My week in Bellevue Washington began auspiciously enough. I arrived and it was partly cloudy and dry. The sun was shining and the air was cool. I went for a run through a local nature center and the trails were barely damp except for the odd mud puddle, which was easily avoided. I was hopeful that maybe the weather forecast I had seen earlier might have changed for the Mt. Si 50K race day.
Fast forward to this morning, race day, I looked out my window and the sky was filled with clouds, the sun had beaten a full retreat and a light rain was pelting my hotel window. Great.
Well, this is my Washington race so it is appropriate that it should be run in the rain. The temperature was also a bracing 40 degrees and the wind was blowing at about 18 miles per hour. I dressed in shorts, my favorite racing top (my El Scorcho racing singlet), my Yakuza tattoo arm warmers and a faded purple bandanna. I was ready to rock and roll!
I got a lot of odd looks from the track suit and jacket clad locals. Everyone was decked out in rain jackets, many, many pairs of running pants, gloves, wool beanies and even trash bags. I was starting to wonder what they knew that I didn’t. It was certainly nippy but I knew once I got running I would probably be fine but then again we were going to be climbing all the way out to the turn around. Is the temperature going to drop that much?
I stuck to my guns and just hung out in the elementary school where the race started until 4 minutes before the gun when the race director chased everyone out. We all headed to the start which was “Even with that fire hydrant right there on the corner.” You have got to love ultras, no pretense whatsoever, hell, more often than not there isn’t even any starting line.
The race director yelled “GO!” and we were off. I intentionally lined up in the second row center because I was going for a PR on this baby. I was going to race. I have only tried to “race” one 50K before and that was really just me running like a mad man to see how long it would take for me to blow up. For that particular race it was about 21 miles. This race I had no intention of blowing up. I wanted to run hard but also run smart. With all the running I have been doing I have gotten very good at running by PE (perceived exertion). I have dispensed with the HR monitor because they seem to keep crapping out and it’s just one more thing to chafe anyway.
The front pack bolted from the start like it was a 10K. I was immediately left behind and a couple people passed me. However, I stuck to my guns and just ran comfortably. After about a half mile I looked down at my Garmin and was running at an 8:04 pace…holly crap! I thought, “this doesn’t seem right but I feel really good.” I had done two runs the day before the race, 13.3 miles in the morning in Albuquerque before my flight and another 6.2 in Washington after my flight. Both of those runs were in the mid 8:40s. You’ve got to love that extra adrenaline that comes in a race.
I just backed off a little and kept on truckin as the lead pack started to stretch out and continued to pull away. The race began on paved roads and continued that way for about the first 8tenths of a mile when we took a sharp right turn and climbed a flight of stairs about 20 feet up onto a bridge. From that point on the race took place on a gravel covered rail bed that had been converted for recreational use. The gravel was nice and small so it wasn’t hard to run on and was easy on the feet.
Within the first five miles two guys fell off the back of the lead pack and I caught and passed them. Ahead of me I could see a group of maybe six guys all running together. I was really wishing I was up with them because I was running by myself into a headwind. However, I rarely benefit much from trying to draft off other people. More often than not my head and shoulders are higher than theirs and so I still catch a lot of wind. When I’m running about the same pace as a group what usually happens is they see me on their heels and then duck in behind me to get out of the wind leaving me to plow ahead.
At mile five we came to the first aid station and all but one member of the group stopped. I blew right through because I was carrying two hand held bottles and my spibelt with six gels. I was set.
It was also mile five when the trail began its upward climb. I had looked at the profile and knew I was in for a 10 mile climb but I wasn’t sure how much it climbed. The answer is 1000 feet. Back in Albuquerque we have a six mile climb that goes up 1000 feet but it is not as smooth as this one. The Albuquerque climb starts off with two steepish ramps in the first couple miles, goes shallow for maybe 3 miles then steepens back up for the finale. The climb at Mt. Si, being on an old railway bed, is almost perfectly consistent all the way to the top except in the very last half mile when, quite cruely, it turns steeply downward for a half mile so that after 10 miles of climbing you get one last chance to climb again.
When I was approaching the turnaround I was 3 miles back from the first place runner and about 8 tenths of a mile back from the 4th place runner. I could see the turnaround and there was nary a soul between it and me. I was in freakin 5th place overall! I knew I had been running well all morning despite the rain. In fact, I was running unbelievably well. At the top of the climb away from the turnaround, which I power hiked, my average pace was an 8:19 and I was getting ready to head into a 10 mile downhill.
I briefly had fantasies of matching my marathon PR pace, which is 7:57 I think…I ran a 3:28 and change. However, despite the fact that I did speed up, as the miles clicked off my pace dropped but too slowly. At one point I may have saw an 8:11 average pace, maybe 8:12, but that was all.
By mile 20 the pain was starting to set in but it was still tolerable. By mile 25 the pain had increased considerably but I told myself, “OK, only a 10K to go. I can hang on for a freakin 10K.” However, I knew I was staring down the barrel of five flat miles to the finish.
When I finally hit the flats I took a look around because there is fairly major road to run across and when I did I caught a glimpse of someone behind me. I recognized they guy from the original pack of runners that I had wished to draft with and he was maybe a quarter mile behind me. I knew he was gaining on me but I couldn’t accelerate any longer, I couldn’t even think in terms of 5 or 6 miles to the finish. In my mind I broke the race down to more manageable chunks, the distance to mile 28 and then the final 5K.
The flat sections are very straight so I could see quite a way and nothing ever seemed to get closer. As a final strategy to try and keep myself moving forward I switched between either looking down and the ground or just staring straight ahead into the middle distance with my eyes kind of unfocused. I also just tried to shut off my thinking altogether because the level of effort it took to continue to move forward was sickening and every thought I had brought me back to that fact.
With about 7 tenths of a mile left the guy behind me finally passed and there was no catching him. I didn’t have any idea if there was anyone else close behind me but a glance back suggested that nobody was there. I was able to hang on to the finish where I was told I placed 6th overall and was the 3rd male in the 40-49 age group in a time of 4:18:47. I was completely stunned. I have never placed so well in any race greater than a little local 10K.
I learned two major lessons from this race; one, actually racing is very uncomfortable and that discomfort starts relatively far from the end and two, I am capable of racing even over longer distances. I have been edging towards these realizations over a few of my recent races but now I have the actual experience instead of just the hunch.
Next up, four marathons in two weeks where I’m going for four under four hours. The four are:
April 30th Country Music Marathon
May 1st Flying Pig Marathon
May 7th Wisconsin Marathon
May 8th Kalamazoo Marathon