Saturday, August 22, 2009

2009 Marquette Trail 50km

2009 Marquette Trail 50km

Official Results

Saturday, August 22, 2009 was National Trail Running Day. It was also the day that I contested the 50km distance at the Marquette Trail 50 in Marquette, MI. This was the inaugural running of this event and was mostly held on the North Country Trail along the shores of Lake Superior and around Sugarloaf Mountain.

I was coming off of a hot 50km just two weeks earlier at Bartlett Park 50km in Memphis, TN where the temperatures soared well into the 90's. I was able to pull off the overall win and set the course record with a 4:07:10. Despite it being held in the same calendar month, the conditions for Marquette couldn't be more drastic. The temperatures at the start were in the upper 40's and would never make it above the low 50's, with wind gusts coming off of the big lake making it feel much cooler.

Although this was a new event, there was good competition at the top of the field, lead by 2007 International Association of Ultrarunners (IAU) Trail World Challenge Masters 50km Champion and former local resident, Jim Harrington. After Jim was Vince Rucci, the owner of Vertical Runner in Ohio and had recently finished 2nd overall at Mohican 50km. Then of course there was the unknown variable of runners that could might make a good debut at this distance.

The first mile of the race was a controlled start at a slow pace due to the darkness in Marquette at 6:30 am eastern time with no lights on the loop through town. I ran alongside Vince and the with the lead biker, who would stay with us for the first few miles. Jim made his way up toward us quickly and we ran down a gravel road together. After crossing the Dead River Bridge on CR550 at the two mile mark, we ran up into the woods and onto the trail. The pace for the next two miles was much faster than I wanted to run at the start of an endurance event as we clocked a 7:17 and a 7:29. Not quite yet warmed up, I struggled with this pace but knew that if I was going to have a chance at the win, I would have to hold on until the pace became more comfortable.

The 5th mile was much more technical and came at the right time. I was a much better technical trail runner than the others so when Vince and Jim slowed the pace down on the rocks, I was able to catch my breathe before we hit Forestville Rd. As we made the turn and ran downhill toward the gravel pit, another runner had caught up and pulled even. I didn't know or recognize him, but did notice that we wasn't carrying any water. Either way, he was very young but ran strong with us through the 6th mile at 6:57 pace.

Coming out of the gravel pit we started a mile long climb before re-entering the woods and starting the technical trail again. As we began the climb, I was able to hold the pace and pulled ahead. I wasn't making a push, but saw a small chance to take the lead and set the pace. Jim came with me, running just off my shoulder on the other side of the road and the young kid stayed with us. Vince fell off the pace and it would be the last time that we would see him.

As we entered the North Country Trail, we continued to climb until we hit the 8 mile mark in 1:02:45, having averaged 7:45 pace. I was leading the way, with Jim and the kid with me together in a pack. Starting with this section, the three of us started to talk a little more and the atmosphere seemed more like a fun training run with friends than a competitive race. The young kid introduced himself as Stuart Kramer, a recent Michigan Tech grad (my alma mader) from the spring, a collegiate athlete and also native of Marquette. I would later find out that Stuart was amongst the best runners on his team and tops amongst all Upper Peninsula collegiate runners. So even though we were running pretty hard, it was a great atmosphere to be in. Jim would let us know when to be careful on certain sections and I would tell them when to duck under low hanging limbs.

At 9.66 miles right on track, we hit Big Bay Road and ran down toward the first aid station. It was clear that this course was measured by GPS and that mine would track right on. This is different than other trail ultra marathons that usually end up measuring short by GPS, but are actually correct, assuming some loss of signal in heavily wooded areas. Race Director Joe Jameson might be the second coming of David Horton if this course would be measured in 'Horton Miles.' I would normally have taken in some fuel prior to this in an ultra, but the pace and course did not allow it until the smooth gravel road. I was able to get in a few PowerBar Gel Blasts just before we came into the aid station. After the Chattanooga Mountains Stage Race in June, I had grown to like HEED, especially the Subtle Strawberry flavor, so was happy to find out that this was the fluids offering. Jim refilled and I think that Stuart grabbed a bottle from his drop bag, as I would later notice that he was now carrying it with him.

The ascent up to the top of Sugarloaf Mountain was only 300' over less than 1/2 mile, but was up mostly using winding wooden stairs. I don't know how many stairs there were, but it seemed like a hundred or so. Jim, Stuart and I stayed together climbing up them, but as we reached the top, I was totally winded.

I would love to go back to the top of Sugarloaf with a camera as there were some pretty amazing views, but I didn't exactly stop to look around much.

Coming down the backside was technical downhill for the better part of a mile. The rocks were wet and loose, making the footing very uneven. While Jim was wearing a road shoe, I had on the inov-8 Roclite 295. The sticky nature of the tread on this shoe was perfect for this decent as I ran down without concern of slipping. Given the nature of the course with both technical sections and gravel roads, this was the perfect shoe for the day.

Eventually after some switchbacks, we were running along the Lake Superior shoreline. At times the tail had us in a few hundred feet from shore and at others were within a few feet of the banks. The northern winds were blowing pretty strong on this day and the waves were crashing in pretty violently. For awhile we actually felt some of the spray from the water. The views of the bay and of Little Presque Island were very breathtaking. Every time I am on the waters of Lake Superior it makes me homesick for its beauty and majesty.

We did come across a guy with his German Short hair dog, who was very rambunctious (the dog not the guy). He chased after us and actually brought us to a halt until the owner was able to corral him back. The dog took a liking to Jim, who was just behind us, but we stopped and waited for him to catch up. Our pace for the next few miles was right around 8 minute-miles and before we turned away from the water, we hit the half way mark at mile 16 in 2:12:18. for an 8:16 average pace.

We headed inland and made our way to the second aid station. I was running low on fluids, so when we hit Aid #2 on Harlow Lake Road at 17.6 miles, it was a welcome site. I filled my bottle, and kept moving. Jim and Stuart spent a little more time there, which helped me out as I was able to slow the pace a little until they caught up. The next section was a 2.9 mile loop to the next aid station and was mostly technical before hitting an old rail road grade. I was still leading the way, followed by Stuart and then Jim, who had fallen behind somewhat. I mentioned to Stuart that Jim was a National Class ultramarathoner; he said that didn't know the details, but had heard that he was very good. Before we hit the aid station, I took some more gel blasts and also took my second dose of S! Caps. With the cooler temperatures I was only sweating mildly, but wanted to prevent cramping, so I took the electrolytes regularly.

We hit the next aid station at 20.5 miles and then headed out on the 'Top of the World' loop. The road leading back up to the trail was fairly muddy, so I slowed just a little. Seizing the opportunity, Stuart pulled ahead and Jim followed along. I figured that it would be OK for someone else to set the pace for awhile and drag me along, but as we turned back into the woods, I had the tremendous urge to purge some fluids from my bladder. My stomach was fine, but sloshing a little with HEED and I needed to go. I stopped for just a few seconds to go, and as I finished up and started running again, Stuart and Jim were gone; no where in sight. They continued to strong push they used to climb the hill to put some distance between us and I would never see them again.

I didn't let the fact that i was now running in 3rd place bother me though and I still ran strong, despite the steady climb up 250' to the 'Top of the World', a climb that never seemed to end. I was happy that it was an old Jeep road, so the footing was good, it was just tough as it came at about the 3 hour mark. At the top, I saw Dan Deland, whom I had met at the 2007 Grand Island Trail Marathon in Munising. Dan bested Jim by just a few seconds that day for the overall win. He said that I was looking good and I laughed a little! The backside was pretty fast as it dropped back down quickly to just shy of mile 24 where we hit the aid station at the Crossroads again. I was slightly confused as I saw a sign in the woods at one point that read 'MTR 20 Miles' yet my GPS read 19 miles, so I assumed that I was tracking about a mile behind the distance. When leaving this aid station, I asked about the distance and the volunteer said that it was '23ish'. It took me a while to get over the fact that the sign was just misplaced and my GPS was actually right on track.

The next two and a half miles continued to climb up an old two track road. My pace varied from the low 8's when I felt strong to the high 9's when I would struggle. My marathon split was 3:46:49, for an average pace of 8:39. So I had fallen off by 23 seconds in the last 10 miles, but the climbs were much harder more sustained than earlier. The course headed back onto the NCT for another 1.4 miles and had some steep, yet short climbs up some rock bluffs and over some very technical terrain that slowed the pace down. I got to the last aid station at mile 27 feeling pretty good, but was still surprised that it was another 5 miles to go to the finish. This would be the longest 50km race I had ever run! Leaving this aid station, I look one misstep on the trails and rolled my ankle over and the bone hit the ground. Of course my instant reaction was that it was the end of the world and of the race. I took a few gingerly steps and started to run on it again. I had confidence in the strength of my ankle and nearby ligaments that I had built up after years of trail running, and just fought through whatever pain I had.

The last 4 miles of the course were on the same section of technical trail that we used on the way out. It looked totally different from this direction, especially never having run it before. I had readjusted my goal to come in under 4:45, which meant that I needed to run 9 minute-miles coming into the finish, based on my GPS reading. I was excited to just be done.

Just before coming back through the last clearing, I could hear this very loud noise. Being close to an air force base and having recently read about the helicopter crash on the PCT 50 course in Southern California, I thought it might be a helicopter. After I got my head straight and remembered that the base had closed a dozen years ago, I started to wonder if if was a logging truck or other timber cutter. When coming out into the clearing, I realized that it was a train and the course went right over the tracks! I was freaking out, not knowing how far behind me the next person was and I could ill afford to stop for any length of time. I couldn't see either end of the train, but as I approached the tracks, the end was coming around the bend. As I got to them, the last car went through and I never broke stride. It was amazing luck!

I ran quickly toward the finish, finally popping out of the woods onto the Dead River Bridge crossing, and was within 1/8 mile of the finish. I saw my Mom on the east bank and then my Dad too. I had been pushing for the last two miles at a mid 7 pace, and made one final push for the end.

Smiling at my Dad as I passed by, I ran toward a few cheering, yet very cold, fans and stopped my watch at 4:39:35, finishing in 3rd place overall.

Running in this amazing weather was so much easier, despite the more difficult course, than two weeks prior in Memphis. It didn't even really feel like I had just run at race pace for nearly five hours. I talked to the Joe, the Race Director, and commended him on putting together such a great event. I told him that it was very marked and there was never a doubt as to where we should run or turn and I was never worried about being lost. He mentioned that Stuart pulled away from Jim and finished around 4:15, with Jim about 12 minutes behind him at 4:27. I was another 12 minutes behind Jim.

We headed down toward the river to take some pictures before attempting to ice in the river.

I spent some time trying to ice down in the stream, but the water in the Dead River was too cold and I couldn't bear to stand in the water at all, so we packed up and headed back for the hotel.

For 3rd place I was awarded come coveted UP Blackberry Jam.

After running two ultra marathons in the span of 15 days, I am looking forward to a small break and vacation in Upper Michigan with my parents and Laura later this week. I will continue my running streak that began in December 2008 with a few easy miles today, but will not start training hard again for another week when the focus shifts to my next race.

I am very happy with the results from this race and my effort and that I got to finish with my parents at the end. I put on a good show and gave it everything I had.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

2009 Bartlett Park 50km

2009 Bartlett Park 50km
Bartlett, TN
August 8, 2009

Returning to Bartlett, TN for the 3rd Annual running of the Bartlett Park Ultras was not originally part of my 2009 race plan. After hearing back in early July during Run Across Alabama that fellow friend and ultra runner Eric Schotz was going, I rearranged my fall schedule to fit in this race.

The course lies completely within Bartlett Park and although it lacks any major climbs, is comprised of tight, winding trails full of roots and with plenty of ditches to cross. Some sections were muddy, and there was one creek crossing. There is only one section out and back to an aid station totalling less than one-half mile that you can get into any sort of rhythm. The first section is a 1.6 mile loop on the Blue Trail, followed by four 7.45 mile loops, making the 50km course 31.4 miles long. Each loop comes back through the parking lot, where you can have your own aid at your car.

It was Bartlett Park back in 2007 that I began my ultra running career with a 2nd place finish on a day where temperatures soared above 100 degrees. On that day, another friend from Huntsville, Brian Robinson, set the 50km course record at 5:03:57. Most runners avoid this race since it is in Memphis in August; two things that do not bode well for ultra running. Some runners use this as a tune up for Arkansas Traveler. No matter what the competition was like, my goals were the same; to win and set the course record.

This was also my first race wearing my Team inov-8 singlet. I was very excited and honored to be working with Mark Lundblad and inov-8 for the rest of 2009. A good performance today would make a nice additional to my trail running resume when I officially applied for the inov-8 trail running team for 2010.

At the 6:30am start, the temperatures had already reached 75 degrees. It was going to be the hottest day of the summer with temperatures expected to hit the mid-90's and with a heat index over 100 degrees. Luckily there is a good canopy of trees within the park, so there is not much direct exposure to the sun.

After brief course instructions, we raced across the parking lot and into the woods. I knew how narrow the Blue Trail was, so I wanted to get out front and into the lead and thus avoid having to either run at a slower pace or have to pass early on. My race plan was to run at an even, yet hard effort all day. Knowing that the temperature would go up by as much as 20 degrees, this meant running in the low 7's for as long as I could and slowing late. A specific time goal was to run around 4:30 which I thought would be enough for the win, but would not let this hold me back if I felt good. Through the first 1.6 mile loop, Eric Schotz stayed close, but I did not see anyone else through the thick woods that was close to us.

I came out of the woods, headed across the parking lot and set out to run four loops on the other side of the park. I was feeling good with the pace and stayed with it for the next few miles. Within the 7.45 mile loop, it was about 4 miles to the first aid station, which was down an out and back spur. This was both good and bad, as I was able to see how close Eric Schotz was to me, but he was also able to see how close he was to me, each of us knowing if we were either gaining or losing time on each other. On the first loop, Eric was about 2/10ths of a mile back. When I got the this first aid station, I think that I surprised the race director Mike Samuelson who probably didn't expect someone so quickly.

The course was marked pretty well I thought, with one exception which was the creek crossing. I knew from 2007 that you had to cross the creek to get back to the parking lot, but others might not have known this. The course markings picked up on the other side of the creek, but with an 8' drop off to the creek, 8' back up on the other side and at least that wide, you couldn't see them and some people made wrong turns.

On the second loop I grabbed a bandanna from my gear bag in the parking lot and began to soak that in ice water at each aid station to keep my body temperature down externally. Internally I was putting as much ice as I could into my hand bottle, from which I was drinking my new favorite Subtle Strawberry flavored Heed. It is not overpowering and easier on my stomach to drink in ultra distance events than Gatorade. I was also sticking to my schedule of taking two S! Caps for electrolyte replacement every hour and fueling with two Power Bar Gel Blasts (Cola Flavored) at the same time.

During my second loop I started to lap people on just their first loop. With a tight course, I tried to give as much advance notice to the people that I would be passing on their left. It is funny how 'on your left' to some people means that they would move to their left and I passed on the right. I laughed with some people that I meant 'your other left.' As I passed by, I tried to give as much encouragement as I could to them. I was slightly bothered by the runners who wore head phones and had the volume so loud that they could not hear me. I had several runners that I was right on top of and they still never heard me. Lead runners do not own the trail; we all share it equally, but you have a responsibility to make room for other runners, weather slower or faster.

Heading back into the woods I was still in the lead, but would not know by how much until the fire road. I had adjusted my race plan and it was now to run the second loop just as hard as the first loop, and then rest some on the third loop, hopefully preserving enough energy to finish strong. The rolling nature of the course was becoming more and more difficult as the very short but steep ditches were wreaking havoc on my toes. With the high temperatures, my feet were also starting to swell slightly.

For this race I selected the ever reliable inov-8 Roclite 295 which I had worn in several other ultra marathons this year with much success. This low profile trail running shoe fits my foot like a glove and was the right amount of shoe for this course. I love the flexible nature of the 295 and how I can feel the terrain and move with it. So even though I had the perfect shoe selected, the steep downhills meant repeated forward pressure of my swollen feet into the toe box, later which would cause some blood build up under my left big toe.

Coming out of the fire road aid station, I did not see Eric behind me, so I thought that I had built a slightly larger lead than the first loop. I would later find out that Eric saw me head out onto the rest of the loop from behind so he felt like he had a slight advantage of knowing where I was, without me knowing where he was. I have to admit that I did get a false set of security from this. I had slowed a little with this security but still was running around 8 minute pace as I came through 16.5 miles in about 2:05 or at 7:35 pace overall average.

I think the mindset of taking it easy on the third loop was the wrong strategy. Looking back, this gave me a reason to slow down as opposed to my even effort initial plan. I was now moving very slowly on the uphill sections, and not running as fast as I was initially on the downhills. The heat was picking up quickly now as the sun started to pierce through the leaves and I was completely soaked in sweat. I was still mentally strong at this point, thinking that I had a larger lead than I actually had. I passed more and more people now, which actually helped with some of the loneliness of ultra running. That is one nice part of multi-loop courses, as you actually get to see other people once in awhile.

I was now drinking one bottle of fluids between aid stations, taking an extra cup at the aid station and grabbing handfuls of ice for my bandanna. Even with this approach, I was still becoming dehydrated quickly. I had some sloshing in my stomach, but I could not absorb fluids fast enough to find a good balance. This would continue to be a struggle for the rest of the day.

Coming out of the fire road aid station this time, I saw that Eric had made up substantial time as he was closer than ever before. I calculated that he would catch me if he ran just 15 seconds per mile faster than me for the remaining 11+ miles. Having raced against him at Rocket City Marathon and seeing how he got stronger late, I figured it was just a matter of time before he closed the gap on me.

Coming through the parking lot for the final time, I stopped to again grab a new bottle of Head from my cooler and start back out a few feet before realizing that I left my bandanna in the ice water. It didn't cost me but a few seconds to go back and grab it, but it was a small mental battle that I had lost time just by not staying focused. It is so funny how you can go from mentally strong to have small batches of doubt when racing ultra marathons. I ran the last loop in about 62 minutes and was now at 3:07 or 7:50 pace on average. My overall pace had dropped by 15 seconds with my lack luster performance on the third loop.

The final loop was all about hanging on from the start to the first aid station until I could judge how much time I had on 2nd place. I was still pushing pretty hard, but had several small hills that I walked up, giving myself a small break. This is typical for me late in ultras, that I just need a mental break from the running motion. I kept myself on a budget though, adding no more than a minute to my mile pace. Wearing the Garmin 205 helped to keep my rest in check. I also knew that after the last aid station, I would get a mental lift of almost being done and whatever I had left in the tank, I would be able to spend on the way to the finish.

I spent very little time at the last aid station; just enough to fill my bottle this time. With only 3 miles left, I figured that fluids weren't going to be that much help, but the continued cooling of spraying some on my head would help. As I ran back out on the gravel section and adjacent to the newly added dirt bike part of the park, I saw Eric. He was less closer than ever before and now I was running scared. I thought that if I could run around 8 or 8:30 pace, he would have to run 30 seconds faster per mile, which he was capable of doing. I wished him luck on the way past and headed back out to finish the rest of the loop.

I was pushing very hard now, running all of the hills and breathing harder than I had all day. It was time to lay it all on the line. I didn't come to this race to give up in the last 3 miles or to take second. I came to set the course record, which had been clear I was going to do after completing the 2nd lap, but it didn't mean anything if I didn't take overall honors.

I did not look behind me until I made the final left into the parking lot with less than 250' to go. I just needed that peace of mind that Eric was not going to sprint passed me to the finish. When I saw that he was not immediately behind me, I finally had a sense of relief as I ran toward the finish line. The race director pointed to the line, which I crossed in a time of 4:07:10. I ran the last loop in about 60 minutes and broke the old course record by more than 56 minutes. I staggered for a few steps feeling very light headed and dizzy from the late push and the extreme heat of the day. I hate the immediate post race feeling when running that hard for that long.

Eric crossed in 4:11, about 4 minutes behind me. Running scared in the end helped me to put two more minutes on him, all the while thinking that he was going to catch me. Both of us set 50km trail personal records today and going 1-2 in this race, I would consider it a very successful day for us.

Here we are left to right, Eric Charette and Eric Schotz, 1st and 2nd place.

We spent some time re-hydrating and refueling for awhile and also waiting for the 3rd place runner to come in, which was just under the 5 hour mark. I don't think that it was a lack of competitive runners, but more of a deceptively difficult course in combination with tough temperatures and conditions that meant slower finishing times. I have not seen the official results yet, but I speculate that many of the people attempting the 50 mile distance dropped down to run the 50km. We changed into some dry clothes and headed back to the hotel for a quick swim, then Eric and I made the 3 hour drive back to Huntsville.

Other fellow Huntsvillian Josh Kennedy finished the 50km (in training for AT100) in 5:20 and Christ Scott battled stomach issues and smartly dropped out before heading out on the final loop.

The only way I can describe this day is to compare it to when you meet a professional athlete or go to a rock concert. When it is immediately over, you think it was very cool, but it doesn't really sink in until a few days later when you realize that you actually met Derek Jeter or saw Aerosmith sing live. The results from this day and great time I had spending with Eric are just now starting to set in and I am appreciating how well things turned out.

Now it is time for the unglamorous part of ultra running, which is the recovery and preparation for the next big run!