Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Race Report: 2011 Equinox 50 Mile

Short Version:

Equinox Check: Pass
Big thanks to all the volunteers, especially the ones who refilled my sweaty pack again and again.
Vermont, here we come!

Long Version:

Let me start by describing the Equinox, for those who aren't familiar.  The Bucks County RoadRunners puts on a series of 10 or 12 races each year, through the winter (the Winter Series).  Some idio-...  bright person got the idea to string all the courses back to back to make a 50 mile race.  They all take place at Tyler Park, which has a nice number of paved trails, but still not 50 miles worth.  So these races, ranging in distance from 5K to a half marathon, are each made up of one or more loops, ranging from 2.7 to 5.3 miles.  Further, there's a creek running down the middle of the park, and most of the loops are on one side (the largely tree-covered "back"), while a few are on the other side (the largely open "front").  The boathouse is the staging area next to the creek, and all the loops start there (well, a couple hundred yards from there, anyway).  So for this race, you're running a lot of loops, some more than once, some including parts of others, etc.  It sounds complex, but it's very well marked as to the order of loops and the course for each one.  Plus, virtually all the runners are familiar with the courses from the Winter Series anyway.  The Equinox is self-timed, and you can run any distance you like, up to 50 miles (or what the heck, a few more if you just tack on some extra loops!)  There are two aid stations -- one in the middle of nearly all the back loops, and one at the boathouse (close to all, but not actually on any of the courses).  Now with that background, on to the report...

I was very curious to see how the Equinox would go this year.  Several factors were at play; I started CrossFit about two months ago, I have not been getting in the training miles I'm used to since that time (though I've been pretty religious about a weekly long trail run), and at the present time I feel chronically short of sleep.  It's a good day when I can nap with the kids.  So all in all, a lot of signs that my running times might suffer, and I might not be able to make the time I'd prefer to at the Vermont 100 (coming in three weeks).  But on the up side, I had a great race at 3 Days at the Fair not that long ago, with a boatload of PRs.  That was on pavement; this would be on pavement (though not as flat by a long shot).  Plus lots of CrossFit folk claim it can dramatically improve running/triathlon times without high-mileage training.  I was skeptical (maybe they're talking about beginners?), but hopeful.

So I figured 50 miles at the Equinox would be a good test, to show whether all of the above amounted to good or bad.  I started by looking up the course record.  Last year Steven Davis posted an 8:07 if you only count time on trails (not any layovers at aid stations), or otherwise it was Euihwa's 8:36 from the inaugural race in 2008. Well I definitely wanted to beat the 8:36, but I would be in the weird grey area if I didn't also beat the 8:07...  I figured, what the heck, as long as this is supposed to be a test, let's make my goal 8 hours.  I'd run under 8 at Bull Run Run (two years ago) and 3 Days at the Fair (this year), so it was at least conceivable, though I've not found the Equinox to be an easy course in the past -- between the weather, the pounding from pavement, and the Tyler hills.  My best on the course was an 8:42 two years ago (last year I didn't run 50 as it was in the middle of the Grand Slam).  I figured I'm generally in better shape than two years ago, but I was not sure it was that much better, especially given the factors above.  Well, I'd just have to see.

Now at 3 Days at the Fair I managed to run very even splits for 50 miles.  I mean, sure it got slower as I went, but I was still under 10 minute miles by 50, and averaging closer to 9.  That had worked very well for me, as long as it lasted, so I decided to lay out a pace chart with a totally even pace that came out to 8 hours.  I assumed I'd be a little fast at the start and a little slow at the end, but I'd aim for consistent, which is (to say the least) generally not how I race.  It would be subject to the reality of the Tyler hills, but hopefully each loop would be close to the average pace.  In retrospect, the thing I didn't include was the extra mileage from crossing the causeway over the creek several times "between courses", which was not counted in the total race mileage.  That was very nearly a problem!  Well, notes for next year...

Prep aside, on to the race.  Being a familiar commute from the Winter Series, I timed my arrival pretty well, getting there just as the side gate was being opened.  I had time to send my spare hydration pack with a car going to the back aid station, commune with my Vaseline and Body Glide, take a pre-race gel, and chat a little about Western States (the winners having finished the previous night!).  Then we had to head over to the start.

Race Director Chris Mortensen made a few brief announcements (pie plates as course markings and whatnot), took a start photo, and we were off!  I immediately dropped back from the front-most group (Pete L, Michael G, and other speedsters) and fell in with Harris and Chris P.  Then dropped back from them too.  I had to keep reminding myself this was supposed to be a comfortable pace.  It was hard to judge since the creek is at the bottom so it starts with a mile or more of uphill, and I was going to be breathing hard no matter what.  But I tried to keep it within reason.

We hit the back aid station after a couple miles, and I stopped to ask if they had my spare pack (they did) and if they could fill it up the for me before I came around again (they did).  It was a nice pause too, though a couple more folks passed.  I fell in behind Jeff V and Jim C, and we ran together for much of the rest of the loop.  We hit halfway in about 23 or 24 minutes, which was way too fast -- my goal was 51 minutes and this was the uphill section, so the second half would go faster.  Oops.  But I couldn't throttle back much on the downhills, so we just went with it.

Thanks Jim for mentioning that you like my race reports (here's one more for you!), and passing the time telling us about the running group you're setting up at work.  Very cool.  Though I eventually stopped to walk a little when we hit 40 minutes.  It was time for a gel and S-cap for me, and I figured since I was so far ahead of my goal pace, I might as well relax a bit.  Jeff and Jim pulled away while I walked.  Once I got going again, I passed Sharon and a few others going the opposite direction.

When I finished the first loop, there was a truck parked in front of the sign showing the order of the courses.  That was fine, though, as I knew the Polar Bear 8-mile was second.  (In fact, it is not.)  I did a U-turn and headed back for another 5.3 loop to start the Polar Bear, in the opposite direction this time.  I wondered why Jeff (ahead of me in the distance) had gone straight, but I didn't give it too much thought, as it wasn't unusual for people to fiddle the order of the courses.  (Guess the legs were drawing blood form the brain already!)  I saw Euihwa and others just behind as I reversed course for the second loop.  This one was satisfactorily slower, if more lonely, until I caught up with Sharon.  We ran together into the aid station, which was nice.  And there, my key discovery was that my hydration plan was going to work.

Not wanting to blow time in aid stations filling up my hydration pack, I brought two, so I could leave one at that back aid station at all times.  I just asked the volunteers to fill the one I wasn't using, and swapped when I came by.  It had worked so well at 3 Days at the Fair, I had to try again!  I worried a little that the mechanics of the pack closure would be confusing without any explanation, but I needn't have.  The pack was ready and waiting at 8.5 miles, or whatever it was partway through the second loop.

Meanwhile, I had discovered why Jeff went straight.  When I checked my pace plan, I found that Honest Abe was in fact the second loop, and I was doing the third loop second.  Aargh!  Well, there was nothing to do but do the second loop third.  I didn't want to get any further off than that!  So my Polar Bear 8 miler would be in two halves, and I wondered if this would affect my hydration plan (I had plotted the mileage between stops), but it seemed to all work out.

Upon finishing the second 5.3 I did another U-turn for the Honest Abe 4.6 loop.  Some folks fell in with me and asked about my plans for the day.  I told them that I was aiming for 8 hours, and upon further inquiry, admitted that my previous best for the race was 8:42.  I got a skeptical sounding "can you really improve that much?"  What can I say?  Hope so.  They pulled away before long.  That's the down side to running long when others aren't, I guess.

Anyway, I looked up a little later to find Chris Palladino coming toward me -- he was on his proper third loop (somewhat further along than me!), but said he'd be just as happy to run with me, so he turned around and we more or less stuck together from there (perhaps 12 miles?) to about 25.  It was great to have the company!  We ran into Jeff coming the other way (also seemingly ahead, based on where we passed him), and he asked if I had cut the course or what.  I tried to explain, but it was probably lost in the rush of passage.

Finishing Honest Abe, I was pretty happy.  The last two loops were just slightly ahead of my goal pace, so all in all I was almost 9 minutes up!  On the other hand, my legs were getting sore.  Not seriously yet, just enough to notice.  I remember this always happening in ultras, and always earlier than it should.  For crying out loud if I can finish 100 miles, why should it hurt after 15?!?  I just needed the numbness to kick in.

The next loop didn't help.  It was my first front loop of the day, getting sunny and warm.  The morning had been cool but humid, and I was sweating a lot, taking S-caps every 40 minutes.  As I felt little twinges, I shifted to every 30 minutes.  That seems to be fairly normal for me for races -- whether due to heat or humidity or just running fast.  But the looong slow uphill in the sun was no fun.  I really wish that loop went the other way, and featured a short, steep uphill and an eternal downhill instead of the reverse.  About the only highlight was seeing some friendly faces (like the Hollerbachs coming in toward the Boathouse).  I walked the steepest part before it comes out to the big park road, and the rest wasn't much faster.  Including crossing the causeway afterward, I had lost a minute out of my buffer.  Those darn causeway crossings!

I didn't want to fall off pace before 20 miles or my goal was gone. And next up was the Half Marathon course.  Well, that's been good to me before (it's my Half Marathon PR course, actually), so I hoped for the best.  The first loop was great, largely because Chris was pulling me to go a little faster.  The second loop was not as good, because I had a longer aid station stop and I was just flagging a bit, plus it had another dang causeway crossing (which I walked).  Between the two I held my 8 minute buffer.  Good enough, but next up were two front loops.  And the sun was out.  And Chris stopped running to volunteer. And I had already lost time on this loop.  All ominous signs.  I walked more on this loop -- the steep part coming off the creek, the stop sign section, even once at the bottom of the hill because I was talking another gel and frankly needed the break.  I think on one of these walks I passed Charlotte going the other way, but I was so preoccupied sucking water from my pack that I didn't manage to draw breath to say hi until she was gone.  But walks aside, I pushed myself on the flats, and managed to come in right on schedule.  Yes!

The second loop was similar, though I saw Glenn running the other way, and I had the pleasure of talking to George Hollerbach for a while.  I had passed George and Dale on the big hill, but George ran ahead to talk to me for a while before dropping back again.  Nice!  I didn't even notice the last half mile of hill, thanks to him!  He mentioned he had seen Harris and Jeff, which I assumed meant they were still ahead of me (and had passed him first).  At one point I saw one of them in the distance I thought, but never managed to close it.  I was pushing the pace again, and suffering in the sun.  Whether because it was too dry or still humid but now hot or what, I couldn't figure out.  It was just tough.  I worried a bit that I was pushing too hard to hit my 50K goal and keep my buffer, and I might pay for it later.  But that was for later.

I was seconds ahead of schedule on that loop, finishing the Half Marathon, and therefore 50K, in 4:49 -- about the same 8-minute buffer as before.  However, this was the one time I couldn't just do a pack swap -- two front loops and the covered bridge and more was just too far to go on one pack.  So I went the extra distance and stopped by the boathouse, where Bob C filled up the pack for me (thanks!).  I talked briefly to Harris, who had indeed finished 50K ahead of me.  Jeff was there too, so I assumed he had as well.  Didn't see Euihwa, so I guessed he was still behind me somewhere.

I headed out as fast as I could, though I walked to and across the causeway, needing the time to will my way back to a run again.  I started the Covered Bridge 5K, featuring an out-and-back on possibly the worst hill of all the races, and immediately had problems. Cramp-type problems.  Not an actual stop-me-dead type cramp, but serious threats and warning signs.  Thinking about it, I noticed I had spoken quietly and mumbled a lot at the aid station, another sign of problems (dehydration problems).  I walked a bit, and shifted to an S-cap every 20 minutes.  Plus one when the cramps seemed especially imminent.  I drank more, and more.  Twice as much as I had at the start.  I had no urge to pee, and hadn't for a while.  Alert!  Alert!

I made it down to the Covered Bridge, and started back up.  I planned to jog through the gravel section and walk up the steep hill.  It would throw a wrench in my goal time for the segment, but I needed enough of a walk that the cramp issue went away.  I didn't make it more than halfway through the gravel and I was walking.  Ugh.  Partway up the hill, Euihwa passed coming down -- so he was at most a mile behind. For some reason, I hadn't thought he was that close.  He said "pick it up!" and there was no way.  Even when it started to level out at the top, I was walking.  Harris passed going the other way.  WTF!?!  I thought he was done at 50K!  If he had put down a faster 50K and now was out for 50, and I was walking, that spelled trouble!  Could one of them have skipped some other courses and actually be further behind? (Answer: no)

I ran down the hill covering familiar ground from the start/end of the 5.3 loop, and it felt OK, except it was getting iffy by the bottom -- lots of little wiggles in my legs muscles.  I walked some on the way back up.  I was sure I could feel Euihwa and Harris just behind.  I finally finished the Covered Bridge, 4 minutes off my goal.  Plus I had blown 4 minutes on the aid station stop and causeway walk after 50K.  My buffer was now zero.  Technically, I was nearly a minute behind my overall goal up to this point!  And I still had the Tyler Challenge loop (several steep hills there!), the Cham-Pain (in the sun!), and the Terrible Tyler (so called due to the awful mile-long hill in the middle).  I was really worried that I was not going to be able to get back on pace.  I mean, once you're off, it's just an inevitable slide to slower, slower, slower.

I shuffled up the hill past the causeway, determined at least not to walk the very start of the 3.5-mile Tyler Challenge loop.  It lasted until the right turn -- no way I wasn't walking up that part.  I marveled that Harris and Euihwa hadn't passed already, and assumed they would be here.  The only good news was, it seemed I drank and salted and walked enough that the cramps backed off for the moment.  Not that it mattered on this climb.

I pushed to a decent run when the course finally flattened out, though I walked again up the steep hill to where it joins the other courses. Even for a few moments when it takes the right turn toward the craft center.  Then up to speed on the flat section there.  Somewhere in here I saw Sharon again, for perhaps the fourth time, coming the other way, and looking like she could run all day long.  She said she was on her last loop.  She was gone before I could mention how I looked forward to that!  But at least I'd shortly be hitting the back aid station again.

I swapped for a full hydration pack there and kept moving.  For sure I'd be walking the last steep uphill before the course turned down again, so I needed to move while I could.  In my haste, I left my pace chart in the pack I gave up, but it was OK,  I figured if I finished this in 6 hours, I had a half hour for Cham-Pain (5K), and 90 minutes for Terrible Tyler (15K).  Not easy, but it was my shot.  I pushed a little on the downhill, once I finally got there.  It must have worked, because including the causeway crossing over to the Cham-Pain (which I walked again), I was dead on target pace for the loop.  Still at 6:01 instead of 6 hours (believe me I begrudged that minute from my Cham-Pain plus yet another causeway crossing), but a great comeback from Covered Bridge!

Now the Cham-Pain 5K was no fun.  I was drinking a ton to keep ahead of the cramps, and worried that my water wouldn't make it through half of Tyler Challenge and then Cham-Pain and finally around most of the first 5.3 loop of Terrible Tyler to the back aid station again.  I wondered whether I'd have to stop at the Boathouse for a refill, wasting precious time going back and forth to the aid station that wasn't actually on the course!  Meanwhile, I walked the steep part coming off the creek as usual, and then emerged from the woods.  It was sunny and hot.  Once I made it to the part along the road, the air was completely still.  I suppose the wind was at my back, at just the perfect speed.  It was awful.  I felt like I was cooking, and was going to be cramping again shortly.  I drank more, but not *too* much more, trying to conserve yet not cook, and leaving still less in my pack.

However, I did hit the turnaround in good time (6:16), leaving 14 minutes for the largely downhill return trip.  I had a short walk on the slight uphill on entering the woods, and then a magical thing happened on the way down.  I spied a water fountain!  I drank deeply, figuring time standing still here beat time standing still at the boathouse (where I'd incur the trip there and back).  I knew there was another fountain where the first Terrible Tyler 5.3 loop hit the covered bridge trail, so the small amount left in my pack only had to make it that far.  I drank more from the fountain to be sure.

Then I charged downhill.  Only my leg was quivering when the road flattened near the creek.  Not having any water to spare, I did the only thing I could -- slowed down.  It had to be.  Still, I made it back and across the causeway seconds under my pace goal.  It was 6:31, leaving just under 90 minutes for Terrible Tyler.  But I was out of the sun!

I walked the slight rise between the causeway and the first turn in the 5.3 loop, and drank my pack dry there.  I'd have to make it to the fountain now.  I turned right and pressed on down the hill, riding the edge of cramps, and debated whether to just drink at the fountain or to put the water into my pack.  I figured I had more than a mile to go from the fountain to the aid station, still largely uphill, and I might want to drink again.  But messing with removing, opening, closing, and donning the pack wasted time, standing at the fountain and then slowing to drink later wasted time.  But cramping between the fountain and aid station would be devastating.

I shuffled up the hill, unwilling to lose time to walking until the very steepest part up to the fountain.  I had to make good time on these last two loops!  When the fountain came into sight, another fear was realized -- two people just ahead of me, walking to the fountain. Taking both positions.  I wondered whether it would be rude to say "I'm in a tight race against the clock here would you mind waiting while I just take over the fountain please?"  I walked purposefully toward them, hoping to maybe scare them away or something.  But magically, they cleared the fountain as I had perhaps three steps to go.  Yes!  I drank, and drank, and... drank some more.  At least twice as much as I would have taken from my pack, but I had to reach that station.  And then I left.

I pressed on through the rest of the uphill.  Chris Mortensen passed going the other way, and asked whether I was on the first or second Terrible Tyler loop.  Second loop?  As if!  I managed to hold up one finger, though I don't think I said a word.  Finally, the blessed downhill arrived.  My quads had been twinging but I charged down and hoped for the best.  Thankfully, they carried me to the station.  I had wanted to make it there with an hour to go, figuring it was about 44 miles.  I was just a hair over.  I grabbed the fresh pack with glee, and walked out sucking down a gel and the mangled wreckage of two S-caps.  I had left at 7:01:46.  18 minutes to get to the bottom, and 40 to make it around the last 4-mile loop, including the notorious Terrible Tyler hill.

The downhill went well, and I hit the end of the loop seconds under 7:20.  Jeff was there with camera, and I may have waved, but otherwise just pressed on.  I wanted to make it to the uphills before walking again.  I did (make it, and walk).  I tried to walk as little as possible on the terrible hill, which amounted to once around the Covered Bridge/Honest Abe turnoff, and once at the part that looks straight up.  I was calculating times frantically, and it looked promising.  At long last, I hit the top, and headed back down.  It seemed like I was going to make it.  I think I was grinning madly already.

When I passed the station George Hollerbach held out a full pack, but I declined.  He said it had ice cold water!  I said, I'll get it later, I only have two miles to go!  An innocent bystander walking the trail commented "only two miles?" as I was leaving.  I heard George, bless his heart, reply "Well, he's done 48 already..."  I didn't quite hear the reply, but my imagination filled in "Oh my God!"  Whether that last was true or not, the whole thing had me smiling even wider!

It still looked close, but like I was definitely going to make it.  I spared a moment to imagine getting caught up in a leash and crashing to the ground in my last stretch -- at one point earlier I had passed a trail-spanning mob with angry-looking dogs and T-shirts reading "Pit Bulls Are People Too", or some such.  Seriously?!?  But thankfully, they were not on this loop.  I charged down.

From past loops I knew I had about 6-6:30 from when I hit the Stop sign at the bottom of the long hill, and my legs would be dead, but that time included walking the short hill before it turned down again.  I got to the sign about 7:51, and I was smiling again.  I was careful to walk as little of the hill as I could get away with, and then blasted down the final stretch.  A last watch check and I was at 7:55 after passing the 5.3 turn-off.  Yes!

I'm sure I was grinning madly as I came down the final hill, to see Chris M and Jeff waiting at the bottom.  I crossed in 7:56:07, shaking fists, jumping, shouting, and the whole shebang.  I made my best-case goal, and I can put all that other crap behind me, because I'm ready for Vermont, baby!  So, apparently, are Gregg, Jeff, and Harris, having all scored stellar 50K finishes and/or PRs today!  Congrats guys!  I'm sorry I couldn't stay to see everyone else finish their long runs -- I knew Euihwa, Rob, and Breandan at least were still out there.

(Now speaking of the Vermont 100, I must confess that more than once during the race, I regretted ever thinking I wanted to run another hundred.  When Gregg mentioned afterward that I should sign up for Grindstone because the price was going to increase, I believe I just cursed at him.  But I'm sure tomorrow will be different.  :)

In closing, thanks to Chris Mortensen and all the volunteers who put this on -- including Diane, Bob C, Chris T, Fred, Jeff, Chris P, Mark Z, the Hollerbachs, and at least a dozen others I'm forgetting. Special thanks to everyone who refilled my sweaty packs -- as is probably clear if I had taken those six full stops to refill it myself, at a couple minutes apiece, that would have put me right past my goal.

What a day.

P.S. It still seems to be a little early to draw any conclusions about CrossFit, but I must admit that my two races since I started, 3 Days at the Fair and the Equinox, have gone startlingly well.

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