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Reverse-engineering the Ultramarathon

Saturday, November 24, 2012

2012 Mendon Ponds 50K

Photo credit: Richard Detweiler

A Year of Running - Epilogue

What a difference a year can make.

Mendon Ponds 2011 was my second ultra. I'd come to ultramarathons in the way quite a few people do these days... clueless. Oh I suppose a lot of ultra noobs have at least some running and racing experience. Some have a lot. But the publication of Dean Karnazes' popular book, "Ultramarathon Man" and of Christopher McDougall's, "Born to Run," convinced more than a few knuckleheads like me with little real running experience that we should run extreme long distance races.

On trails.

No, really.

I've written about some of my struggles and hard lessons learned along the way to actually completing my first ultra before and I won't repeat that here. Let it suffice to say that last year's races were done on significantly sub-par training by pretty much any standard.

Surviving an ultramarathon is hard, but almost anyone stubborn enough can do it if the race permits enough time. Actually running an ultramarathon - and not needing a week or more to completely recover from the experience - is another matter entirely.

Last year I survived two ultramarathons. This year, in these terms, I had two goals:

  1. Survive a 50-miler.
  2. Run a 50K, setting a new personal record (PR).
My theory of how to do this was rather old-school. I would try training.

2012 (starting after Mendon Ponds in 2011) has become my first full year of consistent running. My mileage has still not been high by ultrarunning (or even marathon) training standards. From November 2011 through October 2012 I averaged 31 miles per week of running (this does not include other cardio activity like walking and elliptical workouts). The effects on my body and my endurance have been significant.

A year of progress, goals achieved...

My plan for the year worked almost as well as I intended - perhaps better. Mind the Ducks 12-hour in May was intended to be a testing ground for going beyond 50K. I thought if things went very well I might be able to reach 50 miles there. Things did not go well (injury, no running to speak of in April) and I still made 50 miles at MTD.

Laurel Highlands 50K was scheduled near the beginning of my transition back to trails and hill training after mostly training flat roads for MTD. I viewed it as primarily trail familiarization for a possible commitment to the Laurel Highlands 70M in 2013. The climbs out of Ohiopyle, PA handed me my butt and showed me just how much work I had to do before Virgil Crest 50M in September.

I survived 50 miles with 10,000 feet of climbing at Virgil Crest, achieving my first goal for the year.

... but what about the 50K?

Where was my 50K PR? Last year at Mendon Ponds I had set the mark I was shooting for: 7:11:11.

My 50K split at Mind the Ducks? Somewhere around the same time (it happened in the middle of one of the half-mile loops).

How about Laurel Highlands? Nope: 8:27:09 - my slowest 50K so far.

Maybe the 50K split at Virgil Crest? Race splits show me arriving at an aid station at mile 30.2 at 8:46 (so if that was an official 50K it would actually be my slowest).

With my year fast drawing to a close, my second goal remained unachieved.

Mendon Ponds - last best hope for a sub-7:00 finish

Photo credit - Richard Detweiler

From the time I mentally set these goals last year, I had Mendon targeted as the likely place I would PR the 50K if not before. I knew if I did everything else I had planned, then by November I would be in the best shape of my life (so far) and, barring injury, in the best condition as a runner that I have ever been.

It was a near thing. Physically I was a bit marginal going into Virgil Crest. It took me a good, solid three weeks to really recover from that race (see - survival, not running) and that only left a couple of weeks to spin back up a little before Mendon. A couple of 30+ mile weeks including weekly tempo runs and decent long-ish trail runs - even a little strength training on top of that - and then it was time to rest a little before the race. Thursday night I did a short easy run, and Friday night I felt good - probably the first time I would have really used that word since Virgil.

The weather on race day sucked - there is no other word for it. It was cold, never reaching 40F all day, it rained off and on all day (mostly on) with a little sleet and snow thrown in once in a while to keep things interesting - and a cold wind blew pretty constantly.

Mendon is not a well-known race. It's one of those great little local races that costs all of 25 bucks (a price increase from past years) and has a lot of the same people coming back to run it every year. No t-shirts, no frills - just a really nice 10K course of hilly, wooded trails with 1100' of elevation gain per loop. I don't think there's a single climb that's as high as 200', so it's just a roller-coaster of a course - really deceptively difficult, and the 10K loop format gives you four opportunities to wimp out and head for the car.

"Under seven hours," as fellow ultra-lister Sharon Zelinski said before the start, "is not a given here." (It is a given for Sharon.)

There are friendly volunteers and decent aid at two points (given the season, fresh apple cider is a tradition here appreciated by many of the runners) and there is even hot soup at a lodge post-race. Honestly, if you're ever looking for a fall race in Upstate NY you really should check this one out.

I won't do a blow-by-blow account of my race (see last year's report if you want more of a description of the race itself).

My plan was simple: run as hard as I could (while still feeling like I was running 'within myself') for as long as I could, then push after that. I had a cooler at the main aid station with 8-oz bottles of chocolate milk and four full handheld water bottles. I would chug a chocolate milk and swap out water bottles each time at the main aid station, and then grab whatever looked good at the 5K aid station at the other end of the loop and eat that on the run. The plan was to never spend more than a minute at the main aid station - and less at the other.

My first three loops went very well. I was banking time against my inevitable slow-down:

Loop 1 - 1:06:15
Loop 2 - 1:10:01 (2:16:16)
Loop 3 - 1:16:33 (3:32:49)

Photo credit - Tom Perry

At this point I was almost 40 minutes ahead of 7-hour pace, but knew I was not going to get any faster in the final 20K. Heading out for the fourth loop I set a mental goal to finish it before 5:00:00.

Loop 4: 1:25:17 (4:58:06)

I had time enough here to pound down another chocolate milk, see dominant regional runner Nancy Kleinrock bomb it in as first place woman in 4:59:50 (at the same time taking top female honors in the Western NY Ultra Series for the second time) and still head out onto the course seconds before 5:00:00. I had a full two hours to complete the final 10K - a very comforting thought given how I was feeling at that point, especially on the short uphill road section leading back to the trail entrance.

Once I got back on the trail I found my legs again (what was left of them). They hurt more than the previous loop, but they were still there. Pretty soon thoughts of wussing out and walking it in turned to thoughts of coming in under 6:30. I had promised to push, and so I did:

Loop 5: 1:26:01 (6:24:07)

Photo credit - Tom Perry

I had written the epilogue on this year's journey story of my development as a late-middle-aged runner, and it was the ending I had hoped for. I had set ambitious goals for the year, I had trained hard, used my head to manage minor injuries so that they didn't become major ones, chosen races to run with particular goals in mind, and accomplished everything I had imagined last year that I might be able to do.

As someone on the list who I respect and trust said to me a little while back, I may yet become a runner.


As I write this, now three weeks post-event, I have to admit that my goal was only partially achieved. I intended to back off on training after Mendon, coast a bit through the end of the year and really recover completely, and then start ramping back up with Laurel Highlands firmly in view. As it turns out I've had little choice but to back off.

Within a week after Mendon I developed some pretty severe peronneal tendinitis in my right leg. Significant heel pain on that side that had developed prior to Virgil Crest has been further aggravated. I've run very little in the past two weeks, but any short workout I do tends to leave me limping. All I can do is keep resting, rolling, massaging - and hoping.

I've always come back before. I will be back again.

Oh, and meanwhile I'm wearing a heart arrhythmia monitor 24/7 for two weeks - to be followed by a stress echo-cardiogram. This is to investigate causes for occasional near fainting spells I've had after long runs (the first I can recall having occurred near the end of my first race at the 2011 Oil Creek 50K).

So far, I'm officially diagnosed with 'cardiomegaly' - which means I have a big heart. I can live with that (as long as I don't drop dead at the end of a race somewhere).

Stay tuned...

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