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Reverse-engineering the Ultramarathon

Monday, May 20, 2013

2013 Strolling Jim 40M Run





I was just about to click the buckle of my seat belt closed when I heard the loud 'bong' that heralds an announcement from the cockpit: "This is the captain, folks. I'm sorry to announce that we have a maintenance problem. We thought we could get it corrected, but unfortunately we haven't been able to. It is a safety-related issue and we cannot operate this airplane. We're sorry for having boarded you, but we're going to have to ask you to deplane. This flight is canceled."

It was 23 hours until the start of the Strolling Jim 40M Run in Wartrace, TN (about an hour southeast of Nashville) and I was now stuck on the ground at my starting point in Syracuse, NY. This had just become a longer endurance event than I had planned on.

Why the Strolling Jim?

I suppose the first thing someone might wonder is, "Why go all the way to Tennessee to run a race?"

There are the mundane reasons. I'd originally signed up thinking it was well positioned on the calendar to be a good peak training run before Laurel Highlands (but then I wimped out on Laurel Highlands). Also, Karen and I had long wanted to visit Great Smoky Mountain National Park, and the Jim was a good excuse to get down there for an early-spring break from Central NY weather (hah! - more on that later) and visit the park at an off-peak time.

The real reason to choose the Jim, though was about the people (and also a dog). Legends live and run at the Jim!

If you're on the Ultra List you know what I'm talking about. That picture at the top of this post? That's my friend Tim Hardy introducing me to Ray K! I would also meet John Price, a man who has run across the continent yet took time to give this newbie some personal advice. I would meet Juli Aistars, a past "Queen of the Road" at the Vol State 500K - and a serious contender for nicest human being on the planet. The roster was just full of listers; it would be impossible to meet them all.

Then there is race director Mike Melton, who travels the country providing impeccable timing services to many races. Strolling Jim is one of a few he directs as well. 

I would also meet one Gary Cantrell, aka Lazarus Lake (just "laz" to many), founder and race director emeritus of the Strolling Jim, race director of the Vol State and The Barkley, and a man whose wisdom on just about any topic never fails to impress me. The Strolling Jim is very much a Cantrell family affair, with two Cantrell children - Case and Amiee - also among the entrants.

Finally, as if all of this wasn't enough reason to travel all that way, I would get the chance to meet a celebrity dog: Laz's accidental training partner, Big. Really, how could I not want to do the Strolling Jim?

Getting There

So we got off the plane. Karen called the U.S. Airways priority customer service number that someone had been handing out on slips of paper as we left the jetway, while I got into the back of the huge line that had formed at the agents' desk. The phone call yielded fruit before the line had moved. There was a flight out of Ithaca we could get on that would connect us to Nashville through Philadelphia. Our original routing had been through Charlotte and would have gotten us to Nashville around noon. This new routing would get us there after 3:00 PM - too late to make it to Wartrace in time for the course tour led by Laz (sigh).

We drove the hour to Ithaca (Karen on the phone almost the whole time making sure that our checked luggage would actually go to Nashville too) and made our flight there with no problems. When we got off the plane at Philly though, and Karen turned her phone back on, she found she had a series of voice mails telling the story of how our connecting flight to Nashville had been delayed twice and then - you guessed it - canceled. They said it was due to a maintenance problem somewhere else, and I will forever believe that while one hand of U.S. Airways was rerouting us through Philadelphia the other was rescheduling aircraft and/or crews in response to the breakdown in Syracuse and deciding that the best flight to sacrifice was the one the first hand had just put us on!

Back on the phone went Karen. The next available flight to Nashville would not leave Philadelphia until shortly after 9:00 PM, and would get us there (finally) a little before 11:00 (Central time). At least our bags would be there when we got there (they had gone by a better route than we did).

We had eight hours to kill. Some of you surely know what waiting that long in an airport is like. There is no way to get really comfortable - nowhere to get out of the noise and the frenetic activity. You've likely been up for hours - after not really getting a good night's sleep the night before. It's not good.

Enter MinuteSuites - "The Traveller's Retreat."

I've just got to give this place a plug here. Shortly into a couple hours of wandering the terminal to see what was there, Karen and I had passed this place that rents rooms by the hour. By the end of our exploration we were beat and decided, "Let's go back to the MinuteSuites and see what the deal is."

I've gotta say it's not cheap and it's not ultra-luxurious, but it is a quiet, very restful place - a small room furnished with a day-bed and trundle, a small desk and a TV, all the pillows and blankets you need and - most important of all - a sound deadening system. You don't tend to realize how much the noise and bustle of an airport terminal keeps you in a constant state of stress. We spent a little over three hours at the MinuteSuites. We kicked our shoes off. We stretched out. We put something mindless on the TV. We napped. We vegged. When we got hungry we went and got some food and brought it back to eat it in peace and quiet.

Later, waiting at the gate for (finally) our flight to Nashville, we both realized what a huge difference it had made. We should have been totally exhausted - complete wrecks - but we felt good. I'd been a little skeptical and reluctant to spend the money on it but we were both so glad that we did. It literally saved our day.

Anyway, the rest of the travel went without more issues. The flight arrived in Nashville on time (I got another hour of decent sleep on the plane). Our bags were there and the rental car pick-up went smoothly. We checked into the Country Hearth Inn and Suites in Shelbyville a little after midnight as expected. By the time we got settled and I unwound enough to get to sleep I got maybe another four hours before I had to get up and get to the race to check in.

After all of that, running an ultra sounded pretty easy. All I had to do there was keep putting one foot in front of the other!

Race Day!

Staying dry after checking in

Let's just talk about the weather...

I had been concerned about going this far south for a race in spring - especially this spring. Syracuse had not yet seen temperatures in the 70's - and nothing over 60 on a weekend when all of my long running is done. Wartrace could easily have been 80 - or even 90 (with humidity). Instead, it was 48 and raining, and would be about the same all day. While the rain wasn't great, this was exactly what I had been running long in for at least two months. The only thing missing was a good, stiff wind. I was right at home.

Amiee checked  me in, and I got to say hello to Mike M. Then I spotted Tim Hardy and caught up with him a little. I greeted John P. and introduced myself when I spotted him. I couldn't help being a little amused at us all huddling under the check-in tents and the Wartrace 'well house' near the starting line - everyone trying to stay dry before starting a 40-mile run in the rain.

At the well house I met Juli and her friend Jan (who I learned later was running the Jim just 10 days post-op from an appendectomy - people like this make it easier for the rest of us to claim we're not really crazy).

We huddled and socialized for a little while until Mike gave us a two-minute warning, then we lined up in the rain to wait for the famous blowing of the conch...

video


And Then We Ran



The course quickly turned left and climbed a small 'not a hill' out of town. There were quite a few 'not hills' on this course - one even helpfully labeled as such. I let the speedsters go and settled right into my race plan.

The way I thought of the race was this: it was nominally 40 miles, and I hoped to be able to finish in under eight hours. Obviously that's a five mile-per-hour pace. I could try running 12:00 miles for 40 miles with a little 'kick' at the end, right? Two things mitigated against that simplistic notion. First, the idea that I would run even splits for 40 miles was ludicrous. Second, the course was actually well known to be 41.2 miles. I would need to make some time to run that last 1.2 miles!

In training I had run about 10:30 for 20 miles. I decided what I would try at the Jim was to go out running 11:00's and try to hold them for as long as possible. Every mile run at 11:00 would save me one minute off of a five MPH pace. By 20 miles I'd have a 20-minute cushion saved up. If I could go longer, even more. Once 11:00 became too hard if I could at least hold 12:00's then I'd preserve that cushion as a budget for the extra 1.2 miles. Looked good on paper, as they say!

I did... ok. According to my Garmin data I averaged 11:24 per mile for the first 15 miles. That's not really too bad. You see, the Jim has quite a few more 'not hills' than I'd realized. Somehow I'd gotten the idea that it had 1300' of elevation gain. Reality would prove to be quite different - about 100% different, in fact!

So really, I was doing pretty well. I'd banked nine minutes of cushion in 15 miles, even with the first serious climb out of the little town of Normandy, and I still felt really good. If anything I was settling into my stride.

Then a little surprise came along...

The Long Mile

Due to our late arrival the previous night we'd had no time before the race to get our crew supplies. Karen is just an amazing trooper and partner in this crazy endeavor that I've gotten into. She has crewed for all but one of my now seven ultras. The plan for the Jim was for her to leap-frog me with our rented SUV - driving ahead a few miles to park and wait for me to run by, stopping if I needed anything.

My favorite running fuel for the latter stages of a race is chocolate milk. We'd brought a little soft-sided cooler and had intended to get out somewhere the afternoon or evening of our arrival and fill it with chocolate milk (and anything Karen would want). The new plan was for Karen to see me off at the start then go back to the hotel to finish getting herself together, then stock up on supplies and catch up with me on the course. I routinely go out and run fifteen or twenty miles unsupported and without food or drink. I took a handheld water bottle with me and I'd be fine on my own for two or three hours from the start.

By 15 miles Karen had already made it back and I'd seen her twice already after Normandy. She had just passed me a little while previously and headed on up to find the next rendezvous spot. I was running well on a nice little downgrade. I spotted John Price up ahead and I was catching him. Cool! I'd get a chance to maybe chat with him a little.

Then I looked a little further ahead. Some pickup truck was stopped in the middle of the road facing me with it's flashers on. Another vehicle was off to the side facing the other way, and there was another vehicle with its rear-end sticking way up in the air and its nose buried in a ditch!

"Whoa," I thought, "I sure hope Karen got through there before that whole mess happened."

Then, as I got closer, that vehicle in the ditch started to look awfully familiar.

"Oh no."

Sure enough, the ditched SUV was my crew vehicle, and as I ran up I saw a rather confused and upset Karen through the driver's side window - sitting way up in the air above the road! The right front wheel was way down in the ditch and the left rear was a good four feet off the pavement.

I think it's fair to say that I did pretty well here. The first thing out of my mouth was, "Are you alright?" I think I let one comment about this messing up my race slip out, then quickly walked that back seeing Karen about ready to burst into tears over it.

"No, no - it's alright. I'll finish when I finish and what matters is that you're ok - really."

The vehicle wasn't as bad off as it looked. What she'd done was pull across a driveway and then try to park just past it so that the owners would be able to get in and out behind her. It was just as she drifted to a stop that the right front wheel ended up hanging in space, and the front end had just gently tilted down into the ditch - see-saw fashion. There hadn't been any impact - it was just a really bad parking job.

I got in and tried backing it out. Nothing doing there. It was pretty obvious that if we could just get it to tip back up it would back out easily. We tried piling a few of the extra people - runners who had stopped to see if they could help - in the back, but we just couldn't get enough weight in there.

Someone suggested that we try talking to the people who owned the driveway. We could see a few pick-up trucks up the hill by the house. Maybe they had a tow chain. We headed up the driveway and were soon greeted by two members of the pack of dogs that were hanging out in the front yard. One was a clearly-friendly old Golden Retriever who just wanted to make our acquaintance. the other was smaller and more stand-offish, but seemingly just curious. At least one more was up closer to the house and I couldn't really read that one.

About that time another pick-up truck pulled up to the end of the driveway looking kind of 'purposeful.' Karen had spoken to the guy in the first pick-up (the one I'd seen stopped in the road) before I'd gotten there. He'd made the same assessment about how easy it would be to get the thing out of there if only we had a tow chain - but he didn't have one either. He was a local though and Karen explained that he'd said, "Tell ya what - ah'll go get muh-Daddy. He's got a chain."

Karen figured the new arrival might just be Daddy and headed back down to see what was up (conveniently leaving me to deal with the dogs). By the time I'd gotten close enough to the house to get the attention of the people inside and started to explain the situation to the lady of the house, Karen was waving me back down to the road.

I started jogging back down the driveway, and about halfway down my Garmin went 'bleep' and told me that I'd just finished mile 16 in about 22 minutes. Great.

Well, it was Daddy, he did have a chain and by the time I got there he'd already wrapped it around the rear left axle and was hooking it up to his truck. I climbed back into the driver's seat of the SUV, Daddy pulled the rear end back down, and I backed that thing right out of there. Easy-peasy!

A lot profuse thanks were expressed to Daddy (and missus Daddy who had accompanied him). God bless good country folk! I told everyone I was going to get back to business and headed off down the road. A short while later Karen slowed up as she passed me and asked how far up the road I wanted her to go.

"Oh, I don't know. Go maybe five miles and find a REALLY GOOD PLACE to park."

The Rest of the Story

Well, that was a new experience in an ultra.

When I got back to running I think I felt a little better because of the break, but all of my cushion was gone. I had some vain hope of building some back up, but I didn't think it was very likely. Surprisingly though, the sub-8:00 finish was not so obviously unreachable that it wasn't worth trying.

The Long Mile was 21:56, so I was actually only about three minutes behind 5 MPH pace when I got running again. Over the next 13 miles - through mile 29 and through the next two of the four big climbs of the course - I averaged 11:44's. I caught and re-passed a few of the people I'd passed earlier (kind of demoralizing having to do that again, but then I thought how they must have felt about it). I finally did catch up to John Price just after the halfway point. He was having a bad day and after a few pleasantries encouraged me onward.

All of that got me about even again - on 5 MPH pace - but it also got me to the foot of "The Walls."

Before the race I'd been a little confused about The Walls. Looking at elevation profiles of the course suggested that "The Walls" referred to the last two big climbs, but it also looked like it might mean just the final climb - even though it was 'walls' plural. That seemed odd, but it immediately became clear when I got there.

"The Walls" made me just a little homesick! It was a little country lane that went steeply up in terraces - a steep rise followed by a little flat spot, then another steep rise. When you approached, you could see the first two climbs ahead of you looking like - terraced walls! It looked so much like one of many country roads I had biked on as a kid growing up in the Allegheny Mountains of Pennsylvania - in farm country in Somerset and Cambria counties. 

Of course there were more than just the first two. After the second 'wall' the road curved sharply further uphill to the right, then around to the left and down a short ways, then came to another even bigger wall. It was one false top after another, and I lost count.

I finally got the top and there was Karen - God bless her! I fueled up on some chocolate milk and moved on - but I was never really the same again after The Walls. The five miles from mile 30 to the aid station at mile 35 were slow and painful, but I kept moving well enough. There was only one more sub-12:00 mile through that section though - my last of the race.

I was thrilled to see the marshaled road crossing, then the aid station, then a little further on Karen again. I fueled up once more, made sure my water bottle was full, then told her to go ahead and wait for me at the finish. It was only five more miles to go. That might have been a mistake, as maybe it was a mistake to refuse aid from passing vehicles.

There were friendly, caring people traveling up and down the course offering food - notably listers Stu Gleman and Terri Preast who'd stopped for me once before. Shortly after Karen went on they stopped by again. This time Terri offered me a cookie, but at this point my stomach didn't want to deal with anything and I just wanted to slog it out and get done. Ordinarily these would have been pretty run-able miles, but I wasn't running so well anymore. My pace fell off sharply, to more like 13:00-14:00. I passed Laz's 'inspirational' note painted on the road: "Only Wimps Walk Here."

"Wimp - check," I thought to myself.

"5K to go. Kick Now!"

"Hah! I ain't got no kick!"

John Price had told me the last two miles were downhill. I rounded the final turn onto Route 64, reading the note on the road that said, "Only two miles to go," and then I looked ahead to see - a long uphill section. I don't know if John had been trying to stoke my confidence back there on the course or had just been yanking my chain (that happens at the Jim, I think) but I'd say the last two miles were mostly uphill.

Route 64 is the main road into Wartrace and there was a lot of fast-moving traffic. The shoulders were in good shape and wide, but steeply banked and that was giving me problems at this point - and it was one of those demoralizing roads where you can see a long way ahead and it feels like you're never going to get there. It was here where, for the first time in the entire race, I gave up and walked some when I really thought I should be running.

I was quite happy, and briefly amused, when I passed the sign that said, "Reduce Speed Ahead." I thought to myself, "That could just as well be one of Laz's messages." Then I passed the "Welcome to Wartrace" sign, topped the final rise and started running again - with the Walking Horse Hotel and the finish just coming into view.

Finished!


I was thrilled to finish in 8:23:30. I'd missed my goal, but had pretty much executed on my race plan and, given the extra hills and the mishap with the car, I did alright. My placement was 71st out of 98 finishers. Here's a link to the results page on UltraSignup.


Mike Melton was right there, wearing a plastic bag and a smile (oh, and some clothing too) and bearing a nice hefty medal which he proffered with a handshake. Karen snapped photos as we headed for the vehicle so I could change into some dry clothes before heading over to the post-race BBQ.




Then the really good stuff happened! Just about the first person I saw when I got there was Laz! What a pleasure to finally meet the man in person - and right away he told me he was about to go give Big some water and asked if I'd like to go along and meet him. Win-sauce!



Here's me meeting Laz and Big by Laz's famous Willys pick-up
video


Big had been a little 'over-peopled' earlier and felt more comfortable
meeting me from the cab of the truck.
video

A lot of ultras have some post-race festivities. Usually I've been too beat to feel like staying for them and have just wanted to get the drive home over with. I couldn't imagine wanting to skip this at the Jim - rain, cold - whatever!

There was Juli, and Laz, Jan, Tim, Shannon Burke, and Stu Gleman, Ray K, Case, Laz's wife Sandra, and some others coming and going - not all of whom I'd met by name, but all good company, enjoying the satisfaction of finishing the race. I sat across from Juli and probably grossed her out scarfing down a quarter-chicken.

Juli and Laz
Truthfully, my brain was a little fuzzed out at this point. I probably wasn't great company myself, but I sure did appreciate the chance to feel like a part of this group.

Final Thoughts (finally)



There is something about the Jim. As I sit here writing this - now two weeks after the race, I feel it. I often think I'd like to go back to the race I've just done, but this feels different somehow. Maybe it's the course. It's interesting, challenging - beautiful in many places - and it seems to just seduce you into thinking, "I bet I could do better next time." Anyone who thinks ultras are only about trails really ought to go run the Jim.

Maybe it's the people. You really get the sense that the Jim is a family. Everyone seems to know everyone, and that familiarity just seems to spill over onto strangers like me. If you're at the Jim you must be ok - and if you have any sense at all, when you're at the Jim you want to be ok - you want to be part of creating that atmosphere of meeting with old friends. I wouldn't mind a chance to do that better too.

I really want to go back to the Strolling Jim! It's a long way to go from Central NY, but who knows? Karen and I went on and enjoyed the rest of our vacation, but feel like we only scratched the surface of things to see and do in Tennessee.

Oh - but I did make a point to see the absolute, hands-down, most important landmark in the state:


Hey, ya gotta have some dreams!


3 comments:

  1. Yes. I think this one is on the list.

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  2. Awesome race report! I was looking this up in consideration of entering. I saw there is a marathon option (my furthest distance so far) and emailed Laz about the details. He planted a seed in my head and now actually thinking about the whole 41.2 Still undecided, but reports like this definitely make it something to seriously consider. Great job on finishing a tough day!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Well thanks! Be careful about letting Laz talk you into things though. That can go to some very bad places! ;-) Seriously, though, if you're at all interested, don't be afraid to jump into the 41.2 and get the whole experience. If you can do 26.2 you can do this too. You just have to go slower (and hurt longer).

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