“Son, this is the Appalachian Trail. I don’t think there’s a race here.”
A week out of the mess that was the Hyner 50k, I was back at it again with the Ironmasters Challenge 50k in the Pine Grove Furnace State Forest in central(?) Pennsylvania. I don’t actually know how native Pennsylvanians divide PA, but to me, it’s central, so that’s what I’m going with. I knew that my legs were going to be a little weary from Hyner the week before, but I thought that it would be good to find out what it was like to race on legs with no kick. I really bottomed my training during this week between Hyner and Ironmasters (~20 miles), and I had a completely off day on Saturday before, so I felt like I was as ready as I could be.
It was about a 2 hour drive down to Pine Grove Furnace, so I did my usual and woke up early, had some cereal, stopped at a gas station to pick up my Lemonade Amp and was off. Billy Joel and Tom Petty accompanied me down during the long-ish drive, so I had some good company. Per usual, I got to the race earlier than I wanted (I generally want to get there about an hour before the start, but I always get there like 20 minutes before that). I went to the bathroom, picked up my packet and returned back to my car. I always try to scout the field while I’m checking in since I always put the idiotic idea in my head that I’m the favorite at these races and, just like always, didn’t think that I saw anybody who could beat me. Of course, that always means nothing.
After twiddling my thumbs for half an hour (and cursing myself for not remembering my hat), we lined up at the start, the RD said some things that of course I didn’t pay attention to, and we were off. And obviously, since this is PA, we started going straight uphill. After almost missing a turn and then being greeted by some medium sized rocky climbs, two of us separated ourselves from the rest of the field. After introductions, it turned out that my partner was Fred Joslyn (who I found out later via the Google used to train with Sage Canaday, my favorite elite ultra runner, ran for Saucony, and qualified for the Olympic Trials). He was training for the Cayuga 50m in a few weeks that is the 2015 USATF 50m Trail Championships, and we wanted some good hill training runs before that. However, it turns out that he didn’t actually need these hill workouts: I’ve never seen a better hill runner. While I would be hiking up the hills, he would be lightly bouncing from rock to rock up these climbs. He would put some pace between us during the climbs, and then I would have to work hard to catch up during the descents and the flats. I was actually able to do this pretty well for the first 20 miles or so; he would get out of sight going up and then I would reign him in soon after on the flats.
The climbs were nowhere as large as Hyner (thankfully), and they were much more runable. This fact just reinforced that I much prefer these courses to ones that, shall we say, suck. Nothing of note really happened in the first 15 miles. I had to hunt him down pretty continuously after each small climb only to lose him again. At about mile 15, however, my legs started to feel tired. There wasn’t really any pain or soreness, they just started to feel sluggish. I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that I was still probably tired from the weekend before. I knew that I was right at the breaking point of overtraining when the thought of “I cannot wait to be able to take days off next week” entered my head. I’ve never had a thought like this before, during a race or not, and I was pretty sure that it was gonna spell bad news bears for the rest of the race.
There was an aid station at about mile 15, and then not another one until about mile 20.5. During these 5 miles, I went from doing well to feeling like I couldn’t run anymore. I wouldn’t say that I was pushing myself too hard, I would just say that I didn’t have enough in my legs after last week. Additionally, and the state of my legs probably had a lot to do with this, I hadn’t eaten all race. The aid stations up through mile 21 only had Gatorade and pretzels. I love Gatorade during races, but there is something about pretzels that I just can’t do. They take too much effort to chew and swallow (that’s what she said), and the salt just closes up my mouth and makes it hard to get anything else in (that’s what she said again).
At the point where I really felt like breaking, I came upon the mile 21 aid station. As this aid station was just across the parking lot from the start/finish area, it was the largest and most extensive of the course, and thus, had more than just pretzels and Gatorade. As I came in, one of the workers asked me how I was feeling, and I responded with something like, “the wheels are just about to fall off of this bus.” I was worried that I was going to bonk in the last ten miles and have no chance of catching Fred. However, they had PowerBars (or another brand of the same thing), and I knew that was exactly what I needed. As I crushed multiple cups of Gatorade (I never run with water during 50k’s), I asked the aid station workers to “please peel a chocolate bar and two peanut butter ones.” I’m not entirely sure if “peel” was the correct term, but they understood.
I finished crushing (yes, in the words of Schmidt from New Girl, I “crushed it”) my Gatorade, the extremely helpful/savior-like aid station workers handed me my peeled bars and I was off. These bars were gone in about 120 seconds, and almost instantly, I felt better. As I left the aid station, they told me that I was about a minute behind Fred, so I was determined to catch up before the next aid station. I was just plugging along on what looked to be a bike trail that slowly transitioned to a rather steep and rocky hiking trail. I thought nothing of it and kept on going. And going. And then going some more without seeing a flag. And then realized I hadn’t seen a flag marker for about ten minutes. As severe doubt started to creep into my mind, I came across two hikers coming towards me. I asked them if they had seen any runners or flags recently, to which they exchanged confused glances and responded, “son, this is the Appalachian Trail. I don’t think there’s a race here.”
At the point I was told this, I dropped an F bomb the size of Hiroshima, kicked some trail, turned around and sprinted down the hill to where I came from. After about ten minutes of running down the hill, I came across the flags that marked the turn I had missed. While they were not the most noticeable things in the world, they were definitely pretty obvious, and I should not have missed them. Cursing myself again, I took the turn and started to settle into a more reasonable pace. The trail was still pretty runable, so I enjoyed cruising through some wide, grassy trails until I came upon the next aid station (I believe this was at mile 24 or 25). It was on the edge of a really pretty pond/lake/collection-of-water-that-people-were-swimming-in. My thoughts at this point, however, were not pretty. While I was snagging (crushing) some Gatorade, I asked the aid station workers how much behind first place I was. “Well, you’re about 25 minutes behind first and about 5 minutes behind second.”
This was a huge kick to the gut. I couldn’t believe that my stupidity not only put me essentially out of reach of first but also behind second by a non-unsubstantial margin. I was livid when I found this out. I crushed another dixie cup of Gatorade, determined to catch second place. I chugged out of the aid station, and was feeling pretty good coming out of it. I was running fine, and even after hitting two large climbs with technical downhills, I felt good, although there was no sign of second place. I came into the last aid station at about mile 28 or 28.5, and again asked how far out of first and second I was. “Son, you’re about half an hour behind first and 25 minutes behind second.”
There was NO WAY that I had fallen that far behind during a section that I felt I had… wait for it… crushed it. Something was up. I grabbed my obligatory Gatorade and decided that it was now or never to kick it. Maybe there were wrong about the second place 50k runner since there were a bunch of 15k hikers that we were passing. The trail in between that aid station and the finish was rather easy, with a lot of downhills and only one creek crossing that, instead of producing anger like the ones at Hyner, produced some decent pictures.
After that, it was just a matter of a lot of “come on babe” to myself (which drew some weird looks, especially when some, um, rather attractive ladies heard me and probably thought I was talking about them) and a sustained kick since the course was about a quarter to half a mile long. I got through the finish with a rather disappointed look on my face before I collapsed to my knees as I always do at the end of races. I finished at 4:47 and some change, so with getting off course for about 15 to 20 minutes, it wasn’t too shabby. Granted, this course was much more runable than Hyner, but I was still decently happy. I finished third, as second was about twenty minutes ahead of me. I found out later that me had accidentally followed the 15k course for a little rather than the 50k course, which cut, we estimated, about 1.5 miles out of his loop. I truly think it was by accident because he didn’t seem like the type of guy to cut on purpose. So third place with essentially giving second place half an hour or more wasn’t so bad.
On reflection, I was definitely upset that I had missed the turn and that I was the only person to blame. I felt like I run pretty well, especially with feeling like I was going to bonk. The protein bars definitely saved me, and I will probably be looking to them in the future. Going 21 miles without eating probably wasn’t the greatest idea, and that is something that I’m going to try not to repeat. I’m really starting to hit my stride for these 50k’s, and I hope I can continue this momentum into Kettle in a month and a half.