As 2010 wound down, I reflected back upon what turned out to have been a difficult year. My father died in April. As far as the clock was concerned, the year brought one running-related disappointment after another. My first year as my own boss was a bright spot, as was the continued growth and blossoming of my three children. What proved to be most trying, however, was that fact that pre-existing fissures in my marriage grew larger. As time passed, the relationship which I considered to be the bedrock of my existence grew more troubled and tenuous. Mrs. ESG and I finally articulated the severity of our troubles and sought help. The results were mixed, but things did not improve. And, so, in what proved to be one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, I moved out of my house on February 3rd. Telling the kids that I was going away for an undetermined period was more difficult than any other test I’ve faced. At this point, I know not what the future holds, but am figuring out how to stand on my own two feet, confronting some of my own demons, and then taking stock of what lies ahead.
As some of my readers and other running friends know, one of my running goals in 2011 is to complete a 50-miler, hopefully for charity. It seemed to me that a critical step towards being able to fulfill that goal would be to run a 50K race. So I searched for a race that wasn’t too far, too hard or too close to Boston. What I found was the Holiday Lake 50K++, with the two pluses referring to so-called “Horton Miles”, aka, bonus miles attributed to the Race director, ultra-endurance legend David Horton.
I signed up for the race in December, and started receiving informational e-mails from Dr. Horton, whose “day job” is Professor of Exercise Science at Liberty University, signed “In Christ”. A strangely endearing signoff for this cultural Jew.
The tone of Dr. Horton’s e-mails and general vibe of the ultra scene signaled from the start that while this new pursuit still involved the same basic aim of propelling myself from one point to another as quickly as possible, I was no longer in the structured, highly marketed, competitive world of road racing. As one person described it, Holiday Lake felt like adult “running camp”, with a camaraderie and a “we’re-all-in-this-together” spirit unlike anything I’d experienced in my own racing history.
As is my nature, I’d gathered as much information about Holiday Lake as I could find. I read race reports, studied the course map, and reviewed prior years’ finishing times. Then, taking all that into account, coupled with a sense of how my current training reflects my current fitness, I picked a respectable time goal: 4:45 (as in, 4 hours and 45 minutes). That number came about through an alchemy of art and science, but it seemed like a good, reasonable goal. I’d have been happy with anything under 5 hours. I’d have been shocked if I’d broken 4:30.
In the days leading up to the race, I’d suffered under the weight of the recent life change. My back was stiff and sore, thanks to an unhappy SI joint. I was having more trouble than usual sleeping (which is saying a lot), and couldn’t seem to make myself eat enough (weighing in at an adult all-time low of 148lbs last week). Add to that sleeping in a new place (and in a mediocre new bed), and it has been what we might call a rough spell for me personally. Still, through it all, I managed to stick to most of my training schedule, and have been meeting or exceeding the goals on most of my quality workouts.
So, I sketched out a basic pacing strategy, tried to plan out my nutritional needs, and made my way to the Holiday Lake area for the pre-race briefing and pasta feed on Friday, February 11th. I picked up my number, bib 317, which Dr. Horton had indicated in a prior e-mail was his prediction as to our finishing place. I was only slightly amused. The vibe was friendly, and before long I was happily ensconced among folks who felt like close friends.
Dr. Horton was holding court, clearly in his element. He was very funny, rather irreverent, affecting a shtick which included benign misogynism (regularly implying that women cannot succeed at certain physical challenges, as a backhanded way to motivate them to try). He poked fun at all sorts of people for all sorts of reasons, but it all seemed good-natured, and no one took it personally. He even needled the impressive Jennifer Pharr-Davis, who smashed the women’s Appalachian Trail speed record by 30 full days in 2008, completing it in 57 days, 8 hours and 35 minutes.
After a fun yet relaxing Friday evening, I got my usual abbreviated pre-race sleep, rising at 4:30 Saturday to drink weak coffee and eat four Nature’s Path Frosted Blueberry Toaster Pastries, along with some other miscellaneous nutritional odds and ends. Perhaps not the ideal pre-ultra-marathon breakfast, but I made due with what I’d brought to this remote part of the Commonwealth of Virginia.
By 5:55 am, I had checked in for the race at the Holiday Lake 4-H center, and lingered around inside, hoping to avoid losing too much energy trying to stay warm in the low-20-degree morning chill.
This was also an unusual race for me in the sense that I felt very little self-imposed pressure. I had no doubt that I would finish (barring injury, of course), but the usual time goals and placing concerns just weren’t there. Maybe it was due to the fact that trail ultras (especially one’s first) are by nature unpredictable, or that other life events made the time inconsequential. Or maybe it’s due to other factors which I cannot fully appreciate or explain. Whatever the reason, it was refreshing to begin a race relatively relaxed.
At about 6:15, Dr. Horton called the runners to the start area. After the umpteenth series of announcements and a final roll call of apparent no-shows, Dr. Horton led a prayer, and started the race at exactly 6:30 a.m.
Having talked with Holiday Lake veterans, I’d learned that after the 0.6-mile uphill road start, the trail is a narrow single-track, such that one may want to avoid getting boxed in. In a questionable maneuver, I tore up the hill, noting at one point that I was running 7:15/mile pace uphill on cold legs at the start of a 33-mile race. Deduct a few genius points here. I reached the trail, and settled into a briskly manageable pace, but I didn’t really feel that great. I followed the small circle of light cast by my headlamp, and just focused on finding a rhythm. I passed some people. More passed me. The headlamp’s effectiveness waned in the twilight, which created a dream-like feeling. Daylight slowly made its presence known, and I soon ran with a little more zeal, since I could actually see where I was going.
The first five miles had some ups and downs on narrow trails, but it was – as advertised – very runnable. I blew past the first aid station at about Mile 4, not needing water or nutrition just then. I took an occasional swig from my water bottle, crunching half-frozen slush out of the silicon nipple in the sub-freezing air.
As I settled into a comfortably hard pace, I tried to free my mind, letting go of all the heavy thoughts which have swirled around me like a black cloud. I was in nature, moving briskly on my own power, surrounded by people who cherish something which I cherish. It felt good.
In the vicinity of Mile 6, I slowly ate half a Clif Mojo Peanut Butter Pretzel bar, as I had been practicing during recent longer runs. Small bites, thorough chewing, little sips of water. So far, so good.
Just past Mile 6, we hit a small stream crossing. I stepped through on my toe, but felt my right foot get wet. I didn’t think much about it until we reached the much larger water crossing shortly before the end of Mile 7. I was moving well, so I just ran through mid-shin-deep near-freezing water. Time for my Smartwool socks to shine. My Montrail Mountain Masochists and Zensah compression sleeves handled the wetness admirably, and the extra BodyGlide on my feet surely saved me from blistering. At this point, there was a rather unfriendly, iPod-toting fellow running near me. I tried to speak to him once or twice, but he completely ignored my presence. I was pleased to pass him.
The aid stations were about 4 miles apart, stocked with ultra staples such as pretzels, potato chips (Pringles, in this case), M&Ms, powdered mini-doughnuts, Oreos and Coke, Mountain Dew, ginger ale, etc. Volunteers were cheery and helpful, and the collective love of the ultra scene came through in the brisk forest air.
I continued to click off solid splits, staying at or under 8:30/mile for anything that did not involve too much uphill and/or stops at aid stations. I would chat with runners and hang next to them briefly, either letting them go or forging ahead, depending on what pace felt “right”. I did not speak to any other admitted first-time ultra runners, and found that most of the people around me were extremely experienced. Many had done 100-milers, and virtually all of them seemed to thrive on doing multiple ultra races year-round. Some of the folks even knew each other from having run together in prior races. One guy lamented the lack of uphills, extolling the virtues of his Pike's Peak Ascent (a half-marathon straight up to the summit of Pike's Peak). And people call me crazy?
The terrain varied just enough to be interesting, consisting of some single-track through bare midwinter woods, some fire roads (with semi-frozen ruts making footing a bit tricky), as well as fields and sloping waterfront trail. Only a couple of road crossings interrupted the serenity of the trail and so it was a treat for this New England boy to run in the woods for hours in mid-February.
As the miles ticked off, I realized I was likely on track with my presumed 8:30 pace prediction (at least after settling in after Mile 5). As we hit a rather nice but tricky stretch of single-track, I found myself in reverie, just watching my foot plants so that I did not go tumbling down the hill to my right into the chilly waters of Holiday Lake. I nearly soiled myself as I just about crashed into a streaking blur of neon yellow, a.k.a., the Brooks-sponsored leader Matt Woods tearing back towards me after having reversed direction at the turnaround. I still had close to 2.5 miles to go to get there, and he was flying like a man on the run for his life. Turns out, he smashed the course record by running 3:28. Two years ago (when the trail was not covered in 8” of snow), the winner ran 3:50.
After about 15 miles of trail running, I had my closest call with going down, nearly tumbling – twice – down the wooden steps over the reservoir less than a third of a mile from the turnaround. I grabbed the railings both times, saving myself from an ugly spill, took a deep breath and just focused on getting down in one piece.
I’d “guesstimated” that I’d reach the turnaround at about 2:15, and the clock said 2:16:xx as I found my drop bag. I changed hats, ditched my headlamp, put on new gloves and took some more nutrition. I’d thought about changing into dry socks, but my hands were still cold and I couldn’t deal with it. I also grabbed my uber-bright orange and white Oakley Jawbone sunglasses, as the sun was up and I always prefer to have the eye protection from stray branches, trail debris and wind. That turned out to be a good move, as I heard at least two dozen “nice glasses” along the way back. That gave me a nice boost as the miles began to wear me down.
Having reversed direction, I was now one of the ones running towards the slower runners. I caught up to the second place female, who is an accomplished ultra-runner who seemed to be having a rough day. I tried to chat and run with her, but she was not very responsive, and suddenly took a hard face plant about a mile after the turnaround. I made sure she was okay, and then went on my way.
While I had visions of possibly running an even split, I knew the odds were against that. So, rather than get too pace-focused (as is my tendency), I just continued in a groove and found myself passing runners. Some of the slower runners were giving us “place counts”. I heard that I was somewhere in the mid-40’s at this point. That was a pleasant surprise.
At some point, I saw a familiar shirt. I called up ahead to a guy I thought was Jim (whom I'd met earlier), but turned out to be his good friend Doug. We talked for a bit, caught up to another guy from Georgia who Doug knew, and Doug told me that anyone who runs with him gets a nickname. He thus dubbed me “Ron Jeremy”. I told him I was flattered, but should have said that I’d been called that by every woman I’d known since high school. It’s tough to be that sharp-witted at Mile 20-something, though.
As much as I was enjoying the company, I left Doug and Georgia-boy behind. I felt strong, and wanted to just stay in that zone where the 8:xx miles were clicking off with regularity. I tried to continue eating and drinking water, but became concerned that I was not taking in enough calories. On top of that concern, I felt an unpleasant gurgle in my stomach, which was beginning to slosh around like a half-empty tank of gas. I reached the Mile 24 aid station and – finally – ditched my long sleeve shirt, leaving me in a sleeveless Under Armour top and Moeben arm warmers. It felt like I was racing at last.
The marathon mark passed at about 3:49. Not bad for a trail race with 6+ miles to go.
I was looking forward to the final aid station at Mile 29, knowing how close we would be. I took some ginger ale for the first time in the race, but avoided anything solid. At that point, though, the stomach woes ripened from discomfort to all-out distress, and about a mile later, I succumbed to the need for a pit stop. It was painful to stop so late in the race, and even more so when three guys passed me after what seemed like minutes. In other words, I’d just blown a nice lead.
Gathering myself, I trudged towards the pack of three. Doug was in the lead, and he was moving well. The other two struggled, and I closed the gap pretty quickly, passing them on a steep climb. We would trade places for the next couple of miles, though one of them seemed like was going to be sick, and the other was warding off cramps.
With maybe two miles to go, I passed a couple more guys, including a very muscular young guy who’d been far ahead of me at the time of the turnaround. At the same time, though, Doug was widening his gap. The other two guys were near me. I was – after all this time and distance – finally losing steam. The final uphills were hard, but I welcomed the excuse to walk. I got confused and briefly lost the trail – which was very well-marked – a couple of times. At about Mile 30, I was ready for this running event to be over.
So, with what little physical, mental and emotional reserves I had left, I passed the two guys ahead of me, reached the road and knew that I had six-tenths of a downhill asphalt mile left to finish. With the time I was losing in the final few miles, I thought sub-4:45 was out of reach, but when I looked at my watch, I realized I might still have a chance. And so, at some time around 11:11 am on February 12, 2011, your faithful scribe pumped his arms and legs furiously, motoring down the road trying to beat an arbitrary and meaningless time goal. The Garmin registered a “best pace” of . . . drum roll . . . 5:31/mile.
I tore through the finish line so hard, pumping my arms and yelling some version of "woo-hoo!", that Dr. Horton called, "It's okay. You can stop running now, Ron". I approached him later and pointed out that he got my seed wrong, but only by a single digit.
Final official finishing time: 4:44:48, good for 31st place overall out of 320+ runners (308 finishers), and 6th in the Male 40-49 age group.
Runningwise, at least, 2011 is off to a good start.
- Fueling is critical; underfueling is stupid
- The ultra community is an amiable collection of wonderfully eccentric goofballs
- Running on trails is far better for both body and spirit than is running on roads
- Strength, determination and courage in running beget strength, determination and courage in life
- I’m currently in far better running shape than I have ever been
- I will surely do more ultras in the future, and (mostly) look forward to doing a 50-miler
- I'd like to run Holiday Lake again in the future, and do so considerably faster