Sunday, September 7, 2008

Dances with Dirt race report

I took Friday off from work and left Willoughby about mid-day. My destination: Pinckney State Park, near Hell, Michigan. Hell is about 10 miles past Ann Arbor (insert U of M joke here). I met up with Jen and her relay teammates and we went to dinner in the epicenter of wolverine country, feeling like strangers in a foreign land. Although I have to say that Ann Arbor seems like a nice town. Sorry, Woody.

The early race start meant getting up at about 4:30. I fixed a light breakfast, turned on my computer, and read some race reports from Badwater for a final bit if inspiration. Took a hot shower, got dressed, did some gentle stretching, said good-bye to Jenny - who was still in bed (relay started 90 minutes later than the ultra) - and headed out.

Billions and billions of stars...
I arrived about a half hour before the 6:15 a.m. start.  The weather was cool, about 52 degrees, and dry. A beautiful, early September morning. I remember looking up for a moment at the sky, and it was filled with stars. I have a lot of early mornings with my training. So when I am outside before dawn, I always take a moment to look at the stars if its clear. It helps relax me. Well, the cosmos put on an especially brilliant display that morning, so far out in the country. The Milky Way stretched across the sky. I hoped it would be a good omen for the day.

Down to business
I slathered some Ivy block on my legs, sunscreen on my shoulders, strapped on my Fuel belt, turned on my Garmin and was ready to go.

About 200 runners lined up at the start line. We'd have about 45 minutes of running before dawn. Most of us had headlamps on, and as the RD made his final comments before the start, he joked that we looked like a Gynecologists' convention.

My first priority was to seed myself well at the start. Last year, I got caught up with runners going slower than I would have liked, and it was very difficult to pass on the single track trail.  So I chose my spot well, and covered the first couple miles at around a 10:00 / mile pace. Perfect.

The course for the first third of the race was pretty fair. A few hills, some roots and rocks, and some spots where the trail surface turns to sand. But the biggest concern in those first few miles is dealing with the darkness and tuning in to your body. 

One thing I was starting to notice, though - hot spots on both of my feet - right at the pressure point where my bunions jut out. I was a little concerned, this coming so early in the run. But, the rest of me felt good. I made it through the first 10 miles in about 1:41 or so. I was really happy with this pace.

My decision to run 50K
I decided early on that my race would be a 50K, and not a 50-mile. The 50K course and 50-mile course start at the same time and are totally parallel until the 50K finish. So DWD rules let someone who registered for the 50-mile change their mind and just do the 50K. You just have to decide before the end of the 50K (likewise, you could sign up for 50K and decide to go for the full 50 miles). I wanted a quality performance. And I thought I could put together a strong 50K without having the prospect of running an additional, 19 tough miles in the back of my mind. The decision made me more comfortable with my pace and confident with what was ahead.

Nutrition strategy
The course emerged from the woods at a place called Hell Creek ranch. I did a quick pit stop at an aid station here to fill bottles, etc. One of my objectives was to get through the aid stations fast this year, and I did a good job of that.

I was carrying two hand-held bottles this year, to make sure I didn't dehydrate. One had water, the other had Nuun electrolyte drink. You buy Nuun as tablets that dissolve in water, a-la Alka-Seltzer. Tastes a bit like Red Bull. I carried the tabs in a little pocket and plop-plop-fizz-fizzed each time I refilled the bottle. Worked really well for me. Although it never got very hot - about 68 by late morning - I was sweating quite a bit. 

I kept my nutrition very simple. Every odd hour I slurped down a Boost meal replacement drink, which I carried in my Fuel Belt. Even hours was a Clif bar. That gave me an average of about 200 calories an hour. Never had any problems at all with GI issues. 

"Welcome to Hell!"
Back to the race. If the first third of the race was pretty fair, the next three stages were a real kick in the butt:
  • "This Sucks Less"  4.75 miles. Tight, single track trail, short but steep hills, and overgrown tree branches that you constantly had to block with your arms (I have scratches all over my shoulders), or duck under (I smacked my head on low branches a few times). It's just the sort of running that beats you up and slows you down. I knew that my lovely 10:00 pace was gone.  This stage is named after another called, "This Sucks," which the ultra runners didn't run. I have to say that "This Sucks Less" sucked plenty out of me.
  •  "Stripper Pole" 2.95 miles. Not sure where the name came from, but its marked by a climb up a long hill that's so steep you have to use our hands to dig in to the deep sand and scramble your way up. Then, an equally steep descent! 
  • "Styx, River of Death" 3.25 miles.  It starts out easily enough. A mile or so on a nice hiking trail. Then ... what the ... the course markings take you off the trail into the middle of the woods. No trail, you're just traipsing through the woods, going from marker to marker, through sticky mud, over fallen trees, etc.  AND THEN into and through the river. There are three river crossings, then a quarter-mile run straight up the river. It ends at a place called Hell Store.
As I exited the river Styx, finally, I was greeted by Satan himself, presiding over Hell. He laughed and welcomed me, and said he'd been watching me come up the river. I asked if he had designed the last three miles of course too, and he laughed, evil.

Home stretch
I was now at mile 19, and took a quick break. For the first time, I took off my socks. Surprisingly, the hot spots had not formed into blisters. I wrung out my socks, emptied the sand out of my shoes, re-laced, had something to eat and got moving again.

I was starting to do math in my head. It took me about 3:50 to go 19 miles. Could I do this in under 6 hours? What a victory that would be - last year, it took me 7 hours and 26 minutes to go the 31 miles. I figured I'd need to keep a 12 minute pace. It was going to be tough. 

The last 12 miles are very runnable, but there are a lot of rolling hills. And my quads were really starting to burn - especially on the downhills. 

I plodded ahead. The relatively easy trail helped me get back into a groove. I put the thoughts of a 6 hour finish on the back burner, and just focused on getting through each mile.

The final aid station was at a place called Silver Lake. I refilled my bottles one last time, and had a cup of Coke. My Garmin said I was at mile 24.5, although the aid station sign said this was mile 25.0. I filed the discrepancy away in my brain. I was about 4:48 in, and had about six miles to go. I needed to get moving.

Setting a pace
Now, I got serious about the six hour finish. It was quite simple - run 12-minute miles, and I should make it. There was no reason to hold back. So I got back on the trail and settled in. My Garmin was telling me that I was holding around an 11 minute/mile pace on the flats. Nice, but I was walking the hills at that point too, which was dropping my average pace overall.

I soon noticed that a line of runners was behind me. No one was trying to pass me - I was setting the pace. None of us spoke to each other. I think everyone was focused. I got into a zone, and felt like a diesel engine, pulling these people along, fighting the pain and ignoring the doubt.  At one point, I tripped on a rock and fell, but I quickly got up and got going again. The shock of the fall gave me a momentary surge of adrenalin that I wished could have lasted the rest of the way.  But soon, my legs and feet were again killing me, and when we had to crouch down at one point to get under a fallen tree, my hips groaned in pain. But we kept going, like a train.

Time to GO!
And we held the pace. I kept looking at my Garmin, and as we hit 30 miles, the clock read 5:49. I wasn't confident in that half mile discrepancy, so I told myself  "If I want to be sure to make it in six hours, I have to GO NOW!" 

I picked up the pace, in spite of my protesting body. And I could hear a few footsteps, as a few of the others chose to follow. The next couple minutes were a daze. Finally, we rounded a bend and the canopy of trees opened.  I could see the road ahead, and knew the park was just across that. That half mile discrepancy was in our favor. I crossed the finish line in 5:56. I had nothing left.

A surprise finish
I took a moment to get myself together, and reported my name to the timekeeper. My 5:56 was not only a 90-minute improvement over last year, but good for third in my age group. Neat. As a prize, I got a new headlamp with a DWD logo!

I talked to a couple of the runners who had been with me that last six miles. One guy thanked me for the pacing job. 

The aftermath
I got my senses back. And I was hungry!  I hobbled over to the food tent and they gave me an entire Domino's pizza. I stumbled back to my car, popped the hatch, sat on the bumper and ate half of that pizza. I exchanged text messages with Jen, whose team was in the middle of the relay. Figuring I had a few hours to kill before they finished, I decided to go back to my hotel, shower and nap, then come back for the celebration.

On the way back, I stopped off at a gas station / convenience store to get libations. As I limped in, the conversation went something like this.

Clerk: (Seeing my limp and filthy clothes)  "You just run DWD?"
Me: "Sure did"
Clerk: "How'd it go?"
Me: "Took third in my division."
Clerk: "Great! Well, the Powerbars and Gatorade are over there (pointing to a corner of the store.)"
Me: "Thank you, my friend-in-Michigan, but I am not here for Powerbars. Kindly direct me to the beer cooler. It's Miller Time."
Clerk: "Now you're talking!"

I got to the hotel, feeling like road kill. I sat down, cracked open one of those Millers and ate the rest of the pizza. Finally, I took a shower, scrubbing mightily to make sure I cleaned off any poison ivy I might have brushed. And laid down to take a nap. 

An hour later my alarm rang. I awoke and my body felt like a board. Everything hurt. I struggled into my clothes and out to my car, then drove the 15 minutes back to the park. One of the two Progressive teams had finished the relay, so I hung out with them, watching the runners finish.

Jen ran the last leg of her team's race. And wouldn't you now it - they had their best performance ever too, in spite of being short one runner.