Three’s my new lucky number—and so is 13!
Yes, the third time attempting 100 was, indeed, a charm! Plus it was three years ago that these crazy thoughts of doing ultras, and eventually making it to 100, started creeping into my thoughts and beginning to take on concrete form! Oh yes, and Iroquois was my lucky 13th ultra finish (finally matching my marathons completed). So ‘3’ just keeps popping up for me now!
But first, a big shout out of congratulations to my friend and training partner Garth! In his first 50, he ran Iroquois in a swift time of around 11:30 (I’m proud to say, wearing a long sleeve layer I provided him the night before, when he fretted how cold it was at the outdoors pre-race dinner at the race site!). He looked good and happy throughout, as I was near him for a while, and then saw him ahead of me several times in out and back sections. Then briefly said congrats when I reached his finish/my halfway point. He was already seated in celebratory mode (albeit not yet with long-awaited beer in hand!). Garth had been quite worried ahead of time about the tight 50 mile intermediate and finish (12-hour) cutoffs. Fah-ged-a-bout-it, you blew those times away, man!
The other big shout out is to my friends Kim and Phil, as well as Jason from Ithaca. Such supportive, friendly, helpful crewing and pacing, from mile 55 on, could not be found anywhere! With the occasional dose of tough love, “chop chop,” “don’t dawdle at that aid station, “don’t even think about a nap” along the way! NOW I know why crewing and pacing are such great ultra and especially 100 mile traditions. You guys were awesome, and I truly couldn’t have done it without you—the night would have done me in again, for sure.
My race had a great first half. Maybe too great, as it would have been a 50 mile trail PR for me. When I plotted out that my pace a third of the way would have me in under 24 hours, I had to chuckle at that totally ridiculous thought. But did entertain only slightly less ridiculous notions of 27, 28 hours for quite a while. But miles 60-80 or so, in the cold upstate overnight which got down to the low 40s and maybe even 30s, disabused me of such fantasies, and I slowed way down. The culprits: stomach issues that made it hard to eat enough, blisters under both big toenails that I had to drain twice, and a nap I craved but didn’t have time for and my crew sagely warned me away from.
The last 15 to 20 things got better. Sun was out, temps were pleasantly moderate (maybe low 60s tops), the single-track terrain varied and pretty, and the pacer company cheerful and supportive. After my margin on the cutoff shrunk to as low as 2:20 at one point in the 70s or so, I got it back up to 2:50, and then finally made it in at 3:45 under the 36 hour cutoff (for a finish of 32:45, good for 13th of 15 finishers, with the 9 starters DNFing, all due to voluntary drop-outs, the R.D. told me).
The course was really pretty, with hints of fall color already creeping in that far north. And with 17.7 K of up and equal amount of down, plenty challenging—did I mention the DNF ratio?! (Those who I talked to who had also done other Eastern 100s found Iroquois tougher than Vermont, though with a more forgiving cutoff, and a notch or two easier than Massanutten.) Whenever Iroquois started to seem too easy or runnable, it felt like a tough climb would come along! Not as rocky as Harriman, but with its share of rocks, and a ton of roots, twists, and turns. Nice mixture of single track (maybe 60-65%), dirt roads of the forest service or ski access variety (as in up and down slopes!), and a couple miles only of pavement to get you from one set of trails to another.
Very good race organization, especially for a first-time event. Ian Golden, the R.D., is a great guy and committed young runner who also, as I understand it, owns the Finger Lakes Running Company. Imagine e-mailing you in advance to find out what kind of food you like at aid stations, and then following through?! Would have liked some fruits slices and more soup in the night, but you can't have everything!
Nice volunteers (maybe twice as many as actual runners?), with plentiful aid stations that were pretty well-stocked. And the course was reasonably well marked, though I’m glad I carried along a verbal description. That, plus the occasional look back at the next runner when I was unsure, kept me from getting off-course at a few tricky turns. An interesting course design of multiple small loops and out and backs made it friendly for aid, crew, and pacers, but still plenty varied for runners. The event had that nice distinctive ultra feel, with a pre-race dinner the night before, some runners camping out or staying at the cabins on-site, and a nice little finish-line “fry up a meal as they come in” banquet at the finish.
Favorite moments: Sunrise as we ran up and down the slopes at Greek Peak on day one. Then running that same section completely solo under a three quarter moon, starlit early night sky, and encountering a toad on the road who completely froze in my headlamp beam….The lush all-fern sections beneath a canopy of frest at several points along the trail….When Steve from PA, who’s thru-hiked the AT, pointed out the bear scat we were running by…Listening to the owl calls on the Finger Lakes Trail, and then my pacer Jason’s owl calls a few minutes later to try to attract them (no reply!)…At two different aid stations, having a filmmaker (documentarian? reporter?) sticking her camera into my face and training it on my feet for long stretches. As I tended to blisters and changed shoes and socks and she peppered me with questions on what the hell I was doing with tape on virtually every inch of my feet and how I was feeling….Hammering, with Phil nipping at my heels, the steep, technical, windy final descent from the Greek Peak area down to the valley of the finish, on 97 mile legs that still felt workable…The weirdly calm elation of finally reaching a goal you’ve been working toward for…well, three years! Feels pretty damn cathartic!
Thanks to all for your support and encouragement! (For a longer blow by blow for the diehard ultra enthusiast, read on below...)
Race results at: http://www.iroquoistrails.com/
I wrote this blow by blow in fits and starts over the last few weeks, finally finishing today!
Gatherings (start/finish) loop of Greek Peak ski trails and back to Gatherings at 5.9: Great section of dirt ski access roads. Sun coming up. Longest climbs of the race. It was cool to watch the sun come up over the distant hills, and to run the steep grassy downhill section. A little scary that you could lose your footing. Glad I started out with the Goretex Hardrock's, thanks to R.D. Ian's last-minute warning that we would encounter lots of morning dew. Hate to start off with wet feet. Felt good, and tried not to push it too much on the hills, but couldn't help but let myself enjoy the descents. Ran with Garth for a while, and chatted some with Andrei from Ridgewood, NJ.
Pipeline "lollipop" loop #1 (Gatherings to Pipeline AS, a loop up and around the power line hill, back to Pipeline, and return to Gatherings--5.9-23.5): Finally, the first single track (after a mile or so of steep pavement)! Nice forested moderately technical and hilly sections, with some mostly bone dry creek crossings. Then a long dirt road, then the AS. After that a short road section, more dirt road, and then the long, steep ascent of the hill beneath the power line. Turning onto more dirt road, to loop back to Pipeline, repeating the single track and now downhill pavement back to Gatherings. This was a nice, varied section. I felt good for pretty much all of it. Didn't feel like I was pushing it, but I was worried to be so close to Garth, who was doing the 50 and I knew I should just let get some distance on me. I recall I was well under the 16 minute pace on my chart, and by my rough calculations somewhere between a 14 and 15 minute pace, which seemed fast but didn't seem too taxing. Talked to some folks in this section, like Ruthann from PA and her husband Ed. Most of it I was solo, but with runners in sight ahead of me. I wished I had a change of shoes at Pipeline AS, as the toes were getting a little scrunched in my older pair of smaller GTX Hardrocks. Didn't change into regular Hardrocks (and a new pair of outer socks, Smartwools) until Gatherings at 23.5
Gatherings to Daisy Hollow Rd. out and back section #1 (23.5-49.9): This section was really nice, but pretty tough. The dirt road back through the ski resort, then a steep climb up to Greek Peak, onto the single track, through the GP AS, then more single track on to the Rock Pile and to the Daisy Hollow AS which marks the turnaround. Then reverse course all the way back to Gatherings. I started falling into a slower but probably more reasonable pace in this section, and was conscious of runners who I had been with earlier now ahead of me. It starting warming up a little as I neared the turnaround, and I recall throwing water over myself and even putting water under my hat. But not much direct sun, and I never felt like I was too warm in short sleeves, as my singlets stayed in my drop bags the whole race. Most of the way back to Gatherings, in the late afternoon and early evening, I recall feeling pretty good, but I was also conscious of not moving as quickly as early on.
Gatherings-Greek Peak resort-Gatherings loop (49.9-55.8): It was a real pleasure to come in and see not only Garth sitting there, all content after his first 50 mile finish! I think I joked to him about taking my 50-mile all-trail PR (i.e., not including the mixed-surface JKF 50) at that point and calling it a day! Then appeared Jason, and a few minutes later Kim and Phil, who had just arrived. The whole crew was in place! But I still had to head out alone, as pacers couldn't start till 55.8. Garth came in some 20 minutes ahead of me. I think I came in around 12:50, but this was a long AS stop of 20 minutes or so. Before heading out of Gatherings I changed to another pair of Hardrocks and socks/sock liners (all of which I'd keep on the rest of the way), first draining the blisters under both big toenails with my handy syringe. The videographer came by just after the draining was done, but as I was putting powder in the liners and socks, and she seemed thrilled to shoot my neatly taped/mummy wrapped toes, balls of the feet, and heels! Lots of questions on why I taped, what issues I had with my big toes, how I felt, etc.
This was the first nighttime section, and it was mystical and magical. It was so cool to experience the ski resort section under a starry, moonlit sky, all by myself. A few times I could see headlamps in the distance behind me, which led me to speed up, and then they seemed to recede. Didn't want someone sneaking up on me! Who could be out at this hour?! A neat moment was seeing a toad or frog frozen in the beam of my headlamp, right in the middle of the ski access road I was on. At one point, toward the end of the ski trails and prior to getting on the dirt and then paved road back to Gatherings, I passed a couple guys, but they were the only people I saw close-up this whole section. I felt good on the climbs as well as steep descents of the wide ski roads and trails, but you had to be careful with the footing, especially in the muddy and grassy sections and in the dark. This was a fun section, and I was feeling quite good. After leaving Gatherings at the halfway mark at around 13:10, I felt like my chances of breaking 30 hours (well beyond what I thought possible) were pretty good.
Gatherings to Pipeline out and back and loop #2 (55.8-73.4): Jason was my stalwart pacer for this nighttime section. We had met for the first time at the pre-race dinner, and R.D. Ian was nice enough to put me in contact with this local runner and Cornell Ph.D. student. We had a great time chatting away through the night about anything and everything (jobs, academics, relationships, environmentalism, genetically modified foods, ultrarunning, you name it!). It was really nice to have company the second time through this section. I felt pretty strong through the out section to Pipeline, but then on the loop around and back to Pipeline, as night fell, I started feeling a little less energetic, and felt some queaziness coming on. From Pipeline back in to Gatherings, I felt fatigued, and kind of a loss of energy. This section is a little more technical, and my reflexes felt slow and I felt awkward at times. It was also starting to get really cold, and we could see our breath. A pleasant distraction was hearing the calls of the owls, and then Jason's efforts to imitate their calls and entice them into an exchange and maybe coming closer (it didn't work, but was interesting to hear!). Once we exited the dense forest to hit the paved road section coming out of the Finger Lakes trail to head back in to Gatherings, we REALLY felt the cold of the open air. I had a long sleeve, jacket, stocking cap, hat, and gloves, and I was still cold! Jason was close to shivering, as he was dressed much more lightly. It had been below freezing a night or two before, and I suspect it may have gotten down to the upper 30s or so. I recall mentioning something about really needing a nap. Seeing the 3/4 moon and being all alone on a country road was cool, but it was hard not to focus on just how tired and sleepy I felt!
Gatherings (yet again!) to Daisy Hollow Rd. (73.4-86.6): Hitting Gatherings at 73.4, it was time to bid farewell and grateful thanks to Jason, and welcome Kim as my pacer for the next section. As I ate some tasty quesadillas, drank some soup, changed shorts, put on my Marmot pants, and reloaded food and liquids, Kim urged me to get out of there quickly, and I think the phrase "chop, chop!" came up there (or was it later?). I joked that I was going to ask her if I could squeeze in a 15-minute nap, but she didn't pick him on my hint (thank God, that would have been the WORST mistake!). It was good that she got me out of there quickly, as the way I was feeling, lingering longer was only going to make it harder to head back out again.
The section with Kim, from 73.4 to Rock Pile at 81.4, was probably the toughest physically and mentally, together with the previous section with Jason from 67.1-73.4. These were the witching hours, and my body and mind felt it BIG TIME! (My average pace slipped from 13:53 per mile the first 27, to 17:44 from 27 to 50, to 24:42 from 50 to 77.) Kim kept gently urging me to run if I felt like it , but all I could manage was a shuffle, as I didn't have the energy to lift my legs. I forgot now exactly where, but somewhere along here I fell twice in short succession. Nothing bad at all, no cuts or bruises. Just more the lazy falls of someone who was half awake and couldn't pick up his legs! Just get me through the night, and bring on the daylight, I kept thinking! Kim kept insisting that I drink and eat. I was still having a lot of queasiness, and it seemed like only pretzels or bland fare appealed. I didn't have the stomach for gels, or the Perpeteum, Heed, or Ensure I had taken in earlier in the race. Most of the stuff at aid stations felt unappealing, and I was disappointed there wasn't soup in this section (or fruit, which I probably also would have gone for). There were also two early morning unavoidable "trips to the woods" during this section (don't you love the TMI on ultra blogs?!). No amount of Pepto Bismol and Immodium prevented that good old 24 hour cycle from repeating itself. Race or no race, the digestive tract does its work!
From Rockpile (81.4) on into the turnaround at 76.9, my spirits lifted, buoyed by the early morning rays of a beautiful day. The cheery volunteers at Rockpile made it my favorite AS by far, and the nice forested location, just off a field and dirt road, also gave it a nice vibe. I think some tunes were playing most of the four times through in the course of the two days, too. Anyway, I guess the feeling was, I'd made it through my first ultra night, and I was still moving, go praise be! It felt like I was moving a little better (though my official split through this section begs to differ from that memory--maybe because this is a hilly and somewhat more technical section, requiring more effort?). But then it also felt like it took forever to finally get to the turnaround, as the section has so many twists and turns, you don't get a good sense of how much progress you've made, and how far the station still is.
Daisy Hollow Rd. (86.6) to finish at Gatherings: The glorious home stretch! It felt really important mentally to get to the point where you're turning back, and heading home. On trail that was now familiar, as I was traversing it for the fourth time in two days now. Who cares if it's another 13+ miles?! I can smell the finish! And there was also the passing of the pacing torch from Kim to Phil, which also felt like I'd reach an important milestone--the third of my three pacers was now taking over! Kim had been truly awesome, and we'd talked about this and that all night and into the early morning hours, though I don't recall quite what. She really kept my spirits up when I was hurting. She wanted me to sing at one point, but I couldn't quite get out the tune of the Van Morrison song from the old cassette I'd been listening to in the car, and she didn't seem to know it ("woman, woman, woman, woman, yeah, make me feel so good," or something like that, goes the tune!).
Anyway, Phil was as helpful with his cheerful, low-key, calm demeanor as Kim had been with her upbeat words of encouragement and constant reminders to eat and drink (she wasn't a tri coach for nothing!). There was lots to talk about with him also. Races, family, their hopes to relocate geographically eventually, our jobs, etc., etc. Somewhow I remember more, even though I'm sure I talked just as much if not more with Kim! Just a reflection of my improved level of consciousness in the latter, daytime stages of the race! Phil had the good fortune to catch me in a stretch where I felt much more alert and focussed. (And he got a slightly better workout than she, who only got a hike--sorry, Kim!) I think I said to Phil a few times I could smell the finish!
It was just nice to be in the forest, with the sunlight streaming in, on a cool, pleasant partly sunny day that got cloudier as it progressed. Over the last 13 miles I managed to pick up the pace a couple minutes per mile, and drop down to a 21:16average (and my pace from 77 to 100, of 22:28, was a couple minutes faster than my tortoise pace for the third quarter of the race). Not exactly blistering, but I'll take it. I think at the turnaround where we met Phil I was down to around a 2'20" cushion on the cutoff, which had had me a little worried, and spurred me on. While in a few weak moments overnight hile with Kim there had been some fleeting doubts if I would make it, now finishing felt like a certainty. They had been very fleeting, however, as there wasn't the horrible alone time when you keep asking yourself if you can make it and if you are tough enough and all the stuff that had haunted me at my two 100 attempts at Bighorn. That whole negative mental cycle just never really got started at Iroquois, and I think pacers were really a big difference. And the only question in the final section with Phil became instead, by how much while I finish under the cutoff?
When my gap on the cutoff increased to around 2'45" at Rockpile at 91.8, visions of breaking 32 hours started dancing in my head for a few miles. I made sure we got out of there in a real hurry, and felt like a man on a mission as I took the lead from Phil, and felt (with my 90 mile legs) that I was actually "pushing the pace" for the change. But somewhere short of the last AS at Greek Peak I realized breaking 32 wasn't going to happen. So I backed off a little, and then it seem to take forever to get to Greek Peak, with lots of twists and turns--cross road, back on single track, another dirt road section, back on single track... I had forgotten about all that (how short memory is in these things!). Anyway, once we got there, Kim was waiting for us, and I gave myself the luxury of sitting down briefly to take in some food, and we visited briefly with Kim before heading off for those last 3.6 miles.
The last section coming back down off Greek Peak to the finish at Gatherings had two highlights. The first was the steep, somewhat gnarly and slightly technical downhill, of maybe 1/4 to 1/2 a mile, coming down what felt like a good 800 vertical feet or more off Greek Peak on the Finger Lakes Trail to the dirt road. I live for descents like this! You could really get up a head of steam, but it was like a slalom course, with enough roots and rocks that you had to be careful to keep the knees high. I was really happy to have enough coordination and lycogen or whatever left to be able to sort of let 'er rip without worrrying about falling. Phil was nipping at my heels the whole time down, which added another element of thrill--he being a pretty big guy, the consequences of a little trip felt kind of magnified. Anyway, we made it down without a problem, and then onto the dirt road by the ski resort which takes about 1/2 mile or so until a few hundred yards of road and then the turnoff to the Gatherings and the finish.
On this dirt road section, which is a steady uphill, we powerhiked at a good clip. I kept looking back, as I knew two, maybe three guys were behind me, whom I had passed (as best I recall) somewhere between the last two aid stations and had heard volunteers making reference to as still being out on the course. I was feeling good about making a strong finish, and didn't want to muck it up with getting passed by someone kicking it in! So I kept looking over my shoulder, just in case. But no one appeared. And as we crested the last hill on the road, we shifted back to a run, and it really felt so good to be able to run those last 600-800 yards to the finish. No pain, no cramps (never cramped the whole race), able to generate decent turnover--wow, where was that 30-40 miles ago?! Phil had run ahead to take a picture of me crossing the dirt finish line someone had drawn on the groun. There was just a small contingent of volunteers and the race director and a few stray runners there, plus Kim of course, but they greeted me enthusiasically.
So, what was it like, to finally get to that 100 mile finish line? I had imagined scenarios of overwhelming emotion where I would break down and cry, or kneel down and kiss the ground or something dramatic. A few times in the latter stages of the race I started imagining the finish, but I wouldn't let that go on for long, as I would start to get emotional and lose focus. But in the end it was more like this calm sense of elation, of overwhelming satisfaction, of intense awareness of the surroundings at the finish. The gray, threatening sky, the green field ringed by trees, the volunteers, the hugs and congratulations from race director Ian, Kim, and Phil, the food they immediately offered and I eagerly accepted. It's all etched in my mind, even now 4 1/2 weeks later.
It sounds corny, but I had thought for some time this moment might never happen. But then somehow, it seems like in the preceding weeks and months many things had come together, and led me to be eerily calm and focused and confident before and I think during the race. The trials I had been through at Bighorn and at places like Zane Grey and Jemez, the tune-up 50Ks I had done in early and last August at Catoctin (MD) and Montana de Oro (CA), the quick August buildup in training and addition of more marathon-pace tempo runs of 8-10 miles as a new training wrinkle, the 10 pounds or more I'd lost since June, the decision to switch to a handheld from a Camelbak and to "travel light," the experiment with Injinji liner socks to fend off blisters which worked great, and most of all the great stroke of luck of having such great pacers as Phil, Kim, and Jason. Everything just seemed to fall into place. The picture-perfect weather sure didn't hurt, either! Even my concerns about getting off course were allayed, as I stopped at difficult intersections to either check the detailed course description I was carrying or just waited for runners behind me, to make double-sure I didn't make a wrong turn. Everything just seemed to come up roses with my race preparations, and race execution itself!
Not that I can't learn a ton from this race about better pacing. Or work more on ways to get enough calories when the stomach goes south. Or find some kind of solution to those under the big toenail blisters I had to drain twice. But that all seems like minor stuff compared to the reality of finishing, and with a comfortable margin on the (generous) cutoff. So, for now, I think I'll just continue to ride the wave of good feeling post-race that has lasted a good month now!