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Reverse-engineering the Ultramarathon

Sunday, November 10, 2013

2013 CanLake 50M

(Photo credit - Natalie Werner)
With the overwhelming popularity of trail races in the ultra world it might be hard for a lot of ultrarunners to believe just how beautiful the CanLake 50 is. On the east coast, trail runs can often be very closed-in. You run deep in the foliage and views can actually be few and rare - if you can take your eyes off the trail long enough to notice them without tripping over a root and killing yourself!

At CanLake you're treated to one vista after another of the lake set in blazing hillsides of near-peak fall foliage - and when you're running on roads you can afford to keep your head up and drink it all in. Increasingly, I find myself loving runs on the roads.

(Photo credit - Natalie Werner)

(Photo credit - Natalie Werner)
(Photo credit - Natalie Werner)

I generally have an array of goals going into one of these ultra things. This time it stacked up like this:

A-goal: 9:13:54 (silver medal)
B-goal: sub-10
C-goal: 50M PR (previous best: 11:47:49)
D-goal: finish (12:00 cut-off)

At the end of the day, I give myself a C+.

The silver medal is an age-graded award based on a performance at or above 55 percent of the World Masters Athletics (WMA) standard for your age. I knew I would have to have an extraordinarily good day to average the required 11:03 pace for 50.1 miles (with over 3000' of hills) to earn it. (There's a gold medal for 65 percent or better, but that is entirely out of my reach.)

The key to the course, I thought going in and still think today, is the elevation profile.

The course has five significant climbs, including the locally-famous Bopple Hill at around 15 miles. My big mistake in planning for this race was in mentally categorizing most of the rest of the course as either 'mostly flat' or 'mostly downhill.' That was a significant underestimation of what I would face - especially in the later going in the race, where even small climbs can feel significantly challenging!

In any case - whatever the runner's goal is in this race - I think it depends on reaching the top of the last big climb, Bare Hill, with a good margin of time remaining and with gas left in the tank to run well for the final ('mostly downhill') twelve miles.

For me, for silver, that meant hitting Bare Hill at about seven hours (or as much less as possible) and being able to run those 11:03's 'downhill' to the finish from there. As I said, that would take a really, really good day.

I did think that 11:58 to break 10 hours sounded like a tough but realistic goal. For that I needed to make Bare Hill by about 7:50 and run those 11:58's to the finish.

11:03 pace is 1:50:30 for 10 miles.
11:58 pace is 1:59:50 for 10 miles.

My 10-mile splits ended up like this:

10 miles: 1:45:14
20 miles: 1:55:47
30 miles: 2:16:48
40 miles: 2:19:57
50 miles: 2:16:51

Basically, I ran a good, strong 22 miles. Too bad it was a 50-mile race!

The mental low point came when I really struggled to push through 'the wall' at around 22 to 25 miles. This happened at the hottest hours of the day. First I had to let go of the silver medal. Then I had to admit that sub-ten was unlikely. What I learned here is that goals can very much be a double-edged sword. After the really big goals were gone, what was left but slogging through another 25-plus miles? Been there, done that.

It takes mental toughness to make the transition from being driven by the goals you've dreamed about for months to being driven 'only' by finishing as best you can.

I actually considered just chucking it and finding a more pleasant way to spend the day with my wife, Karen, and my daughter, Kim, who were there to crew for me. Some part of me still knew though, that if I just kept going this would pass, so I convinced myself to keep going. Looking back now I am proud that I did tough this out and get back to work on making the most of what I had.

I ended up reaching the aid station on Bare Hill at a few minutes past eight hours. I had traded places with my friend, Tim Hardy, all day, and he caught up to me again there but I was ready to move out about the time he showed up. I tried hard to push to stay ahead of him but he finally passed me with about five miles left to go on the course. By that time I'd been reduced to alternating running and walking for about 100 yards each. Tim had a little more gas in the tank. I worked to keep his red shirt in view for as long as possible down the long, straight stretch on Middle Road, and did that pretty well.

The last mile-and-a-half really are mostly downhill and, smelling a solid sub-eleven finish, I found the will to sell out everything I had left and really run it in, passing three other runners in the process, and coming in just five minutes behind Tim. My final mile was sub-10:00 pace and my official finish time was 10:39:05.

I pushed the best pace I could all the way across the line.
(Photo credit - Natalie Werner)

I really learned two things at this race. One is that I am not as mentally invincible as I've fancied myself. That mental crisis back before the halfway point of the race showed me that as I accumulate ultra finishes one of my strongest motivators to get me through the rough patches - finishing - may not work as well as it has until now.

The other thing I learned is that Can Lake is a gorgeous race, and a race I could really do every year. I know I've said that before - most recently about the Strolling Jim. Actually, Can Lake reminded me quite a bit of the Jim. The races have a lot in common: country roads, big climbs - even a graduated award system (the Jim's color-coded race shirts vs. Can Lake's age-graded medals). Can Lake has a few things that make it even better than the Jim though, IMO:
  1. Better scenery. The lake vistas are awesome, and fall foliage is something people drive hours to see.
  2. Better weather (maybe). October in central/western New York could be anything from hot and sunny to frigid - with any kind of precipitation possible. Odds for a cool, dry, sunny, spectacular autumn day are pretty high though!
  3. It's only about an hour from my house!
That silver medal is calling me, and I intend to go back next year and get it!

Usually my race reports are sort of a travelogue description of the course. For this race words are inadequate, so I will just close with a photo collection from the day:

Mist hangs over the water at a chill autumn sunrise.
(Photo credit - Natalie Werner)
The rising sun touches the western hilltops and begins burning off the morning frost.
(Photo credit - Natalie Werner)

93 runners begin their journeys
(Photo credit - Karen McHenry)

As usual, my dear Karen was there to spend her day
following me around on this foolish endeavor!
(Photo credit - Kimberly McHenry)
Kim always manages to find ways to have more fun.
(Photo credit - Karen McHenry)
Topping infamous Bopple Hill with Tom from PA.
Tom and I ran together for a while early in the race. He managed
a sub-10:00 finish - congrats, Tom!
(Photo credit - Debra Wyspianski)
So much beautiful lakefront scenery!
(Photo credit - Debra Wyspianski)
Still looking strong nearing the south end of the lake.
This would change soon.
(Photo credit - Debra Wyspianski)
There's a lot of hot, sunny road out there!
That's me - after a shirt change - trudging through
the rough patch.
(Photo credit - Karen McHenry)
By the time I'd topped the climb out of Middlesex I was feeling 'better'.
At least I could really run again.
(Photo credit - Karen McHenry)
Approaching the turnaround on the out-and-back.
(Photo credit - Al Randt)
And coming back. Only about 16 miles to go from here!
(Photo credit - Al Randt)

Tim nears the turnaround - one of several places we passed near each other.
(Karen said if we were women we'd have just run together the whole way.)
(Photo credit - Al Randt)

Tim and I post-finish.
It's more fun getting beaten fair and square than trotting along
chit-chatting ever would have been!
(Photo credit - Karen McHenry)

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