Hard to know where to begin on this one. As most of you know I started out dreaming of doing the 50 mile course and later made the switch to the 50K. Needless to say, this was a good decision and I learned a lot about myself and my body that will help me prevent what happened at this race in the future.
After a long 2 - day car drive, that had some setbacks in the form of a flat tire and a closed mountain pass, I hopped on the shuttle bus around 5:30 am and arrived at the starting line area about 6:15 all ready to go. This left me standing around, slightly under dressed in the dark for about 40 mins until my 7:00 am start. I lined up at the start right up front because I intended to set out at a fairly good pace and didn't want to get behind too many slower runners on the first climb (which turned out to be not an issue as the first climbs were up wider fire roads not single track). I ended up flying through the first 8 miles (1400 ft of climbing and 1400 ft of descent) in 1:11:05. I remember thinking that I had planned to be through this point 1:40 and tried to slow my pace down on the next climb, but I think the damage had already been done.
After climbing another 6.2 miles and 1700 ft I reached the Bootjack aid station, what I had figured would be the relative half-way point being that it was just after the largest climb of the day even though it was at the 14 mile mark. I had intended to hit this aid station at 3 hrs, but ended up coming in at 2:23. This had me worried at this point, but after grabing some food, refilling my water bottle, and re-tightening one of my shoes (knowing that I had a big downhill coming up) my legs felt really good so I set off down the Bootjack trail at a comfortable, but brisk pace. I had seen both Michael Owens and Erik Skaggs come into Bootjack at the same time as myself (although they were racing the 50 mile). Michael continued on and Erik dropped. It was my first real run in with any of the top 50 milers, but there would be a few more before I was done.
In my planning of my race strategy, I had entirely underestimated the next section of the course, which I figured would take me around 1 hr. After 2,300 ft of downhill and 1100 ft of ascent in a span of 5.8 miles my legs were really feeling the effects of the hard pace I had put out early in the race. I did not expect the hills to be as drastic in their grade as they were. Many were too steep for me to run and a few of the sections were covered in stairs. I ended up taking 1:20:05 to get through this section, but also lost most of the good feeling I had in my legs only an 1hr earlier.
It was near the end of this section that I was caught by Uli Steidl. He was at this point off the front and was suffering a little. I asked him how he was doing when he pulled up on me and he looked at me and said, "I'm done, but not yet finished." as he pointed over the hills toward the area we knew the finish waited. Being charged up a little by the run in with last year's 50 mile winner and former White River 50 mile course record holder, I started to feel better and held pace with Uli for a mile or so before he left me on a short section of road that descended to the Old Inn aid station, where I saw him leave just as I was getting in. At this point I was not feeling good and knew my legs were deteriorating quicker than I wanted to see. I briefly thought it might be wise to drop at this point in the race knowing I had 12 miles left and a good chunk of climbing to do. However, Uli's words came back to me and I vowed to finished the race even if finishing strong was not looking likely.
I wish I could say that Uli's words carried me in unwaveringly to the finish line, but by the time I reached Muir Beach @ mile 22, an aid station I'd seen before at mile 8 (feeling great at that point), I had made it up in my mind that I needed to drop. My energy levels were ok, but my legs were just shot. I looked up and could see the 1000ft climb that awaited up a very muddy slope and just said it wasn't going to happen. I went up to the aid station official and told him of my intention to drop and he asked me what was wrong. I told him my legs were shot and I didn't think I had it in me to finish and I asked him if there was a way to get a ride back the start finish area where my dad would be waiting after he finished his race. What I heard back was not what I expected. He said, "I'm not going to let you drop just yet." I didn't think I was hearing him right and had mentally already checked out of the race and was trying to get used to accepting that I would not be able to finish. I tried to argue with him for a second and he just made me sit in a chair and drink about 20 oz. of coke and some saltine crackers. He then told me to start walking up the climb and if I still felt the same way in 15 min to come back down and he would let me drop. Reluctantly, I started out up the climb at a walk (which most people were doing as the ground was extremely muddy and the hill steep). I didn't feel any better. My calves were thrashed and my extensor tendon in my left foot above my big toe was hurting as it had since about mile 18. I looked down at my watch and it had been over 15 mins. but after I looked back down to see how far the aid station was, going down did not look appealing at all, so I kept going up.
About half way up the climb, I heard someone come up on me. I turned to look and heard someone say "Hey." before they kept on, at a running cadence up the climb that I had considered not runnable. It took me a few seconds to realize it was Jenn Shelton giving chase in the women's 50 mile race. After a few more minutes of climbing she was out of sight and I was left to hike the rest of it with the other runner. Once I crested the top I actually sat down on the side of the trail for about 15 seconds to try to gather myself together and as I was sitting there (which felt so good) I realized that while I was sitting down that nothing was really hurting at all. This gave me some confidence that although I was hitting an level of muscle fatigued I have not yet experienced before, that I was not doing any damage that would indicate I was injuring myself. I also realized, while I didn't feel any better since the aid station where I had made my mind up to drop, I didn't feel really any worse. I then got up and proceeded to slowly jog my way down 700 ft of downhill over about 1.5 miles to the Tennessee Valley aid and see how I felt there.
I made it in and grabbed a handful of chips and some oranges and ate those trying to think of what I was going to do. It was not 45 secs at that aid station before Uli's words came back to me, "I'm done, but not yet finished." I was definitely done and I had pulled into this aid station @ 5:43 which was close to where I was hoping to finish the race, yet I still had a significant climb and 5.8 miles till the finish. I was physically and emotionally defeated, but I mentally made a choice, in part because of Uli's words and in part because I was catching a small glimpse that I might actually be able to finish which is by far more appealing to me than dropping out, but I did not think it possible at the previous aid station. I left that aid station resolving to finish even if I had to walk in.
First thing out of the gate was the last 700 ft climb which I took mostly at a hike. I slowly made my way to the last aid station which was 2.7 miles out from the finish and mostly downhill. I only managed a 10:50/mile pace for this last section to finally finish back where I had started 7:09:01 earlier. The course ended up being 32.3 miles on my garmin and this length was corroborated by some other reports I read from the 50k race so it looks like the course was at least an extra mile long.
The lessons learned at this race were many, but the few that stand out to me right now are as follows:
1. Start out and stay on pace for the full race...I started out way too fast trying to push a time goal and paid for it. In ultrarunning nothing comes easy or without effort so don't plan on a race without some struggle in it.
2. Course knowledge is very helpful...I had looked over the course profile and the aid station charts quite a bit, but still ended up underestimating the difficulty of the course...a mistake I hopefully won't make again.
3. Make a commitment to finish regardless of time, unless you are seriously injured. The very fact that I considered not finishing, mostly at first because I knew it was going to be a bad time and my legs were toast, tells me that I didn't come in mentally prepared to see it out to the end. Uli Steidl gave me a new perspective that tells me even if it's not your day, stick it out to the end. Many top names dropped that day after they were out of the chase. I don't judge them for that, but I gained much respect for Uli because he didn't.
4. Don't travel 2 days straight in a car in the winter right before a long race...enough said.
5. Keep your expectations grounded and realistic. Don't underestimate yourself, but don't assume you're in top form just cause you feel decent...I came into this race expecting to race a faster race than I did in September, but I obviously was not in the condition to do so. I don't regret trying to run this race hard, but I know I could have done better if I had tempered my early race excitement. If I would have looked at my training leading up to Cle Elum in Sept. compared to the training leading up to this race I would have realized I had a much better base coming into Cle Elum and should have adjusted my time goals accordingly.
All in all, I feel like I had a satisfying experience and really had my eyes opened in a lot of areas. Sure, I'm super disappointed about the performance, but I'm happy I finished and was able to learn and grow from the experience. I owe a big thanks to that aid station official for seeing that I could still continue on to the finish even when I had mentally checked out and could imagine myself making it. Thanks for all your encouragement, everyone. I'm looking forward to a some rest until I start back into some training Jan. 1st. I'm also planning on coming back next year to the Headlands to compete in the 50 Mile race...and this time I should be prepared in all the ways I wasn't this year.