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Reverse-engineering the Ultramarathon

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

2014 CanLake 50M

Try Try Again

Here we go again! Power-hiking the first major climb up to Coye Rd.
(Photo credit - Natalie Werner)
Last year's CanLake 50-miler sold me on the race for as long as I'm able to do it. Unless you are absolutely opposed to running on roads there is, in my opinion, no way to dislike this race. If you read my report from last year you know just what a gorgeous scenic experience it is. This year was just as beautiful, with the turning fall foliage and the sweeping lake country vistas - and the weather was even better! Temperatures at the start were somewhere near 40F and the high for the day was predicted to be in the mid-50's. Light wind and only a slight chance of rain were in the forecast.

Conditions were perfect.

On top of that, I felt healthy, strong, and prepared. The year since last year's race has been one to remember. Two years of struggling to even get off the ground and run my first 50K, and now three years since then of trying to get ultra training figured out and build a solid base for these races has finally been paying off. In the year since the 2013 CanLake 50M I have:

Given all of those highs, one might think that the CanLake 50M could be anti-climactic. Not so! I had goals to achieve. Essentially, it was a re-do of last year:

A-goal: 9:18:59 (silver medal - five minutes easier than last year because I'm older)
B-goal: sub-10:00
C-goal: 50M PR (previous best: 10:39:05 set here last year)

The only thing off the table was last year's D-goal: finish within the 12:00 cutoff. Better to push hard for one of the higher goals, blow up, and DNF this year in my mind. (That's just me, BTW. Nothing wrong with going out in a race to just enjoy the day and get a finish. It's just not where my head is at right now in these things.)

Since the Vol State I'd mostly concentrated on recovering. That ten-day effort took a toll in terms of general stamina that took quite a few weeks afterward to get over. I struggled to put together solid training weeks through August (though I was able to get in a few long runs). It wasn't until early September that I was back to being able to run five to six days per week without it dragging me down. By then it was getting to be time to stop running long though. My last 20-mile or longer run was on September 6th.

I decided to try something different in the final three weeks before the race. I figured I could rely on my base at this point. Why not work a little bit on speed? I'd often heard it said that during a taper it's a good idea to do some quality short runs to tune up leg turnover and speed for the race. I decided I would do as much tempo as I could handle up until the week before the race (which would be my real 'taper').

I usually do all of my running LSD-fashion - at around 10:30 pace. In the last two-and-a-half weeks before race week I did seven workouts with five to six miles mid-run at around 8:30 pace - three of those workouts were on my local 'hilly loop' where I pushed the pace just as hard up and down over 400' of 'whoop-dee-do' (my term used to imply both 400' up and 400' down). There was very noticeable improvement in the ease with which I could do these over the course of that relatively short time.

The rest of my running during those final weeks was short, easy recovery runs. With that, it was race week, and time to rest. I was anxious to see how all this would work out.

The Course

Elevation Profile
I said last year (and am even more strongly convinced now) that the elevation profile is the key to the course - in particular, the last big climb, Bare Hill, and the final twelve miles that follow it. If you can make it to the top of Bare Hill in good time and in good enough shape to take advantage of the run-able, downhill sections that follow you will do well. If you are not prepared for hills you will reach the top of Bare Hill spent - and do way too much walking for the rest of the race.

To be on even pace for the silver medal I would need to top Bare Hill at 7:05:05 race time. For ten-hour pace I would need to be there at 7:36:17. Last year I got there at 8:03:44 and pretty much death-marched my way in from there.

Course is run counter-clockwise from upper right.
Bare Hill is the third AS from the end.

My Race

(Photo credit - Karen McHenry)

I went out at an easy pace. My hope for the speed work I had done in the latter part of training was that it would make my easy pace continue to feel easy for much longer than it had last year. I ran easy through Onanda Park (mile 9), worked my way patiently through the big climb to Coye Rd. and the bigger Bopple Hill climb, got some time lost to those climbs back on subsequent downhills, and made it to the crossover feeling pretty good.

Last year I had run out of gas here, death-marched all the way past Middlesex, and never really ran well the rest of the race. This year I could still feel the wall lurking as I rounded the south end of the course, but I eased up just a little and worked my way through it. Based on my Garmin data I was faster than silver medal pace through 27 miles - almost all the way through the out-and-back section on Sunnyside Rd. Knowing the terrain that was coming, I knew that wasn't going to be good enough. The silver medal wasn't happening.

At thirty miles though, I was a good twenty minutes plus ahead of ten-hour pace. All I had to do was not give up too much in the last twenty miles and I could do it.

From that point on, twelve minutes was my magic mark every time my Garmin bleeped out another mile split. Every second faster than twelve was a second added to my ten-hour buffer. Every second slower than twelve a second taken away. I knew I would give up substantial chunks in the two big climbs remaining ahead. I would hike those as hard as I could and then try to take something back every time the course gave me an opportunity.

There weren't too many opportunities to get anything back in the next ten miles! The course heading to Middlesex is mostly uphill, with just a few short downhills and some relatively flat spots. I ran all of the latter and as much of the easier uphill as I could. My left calf kept threatening to cramp up on me here and I started taking S-Caps and drinking some Gatorade to see if the electrolytes would help. They seemed to - along with a little caution in my stride and strategic use of walk breaks.

It was through this section that I began to understand what my training was doing for me in this race. Overall, while I was tired and as much in pain as I'd expect to be thirty miles into an ultra, I was still strong. That was the 2400 miles working. The key to holding the line though turned out to be the speed work - which I decided to gamble on at this point. I resolved that when the course gave me something to run I would throw caution to the wind and really run it.

With no point in holding back to my 'easy' pace anymore I leaned into every run and ran it until the next uphill transition - or to some ambitiously chosen landmark if I was running uphill. Whenever I checked my pace during these runs it was most often in the 8:30 to 9:30 range - but occasionally even faster. If you can manage to run half of any given mile at such a pace then you only need to walk the other half at about 15:00 pace to maintain a twelve-minute mile. I can't say I pulled that off all of the time, but I was still close when I missed it (except for on the really big climbs).

Overall I was slowly giving up time from my buffer though - and more than it seemed just from the Garmin splits because by this time I was certain it was measuring the course long (meaning that while its mile splits were short its times were accurate). I made the summit of Bare Hill at 7:33:48 - leaving me a little less than two-and-a-half hours to cover a little less than twelve miles. I had made it to this key point on the course within my target time. It only remained to be seen whether I had anything left in the tank.


This seems like the perfect place to create a little drama by leaving you, dear readers, in suspense while I talk about a few other things!

For example, you might have been wondering earlier: where did I get Gatorade just when I decided I wanted it? Where did I get S-Caps? Once again this year I had dedicated crew - my wife, Karen! She leap-frogged me all the way around the course. I had decided I would consume a liquid diet from a menu of options we'd brought along that included Orgain (an organic meal replacement drink), chocolate milk, Gatorade, and sweet tea (a new in-race love from Vol State).

Karen's got to take her own picture for evidence she was there.
That's Mario in the background - her new love, and race support vehicle
- and she even managed not to park it in a ditch!

We had worked out a system of semaphore hand signals for me to use to indicate to Karen which drink I was in the mood for as I approached her. It was not the official semaphore alphabet, but it worked. Mid-race I also worked out an incredibly clever way of indicating that I wanted to swap out my handheld water bottle for a full one - by holding the empty bottle up and waggling it (who else would have thought of something like that?).

Anyway, Karen would get my signal while we were still well out of reliable earshot, get the indicated item(s) and come out to meet me with them, then walk with me past her car while I drank what I wanted and handed it back to her. In this way I never had to stop moving to get aid, and I got a short walk break each time she met me.

In fact, I only ever stopped moving just a few times the whole race - once for a bathroom break early in the race, once for a very brief rest on a guardrail while drinking some Orgain at the SunnySide AS after the out-and-back, once for another brief sit in a chair at the last AS (Kipp Rd.) when Karen had to run to where she'd parked the car off-course to get more sweet tea, and two very brief standing stops at a couple of AS where I actually paused to take something.

Constant movement was another key part of my strategy, and something I've found gets me past a lot of other runners who choose to spend longer at the aid stations.

The other thing I wouldn't want to miss talking about is the people of the race. I'm a bit of an anti-social loner when I'm running, and all the more so when I'm seriously racing for a goal, but even an anti-social loner meets and greets other runners, their supporters, aid station folks and road marshals, and appreciates them all!

Frankly, I didn't see this support person and don't know who she is,
but feel her effort to be emblematic of  some of the race spectators I did see,
and her creativity and humor quite worthy of wider notice. :)
(Photo credit - Natalie Werner)

The aid station crews were uniformly encouraging and eager to help. I appreciated all of the cheers and all of the offers (even if I generally didn't take advantage of them). Thank you all for being out there!

Once everyone settles into their paces you tend to see a lot of the same runners and their supporters repeatedly for a while, until one or the other of you pulls away. I enjoyed chatting with a couple of first-time ultrarunners near the back of the pack in the first few miles after the start. One of them had (I think) not run longer than a half-marathon before and was taking on a 50-miler. I got a little worried for him when he shared that either the next day or the day after he was scheduled to leave on a 24-hour flight to Kenya for work with an organization that runs orphanages over there. I heartily recommended that he wear compression socks and move around on the planes as much as possible to reduce the risk of developing a DVT. (I don't think he finished the race).

Then I traded places for quite a while with Rob Wilder - who finished way ahead of me. Temporarily passing Rob on Bopple Hill (I like to hunker down and power hike the big climbs as hard as I can) I also caught up to and passed Brian Kirk - who would soon pass me back and then he and I would leap-frog for a while (Rob leaving us both behind). The last time I saw Brian he ran past me shortly after I'd started the big climb out of Middlesex, and he just kept running until he disappeared around a bend well uphill from me. It was at that point I realized that Brian was, in fact, a real runner who would also finish well ahead of me!

It was alright though, because long before I'd seen the last of Brian I'd already begun playing leap-frog with the 'Flatlanders' from North Carolina - Kimberly Hollifield-Smith and Andrea Marra, who were running the race together. They definitely seemed to be stronger runners than me, and were ahead of me more often than not, but I typically 'sleazed' past them at the aid stations and made them have to pass me again.

I'd seen Tom Butler on the crossover road at the south end of the lake. I've known Tom since Mind the Ducks two years ago and have shared quite a few race courses with him now. He takes the early start at CanLake, and last year it took me until the Middlesex climb to catch up to him, so seeing him where I did reinforced my impression that I was doing better.

The Team Rabbit supporters were out in force! They're always good for some hearty cheers as any runner passes by - and their runners, sporting the bunny ears, always bring a smile to my face.

There was also 'Gretchen's support crew.' I didn't know Gretchen, though I think I did exchange a few words with her when I passed her en-route to Middlesex (I think she was another early-starter) but after that her crew was generally the first faces to be seen as I approached the aid stations and they too were always good for some loud cheers of encouragement for every runner coming in. Then after they'd serviced Gretchen there were always more cheers and ringing of cowbells as they cruised by to the next stop.

Finally, I cannot fail to mention the purple ladies! Another support team, this one all decked out in bright purple, that loved to cheer and shout encouragement to every runner coming into the aid station where they were waiting. If I remember rightly, we sync'd up with them at Vine Valley and then they were there at every AS after that. Karen being a purple fanatic too, it was inevitable that they would talk, and from Bare Hill on their cheers for me were by name: "Yaaaay, Pat!"

Meanwhile, back at the race...

Speaking of Bare Hill, that's where I left you all hanging back there before the intermission!

Everything depended on being able to maintain a solid pace the rest of the way to the finish from there - about 11.5 miles. Did I have that kind of stamina left? Starting at the peak of the hill, just a short way past the Bare Hill AS, there is about a mile-long downhill section that drops about 150'. No better place to test whether I could still run, so I 'dropped the hammer' and ran it - and it worked.

My pace down that stretch was about 9:30. I had 'sleazed past' the Flatlanders again at the Bare Hill AS and I could hear them coming up behind me nearing the summit. I may have heard them a time or two after that first downhill. I certainly imagined hearing them again the rest of the way to the end - but they never passed me again, and I'd opened a four-minute gap between us by the time I finished.

Kimberly and Andrea are part of my perceived confirmation about the criticality of Bare Hill and hill preparedness. On a flatter course I think they would have easily beaten me. That last climb cost them the edge they'd had on me for miles beforehand though.

For me, pain was of course a constant now, whether walking or running - sometimes worst when walking. I pushed myself to run every downhill as hard as I could and was most often hitting paces in the 9:30-10:00 range.

This stretch is pretty typical of the last section of the course.
It's downhill overall, but some of the uphill sections are no joke!
(Photo credit - Natalie Werner)

I was beginning to have to deal with a new issue though. The cumulative effect of all of the 'fast' downhill running I'd been doing the whole race had been taking a toll on my quads, and it was beginning to become a real problem - especially left-side. I started to occasionally have trouble lifting that leg into a proper running stride. Most of the downhills were short enough that I could push it that far though. Every walk break up the next hill had to give the quads enough of a break to prepare them for the next push - and for the most part that happened. After a while I started pushing the running on some of the gentler upgrades, preserving time while in a less quad-dominant stride.

(As an aside here, I've noticed that quite a few runners seem to think going uphill is what is hard on your quads. While it may be so for those runners, it's not supposed to be. Most of your uphill drive is supposed to come from the largest muscle group in your body - your glutes. Quads are supposed to be your brakes when you run downhill. A lot of people who come into running later in life have weak and inactivated glutes from years of sitting at desks. If you're experiencing a lot of quad pain from running or power-walking uphill I'd strongly recommend doing some glute activation and strengthening exercises and focusing on driving from the glutes as you work uphill. Think more of pushing yourself forward and upward at the hips than of pulling yourself upward at the knees.)

Eventually - and to my surprise - the quad issue seemed to resolve itself and I stopped having to baby them most of the last few miles. Mental? Smelling the barn? Who knows?

On the way down Arnold Road I came up behind David Yancey. David and I raced the last few miles last year, leap-frogging each other a couple times until I finally passed him on the last downhill into the Finger Lakes Community College campus where the finish is located. As this year's race approached we'd exchanged a little good-natured banter about that on Facebook and shared goals for this year. His were ambitious - he wanted to go sub-9:00 - and looking at his past year, with a nice finish in the Keys 100, I thought he might just be able to do it. I hadn't seen him since the start, but here he was, walking a downgrade with me running up behind him.

David is from Florida, and when I talked to him pre-race he had mentioned the difficulty in preparing for hills down there. I think David is further evidence of my Bare Hill theory of how to run your best CanLake 50. He went on to a solid finish ahead of last year's time - but he didn't pass me back.

I kept pushing. This section just seemed to be going way faster than it did last year! I passed people fairly regularly. It took over seven miles to do it, but I finally even reeled in the red-shirted guy running in Vibrams that I'd first caught up to at the turn onto Town Line Road. He'd worked hard to keep me behind him all that time, but I finally ran past him on a downgrade stretch on Middle Road, approaching the turn onto Lincoln Hill.

I kept a sharp eye on splits the whole way, and managed five miles at well under 12:00 pace (even one at 10:15) and I kept the worst of them to not much slower than 13:00.

By the time I reached the road marshal at the turn off of Lincoln Hill Road toward campus though the quad problem was back with a vengeance! That last downhill to the dead end and the grassy slope beyond it is relatively steep after fifty miles. Where last year I had bombed down the grassy slope, this year I half-ran it in some mincing steps thinking, "Ow! Ow! Ow!" the whole way down.

When you hit the bottom of that and make the turn you can immediately see CMAC (the college's performing arts center) and you know that the finish is just beyond it. I did my best to motor up the slight grade and soon was past the center, with the finish in the parking lot beyond coming into view. It takes way too long at that point to reach the turn toward the finish gate! You'd really like to just cut straight across the parking lot to it, but that's not the course.

Finally I made that last turn and started running up the final grade to the gate. The purple ladies were there cheering for me, Karen was there getting ready to take the finish photo, and even my Kim (who couldn't make it to the race to help crew this year) was there on Karen's phone! When I got close enough to read the race clock it was well under 10:00:00 and I ran across the timing mats in victory - or rather with a solid B-goal achieved: 9:54:45 was my official finish time. :)

(Photo credit - Karen McHenry)

Fun with Numbers and Final Thoughts

10-mile split comparison, 2013-2014

As I've done with Mendon Ponds the past few race reports, I've worked up sets of splits to compare performances year-over-year. For CanLake, 10-mile splits seemed appropriate.

A few caveats... First, the race is really 50.1 miles long (however they measured that - I don't think it is certified). Second, since the race doesn't collect this split data I'm using my Garmin mile splits to calculate it and, as previously mentioned, my Garmin was measuring miles slightly short - possibly not uniformly so over the whole course. Third, the course changed this year. The out-and-back section last year was along the lakeshore from Vine Valley (part of the 40-mile split). This year it was earlier - in the 30-mile split down at Sunnyside.  Bottom line, as absolute numbers these would need to be taken with the proverbial grain of NaCl - but they're still useful for rough comparison.

Not a lot of surprises here. You see the evidence of the year of decent training I brought into this race. I went out a bit easier than last year, didn't deteriorate as quickly, avoided the huge crash between twenty and thirty miles, made it to the forty-mile point in better time - and was better able to take advantage of the easier running in the final stretch.

Note that even in a full collapse like I had last year it's very possible to negative-split the last ten miles. It's just that if you get there in decent shape you should be able to negative split it by a lot. Had that not happened this year I would not have beaten ten hours!

I still haven't found the recipe for getting down into silver medal territory! As I analyze it, based on having run what I feel was pretty near my best race possible this year, I see only two possible ways to get there: 1) get even faster on the run-able sections, or 2) get stronger so I can run more of the hills. The only other option available is to hang onto what I've got long enough for the silver medal to slow down to my level! Based on a look-up in the age table that would happen when I'm 60. Think I'll keep training.

Finally, huge thanks to RD Gil Robs, assistant RD Tom Perry, and once again, to all of the volunteers who helped make the race happen. I know the work you did and I deeply appreciate it! You made it possible for a lot of people to make dreams come true, and that is no small thing!

Sitting is nice!
Karen would drive me home after I got some solid food.
(Photo credit - Karen McHenry)

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