Blog Subtitle

Reverse-engineering the Ultramarathon

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

2014 Jack Bristol Lake Waramaug 50K

Morning over Lake Waramaug, CT.
27 April 2014
When I was putting together my race schedule for this year everything centered on Vol State and what might help me get there and succeed. The first, obvious choice for the centerpiece of training was the 72-hour at 3 Days at the Fair, starting May 15th. There I would get my first experience with multi-day racing (I've always believed in just-in-time training/preparation in ultrarunning - it works for me... sort of).

Next I started looking around for a good 'normal' race to serve as peak training for 3DATF. The Jack Bristol Lake Waramaug 50K sort of 'bubbled up' on UltraSignup and seemed just right. Almost three weeks before 3DATF, a road course - and a legendary race in its own right as a bonus. The 100K at Waramaug is the oldest continuously-held 100K race in America; this year was its 40th running.

Seemed like a chance to make my tenth ultra something special! As always happens, the race I choose merely for a 'training run' soon has goals and excitement of its own.

Goals and Training

When I talk with marathon/triathlete friends about what I do I usually characterize it as emphasizing endurance in my training. I've just been slowly building a constant weekly mileage base on a lot of slow miles and regular weekly long runs. I tell them, "There's no way I could run a marathon in less than four hours, but I could probably go out on any given weekend and run 26.2 miles in under five hours - and probably do it again the next week."

It seems like a short extension to think I should find it relatively easy to run a flat road 50K in under six hours, and I've had it in the back of my mind for some time that I could do that. Lake Waramaug would be a good place to test that theory. If I couldn't do it there then I couldn't do it.

My training had been going well. Since my last training meltdown at the end of 2012, when Virgil Crest had broken me, I had put up a steady progression of increasing weekly miles, leveling off periodically to 'lock in' a new base level I'd worked up to. I had run every day in March, logging four 50-plus mile weeks in a row and 250 miles total for the month. I took an easy week the first week of April, then logged another mid-50 week with a 21/16 back-to-back at the end of it (my first legit B2B).

By the middle of April my training had hit a new milestone, as for the first time my record showed 2000+ miles for the trailing 52 weeks. I've had it in mind for a very long time that 2000 miles per year is the threshold training level for a 'real' ultrarunner. To some extent it did feel like I had 'arrived' but I've long since learned that in ultrarunning reaching the top of that mountain you've been climbing for so long pretty much just leads you to a vista that reveals all of the territory you have yet to explore.

The April Curse

Things weren't all just sweetness and light either. I have a history of over-training in March - as a three-month winter training cycle peaks - and arriving in April broken. This year I entered April tired. March had taken a lot out of me and I could tell I was definitely falling behind on the energy curve. I seemed healthy otherwise though.

Then the week before the race a minor pain I'd been managing on the outside of my left foot flared up fiercely. Probing around, I could feel pain all along the length of the fourth metatarsal, and I feared the worst: stress fracture.

I didn't know what to do! According to standard medical practice, stress fracture is a six to eight week recovery with no impact exercise - and I had Waramaug coming on Sunday, 3 Days at the Fair in three weeks, and Vol State eight weeks after that! Should I skip the near-in races and try to get healthy for Vol State? Try to work through the near-in races then rest it for Vol State? What?

I went to the best resource I know: the wonderful people of the Ultra List and the Vol State List. As usual I got a variety of advice and shared personal experience - but the weight of it all leaned toward "Don't panic. It may be nothing."

On top of that, I got this fantastic piece of advice from veteran Vol Stater Marv Skagerberg:
"Well here's another possibility and I actually did this in the 1985 transcon race.
Just go out and run your longest training distance - or more, as absolutely as hard as you can. 20+ miles highly recommended. You'll know if you have a hairline stress fracture if it then breaks, because you won't even be able to get home except by hopping on one leg. 
If nothing breaks keep training and racing at least as hard as usual taking a good anti-inflammatory, probably naproxen. Of course, don't forget RICE. 
If it is a stress fracture you'll have no problem taking a good long recovery after it breaks...
This is not tongue-in-cheek or anything like that, this is what I would do. Remember that old saw, 'Lord I want some patience, and I want it NOW.' Well this is I wanna know if I have a budding stress fracture, and I wanna know NOW."
Well Waramaug was a scheduled 31-mile training run. Why not go run it as hard as I could? (Ok, so maybe being four hours from home with a broken left foot and no way back but a car with a standard transmission would be a bit of a problem - but it would make a great story.)

Karen knew nothing of this beforehand and still doesn't. She'll give me a hard time when she reads this.

Getting There

The drive from Syracuse to western Connecticut takes a little less than four hours, and it's mostly just bombing down I-90 until you get to Massachusetts, then winding your way south on secondary roads for half or three quarters of an hour from there. Reversing it with tired legs wouldn't be too bad because once I got back to 90 it would be cruise control the whole way home.

I'd never spent much time in Connecticut before and this part of the state was beautiful. The roads south from Massachusetts tend to follow river valleys past beautiful lakes and state forests. It's my kind of country.

I followed Route 8 south to Torrington, where I would spend the night before the race. Torrington is about sixteen miles east of Lake Waramaug on U.S. 202. It's possible to stay closer to the race, but most of those options are high-end bed and breakfasts and resort hotels. I opted for the cheap approach and got a room at the Days Inn - which proved to be a bit of a story in itself as there was a wedding party staying there that night too and they were having a very good (and loud) time into the wee hours - with hotel staff and eventually cops showing up to try to quiet them down. It was lovely! My sleep before the race was, shall we say, 'interrupted.'

On top of that I was starting to get congested from what would prove to be a developing head cold. Well, ultrarunners deal with things so I was up and out of the hotel around 5:00am, had breakfast at a pretty decent diner across the street, and headed west to the lake for the 6:00am packet pickup, thinking I would be able to meet and hang out with some people ahead of the 7:30 start.

Race Day

RD Carl Hunt briefing the early start group as I arrive.
The weather forecasts had consistently claimed it was going to be partly sunny for the race. It would prove to be mostly not - but at least it wouldn't rain. First thing in the morning the sky was an unsettled mix of the tail end of a departing storm system and the new air that was coming behind it. It was cold, and few people were just 'hanging out' after checking in - choosing instead, to stay huddled in their vehicles out of the wind until closer to the start. I cheered the early start group out of the gate, said hello to Mike Melton at the timing tent, and then opted for the same.

There wasn't much to do but get my bib pinned on and take every opportunity with the porta-johns to make sure I was emptied out well. If you're a runner you know how important that is! Other than that I had nothing to prepare, since I planned to take nothing with me on the run.

As we were gathering for the 7:15 pre-race briefing the faster early starters were beginning to filter back through. I got a chance to high-five the big man - Steve Tursi - as he blasted by. I realized I probably wouldn't meet him on the course after that.

Standing with the regular start group getting the full treatment from Carl
(that's me in the red Team RWB shirt).
Carl Hunt's brief was entertaining - he's a character. He gave us a mix of comedy, race history and, of course, "The Rules" (and I don't mean to belittle that - I follow them, as every runner should). Along the way he introduced Ray K, who I'd met last year at Strolling Jim (and who has run Waramaug every year since 1976), and Nick Marshall, ultrarunning great and historian extraordinaire.

Waramaug is another race where, like the Jim, you get to run with legends (and, if you listen, maybe hear a few echoing footfalls of past battles that were fought here).

On the way down from the parking lot I had said hello to John Price, and as we were milling about I recognized and said hi to Cheryl Yanek (can't miss the pink). I looked in vain for Fred Murolo (the Ultra Lists's "Fred in CT") one of many 'listers' I had corresponded with but had not yet met in person. Fred has shared much running wisdom with me and I was eager to finally meet him. He would arrive later.


Nothing but 31 miles of roads and infinite possibility in front of me
(and some faster runners - and some slower ones too).
Love the start of an ultra. The good ones are just so delightfully low-key. Carl just got the 150-or-so of us pointed in the right direction, waited for Mike's clock to count the final seconds to 7:30, then yelled, "Go!"

From that point on you have nothing to do but run until you are done and all of your questions about what you can do have been answered.

The Course

The course at Waramaug is a 7.6-mile loop around the lake and there are four aid stations. The longest gap between them is just a little over two miles, so there is really no need for runners to carry anything with them. I opted to just quickly grab some fluid at every one to maintain hydration and take food as it appealed to me. Simple. With temperatures topping out in the 50's my fluid needs would be low anyway.

The courses for all three distances at Waramaug are certified. To make 50K out of a 7.6-mile loop runners start clockwise, run a 2.2-mile out-and-back, continue for three laps of the full loop, then continue past the start finish for a final 1.9-mile out-and-back to the finish. The 50M does the 2.2 out-and-back, then six full loops, and the 100K covers the 2.2, seven loops, and a slightly longer out-and-back at the end.

Most of the road around the lake is narrow, winding, two-lane blacktop with very little traffic. It stays well within sight of the lake shore, winding past beautiful homes (bring a wheelbarrow or two of money and maybe one could be yours), two public parks, and one pasture full of grazing cattle. The only exception to all this is the short (1.7 mile) section along the east shore of the lake, which is on CT Route 45 and has some busier, higher-speed traffic.

Another beautiful road course!
This is looking back up the course from 'the corner.'
The initial out-and-back took you clockwise to what would be the last aid station on the full loop going in the other direction. This section had the cattle. Hills were few, small and short - almost unnoticeable in the early going.

Once you get back to the start/finish the full loop breaks down mentally into three sections: the long section I'll call the 'south section' (a little over three miles) winding along the west/south shores to what I came to think of as "the corner" - where the West Shore Road intersects with Route 45. There's an aid station midway through this section and another one right at the corner.

Next is the 'east section' along 45. This was my least favorite part of the course. On this day, as soon as you made the turn at the corner you were faced into a stiff, cold headwind. This section also had the traffic, and it trended uphill much of the way, culminating with what's probably the biggest 'climb' on the course, right before the turn that puts you at that aid station you saw on the first out-and-back.

The final leg then is the 2.2-mile 'north section' returning to the start/finish area from there. This section became my favorite part of the course. It had everything going for it: done with the 'bad' part (which really wasn't so bad), easy rolling terrain, and headed home. By comparison the south section seemed long, and the east section had the problems I've already mentioned.

The Run

Coming in from the first out-and-back.
I fell right into the pace I hoped to maintain for a very long while. My Garmin registered between 9:59 and 10:25 pace for the first four miles. I hoped to run 10:30-ish for maybe as much as 20 miles and then just try to hold everything under 12:00 the rest of the way home. I managed to get through 16 miles before faltering at all (except for one 'necessary stop' along the way).

There was a lot of photography happening early-on. Carl drove the course in his pickup and enjoyed sneaking up behind runners and then yelling something at them to get them to look while he clicked off a shot or two. "I hear there's a race happening!" he hollered at me once.

"Yeah, I'm trying to find it myself," I yelled back.

A race? Really?? Hard to tell looking at me, I know.
It was just a great day to run! Nice course, no rain, not too hot. In the first loop I was right on the edge of not needing the long sleeves I had on. The south/west side of the lake was in sun early and I peeled off the black shirt soon after I started the first full loop. Wouldn't be the first time I carried excess clothing crumpled up in one hand while I ran. Then I hit the wind on Route 45 and had it back on as an outer layer in short order. Back on the north section, off it came again.

Not yet convinced I could do without it, I carried it the whole way around the second loop without ever using it, then ditched it at the start/finish before I started the third loop.

Second loop - burdened with my shirt and somebody else's litter
(which I picked up and carried to the next aid station - and yes, I know whose it was).
By the third loop, running was definitely getting harder. I was pleased to still see an occasional sub-11:00 mile out as far as mile 23, but beyond that I was pretty much into 11:00-12:00 range. I started walking a few of the steeper climbs and walked a lot of the Route 45 stretch. Still, this was basically on-plan.

I returned to the start/finish just short of 5:01 race time. There were just 3.8 miles to go and I had almost an hour to do them to beat 6:00! Anything short of disaster and it was in the bag.

The Finish - or "Push It"

I 'pushed' it to the turnaround just for added insurance.

In reality I was wimping out, walking some of the hills and just jogging it easy the rest of the time, content to be anywhere around 12:00 pace. Still, I was making better time than I needed and at the turnaround I was truly golden. Now with just 1.9 miles to go and scads of time to get it done, I was ready to completely mail it in. Then I saw Ray K coming the other direction. As chance would have it I was on a downhill at that point and actually running.

Would you take advice from this man?
"Looking good," he shouted.

"Thanks, Ray."

"If you push it you can beat 5:45!"

Well... crap! One of Ray's legendary qualities is an uncanny ability to judge pace and timing. He's played "The Grim Reaper" at Big's Backyard Ultra every year - running a perfect pace on the 4.166667 mile trail course to come in just before the bell to start the next one-hour lap. If Ray K said I could beat 5:45 if I pushed it from some random point on the final out-and-back at Waramaug then it was true. Not only that, I suspected it meant that he had instantly sized me up, assessed my present running condition and chosen that goal as the best he thought I could possibly do.

Well... double-crap! "Ok, I'll push it," I said as I passed by.

"Push it HARD!" he yelled after me.

Crap, crap, CRAP!!

So I ran as hard as I could. I ran up hills, I ran down hills. If it got 'easy' I ran harder! In short order my breath was coming out in labored 'huffs' as I forcibly expelled spent air so I could refill my lungs quickly. I had no idea how long I could sustain this, but I knew if I ran out of gas I could still walk it in from wherever that happened and make it by 6:00 (or at least I thought I could).

Shortly after leaving Ray I saw Nick Marshall coming along behind him, and he threw some genuine encouragement at me. How many races are there where you can get advice on how to finish from Ray K and then have Nick Marshall tell you you're looking good following it? This is Waramaug.

The Garmin was back to showing 10-minute pace or better. I started getting more positive comments from runners going the other way - and I started catching people. The splits show that I passed five people on the out-and-back and I got three of them during this stretch. The first guy tried to pick it up and go with me. I heard him struggling behind me for a few yards and then give it up. Next up was a man and a woman running together. They saw me coming and again the man tried to pick up his pace and keep me behind him, then he too gave it up as I pulled even anyway. Switching to encouragement mode, he told me to go for it.

There is something magical about competition. Something magical about laying it out there and saying, "I'm willing to hurt for this - what are you willing to do?" There's no animosity in it. It's just testing yourself and inviting others to test themselves against you. There's no denying you feel pretty awesome though when they either don't pick up the gauntlet or they only carry it a few strides! If it hadn't been for that chance meeting with Ray I wouldn't have experienced this.

I had another runner in sight as I approached the finish. It was a guy I had seen going the other way before I got to the turnaround. He'd been joined by his little girl (not in the race) who was running it in with her daddy. I wouldn't have passed them within sight of the timing gate. That would have been just classless. Fortunately it worked out that I didn't have to pull up to avoid doing so. I was just about out of gas and they crossed ahead of me, fair and square.

My official finish time: 5:43:32.8. I had beaten Ray's challenge by almost a minute and a half. Still, see what I mean about that guy? He had it pegged!

6:00 and to spare!


This finish put me at 38th of 85 runners in the 50K, and 26th of 53 men. Anytime I'm in the first half of the pack rather than the last half is a pretty good day for me, and I'm quite happy with it.

I got to wondering though:  so what was the fastest time for a runner over 50? The answer: 4:20:23.1 - over and hour and twenty minutes faster than me. See what I mean about unexplored territory? This is the beauty of ultrarunning (and running in general, I suspect). There is always more to be reached for, more to motivate, animate, and engage you. It's just another mountain - that's all!

I happened to think back over the day and tot up what I ate. Here is my complete intake list for the duration of the race:

- Small cup of water and/or Gatorade (or soda once or twice) at most AS
- Quarter of an egg & cheese burrito and half a slice of bacon (didn't need these, but couldn't resist)
- Half a pretzel stick (when I had a taste for something salty)
- Quarter of a grilled cheese sammich (that was lunch)
- Half a banana late in the race when I felt a little cramp threatening in my calf.

Total calorie estimate:

400 cal. gatorade/soda
100 cal. burrito (max - it was very small)
 20 cal. bacon
 20 cal. pretzel stick
 75 cal. grilled cheese
 50 cal. banana
665 cal. total (about 115 calories per hour)

I continue to be a believer in training and racing with minimal fuel intake. I like not feeling like I have to vomit!

I was very pleased with my pacing again. Just as at Mendon Ponds last fall, I started well back of my eventual finish position, passing people consistently throughout the race to finish 15 places ahead of where I was at the first split. I make a detailed spreadsheet out of lap split times for all of the runners in order to figure that out. Here's what my row looks like and how to read it:

The "Overall" column shows my final finish position. The column labeled "Offset Lap 1" shows that I was running 15 places behind that at the first split - so at minus-15 I was running 53rd at that split. Minus-12 at the second split means that I passed three people and had moved up to 50th place during the next leg of the race. My large negative numbers, progressing steadily toward zero mean to me that I went out at a good pace and remained steady - consistently catching runners who went out too fast. This is becoming my notion of a well-run race.

Since I have these numbers for all of the runners in the 50K, I've decided to share them here for anyone who is interested.

If you've gotten this far - wow! Thanks for reading - and if you ran the race that day, thanks for sharing the road with me. I hope you had a great day too.


  1. Neat report. But I'm commenting to thank you for sharing your offset chart. holy smokes. I picked off 18 people after 4.5 miles. And that's after slowing down pretty significantly in my last 5 miles.

    1. You're welcome, Steve. Yeah - you moved up 10 places during the first full loop. Of course, you were offset in time from many of the people you 'passed' - but it's still legit to look at it that way.