Blog Subtitle

Reverse-engineering the Ultramarathon

Monday, May 16, 2016

2016 Thom Bugliosi Trail Runs 52K

The Thom Bugliosi Trail Runs (the "Thom B") is the first trail race I ever entered. Way back in 2010, just less than a year after I learned of ultramarathons and decided I wanted to do them, I thought I was ready to start trying some shorter trail races as training for 'the big one' I had in mind later that summer. I found two promising options that May: The Highland Forest 1-2-3 toward the end of the month, where I could try twenty miles, and a few weeks before that, the Thom B - offering 13K and 26K options. I think I signed up for the 26K that year.

Then I rolled my ankle pretty badly on a training run in April. I had to skip the Thom B, but was able to slog my way through Highland Forest wearing an ankle brace. 'The big one' didn't happen that year either. I was still an awful long way from ready for an ultra at that point, but that's a whole other story.

For various reasons Thom B never made it back into my plans after that. I stayed aware of the race and noticed with interest that they added a 52K option in 2014. There always seems to be other things I'd rather do in May though. That changed this year when I cleared the deck to focus on preparation for a serious attempt at Laurel Highlands in June and then started thinking about races to put on the calendar that fit with that focus. Suddenly Thom B made perfect sense and I happily registered.

What's the Thom B?

The race is named for a local trail runner who died in 1991 and this year was its twenty-eighth running. I hadn't done the math until just now, but that means that the race predates Thom's passing by two years. There's not a lot of the story on Thom out there that I can find, but apparently he was both talented and well-liked.

As you may have guessed from the available distance options, the race is on a 13K loop course, repeated four times for the 52K. It takes place in the Hammond Hill State Forest, just  a few miles south of Dryden, NY - which is just a forty minute or so drive from my home near Syracuse. It follows a patchwork of trails including a small portion of the Finger Lakes Trail, and has around 1000' of elevation gain per loop. I had never been on any of it before.

There is almost nothing not to like about this race as far as I'm concerned unless you're totally opposed to loops of any length. The Thom B is my kind of old-school race. The 52K cost a whole $35 and this year was the first time the field (for all races) capped out at its 150-runner limit (the 52K would have twenty-six finishers). I think pretty much all of the registration fee went into race essentials: simple but plentiful aid on the course, on-site medical/rescue personnel, and of course whatever usage fees had to be paid. If you wanted a shirt you could buy one (though it would be a generic Finger Lakes Trail Circuit shirt) and if you wanted a medal you could go run some other race (I've since learned there was some kind of 'memento' for finishers that I somehow missed - I'll have to edit in something on that later if I get it).

I understand that pretty much everything I just said would be reason for quite a few people not to like the race. That's the great thing about ultrarunning these days though: there's something out there for everyone.

Like most small, local races Thom B would be populated with some friends and some other familiar faces. Chris and Joe Reynolds were there, and Michael Valone. Michael introduced me to his good friend and training partner Sam Bonacci. I met (by name for the first time) Rob Seltzer, who I recognized from the Mt. Tammany 10. Quite a few others I recognized from other races in the area - including perennial dominant local trail runner Nancy Kleinrock.

Race HQ
(Photo credit - Joel Cisne)

How'd the Race Go?

We all milled around near the aid station on the slightly-muddy dirt road near the start line waiting for the 7:00 AM start time for the 52K. It was sunny and pleasantly cool. Highs for the day were predicted to be around 60 degrees Fahrenheit, so I would be fine in my shorts and t-shirt all day. Some rain showers were supposed to begin moving into the area by around 1:00 PM, but we would have near-perfect running weather until then.

After just a short pre-race brief, co-director Joel Cisne gave us a five-second countdown and off we went. The first part of the race is uphill for about half a mile on the dirt road, and did a very adequate job of letting the small field sort itself out before turning onto a really nice stretch of downhill single-track. It was a mile or two into the race when things got interesting.

I had no plan at all coming in. This was supposed to be the last long training run before Laurel, but I hadn't really settled on how I wanted to try to run it. I'd been training my hind-end off since October, and running unprecedented-for-me mileage and elevation gain since the first of the year. Honestly I had no idea what all that had done for me and what I might really be capable of. The way I looked at it, I could try to answer one of two mutually exclusive questions here at Thom B:

Question #1: If I took it slow and easy - like I was going out for a 70-mile trail race rather than a 50K - how good would I feel at the end? Feeling great then would be a good confidence boost for the idea of going on so much farther in another month. Plus it would ensure that I didn't take too much out of myself this close to the bigger race. It would be a nice, conservative way of using a shorter race as a training run for a longer one.

Question #2: How well could I really do on a pretty tough trail 50K with all that training under my belt? Going out hard and shooting for the moon always has its attraction. It might not be very Laurel-specific; it might cost me if it went really badly - but if it went well it wouldn't be all that bad for my confidence either.

It wasn't until a mile or two in that I finally decided. I found myself trailing along at the back of a group of five runners led by Nancy and a running companion I would later learn was Katy Stettler, followed by Rob and a guy named Charlie (Leonard) who were also running together.

Now the idea that I was running in a group with Nancy Kleinrock was already sort of a "Hmmm... I wonder if this is really smart" situation, but - dang! - it felt okay and I really enjoyed the way we were flying down the trail! I began mulling over a brash thought: "Maybe I should try to hang onto Nancy for as long as I can and see what happens?"

I hadn't quite decided - and then Rob and Charlie started dropping off of the pace as we were climbing slightly uphill though a short muddy section and I had to make a choice. I went around them (as they threw some encouragement at me) and stuck with Nancy and Katy. In that moment I committed, and with a little further thought I decided my goal would be to keep them in sight through the whole first loop - if I could - and then see what happened from there.

One way to pace yourself in a race...
Latch onto a fast runner and hang on for dear life!
(Photo credit, both images, above - Joel Cisne)

I've never run so many uphills in a race - ever. Most of the trails were wide open and pretty smooth, and on the downhills we just flew! According to my Garmin we were ticking off ten-minute miles one after another. Um... I don't normally run ten-minute miles on trails. Today I was though (and running up hills too) and it felt okay!

Now you have to understand... I've already told you about Nancy, but Katy was also out of my league. I'd done a little background research on the other runners in my age group (I'm always hoping and waiting for that one race where the right old people don't show up and I've got a chance at an age group win - still waiting, of course). There were five of us in the 50-59 age group. Nancy and Katy were the women and when I looked at Katy's stats I said, "Okay, they're both going to smoke me." There were two other guys besides me, one of whom had some pretty solid credits that were around ten years old (so who knew what shape he was in now), and the other I was pretty sure I could beat.

So there I am using Nancy and Katy, of all people, as rabbits.

The course is pretty twisty and known to be tough to navigate. It was very well-marked though and with Nancy leading I had no real worries about getting lost anyway. I tried to stay aware of key turns as we negotiated them though, figuring that at some point later I'd need to navigate on my own. The pace was so much faster than I usually ran that I had a very different perception of the trail going by than I'm used to though - far more narrowly-focused on what I has doing and where I was landing - and lots of the twists and turns just sort of went by in a blur.

We blew through the first checkpoint (staffed by a volunteer taking bib numbers), the first of two remote unstaffed aid stations, another checkpoint, the other aid station, a short (maybe 1/4 mile) uncharacteristically technical section of trail, two more checkpoints, and in what seemed like no time at all (it really took us about 1:23) we bombed down the final hill and broke out back onto the road right at the start line aid station. I'd made it! I'd held on the whole first loop!

What now? Well... coming up with a new plan would require thought, so why change the one you're on if it's been working? Nancy and Katy headed up the hill and I followed right behind them. I was going to stay glued to the two of them until I couldn't anymore, find out where that was, and then see what I had left after that.

1:26 later, we bombed down the final hill and broke out back onto the road right at the start line aid station - again - and the race was half finished.

The second loop had been fairly uneventful from a running perspective: more of the same. Definitely starting to feel a little harder, but I had no real problem holding onto the slightly slower pace. On both loops there had been time to stop briefly at the aid stations, and I'd been fueling on a cup or two of the Gatorade provided and on small handfuls of potato chips. There would not have been time to dig out one of the food bars I had with me and eat that.

Somewhere within the last three miles we came up on Michael Valone's friend Sam. Asked how he was doing, he replied that he was sort of blowing up. I told him I was sticking to Nancy and he said, "Let me see if I can throw a rope onto you," and started following along. That was about where the course started trending mostly downhill toward the end of the loop and we were really flying again. No way I was letting go of Nancy and Katy at that point, and Sam shortly had to drop off.

Finally (believe it or not for the first time at this point) I got close enough to my 'rabbits' to say something. "I don't know how long I'm going to be able to keep bird-dogging you two like this." They said they didn't mind the company and we chatted for a bit. That was when I found out who Katy was. They explained as we started down the final downhill stretch that what they'd done for me by pulling me along to this point was get me past the start/finish before the mass start of the 13K and 26K races at 10:00. We'd get out on the third loop before that pack would pound the trails ahead of us.

A quick cup of Gatorade or two and another handful of chips and I was out of there - once more following the ladies up the hill. We got at least a mile-and-a-half into it before the front-runners from the shorter races caught us. I don't know if I was really done or if some psychological effect of getting passed came into play, but I finally lost contact with Nancy and Katy at about 17.5 miles on my Garmin. It had been one heck of a run for me to that point! Now... what would happen from there?

On My Own

(Photo credit - Joel Cisne)
Well I wasn't dead. I caught myself red-lining, pulse pounding in my ears, going up one pretty gentle incline and realized I had to back off a little or I would blow up. I only had to dial it down to my own normal capability though. I walked more hills, paused just a little bit longer at the aid stations, but otherwise pushed myself as hard as I could and still logged twelve-ish minute miles that third loop, bringing it in at about 4:26 (around 1:36 for the third loop).

Not exactly looking forward to going around again, I realized the best thing to do was get my butt right on up that road and far enough down-course as quickly as possible so that that the only reasonable thing to do would be to finish the race. I knew even if I had to walk the whole thing I could do it!

It took me 1:52 to get around the fourth time. I continued to run the downhills and flats (mostly - I slipped a few short walk breaks into some of the latter). I was just a lot slower at all of it. I crossed the finish line at 6:17:55, about twenty-four minutes after Nancy (5:54:15 - second place, female) and Katy (5:54:25) and five minutes ahead of Charlie and Rob (both at 6:23:07). I'd bet their splits would show that they made up a lot of ground on me on that last loop with their smarter pacing, but I held onto a good margin at the end.

And did I mention that I had an absolute blast?

The five of us, by the way, were twelfth through fifteenth/sixteenth in the finish order, in the order that I listed our names above (seems they gave Charlie, 60, the edge over Rob, 49, based on age). The other 50-59 age groupers bracketed all of us: Glenn Hamilton (the guy with the solid older credits) is apparently still in very good shape, finishing in 5:36:34, and the other guy came in a little over an hour later than the last of our mid-pack group. The winner, Jed Sheckler, ran 4:36:31. First female Danielle Podeszek ran a 5:43:33.

The rain had started just about right on schedule, by the way. I'd gotten spattered just a little bit in the very last mile. I really hadn't seriously hoped to beat it, but I almost actually did. There was a nice group hanging out at the finish, and there was some recovery food laid out there: some bagels, fruit, chocolate milk, and some other usual aid station fare. I sat and chatted with Rob and Charlie and a few other finishers coming in - including Chris Reynolds, about 7:00 after Rob and Charlie.

I had to make an exit fairly quickly though, because we had family from out of town visiting, and Kim was home for the weekend. It was at this point I found the only thing I didn't like about the race! Parking is about an eighth of a mile from race headquarters 'down' the dirt road the other way - by which I really mean down through a pretty deep hollow and up a pretty steep hill on the other side. You know how just as soon as a race ends you can barely walk another step - even though you probably could have gone another ten miles if the race was that long? Well in order to get back to your car after this race you had to suck it up, get your head sort of back into 'racing mode' and slog your way up that one more hill! I consider that a minor quibble, at most, with what was just another great ultra racing experience. :)

Much thanks to Joel Cisne, co-director Shelley Marino, the many volunteers, and the Finger Lakes Running Club for putting on this race. Thank you, Nancy and Katy, for putting up with a tail for seventeen-and-a-half miles. You helped show me what I could do.

Now... on to Laurel!

1 comment:

  1. Another one in the books! Great race report, as always. I think you have Laurel Highlands nailed.