Monday, February 17, 2014

Holiday Lake ++++

There’s nothing more romantic on Valentine’s day than listening to David Horton’s sweet voice telling you how to properly take a dump during a 50k.


If you don’t know who David Horton is, you need to attend any race in the LUS series, open up any book about running, or get yourself on google right now. He’s the legendary runner and the mastermind behind the Holiday Lake 50k++ that was about to be my first experience running an ultramarathon. I’ve only known one other person who can equally match Horton’s inspiration and enthusiasm for running: my high school cross country couch, Mr. Howard, who first got me into running. Thankfully when my parents shipped me off to college I landed in the hands of Horton and other crazy VT runners who’d keep me at it.

The day before the race was more relaxed than I’d accounted for when I signed up. That past Wednesday, Virginia had been hit with a pretty heavy snowfall that was both a blessing and a curse. Leading up to the 50k, I probably hadn’t trained as much as I should have. The longest run I had done in the past two months was 18 miles and the longest run I’d ever done was the Richmond Marathon a couple months back. I heard over and over again that Holiday Lake was one of the easiest 50k’s out there, with only 1,000 ft of gain per loop (which may have accounted for my lack of serious training). I also was hitting a low point in my running, I tend to go through vicious waves of being an exercise fanatic to a couch potato.
Keely and I drove down with tri team members Dylan and Jonathon. They proved to be two really cool dudes that were just as new to ultras as we were. The day went by pretty quickly thanks to a car nap provoked by Dylan’s country music, delicious food, David Horton’s speeches, and good company. Before I knew it, I was waking up a 5:10 AM (despite my earlier fight with Wyatt to get up no earlier than 5:30, who, for the record, crawled out of bed after me) and was filling up with my new favorite tri-force pre-race meal (carbs, sugar, and fat). By 6:30 the race started in the 30 degree weather with a light sprinkling of cold rain.

I ran the first part of the race with Kelly, Keely, and Lauren, the only four girls from VT running the race of about 400. We started off slowly and got trapped in the back behind some cautious older racers. While Keely and Kelly broke away, picking up the pace, I hung back with Lauren for a while. I wasn’t exactly nervous about the race, but any anxieties or dawning realizations that I’d be running for the next 6 hours straight were squashed by Lauren’s mellowness. She seemed to know exactly what pace she was feeling up for and that gave me confidence that running with her would benefit during later miles.

At the first aid station I opted for just a few sips of water and set off with the determination to pick up the pace a little bit. The next four miles were uneventful except for two mandatory water crossings. My muscles had warmed up to the cold and the knee-deep water at the second stream was much nicer than I had expected.

Aid station two was filled with some pleasant surprises. As soon as I got there I exchanged a few words with Keely who was just about to take off again. I hadn’t seen her since before mile four so it was nice to see I hadn’t fallen too far behind. David Horton had incorporated some physics into his racing advice the night before with the saying “an object in motion stays in motion while an object at rest stays at rest” so I was a little rushed to get what I needed and keep moving. I ended up throwing a strawberry banana GU at an aid station volunteer to open before I realized I knew him. His name was Tyler, a freshman at LU, and I had run the counterclockwise loop of the course with him a few weeks back. Tyler is an extremely nice and friendly runner, also new to ultras, who chose not to run Holiday Lake but plans to run Promise Land. Seeing him picked up my energy and enthusiasm which I carried for the next couple miles after I left.

I decided to make a new plan for running: instead of running a 50k I planned to run four 8-mile races. I considered the first race as a “warm-up” and planned to run steady for the next two races and really pick up the pace the last 8 miles. This helped me relax and kept me from running too quickly, with a promise to work hard the last 8 miles, I allowed myself to hike up most of the uphills and save energy for when it would be needed.

It seemed like a long time before the next station, the runners had thinned out and the path was evidently more narrow  than it had previously been. I frequently got stuck behind runners who I would have preferred to pass. The decision to pass was a challenge. The non-packed down course was about a foot of snow that was iced over on the top and felt like it cut into my skin every time I picked my feet up. Those four miles were mostly downhill but I made a note to mentally prepare myself to run back up them when the time came. I remembered how I struggled with this part of the course during the practice run and knew with the snow and previous miles wearing me down that it’d potentially be a much harder challenge.

At the next aid station I chose water only again before taking off again. I saw Keely and Kelly were only a couple yards ahead of me, but decided not to run up to them. I was in the right mental zone and was worried I’d lose focus on running my own race. They took off from the aid station a bit faster than I had and I lost them again pretty quickly.

Once again, cruise control was on (to steal an idea from Rudy on his experience during Hellgate) and I kept my steady rhythm for the next part of the course. I began to pass some runners who had already hit the turn-around point, Guy (definitely being in the top ten) and David were the only two I was able to exchange “good jobs” with. About a half mile before the turn around I caught up to a line of runners, Keely and Kelly being two of them, and we all arrived at 16 mile at about the same time.

Here I shed my gloves, rain jacket, running jacket, and head band which was wonderful. I felt lighter, cooler, and ready to clock in some more miles. I asked crew team Mike and Darren, two excellent ultra-runners themselves, for some advice on the second loop:

“Run.”  

I could do that. 

After some GU and water I tried to get back onto the course without Keely and Kelly noticing, with the knowledge that running alone was the best way to go, but Keely caught back up with me. This was definitely intimidating. Keely’s a tank when it comes to running, especially long distances. We ran the Richmond Marathon together and were clocking 7:50-8:20 minute miles for the first 20 before I crashed. I was worried if I ran with her now I’d psych myself out and lose the zone I was able to put myself in. I ended up pulling away from her a mile or so after the halfway point and ran on.

I convinced myself as long as I could stay ahead then my pacing was spot-on and I wasn’t losing energy: I was running scared. I hiked less uphills and the ones I did hike, I hiked more quickly than before. During one of them, I noticed a familiar pair of high socks as another VT ultra-runner’s, Steve. This wasn’t Steve’s first 50k like mine, he took top 20 at MMTR last October, but had gotten hurt before this race. I would've loved to see what place he could have gotten injury-free, but it was nice knowing another runner on the course. I hadn’t really talked to Steve much before then but that didn’t stop me from expressing to him that I was panicking. He offered me some water which I refused, which calmed me down a bit and helped me refocus. It’s the little gestures of kindness during races that really help me out and I gotta thank Steven for saving me at the point in the race.  We played a round of front-seat-back-seat before I was about to convince myself I had enough energy to push ahead.

I grabbed some mountain dew (so delicious) at the next aid station before pushing on to the part of the course I was dreading. I had a lot of adrenaline pumping and this part of the course wasn’t bad. I was able to push up some of the inclines with little hiking, which raised my spirits a lot. Before I got to the next aid station I passed a woman who I’d counted as woman number 11 as turn-around runners passed me during the first loop. Wait, could I get top 10? I was in and out of the next aid station with barely enough time to grab another GU and water. This was the last 8-mile race I had to run and I promised myself to cruise through it.

I picked off runners until I was completely alone without a visible runner behind me or in front of me. Something I was really looking forward to was the water crossing, it was like a mandatory ice bath that was going to be a shock to my system and hopefully pick me up for the last seven miles. When I reached it I literally fist pumped the air. I had a sudden thought that I hadn’t gone to the bathroom all race, something that meant I wasn’t hydrated enough. I didn’t want to waste any precious time stopping to pee so yup, I force peed myself right there and when I dived into the cold water, I dunked myself in waist-deep and considered myself clean again.

I was feeling so good right then, speeding along the course with a now empty bladder (which hadn’t been bothering me in the first place but running is a mental game). David Horton told us Friday night that he had driven on some of the course to pack down some snow and I was taking advantage of those tire tracks. The snow was packed down, I only had a few miles left, I felt good. Then I hit an uphill. Wasn’t the course supposed to be all downhill? Suddenly I started to feel not so strong and my pace decreased significantly during this climb. My pace hadn’t dropped the entire race except for some 30-second hikes and I was starting to panic. I kept periodically checking behind me to see if anyone was catching me but kept seeing no one. At one point I thought I saw Keely, who was wearing a white jacket, and tried to sprint for a while, only to look back and realize what I had been seeing was snow, not someone’s jacket. During this entire climb no one had caught up to me, "damn I guess I'm still moving pretty fast"
Then I got to a road and looked for some muddy snow that indicated the connecting path. All the snow had been untouched. I turned around and looked at tire tracks I had just run up and only saw one pair of shoe prints in them. I messed up somewhere. I screamed every word of profanity I could think of before turning around and racing down what I had just run up. I was checking the woods for the turn back onto the course that I’d missed the first time and saw nothing. It began to dawn on me that I’d just blown the race for myself. I got all the way to the bottom of the hill before I saw two other runners beginning to climb and told them to turn around. Coincidentally, Kelly was at the bottom (going the right way of course) and directed me back on. She said Keely was ahead of her and I took off.

I really started to lose mental strength and couldn’t get it back. At the next aid station I was told Keely was less than a minute ahead and I took off way too fast. I ended up seeing Keely less than 200 yards ahead at one point on an uphill but I lost everything after that. She was definitely feeling better than me by the way she was running. I’ve heard so many stories of runners who have had broken bones or twisted ankles and still pushed forward (pick up Scott Jurek’s Eat and Run book, turn to any chapter, and you’ve got yourself an example) but I wasn’t one of those runners that day. Keely pulled ahead of me by 11 minutes the next four miles before the finish. A lot can happen in four miles. I went from feeling pretty disappointed in myself to genuinely enjoying the finishing downhill with an older runner named Michael. 

At the finish line I chatted with some VT runners who had finished a decent amount of time before me before going inside and diving into some double stuffed oreos (by “some” I mean 20+). Just like at MMTR, I was surprised at the energy people have after running an ultra (especially when it’s in “Horton Miles”) and was even more surprised to find I was one of them. I ate myself sick, showered, the team snapped a picture, then I took a killer nap on the ride home. I need to personally thank Dylan for staying awake to drive the entire 2.5 hours back, him and Jonathon had taken 6th and 7th overall and I have no idea how they didn’t fall asleep.

The rest of the day was spent exactly how it should have been, with way too many oreos to handle and only four hours of sleep because of my high sugar intake. The experience was absolutely exhilarating and I can’t wait to see everyone at Terrapin (and earn myself some more oreos). I’m so proud to finally call myself a VT Ultra-runner and be part of this amazing group of people.

Hokies and Horton
Photo Cred: Mike Jones's phone and whoever used Mike Jones's phone to take this picture

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