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Wednesday, November 11, 2009

MMTR Race Report: Masochistic Pleasures of Redemption

Sometimes the second time is even sweeter! Especially where's there's personal redemption for "sins of recent races" involved! That's certainly the way it was for me this past Saturday at the Mountain Masochist 50 Mile+ in the scenic Blue Ridge Mountains of western VA. My race, the company, the weather, the warm camaraderie of this quintessentially "ultra ultra"--everything seemed just right on this Indian summer November weekend!

Quick Overview

Temps were right at the freezing mark as we started at 5:30, but got up to yjr mid to upper 50s, maybe 60, on the nice mix of single track, jeep roads,dirt roads, and finishing and ending pavement that comprises the gorgeous course of this point to pointer. It was a bright sunny day with plenty of fall color, although a little past peak compared to last year. 267 folks started this 53mile race (with its infamous, long "Horton miles"), and 226 finished under the 12 hour cutoff.

Our pal Glen Redpath had a fabulous day, finishing 7th in 7:45. A course record of more than 15 minutes, at 6:27, was set by a team Montrail runner who came in from Alaska. This Montrail Ultra Cup race features a top elite field, and the top two women finishers were Canadian.

The other friend who shared the trip, Lisa Madden, negative split a course that is heavily backloaded in difficulty in terms of technical single track, in a time of 10:35. This was her 4th MMTR, I believe.

I'm happy to report a 50-mile trail PR of 30 minutes on my end. My goal was to break 11 hours, and yes (should I get in that lottery) I managed a WS qualifying time with a 10:53 on the last official day of 2010 qualifying! (Just as with qualifying for Boston, half the thrill is actually in teh qualifying, right?)

Thank goodness for those late downhills where you can make up for lost time! An early glute issue faded with some Advil, and ginger cubes and Pepcid AC and sticking mostly to energy chews and Heed in the latter half kept some stomach rumblings under control. Felt strong most of the way, with the inevitable bad patches,and was able to run a lot more of those long runable steep dirt-road hills than last year. Helps to know the course your training for the second time around!

I had a great time hanging out with Glen and Lisa, as we drove to/from Richmond airport and stayed at the same hotel. Glen even managed to find a brewpub for us to have lunch the day before (I passed on the brew) and see a little of historic downtown Lynchburg. We had fun at the pre- and post-race dinners, and hanging out in my room with wine and beer after the race, as Glen regaled us with out of school tales about various ultrarunning elites. Unfortunately, Garth was a last-minute scratch from our original foursome, as he got called away on some business and couldn't make the trip.

MMTR is a really special race with a family feel and is managed with incredible care and professionalism (along with, by all reports, all the other races in theLynchburg Ultra series and The Beast series). Plus Horton keeps everyone institches at the pre- and post-race dinners with his non-stop humor. A guru and pioneer of our sport since its early days, but yet he's nice enough to come upafterwards to you and say, "Great race! I saw you cross the finish line, andy ou had a big smile on your race!" Indeed, I did!

For the ultra hardcore types, please read on for the blow by blow....
It sure helps to do a race on the same course, with some time to do some focused training. MMTR is more runable than all the other 50s I've done (except JFK), with a greater quotient of smooth dirt and about 6.5 miles together with single track and a bit gnarlier jeep roads. This time around, I trained especially for that, focussing in October on some mid-week long runable hills, which paid off. So did having a lot of last year's splits on my pace chart, and being able to know from that and experience on the course where I stood, and where I needed to push it. The net result was I made my goal of sub-11, and posted a 31 minute PR with a 10:5d (compared to last year's 11:24).

The alarm sounded at 2:20, to give me time for the usual breakfast and pre-race routines prior to making it across the straight for the bus for the 4AM departure for the start. It was just about freezing at the 5:30AM start in the pitch black. Glen, Lisa, I, and most of the runners stayed on the nice warm bus till the last few minutes, getting off only to hit the port-a-sans.

The first 5.7 miles on the road were pretty uneventful. I felt like I ran a bit more of the latter steeper hilly sections than last year. But I didn't check my watch againt my pace chart at the first manned aid station (Cashaw Creek at Aid #2). The race splits they posted afterwards indicated I was right on last year's time.

As we did the mile out and back past the starting line I recall realizing for the first time, as I looked up, what a beautiful starry sky we were running under. Crossing the bridge over the river just prior to Cashaw, the views in either direction of the water, what I recall was a dam, and sunrise over the mountains was spectacular, and I stopped to take a shot with my usual Kodak digital disposable. Feeling good and controlled so far!

At 5.7 we hit a nice section of single track that turned into jeep road, featuring a lot of climbing. It was still fairly crowded, which isn't my favorite way to experience single track. A few runners passed me, but I ran good stretches of the hills till the grade got steep, and probably passed more.

I had a brief scare about an hour and a half in, as I could feel my right glute and upper hamstring and sacrum area kind of tighten up. Earlier in the week I had experienced a lot of bilateral tightness in that same general area in my short taper runs, and had to spend a lot of time stretching and with foam rollers to loosen it up. So I was wary of it flaring up in the race, as it seemed to be now. So, I had to kind of change my gait and slow down some, and then took some Advil about 1:30 into the race, much earlier than I usually do. Anyway, that brought us into Aid #3 at Peavine Mountain. I believe I checked my chart here, and I was up maybe 2 minutes on last year's split, but a little worried that a stupid little muscular thing would undermine what was taking shape otherwise as a promising race, based on my pace and how I felt energy- and breathing-wise.

From there it was a downhill section that was somewhat gnarly but still quite runable single track, and I let loose a little and passed some folks and was feeling good. I think the combo of the meds and the faster cadence of the downhills helped loosen that whole problem area up, and it was pretty much not an issue the rest of the race, thank goodness! I always love those types of windy, gradual, semi-technical downs where you can just let the momentum carry you, and in this case they were downright therapeutic! There were a couple of easily navigated creek crossings that were rock-hoppable. That brought us into Aid#4 at mile 11.2 (these are official Horton mileages based on a 50 mile course that I report throughout, not actual mileage, which in the view of most is around 53 or so for the whole course!). Here I left with a two minute gap on my '08 pace, so I made good time.

The section to AS#5 at Parkway Gate at 14.9 was more gently rolling, and by this point things had thinned out nicely, and I felt like my pace was picking up. But according to the post-race splits, I was now up only one minute on my '08 pace.

After a short downhill on jeep road, it was on to a section of 12 miles or so that was continuous wide dirt road, some of it gravel. And it started straight up, with the longest, steepest climb of the race so far! I was conscious of the sun and the warming temps, as here we got more direct sunlight even though the road has forest cover on both sides. This was the type of section I dreaded from last year, for the combination of the monotony and the fact that I couldn't make good time despite outstanding footing due to the steepness and length of the climb--a real grind! But this year I had prepared for it, mentally and physically! I think I set the tone for the rest of the race by running good long stretches of the 500 foot or so climb (to about 2,000 ft) up to AS#6 at the AT crossing, at mile 17.5. I passed LOTS of people, who were walking, mostly in groups. I kept telling myself to run up to a particular tree or other landmark, and then when it got steeper I would allow myself brief walk breaks, but focusing on power walking, and then transition back to running when the grade lessened. I wasn't breathing too hard, so this really boosted my confidence.

I was a little surprised, really somewhat shocked, to catch up to Lisa as we approached AS#6, which is the AT crossing. I asked her if she was ok, and she said she was taking it easy, and seemed to be in good spirits. My pace chart told me I was up by around 12 minutes on last year's split, meaning I'd made really good time up that long climb. But would I pay later on?, I couldn't help but wonder a little? Yet I felt strong, and even surged ahead of Lisa and the woman she was running with at that moment.... for a little while at least!

Keeping to my pattern for the day of getting through the aid stations quickly, I simply would fill my handheld, and sometimes grab a bite of potato or banana but mostly was relying on what I was carrying--energy gels and chews, Heed (consumed 3 8-ouncers over the day), Perpeteum (1 8 oz.), Ensure (only half one bottle), and some trail mix.

The next section took us mostly downhill to AS#7 at Lynchburg Reservoir (20.2) and AS#8 at north end of the reservoir (22.3). I think it was more gravelly here, and I felt a little the pounding of the descent, after the slower pace of the previous climb. I vaguely recall I had maybe 12 minutes on my '08 pace at this point.

From here the road began to climb significantly, and in this section some folks whom I'd passed on the earlier long climb passed me back, including Lisa. I felt a drop in energy in this section. But I tried to make sure I was still eating and drinking, and wouldn't let myself lapse into walking too long on the long gradual hills. In retrospect, this my first major lull of the race, so I was a little surprised to check my pacechart at AS#9 at mile 24.6, and discover I had built around a 20 minute gap on last year's pace! This was a real mental boost, and I had also been picking up my pace a little coming into that station. But one of two things must have been happening, as I look back on it--my pace chart splits may be a little off from '08 (didn't hit the watch at all the stations) and I was further ahead of the pace than I realized at the previous stations, or I had slowed down a lot less on the uphill section from 8 to 9 this time around (I recall it being a long, slow, boring slog in '08).

Also, last year I had lost maybe 10 minutes somewhere around mile 14 or 15 with an unplanned "trip to the woods." This year I managed to stave off the stomach problems that started surfacing at various points, particularly the latter half, with a combination of Immodium, Pepcid AC, and ginger cubes and minimizing the solids.

Anyway, bouyed by newfound energy and confidence that I would have a shot at getting under 11 hours, I moved pretty well on the climb up to AS #10 at Highway 60, at mile 26.9. The views were great out across the meadows and peaks, and I stopped to take a few shots. This marks more or less the halfway point time-wise in the course, Horton always tells folks. Though what the second half of the course may lack in distance, it more than makes up for with tougher single track sections and challenging trail climbs!

I was thrilled to get into this station in such good time. It has lots of crew, a ton of volunteers, and is the only drop bag station. Remembering I had dawdled some and felt pretty spent at this station in '08, I focussed on trying to get through quickly. So in the space of 10 minutes I managed to change my technical tee (keeping the arm warmers and vest I wore with them all day), shed my gloves for fingerless biking gloves and my winter Injinji cap with ear flaps for a lighter North Face summerish cap, do a brief lube and sunscreen, swap out my two mini-bottles of endurance drinks for new ones, fill my handheld, and graba bit of food and cup of water. I felt like a man on a mission, and charged out of there feeling quite optimistic! As I looked at my watch when I left, it was 5:31, compared to 5:53 last year. I knew last year I managed to "negative split," so I was confident I was in range to reach my goal if I could just do the same this year!

It's a steep, long climb out of that aid station, back onto a narrow jeep road that is really more like double-track of sorts, all the way up to Buck Mountain. Looks to be close to 1,000 feet or so of pretty serious ascent on the elevation chart. I felt pretty good going up, alternating runing and powerwalking, compared to laboring up it in '08. As you switchback your way up the mountainside, you can hear the loud "Rocky" theme music for miles and miles, tempting you into thinking you're getting closer than you really are. Unfortunately, by the time you get there, you're pretty sick of the short tape loop, and wonder how the volunteers can stand it! Another feature of the Buck Mountain AS, #11 at mile 29.5, are the various biblical proverbs about "races" and "perseverance" posted on signs as you approach. Guess I was prepared, as I wasn't as amused or "weirded out" as I was by this mixing of sport and religion as I was last year!

From there it's a nice downhill, continuing on jeep road that gets a little wider, to AS#12 at mile 32.1, at the crossing of FS 48 and 520. I think it was a peanut better or turkey and cheese sandwich I ate at the "Christian" aid station (or was it the proverbs?) that didn't sit too well, leading me to reach for the Immodium and the ginger cubes now. If I'd avoided trips to the woods this long, I didn't want to have to make one now! I also think I may have felt the first cramping of the day here (hamstrings), so I popped a couple Endurolytes, and tried to focus on drinking more (I seldom downed a full 16 oz. bottle of water between the frequent aid stations). I moved through the descents fairly well, but not really full throttle. The legs felt heavy enough, and it was early enough, that it didn't seem to make sense to push the envelope too much. The main thing was, I was mostly running instead of walking, and I think I came into AS#12 with a 22 minute margin on my '08 pace.

From here it's a steep, dusty dirt road climb, with lots of annoying support and crew vehicles whose drivers probably don't realize how much dust they're stirring as they whiz by. I kept having to rub my eyes with my bandanna. After it being pretty spread out since the halfway point, there was now sort of a conga line of runners here, forced to one side of the road by the cars and exchanging some pleasantries about the course and weather and such. After a quick right turn, we hit AS #13A, at Hog Camp Gap, which marks the start of the (officially) 5 mile single track loop. I don't recall checking my chart here.

The rather infamous loop section first has a gradual descent with good footing, then goes up steeply for quite a while with somewhat rockier footing, up past 4,000 feet to the high point of the race at 4,400 or so (or very close to it). Then it has a nice descent, which is steep in places and gradual in others. I got passed by some folks on the initial section, and was feeling a little fatigued. I think the transition back to single track after all the more runable stuff is a little difficult on both the legs and mind. But I got back some energy on the climbs, and then was able to move quite well on the final, downhill section of the loop, passing several runners over the last mile or two. At one point, there is a particularly rocky and steep downhill I remembered well from last year, and I felt nimble enough to manuever down it swiftly, passing a woman who was carefully wending her way down and who waved me through.

Overall, I remember this loop as being incredible long and slow last year, but somehow it seemed to go by much more quickly this year. I believe I pulled out of AS#13B at mile 38.6, at the end of the loop, with something like a 22-23 minute gap on last year's time. It was at that station that I saw Steve, a guy from Maryland whom I know from Phunt 50K and is a good friend of Garth's, I believe for the second time that day. I wasn't quite sure if he was already there ahead of me, or what, as I hadn't seen him pass me after I had overtaken him miles before. No matter. He seemed a little winded, and made some comment on how tough the race was. Since I was kind of running with blinders on, I avoided much conversation, and never really found myself hooking up with anyone all day, as I often find myself doing when I'm sort of feeling in a "zone."

I dashed off quickly onto the gravel road section that followed the loop, knowing I still needed to put a couple more minutes into last year's time to get under 11 hours. The first half of this officially 2.9 mile section is steady downhill, the second steady uphill. Nothing at Masochist is EVER flat (in fact, I believe it was in this section that I told a guy just this when I thought at first he asked "isn't there any flat on this course?"...in fact, he was saying that he tried to visualize it being flat so he could manage the hills better!). I felt pretty good on this section, with the momentum from the end of the single track, and pulled into Salt Log Gap at AS#14, with my margin over last year still around 21, 22 minutes.

From there it was back onto jeep road, for a pretty steep climb up to the Forest Valley AS#15 at mile 43.0. This was sufficiently steep that I didn't do much walking at all. It kind of felt good to walk after running pretty much all the previous section, actually! I ran into Steve again at this AS, still confused about whether I was catching him or he me, but I pulled away quickly leaving it, as he and other person there lingered a little more. By this point, I didn't have any more splits to go by from last year, but as I left the station, I saw from my pace card that I was behind 11 hour pace--damn, had I given a lot of time back?! I knew these calculations assumed an even pace, and that some glorious downhill awaited the last 5 miles or so. But still I realized I would be cutting it very close!

The initial mile and a half or so of this section, leading up to the last aid station, has a lot of climbing, some of it quite steep. You go up to right around 4,400 feet again. Some of it is "hands on knees" type stuff, and I was doing the "mountaineer cross-over step" on some of it to try to redistribute the muscle burn around a bit. But I felt energetic. Then we got to the nice downhill section, which has some rolls, and a few nice ridgetop views, before you descend down to the aid at Porters Ridge at 47.1

I passed maybe 4-5 people in this mostly downhill section, who all had encouraging words, though I sensed two guys coming up on me as we hit the steep descent into the station, where I sped up and got a little distance. They were coming in to the station, just as I was leaving. I was now in full charge mode, just as I had been last year! I did ask how many miles were left, and when "2.9" came back, I asked if they were real or Horton miles, to which I got different replies from the two volunteers--yes and no! Anyway, I knew from '08 that the next section was probably more like 3.5 or so, but was also all downhill, some of it quite steep, and all of it runnable! I'm not sure what the finishing elevation is, but I believe it's less than 1,000, like the start. And if Porter's Ridge a little ways before the last AS is 4,000+, you figure in the last 3.5 miles or so (really in the space of 2.5) you are descending a good 2,000-2,500 feet easily.

I was totally dialed in now to the effort to pull off another swift finish like last year, but this time with a better cushion to build on. I don't quite recall exactly, but I believe my watch indicated that I now had something like a 26 minute gap on 11 minute pace by my chart, which meant I could just make it under 11 hours. But I knew I still had to hustle!

This section features winding, slightly rocky, gradually descending jeep road, with a lot of crossing of short little trickles that I suppose are little creeks if water is higher. Unlike the rest of the day, I didn't hop rocks or avoid them, I rushed through them. Who cares about wet feet at that point in a race?! As we switchbacked our way down the mountain toward the finish, I first passed one couple I hadn't seen since early in the race, and then another guy. At this point I could feel the rocks under the toes, and the stress on the legs. I was now moving into drinking every 10 minutes, and taking Endurolytes about that often, and on one occasion took two to ward off cramps. By myself and charging down a beautiful, wind-y forested section, I was yelling loudly to urge myself on and to sort of get through the pain of the effort. But they were glorious yells of reveling in the effort, and there seemed to be no one around to hear them!

After a couple little turns that I remember being tricky last year but well marked this, you emerged onto a gravel road, which takes you VERY steeply downhill. If you don't break, you literally FLY down that sucker! I was doing all I could not to brake, though my quads and knees were straining. As I came up along four twenty-somethings walking abreast and away from me toward the bottom (couldn't tell if they were hikers or runners, as they were walking), I shouted "Runner coming through!" They stepped aside just in time to let me fly past. Somewhere just before a guy had passed me, and he was the only one to pass me from the next to last AS on, compared to a good 8 or more I had passed over that stretch.

Just before you hit the road, you see "1 mile to go" written in chalk on the dirt road. Once on the road, it's flat to rolling, with a couple turns. I was trying to remember if it was a real or Horton mile (turns out it's a real mile!). At that point, my watch said 10:44, and I pretty much knew I was home free! The guy who had passed me was out of sight around the curves, and no one was visible behind me, so I didn't have to go into overdrive, but still kept moving pretty quickly, filled with energy and adrenaline! I had to suppress some sobs of joy, as I had also earlier back on the downhill, as I realized that a sub-11 time and a PR were in sight!

It felt awesome to be moving swiftly with no real pain as I made the last little turn into the parking area and crossed the finish line, under the beatiful late afternoon sunshine! I had a huge grin on my face, and pumped my fist! You really have to love the last 4-5 miles of this one if you're a downhiller, and this year that section brought me a special gift!

Whatever I did right in training since we got back from Mexico on Oct. 4th, I want to bottle it and save it for future races (no, it's not for sale)! Sometimes you get into vicious cycles like I had toward the middle of the year, but sometimes you stumble into virtuous circles: better training --> improved confidence --> better training --> weight loss --> better training.

To be specific: Going back to coached speedwork classes with Mike built speed and confidence I could still run and not just dawdle. The medium-long runs mid-week at Rockefeller were perfect for building hill strength on runnable trails, as were the sessions of hill reps with lots more running than usual at the Palisades. Plus the different type of lower-body strength exercises Mike suggested. And the long runs at Bear Mountain, Palisades, and Mohonk gave me a good variety of hilly surfaces and terrain well suited for this race. Overall I packed in a lot of mileage but stayed healthy over a tought three-week peak training period. Backed off a little on the upper body stuff, and stuck to the weekly yoga., too. The weight came down (which for me is SO key), and was in the 155-157 range compared to low to mid 160s around the time of Iroquois. My confidence grew throughout, and I knew 11 hours was quite doable.

All in all, this was my best race since probably Calico in January, where I set my 50K PR. And I was SO overdue for a good race after Massanutten, Cascade and Iroquois!

Now let's see if I can keep applying these lessons...starting with Hellgate in 5 weeks! I seem to be improving at the 50 mile and 50K distances, but let's see I can take it past that toward those races with "100" in the name! But for now, I want to bask in the joy of this one for a little while!

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