The Dragon has Teeth
|March 31, 2019||Posted by Melinda under Uncategorized|
Yesterday I finished my first official ultra in *two years.
*Official race as a participant within the published time. Last year’s Loco100k ultra was technically an overtime finish even though they graciously extended the time the finish line was open to accommodate me. I’ve swept an ultra since then as well. And ran a 50k with a minature horse for a “ride and tie”. Doesn’t count.
The Red Dragon 55k is a newish race that had the advantage of being a lot cheaper than the “other big” 50 miler in this area that was the next weekend, not held on trails I’ve run a bazillion times, with terrain similar to what Quicksilver 100k (my A race in mid May) is going to have.
Plus with such a cool name, how could I go wrong?
For those metric-challenged people, 55k=35 miles. Which my brain interpreted as “basically 20 miles”, a distance that I can do any weekend on short notice, but still counts as a long run. That’s the problem with running longer and longer distances. All those “lower number” under 50 start to look the same.
It took me until the night before, unable to sleep because of a badly timed kombucha, to have the following revelation:
35 miles is 15 miles longer than 20 miles. That’s almost double the distance.
I still wasn’t worried. Despite not running this past week because of [delete various life stresses plus
having the plague horrendous seasonal allergies blah blah blah], overall my training has been very consistent the last couple of months. I’ve lost a little weight (not so much you would notice, but enough that I feel better in my running shoes) and based on “feedback” from the 100 milers I attempted last fall, I’ve focused on leg speed and intervals. Honestly, I’ve felt great on my normal training loops. It’s been awhile since I’ve been out for more than 20 miles, but it hasn’t been that long since I ran 85 miles at Rio.
On the drive to the race in the wee hours of the morning I evaluated what I actually knew.
- It was a 55k race
- Where I was parking and the approximate route (because I’ve done these trails before)
- I needed my poppy pass to park without paying
- There were aid stations. Although how many and how far apart was a mystery.
- The cut off was 11 hours
- There were some snacks in the back of the car that I could shove into my pack.
- It was an out and back course.
It’s the *least informed I’ve EVER been for a race, and I counted myself lucky that I emerged from my black hole of before-mentioned-adulting-stress on Friday just in time to pick up my race packet and to remember to pack shoes AND socks for the race.
*I will never ever again judge anyone for asking me during the beginning of the race how far to the first aid station. Past Mel thought: you didn’t read the basic info before you came? Reformed present Mel: Gee, you probably had a rough week. Anything else you need to know?
I decided I could do some panic math (because THAT’s a good idea at 5 am with one coffee and a Mcmuffin on board) and give myself a time goal based on a conservative effort.
Oh My God I was going to be out there for 10 hours. I had casually mentioned to the long-suffering husband that I expected to be done “early afternoon-ish”, but it was going to be FIVE PM. I really was going to be out there ALL DAY.
No, you really can’t do 35 miles in the same time as 20 miles. BECAUSE THEY ARE NOT ACTUALLY IN FACT THE SAME DISTANCE.
The plan was simple: walk all the uphills, run everything else. Take care of my nutrition and hydration. Have legs to run after the half way point. And of course, finish.
It was going well almost to the halfway point. I was running well, my speed work was paying off – I wasn’t trying to run faster, but it was much easier to just float along at an efficient pace on the flats compared to last year’s races. When the turn-around came for the next lower distance (35k=21 miles), I wasn’t ready to go back and was more than happy to keep moving forward.
Around mile 11 I revised my expected finish time down to 4pm (4 hours to the turn around, 5 hours to get back). My secret hope was that I could keep my current pace and finish at 3pm (roughly even splits), but realistically nine hours was what I could *confidently text my husband since I had a bit of reception in this area. My rough trail math told me that a 4 pm finish was a *15 min/mile pace. Spoiler alert, I managed to finish within THREE MINUTES of this predicted time. Am I good or what?
*which was off by about 20 seconds per mile, which is the problem with panic math in the middle of an ultra, which is why I started wearing a GPS a couple of years ago. I had deliberately decided not to wear one at this race because I’ve been obsessively looking at it too much in races, so had just worn a regular ‘ole watch.
Cool, I now had an A (even splits, 8 hours), B (9 hours, what I committed to my husband), and C goal (finish, likely around 10 hours).
It’s like I was actually running a race or something.
Reality in an ultra race always sets in around 19 miles in a race for me. It’s historically my lowest point. Nothing will get worse or hurt more than it does at the 19 mile mark (typically). I had really really REALLY hoped that having already turned around for “home” by 19 miles would give me a boost and I could just avoid all that unpleasantness.
The difference between running 20 miles and 35 miles is that one is an ultramarathon and one….is not.
If this was a 20 mile race (or even a 26 mile race) there would be no story because the plot goes like this – I ran really well until it started hurting, and then I ran some more because I only had a couple more miles left, and then I was done. Yay!
It’s easy for me to forget that a 50k (or 55k) is still an ultra now that I’ve done longer distances, but even a “short” ultra such as this has three acts.
The excitement and optimism of Act 1 usually ends with some sort of pain and suffering. A couple of miles from the turnaround my hip flexors were really bugging me. My right IT band was tight, as I had expected (that’s what happens when I don’t run for a week and then do a race). THAT I’m used to managing. Dealing with hip flexors this early in a race was more depressing because I’m not as used to working through that problem. Like IT bands it’s nice to deal with something that I know won’t be permanently damaged as I go forward, but it still HURTS. I’m a big girl about it for a while, and then comes the inevitable point where I’m filled with doubt as I wonder why the heck I’m struggling so much so early in the race (despite this happening every single race and it TURNS OUT FINE. Except for the one time it didn’t. But whatever).
We’ve entered Act 2.
I like to call it “finding my Why”, and for me, it defines why ultramarathons are so alluring.
I knew that getting through the turn around (mile 17.5) was going to be really important. I gave myself a very generous 2 hours to get through the six miles between the turnaround and the next aid station on the way back, knowing it was likely going to be the lowest part of the race and there would be shit to work through.
Cheerleader Mel: Everything is bad at mile 19. It rarely gets worse, just keep going.
But-My-Feet-Hurt Mel: But this really sucks and it hurts and there’s like 15 miles to go.
CM: Every single race you struggle at mile 19. It’s normal. Every single time I tell you to stop panicking because it just makes it worse and in 10 miles you are fine. Just keep going. Hike if you want, you have plenty of time.
BMFHM: But it hurts the same to hike as it does to run!
CM: Then run! Good job. Now hike. Now run. Good job.
BMFHM: ARRRGGGHHHH I STUBBED MY TOE.
CM: Then pick up your feet. This is your last dress rehearsal for Quicksilver. Getting through this in one piece is your homework.
BMFHM: But when I get to the aid station, I have to do this stupid loop with lots of climbing that takes me an hour, when the next aid station is literally FIVE MINUTES away if I just go down the main road (the hazard of knowing the trails), which is flat and slightly down hill. If I cut off that loop and just DNF by going straight to the next aid station and then to my car, my run will be 32 miles instead of 35 miles. That’s still plenty of miles as prep for Quicksilver.
CM: What, you are going to DNF for the sake of THREE WHOLE MILES you pathetic whiner? That’s ridiculous. Just run the three miles and get a completion.
CM: Once you get through the aid station it’s only an hour to the next aid, and then 2 hours to the finish. You can even hike the rest of the race and still make it before the cut off.
CM: What? You are going to go to your blog and admit to everyone that you quit and have yet another DNF? You haven’t finished an ultra is over 2 years.
BMFHM: I wanna go home and sit on the couch and read Fig as many books as she wants. I don’t want to do this. I don’t even like ultras. There’s no way I can do a 100k in six weeks, so what’s the point? Why am I doing this?
And that’s the crux. That last question is the foundation of Act 2. To go forward and push through the pain and fatigue you must have a good enough why. All the other arguments and delaying tactics really lead up to this single question.
Why am I doing this?
Not just why do I run ultras in general, but why am I running TODAY? Why is it important to finish THIS race?
It helps to have it figured out beforehand, but even so, I find you have to reaffirm it to yourself at the lowest point of the race. To make sure it still makes sense and it’s still a good enough answer for But-My-Feet-Hurt Mel.
Yesterday I thought about Western States and immediately discarded it as my why. Yes, Western States is an important goal, but some aspiration to run today’s race, in order to prep for Quicksilver, in order to maybe qualify for States isn’t a good enough answer to the why and has never been for any race I’ve ever run.
My inner voice’s comment about my blog readers and having to admit to giving up and getting another DNF hit closer to the truth. I don’t like failing. I don’t like not setting out to accomplish what I said I was going to do. When I sign up for a race and show up at the finish line, I’m committing to getting to the finish line, on the prescribed course on that day. Not on a training run in a week. Not “enough miles so it’s close enough”. I’m allowing the race director to personally take me on a run and show me the sights. I’ve committed. It’s a mark of respect for the race and myself to keep going unless I’m severely injured or I fail to fulfill the requirements of the course such as being overtime and I’m pulled by management. I’ve had a long string of DNF’s over the last year that weren’t because I gave up. Am I going to let this one slip away because I’m simply giving up on this commitment?
Armed with a why it was time to get serious.
Cheerleader Mel: Do this. It’s 1 hour once you get to the aid station, and then another 2 hours. That’s doable.
But-My-Feet-Hurt Mel: Fucking assholes! Those riders almost rode me over with their horses. Inconsiderate assholes! No wonder trail users don’t like horse people and endurance riders. My flow is GONE.
Cheerleader Mel: It’s fine to be angry. Use that anger to GET DOWN THE TRAIL.
But-My-Feet-Hurt Mel: But they almost ran me over! I’m doing a race! They are choosing to do hill gallops on a MARKED race course, I couldn’t even get out-of-the-way before they barreled around the corner. I wonder if I recognized that first rider….
CM: Keep. Moving. Be resentful and angry but keep moving.
CM: Look up there at the runner in front of you. See how many minutes she’s ahead of you.
BMFHM: 6 minutes. Ok. That isn’t bad.
*a couple minutes later*
CM: Now she’s 8 minutes ahead. In the last 10 minutes she’s gained 2 minutes on you, simply by OUT HIKING YOU. SHE’S SIMPLY WALKING FASTER.
BMFHM: Oh ok ok. Need to focus on walking faster……Oh look, 5 galloping helmet-less riders on the trail below me scattering strollers and pedestrians on the trail. And now the leader is calling back “we didn’t lose anyone did we?!”. Fine thing to say at that point. Why would you DO that on a busy Saturday morning on a crowded trail? (apparently I turn into a very bitter and judgey person sometimes during a bonk. Sorry.)
CM: FOCUS ON WALKING FASTER.
BMFHM: Oh look…I have reception now. Maybe I should do some facebook messenger check-ins…..
CM: Why don’t you try running a little bit? If you don’t at least try I’m going to loop “It’s a small world” and “Micky Mouse March” songs continually through your head for the next 3 hours. So I would suggest moving at a pace where you can’t think about anything but MOVING FORWARD.
I got to the mile 24 mile aid station.
I did not take the short cut to the next aid station. Yes, I went up the ridge and ALL the way around.
At the 28 mile aid station I stayed too long talking to friends, but sometimes a race is more than the numbers on the clock at the finish line.
Or so it seems when you are in the aid station eating good food in the shade.
In Act 3 you curse your lazy self. You may still be running at a pace your three-year old child could pace you at, but the attitude is all different from the pathetic creature of Act 2. ONWARD. When the scent of the finish line wafts past my nose, it turns out I’m not permanently broken after all and running *is* possible. I’m ALIVE!!!!!!!! If Act 2 is the heart of an ultra, Act 3 is where your inner superhuman comes out to play (at least if you don’t squander it in Act 1).
I curse the precious minutes spent in the aid stations and lollygagging on the trail (conveniently forgetting that Act 2 Pathetic Mel worked so very hard for every single step without the benefit of Act 3 Super Mel). I was SO CLOSE to being sub 9 hours. run run run run run runrun…….Yes, finish time is an abstract silly thing, but if I can make it important enough to provide the motivation to run the last couple miles, why not use it?
9 hours and 3-ish seconds.
Done and I’ll have a grilled cheese sandwich pleaze.
I’m already at over 2k words [o_O] so stay tuned for a separate lessons learned post, including what this shake-out race means for Quicksilver 100k. (hint, it’s not good, but maybe it just means I need to do some reframing).
Thanks everyone for getting me through the race yesterday – I can’t believe that at the lowest point of this race, the thought of my readers here could be such a huge motivator. Thanks!
PS for those of you keeping count…I just looked and this was my 8th ultra finish (9th if you count the 50k ride and tie I ran with a miniature horse). All three ultra DNF’s that I have (1-50 miler, 2-100 milers) occurred at mile 32, 64, and 82 respectively. So, 12 times I’ve been past the 30 mile mark during a race and you know what? I don’t think it’s getting any easier. It’s not always really hard, but it’s never easy. I hope I’m not just doing it wrong, LOL.