Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Race Report (and musings): Bimbler's Bluff 50k

"50k. Who would have thought?" -- These words bounced around my head for hours on Sunday, October 18, when I was running the Bimbler's Bluff 50k. I find it so interesting that the physical accomplishments I once thought inconceivable, seemingly all of a sudden, have become routine for me. When I first started running--about 6 years ago--I couldn't run a mile. I set my mind to improve and always established new goals after I achieved earlier ones. Once I ran that first mile without stopping, I tried for a mile and a quarter; a mile and a half; two miles... and so on. In late 2010, my base was about 6 miles and my upper limit was around 9 miles. I decided that I would try to run a half marathon in 2011, and figured it would take me most of the year to prepare; however, I discovered the Colchester half marathon in February, and figured that a race wouldn't get closer (or cheaper--$12). Although I didn't feel ready, I decided to go for it. I did no research on the course and didn't realize how challenging it was. Regardless, I ran it in 1:47 and was quite happy with the result. Having achieved that goal so quickly, I decided to train for a marathon--which previously I thought was something I would never, ever do. In October, after training for 18 weeks, I ran the Hartford Marathon in 3:54. I arrived for the race not having any time goal or pace in mind. I found the four hour pacer at mile 6 and decided I would be in front of him. Since then, I've run a number of additional road marathons and improved my PR to 3:28. Despite running marathons, I found running trails to be quite a bit more challenging in terms of endurance. I made a mental note that I wanted to spend a year (at least) focusing on improving my trail running and trail racing, and 2015 became the year--after several years of nursing plantar faciitis. The timing seemed right as my feet felt mostly better after a long, cold and snowy winter wherein my outdoors mileage was pretty low. I decided trail running would be less impact and allow me to continue to heal. Over the course of the 2015 racing season, I've run progressively longer and more challenging trail races; but, even as late as May when I ran half of the Sehgahunda trail marathon/relay, I was telling people, "If I ever decide to run a trail marathon--just shoot me. It's not within my ability and I will suffer greatly." Somewhere in the following weeks though, I decided that maybe--just maybe--I could do it and I signed up for the Nipmuck Trail Marathon. Day one of my 18 week plan happened to coincide with the Goodwin 30k trail race, so I signed up for that too. Goodwin went well, but it was clearly a stretch for me as I struggled a bit towards the end. I had already done the Nipmuck South 14.1, and the Soapstone Mountain 24k, but Goodwin was a bit of a challenge. After Goodwin, I settled into my training plan and spent a LOT of time running on the Nipmuck marathon course over the summer. At times, especially in the heat and humidity, long runs were a total slog. Regardless, I put in the hours, stuck to the plan, and also practiced running fatigued (for example, I ran 20 trail miles on a Sunday, and then the New Haven 20k the next day). During my training runs, several friends suggested I was capable of a 50k. My mind was focused like a laser on Nipmuck--so I put them off by saying, "If the Nipmuck trail marathon goes well for me, I will consider it." I didn't think Nipmuck would go particularly well, but it was my easiest marathon thus far. It was almost too easy. My training clearly paid off. Two days after Nipmuck, I signed up for the Bimblers Bluff 50k. Just like before, never in a million years did I see myself doing a 50k, let alone a trail race. I knew Bimblers would be more challenging, but I never really had any anxiety about it. As far as I was concerned, it was fluff after Nipmuck. I hadn't told too many people I was doing it, and if I fell apart--no big deal. I didn't expect it to fall apart, but I gave myself permission to not worry about it. There was one thing that could be classified as a concern: I ran the Hartford Half Marathon a week after Nipmuck. Would I have recovered sufficiently? Race day arrived and the weather was almost perfect. It was a about 10 degrees colder than Nipmuck, but clear and bright. I started out with pants and a long sleeve shirt. I carried a wind-breaker in case the wind became an issue; but by the first aid station I shed the pants and windbreaker. I would end up wearing the long sleeve shirt all day; but, I pushed the sleeves up and down repeatedly to regulate my temperature. At Nipmuck, the first 12 miles are relatively flat, and they peeled away without me hardly noticing; not so much at Bimbler's. There was a considerable amount of climbing and my climbing muscles were starting to get tired by the half marathon distance, which I think was a carry over from the previous two races. We climbed the bluff right after the first aid station (mile 10ish), and it definitely was a good series of climbs. At points, it was almost hand-over-hand. My girlfriend (Autumn) was my race crew and we planned for her to meet me at the aid station just before the bluff; but we had thought it was the second aid station, when it was the first. So we crossed signals and she wasn't there. It really wasn't a big deal, as all I needed was for someone to take my excess clothes. I gave them to a friend instead. The view from the top of the bluff was spectacular, but I didn't take too much time to enjoy it. Relentless forward progress was my mantra.
I rolled my ankle on my way down from the Bluff and it hurt quite a bit. Someone saw me roll it and begin limping and asked if I was okay. I said, "I rolled my ankle, but I will be fine," of which I really wasn't sure. He said, "Probably won't be the last time you'll roll it today," which kind of gave me motivation to suck it up. I walked a few feet and it started to feel better, so I just kept going. My ankle was sore the remainder of the day, but not incapacitating. The next aid station was at mile 16ish and I still felt good, even though my legs weren't happy about the persistent climbing. Autumn met me there and made sure I fueled and hydrated well. It was out in a field, in the bright sun, and the mood was jovial. As with all of the aid stations, the volunteers were vigilant and addressed me just as soon as I emerged from the woods.
I found it a little harder to get motivated after re-entering the woods; but, soon I was back at it. I don't remember too much between there and the next aid station at mile 23ish. This station was deeper in the woods (compared to the side of the road), and Autumn had to hike in a ways. It was shaded and I quickly started to chill while I was again eating and hydrating. Autumn said I looked quite a bit more tired that the last aid station. Another runner's crew member (husband) said he thought I was starting to move faster. The race is somewhat lollipop shaped, with the loop almost heart shaped. I knew I was not too far from finishing the loop and made it my next goal to find the turn off. I must have let my focus lag, as shortly after leaving the aid station I face-planted hard and banged up my knees. It was almost as painful as the ankle-roll; but, again, I shook it off and kept going. "Pick up your feet Scrivener," became my new mantra. The return leg (the lollipop handle) was mercifully less technical and went by fairly quickly. No doubt I was getting tired, but I could just keep plodding along and get it done. When I passed mile 26, I decided I was in ultra-marathon territory and I was going to do it well, rather than just sort of survive it. I wanted to honor the distance with a solid performance. In the process of running the race, I had conveniently forgotten the race was longer than a 50k, and so I expected the next aid station around mile 28 or 29 (2.5 miles from the finish). When I made mile 30 without seeing the aid station, I decided to try and text Autumn, to warn her I was nearing the end--or so I thought. As I pulled out my phone, I saw a person on the trail trying to take my photo, so I resumed running for the photo op. She indicated that the next aid station was coming up soon. I asked, "How long to the finish?" and she said fewer than 4 miles. What?? 4 miles? When I came into the last aid station, they were super attentive immediately after I emerged from the woods. Autumn was there, and once again made sure I hydrated. The aid station crew tried to entice me to eat, but I had no interest in food at that point. Although I knew the answer, again I asked, "How long to the finish?" 2.5 miles. "Oof." Autumn looked at me and said, "It's no problem for an ultra-marathoner." The aid station people mentioned seeing a bear nearby, so I'm not sure if that or Autumn's words had me tearing down the trail for the last leg. As with the other aid stations, the Gatorade (brought my own and Autumn schlepped it for me) perked me up quite a bit and the last 2.5 miles went quickly. As I started to hear the finish line (you could hear the aid stations and finish before you could see them), it sunk in: I was done. I emerged from the woods, and volunteers were there congratulating me along the last few hundred feet to the finish. Their congratulations meant more to me than any race previously. I raised my hands, fists clenched, in triumph. I did it. The guy who couldn't run a mile just 6 years earlier, who couldn't conceive running a trail marathon 5 months earlier, had just completed a trail 50k (more like 52k... 32.5 miles). What an amazing feeling!! Suddenly, I want to do another, but that will be for next year.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Race Report: Nipmuck Trail Marathon

Relentless Forward Progress ― Bryon Powell On Sunday October 4 (2015), I ran the Nipmuck Trail Marathon (26.4 miles), which was my first full trail marathon and my 6th marathon overall. Prior to yesterday, my longest trail race was a 30k (18.6 miles), which--ironically--was on my first day of training for Nipmuck: June 7. At Goodwin, I developed some confidence that I would successfully complete a trail marathon with the right amount of training. Sunday was a great weather day for a race, which was a bit of a surprise given the recent gloomy forecasts. As it turned out, the sky was clear, and the temperatures perfect for running (40s F to start, 50s F to finish), with a slight breeze. We really couldn't have asked for better weather. There was some concern for the condition of the course, given the recent heavy rain and wind, but it turned out the course was in almost pristine condition.
The race starts on Perry Hill Road, just for about one hundred feet, and then turns south onto the single track Nipmuck Trail. I dressed in shorts, a long sleeve shirt, buff, and gloves; but warmed up quickly, to the point that I wondered if I had overdressed. I pushed up my sleeves and exposed my fingers (my gloves are designed to do that) and managed to moderate my body temp and felt better. I felt even better as I approached miles 5 and 6, as the temps seemed cooler in that area of trail.
The run to the mile 6 turnaround was just as described in previous race reports--a conga line. I didn't mind, as the so-called conga line was running a comfortable pace for me, and helped me not overextend myself too early in the race. My goal was to get to mile 12 (the Start/Finish line) strong and fresh, which I did. The first 12 miles peeled away almost without noticing and I was onto the upper half of the race. I remember thinking, "the real race begins now," as I came through the mile 12 aid station. I dumped my long sleeve shirt, gloves and buff on my way through, which turned out to be good decision. I was quite comfortable for the remainder of the race. During training, I was concerned about how the hills would feel in the upper half of the race, as they start immediately after crossing Perry Hill Road. As it turned out, the hills felt fine and I was quite fresh and ready to tackle them. It's a pretty easy 4 mile jaunt to the next aid station (Iron Mine Road), and I found myself daydreaming a bit, which is probably why I face-planted early into the second half of the race. It was a good wake-up call and I worked on refocusing. I wasn't hurt, and didn't need to try my luck a second time. My brain continued to be a bit fuzzy and I noticed myself miscalculating my location on the course. By the time I made Iron Mine, I regained my focus and was eager to push on. The crew at the Iron Mine aid station was comprised of my club-mates from the Willimantic Athletic Club, and they were a welcome sight. I felt fine going into the station, but I made sure to look super perky for their benefit. I didn't want to look anything but strong and happy. As in all of the aid stations, they asked, "How are you feeling?" I replied, "I feel good, and I feel strong," which was the truth. The run from Iron Mine Road to the next aid station/turnaround point (Boston Hollow Road) becomes more hilly and technical. I focused on getting it done, and found myself at the turnaround in what seemed like short order. I even recall looking at my watch about a mile before the turnaround and being surprised I was at mile 18 so soon. I felt no sign of a wall and was enjoying myself immensely. There's some serious climbing in the two miles before the turnaround, and just getting them done seemed to be keeping me focused and not really paying attention to the distance. Approaching the Boston Hollow aid station, you have to climb for a while--then descend some tricky wooden stairs, which feels somewhat sadistic. Climbing them on the return trip isn't any better. Once I made my way into the aid station, one of the volunteers offered to fill my hydration pack. I hesitated, not knowing whether it was low. He said, "You might as well fill it here, as at the next location (a drop), you'll have to bend over." I looked at him, paused for effect, and deadpanned, "That sounds exciting..." His eyes grew wide and he blurted, "That came out wrong!!" We had a good laugh. I loaded up on the potatoes (my favorite) and cookies, sucked on an orange slice, and made my way back up the hill. The climb out of the valley is steep and my heartrate/breathing were very heavy. I managed to get past the steep climbs and descents and began to return to my race pace (I called it my "all-day pace"). Heading south, I encountered many runners desperately seeking the turnaround and even one who was asking everyone, "What is the cutoff? What is the cutoff?" Nobody seemed to remember. Another fellow, about 2 miles from the turnaround, seemed perplexed: "I MUST be getting close." Eh, sort of buddy. Once the trail leveled out to some extend, the trip back to Iron Mine seemed to pass quickly. I made sure to trot in with good posture and tried to look fresh. Volunteer Jack Fulton asked, half kidding, "Back already?" I took it as a compliment. Again my club-mates asked how I was doing and I indicated I felt really good. Jack joked, "I'm sorry it's almost over for you." I love it. After Iron Mine, there's a dirt road hill to climb, and I made sure to run for a bit until out of eyesight for the aid station. I walked the remainder of the hill and settled in for the last 4 miles of the race. I found it strange that I didn't hit a wall or even feel fatigued. Apparently this was one of those races where everything came together. I thought for sure that the last 2-3 miles would be a slog, tripping and falling; but, it went just fine and the miles passed quickly. The last mile is marked on trees in tenths (though some seemed off), and I was pleasantly surprised when the 1 mile marker appeared. My watch was off a little, probably from the tree cover. As I whittled it down to the last quarter of mile, I started to listen for the cheering of the finish area. I also chose my steps carefully, as I didn't want an injury that close to the finish. A couple of people were hanging out just in from the finish and said something along the lines of, "Nice work runner!" Perfect. Approaching the finish line, I heard a cheer go up and people yelling my name. A few friends were waiting, along with my daughter and her boyfriend, which was a welcome sight. It felt amazing to finish the race and to still be strong. Normally after a marathon, I plop face down in grass for a half hour and rest; but, I didn't feel the need this time. My finish of 5 hours and 23 minutes was nearly 2 hour slower than my road marathon PR, but it's to be expected on trails. I was warned that a trail marathon would add at least 1.5 hours to my usual time. What a great day!