeks out from TNF 50.  Also this year, it was the USATF 50k trail championships.  I’m a solid mid-packer, with the exception of small local races, but this being the championships this year, I knew there would be some fast runners there, and there were (Alex Varner, Mario Mendoza, Jason Wolfe, Dylan Bowman, Michele Yates, Emily Harrison, and many more…seems Ian brought a pretty stout contingent with him from Flagstaff!).  

Here’s the course description, as per the race website

The 50k course consists of two 15.43 mile loops with a total of 4386 feet of elevation gain/loss.  There will be 7 well-stocked aid stations spaced no more than 5 miles apart.  The terrain breakdown is 28 miles of single track, 1.5 miles dirt road, and about 0.5 miles of pavement.  Much of the single track trail is technical, yet there are some fast and smooth sections.

The course is out there somewhere...

It’s a perfect description of the course.  That’s exactly what I like to see in a course description; give the runner something he can understand, so he knows what to expect come race day.

The aid stations were fantastic, as were the volunteers.  I’ve run several races now, in several different locations across the country, and at varying distances.  These are the best race volunteers I’ve ever experienced.  Maybe I’m running the wrong races, but this is the first time I’ve ever rolled into an aid station, and the volunteers there were legitimately doing everything they could to help.  They wanted to refill my bottles for me, get me anything I needed, and help in any way they could.  I’ve never experienced that before (aside from when I volunteered at an aid station at AC 100 this year), and it sort of caught me off guard.  I’m used to doing everything myself at the aid stations, but here I really felt like people were there to take care of the runners, not just keep the tables full.  

I didn’t really partake in much of the traditional ultra-buffet foods at the aid stations, because I was working on a race nutrition plan.  I was using Tailwind the whole race, so all I needed was for my bottles to get refilled with water.  Tailwind worked out great (aside from some issues I need to tweak with the mix ratios, more on that later), so I stuck to that pretty much the whole time.  From what I saw, there was the usual salty snacks of chips and pretzels, some candy, fruit, and then water and Heed (there may have been more, but like I said, I didn’t really pay attention).  

The weather was pretty good.  It started out somewhere around 60 degrees in the beginning, and then crept up to probably mid-70s by race finish.  I will say, once that sun kicks up, it has a tendency to reflect off the rocks and make it feel warmer than it actually is.  Many parts of the course, with the exceptions of some of the canyons and washes had a nice breeze, which was good to help keep the perceived temperature under control.

So how did my race go?  Read on to find out…

Some of that great single track.

It was a relatively small field, but what I would consider the perfect size.  I’ve run some races with several hundred runners, and I prefer the smaller fields.  Everything seems more intimate, you never get bottle-necked, and you always have plenty of space if you want it.  The upside to the bigger races I have run, is that there is definitely more energy throughout the race.  Each has it’s benefits, so I like to mix it up.

The race started out with about a mile of slight downhill on pavement and dirt road.  I took off, and wasn’t really paying attention to where I was in the pack, but probably somewhere in the front of the middle.  The quick guys where out of sight pretty quickly, and I fell in with a small group of probably five runners.  I felt good, so I wasn’t really paying attention to pace, until that first mile clicked off on my watch, and I realized I ran it at around a 7:00/mile pace.  Too fast!  I was really trying to maintain a constant, sustainable effort, so I reeled it in a little bit after that first mile, just in time to start the gradual incline to the big climb on the course.  Apparently those I was running with felt the same, because we all slowed to pretty much the same pace.  I didn’t really pay attention to what that pace was, since I was more concerned with effort.

We climbed gradually for a little bit, until we hit the major climb in the race (somewhere around 800’ total?).  The course started a series of switchbacks, up and out of the canyon to the top of a small ridge line.  I went back and forth between running and hiking the climb, since I knew it was still early, and wasn’t trying to kill myself by mile 5.  It’s an interesting section, because you can look ahead or behind, and see the runners above and below you working their way up the hill.  The main body of runners was still pretty much together at this point, but we were starting to string out.  

Once I crested the ridge, it was out onto some nice single track, that got pretty technical, pretty fast.  I have to say, I love this about the course.  The techy single track sections reminded me of what I train on pretty much everyday at home, so it worked to my advantage.  I managed to pick up several places by the first aid station at mile 4.5ish.  It was early, I was still good on fuel, so I blew through this station and fell in behind another runner, with about two behind me.  

The next few miles was filled with fairly technical, desert single track, with a gradual downhill grade.  I don’t know what pace we were moving at, but it was somewhere on that line between comfortable and uncomfortable.  I do remember looking at my watch, and doing some quick math, and knowing that by sustaining this pace, I would finish right where I was targeting, which was around 5:30.  The runner in front of me didn’t seem to mind that a few of us were more or less pacing off of him, so we just trucked along the trail, with a nice view of Las Vegas in the distance.

The next section of the course got more technical, with several short, but abrupt, ups and downs.  Some of these required more what I would consider “scrunbling” than straight running, but I enjoyed it all the while.  It did get a little questionable about which trail was the course a few times, requiring a quick stop, look around for a marker, and then continuing.  It’s not that the course wasn’t marked well, I think it’s more a result of the orange course markers blending in with the surrounding desert terrain in the morning light.  There was only one turn (a sharp hairpin) that my group had to stop and back track slightly to get back on course, but it wasn’t more than 20 feet or so. 

But….here I made my first mistake.

I’m still working on what should be a good sustainable race pace for me, and I haven’t quite locked it in yet.  I know it varies greatly depending on the race and terrain, and so many other variables, but I search for that effort nonetheless.  My mistake, on that slightly missed turn, is that I was the first one in our little group to get back to the trail, so I was in the front.  What did I do?  I picked up the pace.  

It was early, still only 10 miles or so in, and I was feeling good.  What I neglected to remember, is that I still had over 20 miles to go.  I pulled into the next aid station with a slight gap on the runners I was previously with, got my bottles topped off (or flasks, rather), and took off back to the trail.  It was another two miles or so of similar terrain, and then we hit some smooth, flowing single track that went downhill for awhile into the next aid station, which was a little out and back section.  I met my wife and son there for the first time, who were my little crew for the race (do I need a crew for a 50k?  Nope.  But I’ll take any chance I can to get my family involved in races!).  I topped off again, and headed back out.  I passed the group I was running with going the opposite way on little out and back section, and now it was a gradual uphill of around 2.5 miles back to the start/finish to complete the first loop.  

I came through the start finish line in around 2:15, which was right on my target pace.  It was cool to go back through there, and have people cheering you on (not to mention, a good confidence boost always comes anytime Hal Koerner is standing there and says you’re looking good, even if you aren’t).  I tried to pick up the pace a little on the downhill after the start line, but quickly realized that if I didn’t stop and get the rocks out of my shoes, they were going to cause some carnage later on.  

Rocks out, I took off again, and started the gradual climb up to the switchbacks of the major climb.  There was far more hiking than running this time, but I was still feeling pretty good.  There were several day hikers on the trail, but they were very nice about moving out of the way for the runners coming through.  

I could see one runner about a 1/4 mile in front of me going up the climb, and that gave me a target.  I crested that ridge again, and started gaining some ground in my favorite technical section.  I pulled into the next aid station, where I met my crew again at mile 19ish.  I stopped for a minute or two this time, drank some Coke, got a couple swigs of Red Bull from my wife, took 4 Master Amino Acid Pattern pills, and then pushed on.

Coming down the trail to aid #5 where the crew was waiting!

Getting Closer!

Pulling out the empties for a refill from my wonderful crew!

About a half mile after that aid station is when I caught, and passed that runner in front of me…unfortunately, it wouldn’t last.  

Remember when I talked about that one mistake earlier?  Enter mistake number two, that compounds on the first.  Nutrition.  I knew around mile 15 or so that I hadn't been consuming enough calories.  I was using the Tailwind, which is a great product, the only issue is that I mixed it too strong in all my pre-measured packets, so it was too sweet.  After 15 miles, I couldn’t stomach it.  I switched to Gu, but was only putting down around 1 an hour.  Not enough.  At around mile 21, it caught up to me.  I was running at too quick an effort, and not taking in enough calories.

So then the death march began.  Miles 21-26 were miserable.  When I hit the second to last aid station, I downed some more Coke, and remixed my bottles to make them less sweet.  I also forced down a couple Gu packets, and keep on moving.  My mantra became “keep on movin’ on,” and so I did.  

Luckily, around mile 26 all the calories I forced down at the previous aid station began taking some effect, and I was resurrected, at least enough to start running again.  However, it would seem as though I ignored some other rocks in my shoes, and had developed what I would later find out was a couple of good blisters on my feet.  Oh well, such is trail racing.

I hit the last aid station, and was feeling blah.  There was another guy who came in right in front of me, who, at mile 28, decided to drop.  I think he twisted his ankle good, but geesh!  I’d have crawled that last 2.5, but I guess you have to know when to save it for another day.  There is a mental game to this aid station, because you can pretty much see the finish line from here.  If you’re feeling good, it’s “Sweet!  Almost Done!”  If you’re feeling bad, it’s “This is bullshit!  I can see it right there and I still have to go how far?”  At this point, I was somewhere in the middle.  

Almost to the finish.

Coming down the last stretch...

Picking up my finish line pacer.
 I pushed through the last couple miles, and crossed the finish about 30 minutes beyond my target, in 6:03:58.  Not what I was shooting for, but considering the circumstances (not tapering, bonking for 4-5 miles, blisters, etc), I was pleased with my results.  

Crossing the line!
What I always enjoy about having my family at races, is that as soon as I come within sight of the finish line, my 5 year old son runs out to meet me, and then runs across the line with me.  After a long day, that’s a feeling only those with kids will understand.  

Here’s what I learned from this race, which will be applied to future ones (we need to learn something each time, right?):

1.  Find your pace, and stay there.  A minute gained at mile 10 from pushing hard, could lose you 30 at mile 25.  

2.  Nutrition.  Figure it out.  In the week since the race, I think I’ve already got the mix dialed in.  It was pretty much my first training concern post race.

3.  Apply lube to under arms when wearing a singlet to run in.  Chaffing sucks.

4.  Don’t wait to empty out shoes if they are full of rocks.  That one minute up front can be worth more in the end.

5.  When possible, try to find people to run with.  Even running with someone else when nobody is talking is more motivating than spending half the course alone.

6.  Taking amino acids during the race drastically reduces my recovery time.  The next two days  post race my legs where a little sore (quads mostly), but not near what they have been after past races.  

7.  When in doubt, try to force in calories even if you are feeling good.  I know everyone says it, but I need to start with calories early, or I’ll feel it later.  

For all those interested in gear, here’s what I used, and how it worked for me.  Going from top to bottom:

1.  Mountain Hardwear visor.  Yep, I wear a visor when racing.  Could be a SoCal thing.

2.  Oakley sunglasses…no complaints.

3.  New Balance Team RWB singlet.  I’ll always rep them at races, because it’s a cause I believe in (just remember body glide on underarms).

4.  TNF arm warmers at the beginning (they were free, and they work well).

5.  Suunto Ambit watch.  Perfect as always.

6.  Salomon S-Lab Advanced Skin 5 hydration vest w/ 2 17-oz soft flasks.  I carried Tailwind mixed in the flasks, and straight water in a bladder.  It was too much.  With aid stations every 5-7 miles apart at most races, I’m going back to a UD handheld and a small waist belt to carry nutrition.  No need for the extra weight in a well-supported race.

7.  Pearl Izumi Ultra Short Tights.  Very euro of me, but I love them.  As long as I am wearing something underneath to prevent chaffing of my nether region, they work awesome.

8.  Drymax Trail Lite socks.  Going back to Injinjis…never had blisters with them.

9.  Inov-8 TrailRoc 255 shoes.  Perfect for that course.  Enough protection for all the rocks, but still relatively light and low profile.  However, as long as it’s dry, I’ll be wearing Montrail Fluid Flex for TNF 50, since the trails are pretty buffed out.  

All said and done, that race taught me some good lessons, and still boosted my confidence for TNF 50 coming up.  I didn’t finish as fast as I wanted, but I’ve got a good idea why, so that’s always a plus.  Not to mention, I did still set a 50k PR by 45 minutes, with no taper.  That has me pretty stoked.  

I’d like to run this race again, preferably as an end of season target.  I know coming in fresh I can hit that 5:30 or less time.  The course is perfect for it, and it’s just like my training grounds.  

To Ian, the RD, keep that race exactly how it is.  It’s put on awesomely by you and the volunteers, and you provide free beer and BBQ at the end.  Don’t lose that…namely the beer.  Keep the beer.

Best post-race company you could ask for.

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