Blog Subtitle

Reverse-engineering the Ultramarathon

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Virgil Crest 50 Mile

Facing the Monster

View from near the top of the Alpine Loop, at about mile 11
(The start/finish is at Hope Lake, center)

Last Saturday, September 22nd, it was finally time to face the monster. Almost a full year ago, fresh off of my first ultra finish at Oil Creek 50K and beginning to think about a challenging goal race for this year, the Virgil Crest 50M captured my imagination.

From every rational perspective I was nuts.

It's a funny thing about ultrarunning though: when you tell normal people what you're thinking they either don't understand how nuts it really is - or they think running at all is nuts. In any case they usually don't try to talk you out of it. And of course when you tell other ultrarunners, well... ain't one of them that isn't just as nuts as you are (or worse) so they all just say, "Of course you can do it."

So there I was, 6:00 A.M. - that's A.M. in the morning - standing in the chill autumn dark with my friend and now fellow UM-er Jeremy Murphy waiting for the horn that would tell us it was finally time to face 50 miles of rugged trail and 10,000 feet of mountain climbing.

It had broken Jeremy last year. Would I let it break me now?


From the time I mentally commit to a goal race I consider myself to be in training for that race. The chart above from my RunKeeper database shows weekly running from November last year through the week before Virgil Crest. The bars show miles (read on the left scale) and the green line shows elevation climbed (read on the right).

The first week was a recovery week after Mendon Ponds 50K. After that I began my new life in training, running with my heart rate monitor within my base training target instead of just trying to 'tempo' myself to death over and over. For the first time in my running life I found I could actually sustain weekly mileages above 30 - and build hard weeks even higher.

Of course, being me, I had to see just how far I could push that. I logged over 200 miles in March, but by then was seriously into over-training and was courting a stress fracture in my right shin. I pretty much had to shut down for the month of April - with Mind the Ducks 12-hour looming on my schedule in early May.

Fifty miles at MTD was a milestone achieved - and a confidence builder. I now understood the distance and had proven my base endurance could take me that far - on the flat. But what about those hills at Virgil? Fifty miles there would be so different from 50 miles at MTD as to be essentially not comparable at all. If there was any doubt of that left in my mind it was thoroughly dispelled when the climbs of the Laurel Highlands 50K completely kicked my butt a few weeks later!

My training plan had been to shift my focus after MTD from weekly miles to weekly elevation gain, so that is what you see in the rest of the chart. I made sure I got a good long, hilly trail run in every Saturday and at least one hilly road run mid-week each week. Weekly mileage settled in to a fairly consistent low-30's level as I let my body assimilate the hill work. This training phase culminated with a self-supported 50K on the Onondaga Trail, seen below, five weeks before Virgil.

That run featured over 5600' of climbing and took me 8:12 to complete - but I finished it strong and still moving well. On top of what had already been a thirty-mile training week, this was a real confidence builder that I could complete the course at Virgil.

However, I was close to the edge of breakdown again. A wise veteran runner I know once told me, "Peak fitness is a razor's edge." I was tiptoeing on that edge, and the taper had to start early.

The Course

The race starts and finishes at Hope Lake Park, a public facility administered by the town of Virgil, NY and located just behind the Hope Lake Lodge facility of Greek Peak Resort. The ski area at Greek Peak boasts 952' of vertical elevation and is spread over three mountain faces in the vicinity of Virgil Mountain (2132' above sea level).

From the start, the course winds its way up into the hills behind Hope Lake Park, on the far side of Route 392 from the ski area, eventually returning via the Finger Lakes Trail to the foot of Greek Peak at Lift House 5 (mile 9.7). From there, runners must traverse the infamous "Alpine Loop."

That innocent, idyllic-sounding name camouflages the fact that the next 4.2 miles climb up the ski slopes - not once, but twice - often underneath perfectly serviceable ski lifts. Skiers familiar with Greek Peak may be suitably appalled to know that this climb ends by having runners hike up Aesop's Glade to the top of lift #2. Altogether there is about 1300' of climbing and 1300' of very steep descent.

All of that simply returns you to Lift House 5, where you can collect yourself before heading out on the 11.2 mile out-and-back on the Finger Lakes Trail to Daisy Hollow Road. By the way, this section starts by taking you straight back up Virgil Mountain - topping out even higher than the Alpine Loop.

After returning to Lift House 5 from Daisy Hollow, you simply reverse-traverse the Alpine Loop and then return the 9.7 miles to Hope Lake Park the way you came first thing in the morning. Easy-peasy!

The 100-milers get to do all of it twice (but those people really are nuts).

Start to Gravel Pit (mile 4.4)

The horn blew and the crowd of 160 50-mile and 100-mile solo runners began to move through the gate and down a corridor in the grass defined by torches. Undoubtedly I was not alone in experiencing the chopped salad of emotions that accompanies the start of an ultramarathon. Excitement, hope and fear. Relief - that the moment had finally come and all that was left was to do the work. Uncertainty - had the training been enough? Would the niggling aches and pains that hadn't gone away in the taper fade as the miles fell behind or would they grow?

I started out running with Jeremy, another UM-er, Luana, and my friend from Daily Mile, Randy O. We were all toward the back of the pack and could see the long line of headlamps and flashlights stretching out in front of us as we worked our way around the lake on the paved walking path.

My strategy early here was to try to hang in with Jeremy for the first ten miles - a relatively easy section of the course. His time goal was an hour faster than mine and I thought it would be good to let him pull me along a little while I was still fresh.

We wound our way up the first hill onto a dirt road and continued on that for a short distance before starting into the trail system proper. At that point we fell into a long conga line of perhaps thirty runners. As trail running fate would have it the lead runners missed a turn (almost within sight of the first aid station) and led us about a quarter mile off course before figuring out their mistake. Oh well, what's an extra half mile among friends when you're running fifty?

We turned around and quickly retraced our way back uphill to the Gravel Pit aid station.

Back of the conga line. That's Randy O. just behind me.
(Photo by Steve Gallow)

Gravel Pit to Lift House 5 (mile 9.7)

I had no plans to spend any time at Gravel Pit. Some cups of Coke were handy on the table so I took one, sucked it down and headed right out.

In a short while I caught up with Ed Eddington - yet another UM-er who recognized my UM shirt and struck up a conversation with me. Ed was running the 100M. We ran together for a while and eventually Jeremy caught up. Somewhere through here Randy O. passed me, moving well, and I let him go.

A little while later we had one of the more exciting encounters of the race. As we worked our way down a gentle downhill section we came around a turn to be confronted by a runner stopped about 20 yards ahead yelling to warn us that there was a nest of ground bees in the trail that had been disturbed. He was shouting, "Run through it! Run through it fast!"

Ed and I edged forward a little trying to see exactly where they were and if there was any option to go around them. Then points of hot fire started erupting in my calves and ankles and 'run through it fast' suddenly became the obvious solution the other guy had already figured out it was!

Ed and I made a dash for it and Jeremy followed. I had to stop and collect my phone, which had bounced out of the pocket in my vest, and confirm that, no, there really weren't still bees on my legs stinging me - that was just the pain of the stings I'd already gotten. In fact, I never actually did see a bee.

More runners were coming behind us, with the first runner still at his post yelling, "Run through it!" The best thing Ed and I could do at that point was move on out of the way of the next panicked sprinters.

Bees became the hot topic of conversation for next couple of miles of trail after that. One helpful young guy mentioned, "And you know, we've got to go back that way."

I hadn't yet thought of that - but then I reminded myself that it would probably be after dark by the time I got back here and the bees would be settled back into the nest for the night. Another thing I didn't think of immediately was the fact that I would still be feeling those bee stings all those hours later too. The pain of the day had been given a head-start.

Jeremy had moved on ahead of Ed and me after the bee encounter and kept pushing through some small hills that came next. I caught a few glimpses of him through the trees as I climbed, but then fell behind him for good. I would see him once more on his way back from the turnaround.

I hung with Ed until the end of the trail section, where I stopped to take care of a little business before breaking out of the woods onto the short (about a mile-and-a-half) downhill road section leading to Lift House 5. I 'bombed' it, saving my quads (I hoped) and logging by far my fastest mile of the race (8:49). I passed Randy O. near the bottom, beating him into the aid station by a minute.

The Alpine Loop (returning to Lift House 5 at mile 13.9)

Greek Peak trail map
(Lift House 5 is at bottom in the inset)

Karen was there to greet me. We had pre-arranged that she would be at Lift House 5, which I would visit a total of four times through the day, and at Rock Pile, which I would visit twice (and which also required her to make a half-mile uphill hike to be there). She would also be at the start/finish, of course.

Have I mentioned yet what a great woman I share my life with?

Again, I had no plans to stop for long at Lift House 5. I did need to get a little water in my Nathan HPL-020 hydration pack and had it filled about halfway to cover me for the 4.2-mile Alpine Loop. I broke out a ProBar figuring I would eat that on the way up.

Just a few comments about the aid stations here. The one word I would apply to all of them would be 'efficient.' They were well-stocked, of course, but just had a no-nonsense, business-like feel to them. Some races like to make their aid stations entertaining. At Virgil Crest they seemed to keep it focused on getting runners whatever they needed and getting them on their way as efficiently as possible. I liked it very much.

There were a few inspirational messages posted on signs around the aid stations. The one I really remember was here, leaving Lift House 5 to start the hike straight up the Mars Hill ski slope:

"If the bull had no horns everyone would be a matador."

Referring to the ski map above, and as near as I can tell, the route we had to follow went up Mars Hill, back down parts of Poseidon and Hercules to the top of lift #3 (giving back most of the elevation gained to that point) then up Castor to a crossover to East Meadows, continuing up eventually, I think, Karyatis Way before breaking off into the wooded area underneath Atlas - crossing over to Aesop's Glade and working its way essentially straight up from there, ending in a pulse-pounding climb up the final headwall to the top of lift #2..

After reaching that summit the course went down Castor and a Snow Cat access road over to Hercules, then up to the top of lift #4. From there I think it followed Aphrodite and perhaps some of Hermes before working its way down the ridge on or near Aphrodite and ultimately back to Lift House 5.

I caught up with Ed and another 100-miler that he'd joined up with, Dan Naugle, somewhere around Hermes, and we made the final descent together.

Lift House 5 to Rock Pile (mile 20.0)

Coming into Lift House 5 after the Alpine Loop
That's me waving, with Ed on my left.

I'll try to start moving this report along a little better and just hit the highlights from here - I promise!

The 6.1 miles from Lift House 5 to Rock Pile were pretty uneventful. Ed had gotten away from me at the aid station while I dealt with a hot spot on one foot, and I would be running behind him for the rest of my race. Climbing Virgil Mountain I fell in with another couple of runners. As is often the case, introductions weren't necessary. We just accepted each other as runners and shared the miles and some conversation to pass the time.

I think this is one of the more beautiful sections of the course and (in this direction) had a lot of run-able, gentle downhill. It was through here that we started to be overtaken by some very fast runners in the 100M relay - a brief point of confusion for some of us solo runners who were beginning to slow down approaching mile 20 of our day.

I spent some time leapfrogging another guy who could almost walk faster than I could run. I keep getting these reminders of the fact that I might be able to do a little better in these events if I worked on learning to walk faster! Or better yet walk less. And run faster. (OK, I've got a lot to work on.)

Anyway, in relatively short order I was making the final climb into Rock Pile, still feeling pretty good.

Rock Pile to Daisy Hollow (mile 25.1)

The next section of the course was probably the most uneventful.

Well, it did start to spatter a little rain, and it did get interesting because this was where I started to see runners coming the other direction after the turnaround. Nothing short of awe-inspiring to see how well the leaders were still moving nearly ten miles ahead of me. Also kind of nice to start getting (and of course giving) 'good job' and 'way to go' regularly too.

Oh, and I did slip on a wet root while crossing a slope, wrenching my right knee or ITB badly enough that it would bother me off and on for the rest of my race. This section features the most technical trail of the course, with the steepest climb - so steep at points that the trail has permanent ropes in place to assist hikers.

Another interesting feature is the barking dog (poor critter). The trail crosses a paved road through here. A dog at a nearby house could scent every runner through the area, and was just barking non-stop. I'd been out here on a solo training run some weeks before and already, on my way outbound, I could tell that its voice was getting raspy!

The going was starting to get tougher, but I pushed myself to keep moving well as long as I could, taking as much advantage as possible of every flat section or downhill. I saw Jeremy heading back and still looking strong. I had no doubt he would finish.

I fell a couple of times on the final descent into Daisy Hollow. Many of the returning runners had been telling me about chicken soup and salt potatoes at the aid station and I was really feeling ready for them! At one point I stuck the tube from my pack into my mouth for a drink and got a mouthful of dirt and detritus because I'd landed on it in one of my falls. Spitting dirt out of my mouth provided a little distraction for a while. At least I had spit. I must have been hydrating reasonably well.

Have I mentioned that I was experiencing a low point here?

I saw Ed headed back just before I got to the aid station. Encouragement was shared both ways. Finally, I made it into Daisy Hollow.

Daisy Hollow to Rock Pile (mile 30.2)

Nearing the 50K mark, still smiling
(Photo by Steve Gallow)

I tried to make a deal with the check-in volunteer at the aid station: we could agree together that there was a 25-mile option that runners could drop down to and that I had just won it! Then I would call my wife to come get me and call it a day.

She explained that it was too late for that as they'd already had two drops there so I'd have to take third. Oh well, guess I'd just have to go back and take my chances with the 50.

I got a cup of thin chicken soup that was mostly broth with just a few noodles floating in it. It was absolutely perfect and the best chicken soup I have ever eaten in my life! I sat down on a stump to rest my legs a bit while I enjoyed it, then had my pack filled and grabbed a potato for the road.

The first couple of miles back from the turnaround are pretty much a constant climb. It's relatively gradual, but I had determined that, for me, it made sense to just walk it as quickly as possible rather than wear myself out trying to run it - actually Luana's plan I'd heard her explain earlier, and it sounded good to me.

Shortly after leaving the aid station I passed Luana and Randy heading in. Had congrats for both and a high-five for Randy. He would drop at the aid station, but had made a heck of a gutsy effort. His training had fallen apart over the summer and he'd started coming down with a chest cold the week of the race. Even covering the course one-way took guts and stubbornness!

Walking proved to be a good strategy - at least in the short term. One guy passed me, attacking this climb on the run, and then I caught him at the top, totally winded, and passed him back. Turns out he recovered well and soon passed me again though.

This was the section where I rediscovered that even though everything hurts you can still make yourself run. You reach that point in every ultra - it's just a matter of where it happens.

The barking dog was still barking - and getting raspier. I pretty much just zoned out from there, kept moving and before long was trudging up the final rise back to Rock Pile.

Back at Rock Pile - Mountain Dew, please!

Rock Pile to Lift House 5 (mile 36.3)

Karen was still there, happy to see me as always, and ready to hand me my chocolate milk.

I'd learned the value of chocolate milk back in the spring at Mind the Ducks. Lots of runners consider it a perfect recovery drink, but when you're working for hours you need the same mix of protein and fat with your carbs sooner than after the race. Anyway I do.

I'd also taken to sitting down for just a couple of minutes at each aid station. I know 'beware the chair' is standard ultrarunning advice, but I find that even just a couple of minutes off my feet while I consume some calories can work wonders for my general feeling of well being and attitude toward going on.

After I'd had as much of the milk as I felt my stomach could handle, I pretty quickly reminded myself that I wasn't going to get this done by sitting here, so I heaved myself up, gave Karen the traditional aid station departure 'smootz' and started on down the hill.

The return from Rock Pile toward Lift House 5, after a short downhill section, was a climb very much like the climb out of Daisy Hollow - long and gradual. I took the same approach, walking much of it, running when I could. It was mostly just more zoning out and relentless forward progress.

I did see a small bear though! I heard a sound like a large animal climbing a tree off-trail about thirty yards to my right and looked over to see a very large, grayish-looking lump on the side of a tree - kind of like the picture to the right, but grayer and two or three times as large. I'd never actually encountered a bear just out in the woods like this - even though I hunted for years when I was younger.

The light was pretty dim, and at first I thought it might be a raccoon, but there were no coon-like markings and it clearly had its arms wrapped around both sides of a pretty good-sized tree. If it was a coon it was the biggest, fattest coon I'd ever seen. About this time it occurred to me that if this really was a young bear born this year then perhaps I would be wise to stop showing so much interest in it and move on down the trail - walking. Wouldn't want to make momma nervous if she was about - nor trigger a prey response by fleeing the area quickly!

The only other feature of significance during this section was constant dread. I knew that what awaited me at Lift House 5 was the reverse circuit of the Alpine Loop. I pictured the muddy descent down that steep pitch of Aesop's Glade (never mind the endless climb it would take to get there in the first place) and I simply did not see how I could do it.

But every step was bringing it closer!

"How am I ever going to make myself go up that mountain again?" That question increasingly filled my thoughts. The major reckoning of my day was approaching, and my whole race increasingly hung on the balance of an unstable and deteriorating mental state.

The Alpine Loop (returning to Lift House 5 at mile 40.5)

Coming down Virgil Mountain, I sort of ran. It was a painful 'trot' really, heavy on the brakes, and my quads were screaming at me to stop. By the time I got to the bottom it had actually crossed my mind that some uphill might feel like a welcome change of pace.

I was out of gas - just had nothing left. I made one half-hearted attempt to run on the short road section leading back to the aid station, but ended up just trudging most of it.

When I got there, Karen was sitting in our minivan, relatively unprepared for me. I wanted a chair. I needed to sit down for a few minutes and collect myself. She went to rummage one out of the back of the van as I trudged on in the chute to check in.

Then I stood - waiting.

Have I told you what a great woman I share my life with? I did? Well did I also tell you that she can futz around sometimes doing the simplest things for longer than you could possibly believe? It seemed like forever (I'm sure that was just the cranky runner time perception) but the chair finally showed up. Then I asked for the chocolate milk. Ooops! Back to the van she dashed!

Honestly, a little crew inefficiency may have been for the best at this point - because it forced me to stop a little longer than usual, and it distracted me from my dread of the mountain behind me (I realize looking back now that I kept my back to it the whole time I was there - without having consciously decided to do so).

When the chocolate milk arrived I sat, chatted with Karen, and refueled. I think I had also picked at some aid station fare while waiting for the chair - some soda and a piece of banana maybe. I have no recollection of what we talked about. Honestly it was all becoming a blur. I was numb to just about everything - except the taste of that chocolate milk.

You know how totally enthralled you can be with just exactly the right food exactly when you needed it most? Man was that chocolate milk good!

And then I thought about the mountain again. I still truly did not believe I could do it, but I knew that if I quit now - if I shrank away from the challenge without really trying - then the only reason would be that I had told myself I couldn't do it, not that I had found out that I couldn't do it.

It was time to go.

I told Karen, "If climbing this mountain again doesn't kill me then I can probably figure out how to finish this thing." I heaved myself up out of the chair. Karen was impressed that I could still stand up by myself. I headed out... walking... painfully.

I'm sure there was a sign there, but I can't remember what it said. As far as I'm concerned now in hindsight the only appropriate message would have been, "Welcome to Hell - population: You."

The climb to the top of the mountain on the reverse loop was relentless - almost without a break of any kind. I trudged, and trudged, and trudged - my mind pretty much in a daze, too tired to spend energy on actual thought. At one point a woman passed me. I assessed her movement as she came up behind me. She was just walking - but she looked so much stronger than me, and moving twice as fast! I could  find no way to go faster than I was. It was all I could do to keep putting one foot in front of the other. As she passed I said, "Nice climb you've got going there."

"I'm motivated by only 14 miles to go," she said. Then she disappeared around a bend and I never saw her again.

To any friends and family reading this, welcome to the insane world of ultrarunning!

Meanwhile I kept putting one foot in front of the other. I just never stopped - not once. I knew all I had to do was keep moving and sooner or later the ordeal would end.

And then it did. I finally reached the top of the mountain. There was some flat, and then a little downhill traversing the ridge back over toward Atlas - and I found I could actually run a little. In fact, things almost started to seem normal again!

The descent down Aesop's Glade wasn't pretty. I took it mostly side-step, my tweaked knee complaining constantly, until I reached gentler grades. But then I ran again the rest of the way down to the crossover to Poseidon (it wasn't fast, but it was running). Climbing back up Poseidon was another uphill trudge-fest, but now that seemed familiar again, easier - inside the envelope as they say. I really was moving a lot better again.

On the descent I had started seeing the lead 100-milers going the other way. God bless them! Do you have any idea how much encouragement some of those guys had for a back-of-the-pack straggler in the 50M? I was cheering them on telling them how awesome they were, and they were reflecting it all right back at me.

You hear a small set of different phrases of encouragement as people pass each other. I now know the one that I like best: "Looking good, runner!" I don't know why, but having one of those incredible athletes call me 'runner' just hit me in a really good way right then.

I made the descent down Mars Hill - running most of it (again, slowly) until the final, steep, muddy descent to the field at Lift House 5. I had done it! And not only had I done it, but I was running again!

There was a happy surprise waiting for me at the aid station too - Dan and Kim had made it over from Cornell already and were there! I hadn't expected to see them until the finish. Kim was jumping up and down cheering me in. What a great moment to see my whole family!

RD Ian Golden also happened to be there. He asked me how I felt now that I'd done the Alpine Loop twice. "I hate you," I told him. He blamed me as the one who'd actually signed up for it. I guess he had me there.

It was another long-ish stop this time as I rested and refueled again, and visited with everyone a little bit. I was now certain that I would finish the race. Nothing left in the final 9.7 miles was as bad as climbing that mountain, and I'd made it through the horrendously-timed rough patch that had hit me. I was already starting to feel some pride about that.

Refueled again, I made plans for the finish with the family. It was about 6:30. Karen needed to go get some real food. They wanted to know how long they had before I made it to the finish and I told them at this point I was hoping to beat 9:00 P.M. - but that I had my doubts.

I headed out, walking up the road. Little did I realize that the most interesting adventure of the day lay ahead of me in the next section...

Lift House 5 to Gravel Pit (mile 45.8)

For a somewhat smart guy I can be so breathtakingly stupid sometimes. I'm thinking I might rename this blog from "The Running Hacker" to something more appropriate, like, "The Compleat Idiot."

Nightfall was rapidly approaching as I left Lift House 5. I expected I would be finishing this race in the dark, so I was 'prepared.' I have an awesome handheld flashlight - a Fenix LD20. That sucker can throw some light! Or I should say it can throw some light - when it has good batteries.

How many times have I read posts on the ultra list about having backup for your light? How many race reports? You would think I'd surely have backup for my light with me then, wouldn't you? Enter the Compleat Idiot. In my final packing I had thought to put 'brand new' batteries in my Fenix. That should have done it. I'd need a little light for the start, and for at most a couple of hours at the end of the race. No problem - except that by 'brand new batteries' I actually mean 'batteries that had been in our odds 'n ends cupboard for who the heck knows how long.'

Who'd need backup for that?

So I made the long road climb and got back onto the single-track. It was already way too dark in there to see well enough to move. At first all was well, but after a mile or two I was forced to acknowledge a fact that I'd been talking myself out of believing for a while: my light was getting dimmer.

Did I have a spare light? No. Spare batteries? No. Why carry the extra weight when you have the greatest flashlight in the world with brand new batteries in it?


It was getting harder and harder to see the white blazes on the trees marking the Finger Lakes Trail, and it was getting harder and harder seeing my footing on this pretty difficult, technical section of 4.5 miles or so to the next aid station. I tried to keep moving as best I could.

As it happens, like a lot of folks on the list, I'm a Barkley fan. Visions of the Limacher Hotel were beginning to dance in my head (the only place I could really see anything after a while). For those of you who are not Barkley aficionados, the Limacher Hotel is a tree that runner Rich Limacher spent the night under after getting lost in the infamous, "Out There," of Frozen Head State Park in Tennessee.

One of the features on this section of the trail is a pretty big gully one has to traverse, crossing a small streambed. I know it can't hold a candle to the real thing on the Barkley course, but I've come to think of it as Virgil's 'Son-of-a-bitch Ditch.' I slid into SOBD on my butt in the mud - barely able to see anything - to arrive at the bottom just as the light faded to an absolutely useless dim glow. If I aimed it right at my face I could tell the LED was actually still on, but that was about it.

"Now what?" I thought. "I'm in a ditch. I can't even begin to see where or how the trail exits the ditch on the other side. The last thing I want to do is try to move around in real darkness and get completely lost."

My only option appeared to be to sit down in the ditch and wait for somebody to come along. I had a whistle. I could sit there amusing the night critters with that for a while. Then inspiration struck: try turning it off and back on again (any IT Crowd fans out there?).

Click-click... click-click. Behold! Actual light came out! Hallelujah! I was saved!

And then it faded to nothing again.

Well now my engineering mind kicked in and went to work coming up with the next step in this complicated problem-solving exercise. "Step 2: try it again."

Click-click... click-click. Aha! Another two seconds of usable light!

Now I had it figured out: the flashlight is regulated to save the batteries as they get low - but it took a second for the regulator to get its wits about itself when you first turned the light on and for that second (or two) the LED got whatever 'full juice' the batteries were still capable of producing. That gave me something I could work with!

So I started aiming the light up the other side of SOBD and going 'click-click... click-click' until I had a blaze located at the top of the gully. After a few more click-clicks I found the way to climb out on the trail.

The next three miles or so of my race proceeded just like that:

Click-click... click-click. "Ok there's a blaze up ahead. I'm still on the trail..."
Click-click... click-click. "Ok, footing looks good for the next five feet or so..."
Click-click... click-click. "Don't trip on that root!"
"Where's the next blaze?" Click-click... click-click. "Got it!"

After a while I started seeing outbound 100-milers again, but by then I was so into a rhythm with the click-clicks that I didn't even bother to tell most of them what was going on - and nobody asked. I think they figured I was just turning my light off to be courteous and keep from blinding them. Geez, if I'd had a high-powered flood light at that point I'd have blasted them with it and left them stumbling down the trail seeing stars!

I did start asking how much further it was to the aid station. The first guy I asked, I told him why I wanted to know. He said if he had his spare light it would be mine but it was in his drop bag at the next aid station he was headed for. We parted and after he'd run a few yards he yelled back at me wanting to know if I'd take his spare batteries. I couldn't do that to a 100-miler heading back out, so I told him, "Nah. This has been working ok."

He'd also told me that it was maybe only 20 minutes to the aid station and that the trail was pretty friendly.

To make a long story longer, I made it to the aid station and told them my race was over unless I could borrow a light or maybe use a phone to call my crew and have them bring me one. They were able to do much better than that. A few minutes later I left with fresh batteries in my flashlight and (when I looked very nervous about going out without backup again) a brand new headlamp from their emergency supplies to boot (which I would leave at the finish).

Gravel Pit to Finish (mile 50.2)

I had actual light again - a lot of it! I was able to run a good chunk of the final 4.4 miles and (smelling the barn) run them relatively quickly. This 4.4-mile section only took me 1:16 - including the time spent at Gravel Pit getting my light problem solved. I even ran down the fifty-miler ahead of me to put one more place between me and DFL.

I met Ed Eddington on Vinnedge road, heading out for his second 50 miles with his pacer, Ben Clardy - another friend from Ultrarunning Matters.

What a welcome sight the lights of Hope Lake Park were! Unfortunately you see them nice and close while you've still got a good solid mile or more to run around the lake on the paved walking path. It's all good though - it makes a sort of victory lap where you can start savoring and celebrating the sure finish as you watch it slowly approaching.

Looking back as I crossed the dam, I saw the lights of the runner I had passed breaking out of the woods and working down the path. He seemed to be moving better now, motivated by the finish too no doubt, and it motivated me to keep pushing. In short order I was running up the final grade and then across the grass through the torchlight to the point where it had all begun - fifteen hours and fifty-seven minutes earlier.

I'd missed my fourteen-hour goal by a wide margin, but didn't care in the least. I'd finished the toughest thing I've ever done in my life.

Just after I finished. Kim is on the right.

This may be the best I've looked after a race!
That's my finisher's award in my left hand - a stainless steel beer glass.
(The brilliant highlighting glow is camera flash reflecting off a firefighting suit on the table.)

Oh, and this is Dan again.
Still enough said, I think.

Results, Takeaways, and Thanks

I finished 99th out of 103 finishers of the 50-mile distance. Hundred-milers who complete at least 50 miles before dropping are given 50M finishes. There were 23 of those drop-down 100-milers ahead of me, so in terms of 50M starters I was 76th of 96 starters.

To put my performance in perspective, compare my 15:57 finish with the 8:57 turned in by Jeff Rixe to win the race! Of course, Jeff is 25. At less than half my age he ought to be more than twice as fast, right? Piker! First woman was Mariana Bartonicek in 10:04.

I remain - and perhaps always will - a back-of-the-packer, but I'm stubborn, I finish, and doing so gives me great joy. What an adventure this day was!

Jeremy did finish well, in 13:44. Luana ended up having navigation problems after the final stop at Lift House 5 and eventually found her way back to the finish by road. Randy, as mentioned, did a great job covering the course one-way before calling it not his day. I expect he'll kick my butt next year if I'm dumb enough to try this again.

Ed finished 24th of 32 100M finishers. (I think that's an old picture of him that you'll see if you follow the link.) Dan made it back to Lift House 5 at 59.9 miles before, I'm guessing, the thought of another hike up the Alpine Loop convinced him he was done. I so understand! This was Dan's first attempt at 100 miles and I'm pretty sure he'll be back. The 100M was won by Denis Mikhaylov in 21:34. Rachel Nypaver lead the women in 25:46

It was a privilege sharing the course with 100-milers for the first time in my short ultrarunning experience, and to run a few miles with some of them. It was impressive to see how fresh they were twenty to twenty-five miles into the race - when 50-milers were starting to drag a little at their halfway point. It gave me a good feel for the fitness gap that yet stands between me and longer distances.

Training for and completing this race took me, for the first time, through a real cycle of setting a goal, training like a runner, working on specific things in specific orders, and seeing it pay off. I am a stronger runner now than I have ever been. I know I can be stronger still.

Obviously, the big lesson of the day was, "Have backup for your flashlight, dummy!"

I want to thank RD Ian Golden for putting on this race. You know I really love you for making it so hard, right? Many thanks to the incredible corps of volunteers. Quite simply, you made my day. I especially want to thank the woman at Gravel Pit who took care of my light problem - especially for reading the doubt in my eyes about going back out without backup and encouraging me to take the headlamp.

Don't know who 201 was (nice smile though) - but that's my Karen, background!
(Photo by Steve Gallow)

Most of all, as always, I want to thank my best friend and companion, my wife, Karen. She puts up with all of the absences while I train, with all of the smelly shoes everywhere all the time, with my sometimes obsessive chatter about all things running, and is still willing to come out and spend a day in the chill and damp following me around for 16 hours to take care of me. I couldn't live these dreams without your support, my dear. I love you!

When you see that lady in purple waiting...
(Photo by Steve Gallow) know that I will not be far away!
(Photo by Steve Gallow)

1 comment:

  1. Congratulations on your finish, Pat! Great report! And great job, Karen! I hope to meet you both in person in 2013.