Blog Subtitle

Reverse-engineering the Ultramarathon

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Mendon Ponds 50K

Going into Mendon Ponds 50K this Saturday I was skeptical of the published elevation numbers for the course.  I'd hiked the trail before and didn't have an impression of it as really hilly, so I just didn't see how it could actually have 1100' of climb per 10K loop.

On the way home I told Karen that I now believe every foot of it - individually.

Most of the race is on the "East Esker Trail."  Eskers are small, rolling hills pushed up by glaciers, and the course is just one long roller-coaster of a run.  There are none of those steep climbs with switchbacks like you see on mountain trails, but you are just always going uphill or downhill and it takes a toll.  And 5500' in 50K is only about 100' less than Oil Creek's elevation gain.

I thought I could do better at this race than I had at Oil Creek last month - though there wasn't much I could do to actually improve my fitness between these races.  I took a light week for recovery right after Oil Creek, put in a couple of 30-ish mile weeks after that - all easy pace, with no runs longer than about 10 miles - then rested again the week before Mendon.

But I had gone the distance at Oil Creek and my legs had to have benefitted from that if they were sufficiently recovered.  I felt good and strong the day before the race - and I wasn't coming down with a cold!

How not to Prepare for a Race:

Let me just say it: I disrespected this race.

I planned for Oil Creek for months.  I studied the course map, read every race report I could find, solicited advice from others who had run it.  I imagined my way around the course, estimated what my pace would be, how long it would take me to get to each aid station.  I had a strategy for fueling, gear changes, time I would spend at each aid station.  I even did 'competition' analysis - looking up times other runners in my age group had put up in previous races.  I had a goal for the race.

For Mendon, I signed up little more than a week before the race, read a couple reports and packed a bag.  I disbelieved the elevation numbers (published by the Rochester Orienteering Club, BTW - ya think they mighta known something about it?).

What the start looked like (without me).
The crowning glory was race day morning.  In the last-minute flurry of getting everything together I threw everything into the van - except the shoes I planned to run in.

On the way out of town I realized it.  I did have my pair of Hokas that I'd packed as an option to change into late in the race if my feet needed the cushioning, but I got those shoes on the cheap, they don't fit quite right, and I've not run farther than 10 miles in them.  I really didn't think it was a good idea to try to run the whole 50K in them.  I had to go back for the right shoes.

So I ended up starting the race 23 minutes late.

The Race:

Race day weather promised to be nearly perfect - a little cold in the morning (around freezing) warming to near 50F for a high.

All I saw was frosty grass and tracks when I started.
Arrival and registration were a high-stress flurry.  When I finally arrived at the start/finish area and confirmed with the race staff there that I was going ahead with the race I was still just nervous and stressed.

One of the volunteers explained which way I needed to go to get started on the course and how to return through the timing gate at the end of each loop.  We checked the race clock and actually saw it turn over "23:00" and then I was off.

Loop 1:

Prior to the race, an online friend (a very experienced ultrarunner) had given me this advice:
"Take it easy at the start and pick em off down the home stretch!  (that's the last 5-10 miles in a 50k.  Thats usually when the newbies who went out too fast start to hit the wall ;-)."
Awesome advice, I'm sure, and one day I hope to try it out.  In my flustered, keyed-up state I did exactly the opposite.  I went out way too fast!

It was beautiful out there - sunny and crisp.  My legs felt great, the trail was just gently rolling, and somewhere out there ahead of me was a pack of other runners that of course it would be nice to catch up to.  I just couldn't hold myself back.  I just went at whatever pace felt good, and I ran up some hills that I would certainly be walking later.

Toward the end of the loop it suddenly occurred to me that I hadn't been passed.  Then I started thinking, "Gee, it would be nice to at least finish the first loop before I get lapped by the leaders."  That kept me pushing along to the end.

When I got back to the start/finish I saw the race clock had 1:29-something on it.  Doing the first 10K of a 50K trail run in 1:07 may be routine for a lot of runners, but I knew I had no business being there and was probably in trouble.

I filled up my hand-held bottle with water again, grabbed some M&Ms, kissed my stalwart wife (who would hang out all day and take great care of me) and headed back out.

Still having fun - early in loop 2
Loop 2:

As I'd arrived at the start/finish at the end of the first loop I saw a big pack of runners heading out.  It turns out that was the start of the concurrent 5K, 10K, and 20K races that shared the course.  In fairly short order I found myself mingling with the back-mid pack runners of those races.

It's very hard not to be influenced by the pace of other runners in your vicinity and, go figure, the runners of the shorter races were probably going faster than I should have been for my race at this point.  I had no GPS or even a watch I might have used to pace myself better (yet another way I disrespected the race).  I ended up doing the second loop in about 1:14 - still too fast for me.

Pounding down a hill on loop 3.  This hurt.
Loop 3:

I finally was able to settle down on the third loop.  I forced myself to walk more on the outbound leg of the loop  (which wasn't too hard at that point because my legs were starting to hurt).  On the way back I grew to really dislike the return leg - which included the biggest climbs and a road section at the end.  I was really hurting when I dragged myself into the start/finish area.  The thought of going back out for yet another loop was not pleasant in the least.

Chicken Soup for the Soles!

This was Karen's shining moment!  On loop 2 she had thought to come up with a spare water bottle from the van and have it filled for me when I arrived.  This time not only had she done that, but she had taken my Thermos insulated travel mug across the street to the registration/post-race building and filled it with hot chicken soup!  So good, and exactly what I needed.

I took some time with the soup, just sitting and resting a bit while I steeled myself to take on loop 4.  This  was a new experience for me, since Oil Creek had been a single 50K loop.  With this five-loop format the temptation to just call it a day and head for the car in the later loops was stronger than I would have guessed.

I eventually heaved myself up and walked back out onto the course.

Loop 4:

Looking good!  (Don't believe it.)
I did not have good feelings about how the fourth loop was going to go.  I started out just walking everything.  One of the race photos has me looking pretty good running up the long, shallow grade right after the early road crossing.  It's a lie.  I'd been trudging up the hill, getting 'chicked' by a bevy of young women in pink, when I noticed the guy standing alongside the trail was a photographer.  I sucked it up and started running long enough for him to get the picture.

As I passed he said, "You're looking good.  You can go back to walking now."

And shortly after I passed him I did.

A funny thing happened in a little while though.  The chicken soup must have kicked in because I started feeling better and was able to do some pretty decent running the rest of the way to the far aid station (at about the 5K point of the course).

It didn't last through the back side of the course though.  The return this time was even worse than it had seemed on loop 3.  I was really hating everything about it, walking anything that even smelled uphill, and only grudgingly pushing myself to shuffle along at a slow jog on the flats and downhills.

An 'average-looking' guy finishes well.  Congrats, Tim!
One bright spot happened near the end of this loop during one of my trudging phases.  I heard someone running strong coming up behind me and recognized my friend, ultra-lister Tim Hardy, as he passed running strong on the way to his 5:43:29 finish.

Tim is a real ultrarunner (well, one with a lot more experience than me anyway).  He likes to bill himself as the 'average-looking middle-aged white dude in the TRX shirt' and I suppose the description is accurate - as long as you believe the average middle-aged white dude looks like a retired soldier who took PT pretty seriously.

And a Sherman tank trundles in from loop 4.
Anyway, while Tim cruised on by I still had to struggle my way to the end of loop 4.  My mind already started working on the problem of how to accept doing a loop 5.  It was weird.  Somehow it was simultaneously unimaginable that I could bring myself to go out again - and unimaginable that I would not.

Karen was nowhere in sight when I got back this time.  She had gone out for some lunch and hadn't gotten back yet.  That left me alone to deal with my inner demons tempting me to quit.

I sat for a while and ate something, and chatted with a woman I recognized from earlier in the year at the Highland Forest 1-2-3.  She had come in just ahead of me and was also struggling - in her case because of an IT-band injury that was killing her.  She wasn't about to quit and neither was I.  I just wasn't in a great hurry to start out again either!

I puttered around a little more and then went and filled my bottle again.  As I was just starting to come around to the idea of heading out I saw Tim coming my way from the parking lot to say hello.  We had a quick chat and then he said he didn't want to hold me up.  There was really nothing for it but to go out after that.  Thanks, Tim.

Loop 5:

I started out right behind IT-band woman and another woman who had agreed to pace her around the last loop, and I would follow them about three quarters of the way around the course.  We were a pretty sad little parade.  I was a little stronger on the downhills (which absolutely killed her ITB) and they pretty much 'smoked' me on the uphills.  Net on net I stayed about 100 yards behind them most of the time.

And then a miracle occurred.

I had just passed my 'competitors' on a little downhill and then we were trudging up the biggest climb on the course together when out of nowhere I found another gear.  All of a sudden my legs felt strong again and when I got to the top of the hill I could actually run!

I wasted no time trying to figure out where it came from.  I just went with it.  I left IT-band woman behind and just kept pushing as hard as I could.  I knew there were no more than two miles to go at this point, so I figured I had nothing to lose.

Coming up to an intersection, I met a guy coming back from the wrong direction because he'd missed the turn.  I exchanged a comment with him and just kept cruising.  There soon was no sign of him behind me either.

I didn't start to tire until I got to the road section at the end, but at that point the finish was so close there was no slowing down.  I just kept pushing it right on in and finished as strong as I had run at any point in the race.  Very cool!

Finish Stats, Final Thoughts:

As you can see in the picture, I finished at 7:34 and change on the race clock.  Allowing for my late start that's actually 7:11 - well over forty minutes faster than my finish at Oil Creek!

Here are my splits (first loop adjusted for the late start):

Loop 1: 1:06:48
Loop 2: 1:13:49
Loop 3: 1:26:00
Loop 4: 1:40:58
Loop 5: 1:43:36  Total Time: 7:11:11

It's clear that I fell apart late in the race and simply do not have the endurance I need to do this comfortably.  I've proven I can tolerate pain and overcome rough patches - but I'd rather get through this distance with less pain and more consistency - and save the pain tolerance for longer races.

Clearly I've got to shore up my endurance base for next year's races, and that will be my focus through the coming winter.

I never want to approach another race quite as lightly as I did this one.  Preparation will probably get more routine as I do more of these, but I'm not ready to just go out and run.  50K is no BS!  I need a solid plan for each race and I need to work the plan.

Mendon Ponds is a fantastic race on a challenging course.  RD Larry Zygo and his team do an amazing job of putting together a well-supported event at a very reasonable cost.  Even registering as late as I did, this race cost me twenty bucks, and for that I got chip timing, two aid stations (no frills, but well-stocked with essentials) and post-race food as well.  My thanks to Larry and all of the many volunteers!
Tired, but happy.  Now I've done two!

As always, thanks to my wife Karen, who spent the whole day hanging out in our van in between filling my bottles and finding me food.  How many runners have spouses who would do that for them?  I'm a very lucky man.

Finally, I want to once again thank the Lord for letting me do this and seeing me through it safely.  I would not be able, physically or mentally, if he hadn't changed my life some twelve years ago.


  1. Great Job! Way to hang in there!


  2. Very nice! Congrats on bagging your second ultra. I'm about the same age (47). Your report motivates me to not just go out and run what's on my schedule leading up to a race, but to to be intentional. Focus. Perhaps I will unplug and not listen to audiobooks while I plog along. Busted!

  3. awesome job!!! way to pick them off in the end anyway!! Thanks for sharing your storey.


  4. Thanks, everyone! I appreciate your taking the time to read and comment.

    Don - the way I see it, we've all got to do what works for us. If you can take something useful away from me or someone else, great, but don't be afraid to do it your way!

  5. When you get up to 60 mile weeks you can do a 100K.

  6. Glad to hear you completed Mendon with a strong finish. You can go back to walking now.
    Your race photographer,
    Tom Perry

  7. Ha ha! Thanks, Tom - and thanks for being out there documenting the day. Wouldn't be anywhere near as good a race report without your pictures!

  8. Thanks for the report. I am essentially thinking of doing the same thing as you and was starting to feel the 1000 feet of gain per loop was a huge exaggeration. Hmmm.... Any advice. I just finished my big race for the season and it was a death march over the last ten miles. I went out too fast again and cramps hit big time.

    1. Thanks for reading! Couple of thoughts...

      On the elevation change, I've since changed my mind again. Check out my report from the 2013 Mendon Ponds when I ran with a GPS. My data is there, and it measured a little over 2000' of gain for the whole race. I'm still not certain what it actually is, but it's definitely not 5500'. I've done enough big-elevation races since 2011 to trust my legs on that.

      Best guess: GPS is known to measure elevation pretty inaccurately, so maybe that 2000' is way off. I'm guessing I misread ROC's 1100' as per-loop and it's actually an overall number for five loops instead.

      By 'doing the same thing as me' I'm assuming you mean running Mendon soon after a big race. My advice there would be worry more about rest and recovery in between than about training. There's not a lot you can do that will help you much in a month's time, but you can easily dig yourself into a deeper hole. Run easy, as little or as much as you feel like - but no more. Chances are good you'll get to Mendon just as your recovery from your last race peaks and you'll do well. Good luck!

    2. Thanks again for the feedback, esp. about the elevation. Hmm... the elevation change is not that daunting if your device is moderately accurate--or consistent so you can compare it to other races. I will be there either for the 30K or 50K, most likely the former since I told a friend I'd do that distance with her. Maybe I can strong arm her into the 50K with promises of power hiking climbs. Perhaps, I'll see you there.