Sunday, June 22, 2014

That one time I decided to do something totally crazy, like run 50 kilometers

The first weekend in June marked my third time participating in the The North Face Endurance Challenge trail race.  This is the event where, two years ago, I completed my first marathon.  It’s also the event last year in which I failed to complete my first attempted ultramarathon, dropping out at Mile 26 of a 50K race.  I was determined to finish the race this time, and after failing to train properly for the Rock n’ Roll Marathon a couple of months ago, I tried to make sure I was getting the proper mix of long and short runs in training so that I would be able to finish.

My buddy Kenny came down from Connecticut—he had signed up for the race before he and Melanie moved up there in early March—and we drove up to Algonkian Regional Park bright and early for the race.  Kenny’s strategy for the race was to keep his heart rate in his optimal fat-burning zone, which in his experience is a pace that he feels he can run at for hours and hours.  What that meant was that we had to walk up and down the big hills—last year we were a little too aggressive on some of the steeper downhills, and that can be more taxing on your legs than perhaps you might think.

So that’s what we did, and it worked really well.  The temperature and humidity were manageable, especially compared with how hot it got last year.  The trails were a little sketchy in a few spots because it did rain overnight, but it was nowhere near as muddy and slippery it was two years ago.  We were making good time and feeling really good as we got into the Great Falls aid station, just under the halfway point.  About two miles before we got to that aid station the race leaders passed us going back the other way—the two guys in the lead looked phenomenal, and we figured they were going to finish the race in about four hours (official time for the 50K winner was actually 3:58—that’s just awesome).  At this point we were on pace to finish in about seven hours, which would have been a great time for us.

The section right above Great Falls was, for me, the most difficult part of this course.  It is all up and down, and some of the footing is very tricky, so this is a section that can really mess with your mind.  Up until this part, I was feeling pretty good, but it took a lot out of me getting through that section, and I was starting to struggle a little bit.  Kenny stuck in there with me, and his encouragement was greatly appreciated, especially since I really struggled between Great Falls and the Carwood aid station.

This would be a good time to mention that the Carwood aid station was new this year—in previous years, there weren’t any aid stations between Great Falls and Fraser, a distance of about six miles, and that was very difficult for a lot of runners, including me.  The addition of that stop was crucial for me, and I’m sure for many others, in being able to finish this year.  Like I said, I was struggling and staring to have doubts that I would even finish the race, again.

That's TWO thumbs up, just for finishing.
All that said, I have to confess that I walked the entire distance between Carwood and Fraser.  At the start of that section I was feeling so worn out and depleted, I was thinking that I would be able to finish the race, but only by walking.  I told Kenny that I’m just not built for ultramarathons, that he should just go ahead and run ahead without me, and that I’d see him at the finish line.  To Kenny’s credit as a friend, he stayed with me.  His legs felt fine, but he was having some pain in his lower back, so every so often we would stop so Kenny could stretch out his back.  We walked pretty fast, it wasn’t like last year where I was barely conscious of where I was, but for almost three miles we just didn’t run at all.  Fraser was where I dropped out last year, so just getting to that point was an accomplishment for me, but it wasn’t enough to just get there, I wanted to get past it.

By the time we got to the Fraser aid station and got some food in us, I felt like I was ready to run again, so we did.  Not only did we start running, but we ran for the majority of the last five miles.  And not only did we run for most of those last five miles, but according to Kenny’s Suunto GPS watch, we kept a pace that was our fastest of the entire race—looks like we did something right by walking those three miles!

All smiles once it was all done.
In the end, we finished the race in 7:56, just under eight hours and four hours after the winners crossed the finish line.  Not exactly a world-beating time, but I finished, and for me that was huge.  I cried at the end of the race, with Mali and the kids around me and offering their congratulations, I literally sat down and started to cry.  It was just such a relief to finally finish this distance, no matter how slow and painful it might have been.

Just like last year, after the race I said that I’m done with ultramarathons.  And, just like last year, within a day of saying that, I was already thinking about what I could do differently to be stronger, to finish faster, and to have a more enjoyable experience.  I have other running goals that I am going to turn my attention to—sub-20 minute 5K, sub-40 minute 10K, sub-1.5 hour half marathon—but I won’t rule out more attempts at marathons or ultras.
Ladies and gentlemen, I am done. I really mean it. For now.
 And, of course, we went to Five Guys afterwards to celebrate.

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