“I don’t think I’ll EVER by good at leg 11”
It’s been a long time since I finished an ultramarathon. In fact, the last ultra that I finished was Tussey last year (my 71-mile drop at Kettle this year doesn’t count). After dealing with all of the nerve and back/leg pain that plagued my spring and early summer training and racing, it felt like a long time since I had any sort of success. So, obviously, what better way to fix that than to try to break my terrible racing streak with a national championship?
The biggest advantage of having a race in my own backyard is the ability to sleep in my own bed and not have to drive 2-plus hours to some tiny-little trailhead somewhere. So after getting my bib number at packet pickup the day before (I was able to snag a seeded number, nbd) and getting a good night’s sleep (at least good enough) in my own bed, my 4am alarm went off and I had my normal race-day breakfast of chicken with corn and Gatorade. After eating enough that my stomach was full, I loaded all my stuff in the car, and drove off to pick up my crew: Allie, Tom and Steven Hanna, and Boggs.
When we got to the base of Tussey, the first thing I noticed was that it was much warmer than it had been (~60), which really wasn’t that much concern to me, and if anything, was kinda nice. It was much better than the freezing rain we had last year at the start. Once we registered the car, I put on my bib, shoes, and, most important, my petroleum jelly (thank you Wegmans!!!). Before I knew it, we moved down to the start line I said goodbye to my crew, stood in the start line, waited for the national anthem to be sang, and then the “gun” (the race director’s voice since apparently that’s how we do things) went off.
The first thing that I noticed this year was that instead of one person sprinting out in front of me, there were like 10 or 15 people out in front of me. I had already told myself that there was no way that I was going out for a win, and watching these people sprint out in front of me confirmed it. Once we made the first little turn onto the bridge at about the half mile mark, I had settled in to a pace with a couple other people for the first of the five climbs. It began to quickly get lighter and lighter out, and the temperature stayed pretty warm. I pretty much immediately started to drink out of my HEED/Red Bull handheld as we made out way up leg one.
I never realized how fast we were going until we crossed the 3rd mile marker tree at exactly 24 minutes; while I was aiming for 6:40 (8-flat pace), I was not expecting to run this going up this awful first climb. Oh well, I told myself. I’ll just take it a little easier on the downhill. The only problem with that was that no one else in my group wanted to take it easy on the long, 6-ish mile descent after the first leg. As we crested the hill, we were quickly greeted by a beautiful, cloudless view that was quickly taken away as we began our way down the start of leg 2.
Legs two and three were pretty uneventful. At the beginning of leg two, the five of us in my pack were told that there were 5 people in the lead pack, which to me, meant that us 10 were the ones in the best situation for medals at the moment. Although as I definitely know, a lot can happen in 47 miles of a 50 mile race. But if anything, it at least gave me some sort of knowledge as to where I was in relation to where I wanted to be place-wise.
As our group of five came into Whipple (in between leg 3 and 4), we had spread out a little bit, but for the most part, we were still pretty close. This was the first time I saw my crew, although with how smooth the water bottle-switch was, I barely had time to say “thanks guys” (a la Geoff Roes) before I was off again. We started the climb up leg four, and this was when I started to think that maybe I had a shot at top 5. Without really seeming to work, I was putting some distance on the other people in our little pack. They had mentioned at some point or another that they were more comfortable on trails, so even if this course wasn’t as hilly as they were used to, I was thinking that they might not have been comfortable with the speed.
And all of those thought went out of the window as soon as we crested the hill and the two people behind me quickly caught back up on the downhill of leg 5. I’ve never thought of myself as a bad downhill runner, but I guess maybe I have to work on my downhills as much as my uphills, at least on the road. As we flew down leg 5, we were still averaging sub-8 pace, and I still wasn’t feeling all that bad. I had yet to walk, which was something that I wasn’t able to accomplish through 20 miles last year.
As we came into the aid station before leg 6, I still felt good, and I still felt like I was moving fast. I did another quick water bottle exchange and began up the huge climb (~1400′ in about 3.5 miles). I knew that I was going to be walking up this climb, but I did not know just how little everybody else was going to be walking. At this point in the race, I was honestly expecting every around me to a least walk a little bit, but that was not the case. The other three people in our group (one of them had dropped back) all were running the whole way up the hill. Even still, this wasn’t super damaging to my moral since I had planned in this walk, and if anything, it was suppose to act as a break before the big downhills on legs 7 and 8.
I got to the top of leg 6 still averaging just below 8-minute pace, which for being halfway through the race at the highest point, I was okay with that. I made another fairly quick water bottle switch and started down leg 7, knowing that I only had 2 more climbs to go and that my net elevation from here to the finish was going to be about 1000 feet downhill.
However, when I started going down leg 7, I knew that I was going to be in for a rough second half of the race. My legs just were just not as responsive as they were supposed to be going downhill. I knew that I probably wasn’t going to be losing any time on people who were finishing outside of the top 10, but I also knew that there was no way that I was gaining on anyone in front of me. I rumbled down legs 7 and 8, hoping to be able to regroup myself good enough before the next climb up leg 9.
I made the water bottle exchange before leg 9, and for the first time, grabbed some Coke. I felt like I really needed something a little more… flavorful than my HEED/Red Bull mix, but I definitely wasn’t going to be able to take in any food, since I could barely get gels down at this point. I took a couple swigs of Coke and then started to walk up leg 9. At this point Josh Finger (4th place from last year), past me, practically sprinting up the hill. We exchanged pleasantries, but there was no way that I was going to catch him. As I continued my climb up the hill, I realized that, even though I was closer to being done than I was to starting, I still had some really tough obstacles to cover before I was able to cross the finish line.
I was able to get to the top of leg 9 without any more to-do and made my normal water bottle switch with a little bit of Coke (in the future, I will probably throw some Gatorade in for these races because, even though it has less complex carbs than HEED, it tastes a lot better when you’re 40 miles in) and started to walk up the first little climb of leg 10. While I was walking, I saw two guys running behind me. Thinking that I was sitting in 10th at this point, I thought that these two were going to be the two people who booted my from the medals. Unfortunately, I really couldn’t do anything about it. There was not way that I was going to be able to run up this hill.
The first guy passed me, still looking pretty fresh. I was doing my best not to look behind me, so it was much to my surprise that the second guy who passed was not, in fact a guy, but Heather Hoescht, the girl who beat me last year at Tussey (but who, I should mention, lost to me at the Naked Bavarian). We finished running the small uphill on leg 10 together and then started to pound pretty hard down the hill into the next aid station. We were running stride for stride until we came out of the woods into the neighborhood around Colyer Lake and we hit an uphill on the pavement. She continue to run except I had to walk; there was no way that I was going to be able to not walk up this hill. I crested the small hill, and then meandered my way in to Colyer.
This was probably my low point in the race; I didn’t stop, but I did do a substantial amount of walking while I was leaving Colyer, even though I had my entire crew, along with a lot of the NVRC relays, there cheering me on. I knew that leg 11 was going to be bad, but just like like last year, I underestimated how big the hill was. I started to run when the road got a little flatter, but as soon as I made a turn and saw the beginning of the climb, I had to walk again. I could not get myself to go faster than a brisk walk (probably about 13 or 14-minute miles). Both of the NVRC relay cars passed me and encouraged me to keep on going, which was honestly a big help. Knowing that I was going to be seeing them at the top of the hill, or at least the end of the race, was a huge plus. I managed to keep dragging myself up the hill, running when it was less steep or flat, and still managing to walk quickly on the uphills. Even still, I was still a little bummed that I was more likely than not outside of the top 10.
I came to the top of the hill and started to run the half mile in to the last aid station. I made a decently quick water bottle exchange with some Coke, and ventured enough courage to ask how I was doing.
“What male place am I in?” I asked.
“Ninth! You’re in ninth! And there’s no one behind you! Just get down this hill!”
I couldn’t believe it; at this point, I had no idea what had happened to other people along the course, but apparently they dropped out (it turns out that they did). Now, all I had to do was not walk for the last 4 miles down leg 12 and I’d be down. Knowing this helped me out so much. I started down leg 12, legs aching and wanting to stop, but knowing that the more I ran, the quicker I’d be done. I still wasn’t completely convinced that I was going to get top 10, so I kept on going as fast as my dead legs would take me.
As the gravel turned in to pavement with two miles to go, I knew that I had it in the bag. And if anything, this just gave me a bigger boost. Two miles turned in to one mile, and other athletes’ crew cars finally began to pass me, which told me that I was at least 15 minutes in front of the next runner behind me. And with how fast I was going (at least in my mind), I knew that they weren’t gonna catch me.
As I passed the first turn off the bridge with a little less than half a mile to go, I started to smile. I knew that I was done. I passed all the parking lots and entry trails that I used so much. I passed some recreational walkers who had no idea that struggles that had gone on for the last 7 hours. And finally, I saw the start banner and the short turnoff onto the grass for the finish. I heard the cheering at finish, and as I made the turn, I saw my crew and all of the State College runners there. I moved as fast as I could down the hill, arms in the air, and finished.
In the end, I ran a 7:04:25, four minutes faster than I did last year and good enough for 9th place. The times all around at Tussey seemed a bit slower, but I’m still a little disappointed that I wasn’t able to go 6:40 for 8-minute pace. Although I can’t be too upset since I did finish as a national championship medalist, which, if I’m being honest, is pretty cool. I think I probably could have gone out a little more conservatively, but hey, that comes with being a little older and a little more mature, things that I hope I will get as I get a little older and a little more mature. All in all, I’m decently happy with the race, but it’s also giving me a great place to work from for next year.