This year, no Beast. Somehow Gregg and Chris and Chris and Harris and all the rest of the BCRR contingent managed to avoid signing up for it. After 6 trips to Virginia in each of the last three years, this gave me a chance to scale back a little. It was much needed, with Sarah joining our family, and none too fond of her car seat. The decision was made still easier because Holiday Lake wasn't in the snow, and Terrapin Mountain conflicted with the HAT Run instead of being on consecutive weekends like before.
That just left Promise Land, as far as the Spring races go. It's by far the most scenic, with loads of elevation change, pizza instead of pasta for the pre-race meal, showers at the finish, finisher shorts instead of another shirt... What's not to like? Well there was still the car seat issue. But I also felt a little like I'd be depriving Caelan and Sean if I didn't give them a single Virginia hotel stay until the fall. On the other hand, not being all that committed, I wasn't going to feel good about going if anybody was sick or if we were having a particularly tough week or whatever. So it went down to the wire.
At the last minute, we established that I could get a room at the same hotel as Gregg and Harris, and carpool to the start. This was key, so I didn't have to wake Erin and the kids and get them all out of the hotel at 4:30 in the morning. It turned out that everything else was OK, so we agreed to go!
Now for my non-running friends, one of the most prestigious races is the Boston Marathon. But just past 20 miles into that 26.2 mile race, you'll encounter "Heartbreak Hill", which if you ask Wikipedia, "confounds contestants." Now to give you an idea of the elevation gain in Promise Land, check out this graphic that I stole from Harris, running his first Promise Land this year. It has the Boston Marathon and Promise Land elevation charts on the same scale. (I guess you can kind of make out Heartbreak Hill...)
So like I said, plenty of good elevation change. :) I was looking forward to this already.
Of course, getting out of the house is never easy. At the last minute, I discovered that my hydration pack had been busted by getting stored under the kids' trucks and shovels after my last long run. So I brought my backup pack, but forgot to transfer the little sheet with my target times for the aid stations, which I had packed in there before noticing the damage. And that's just me -- Caelan couldn't fit two jeeps in his suitcase, Sean needed more construction vehicles, someone needed to pack books for bedtime, the list goes on.
Anyway, after hurdling a wrinkle or two, we made it down to Virginia, thankfully with less Sarah-fussing than average. Maybe she likes her "big girl" car seat. At the pre-race meeting, Caelan followed a gaggle of kids away from the food and check-in area, and found a big dismantled water slide they could play in near the creek. And then some boards across the creek that gave access to the other side, including the side of a mountain and some huge boulders embedded in the dirt that you could climb up and around to come out to the far side of the creek opposite the water slide. A little kid/pirate heaven, I guess. Caelan's already asked if I'll run that race again, just so he can hang out at the camp!
Then we headed for he hotel. We stayed at the Super 8 in Bedford, and by the time I made the reservation, the only room available was a "suite". What is a suite at a Super 8? Turns out, it's not a multi-room type of suite, it's a larger-than-average room with a hot tub in the corner. Wow, did the boys ever dig that! Sort of made up for the fact that even though the Web site said there was an indoor heated pool, there was no pool. I caught Gregg and Harris checking in, and we agreed to depart at 4:30 for the 5:30 AM start. And then I discovered the down side of the Super 8. When the person in the room next to you (not a runner apparently) watches TV until midnight, the TV that would appear to be directly across the wall from your headboard, you hear it probably better than they do. Oh, well.
I got what sleep I could, and then met Gregg and Harris downstairs, and we headed out. We would have been there in plenty of time to check in by 5 like we were supposed to, if only any of us had noticed the turn off 122. Oops. But anyway, we got in just after 5, checked in, and before long, we were off!
I was pretty surprised by the size of the lead pack, which promptly left me behind. Well, OK, I was mainly trying to PR here, so I wasn't super-concerned with my finish place. Now, in truth, I *mostly* wanted a solid training run before 3 Days at the Fair and Western States. But so long as I was going, I was aiming for a PR. 5:30 would be ideal, but I'd take anything under 5:39. Lacking my cheat sheet, I wrote my 2010 aid station times on the back of my hand in the hotel room, and my first goal was 30 minutes. I didn't really remember how hard I ran in 2010, so I tried to settle into a decent pace, and keep jogging whenever possible. (That first climb up the road really tempts you to walk, particularly in the last mile, but I tried to resist. I was mostly successful.)
I had told Harris he should use a headlamp, because I remembered turning mine on when the runners spread out a bit and the surface of the road got a little worse. Then I felt dumb, because I didn't use mine the whole way up to the first station. Though I did see the "1 Mile To Go" mark on the ground by the light of somebody else's headlamp -- at about eight and a half minutes. Then I ended up running near Keith Knipling and Joe Dudak, both of whom I've met over the course of 3 Beast attempts. It was off and on a bit, as someone would walk while others jogged or whatever, and I stopped briefly at that first station to have some water. I was wearing my hydration pack, but I wanted to leave it less full (particularly on the big climbs), meaning I'd need to drink a little from the tables to supplement. (Yes, I need a LOT of water. And salt. Hopefully this will get better with heat training before Western States!)
Anyway, as we hit the trail, I turned my light on just to imagine I had some purpose in bringing it, and ended up with Keith in front of me and Joe behind. I don't think either of them had lights on, adding to the irony when I suddenly stumbled. I reached for the ground to catch myself, but thankfully managed to recover before I touched down. "You OK?" Of course it didn't go without notice. "Caught it, thanks!" I called back.
I had made fine time up the road, 29 minutes and change, so my next goal was an hour and ten minutes for this, the longest stretch of the course. I knew we had to complete the climb, then head mostly down until we ended up on the long grassy road, shared by Promise Land and Hellgate. In fact, since leaving the road, we were running the Hellgate course backward. I didn't know where it diverged, but I assumed at the end of the grassy section, since we didn't go all the way back to Camping Gap. I seemed to have left Joe behind during the climb, but then he came bombing back down when we hit some of the descents on the grassy road. We talked about shoes a bit, flip-flopped positions a couple times, and compared finish goals. We've both been training a lot less, and agreed that while we'd like to do 5:30, we might need to be content with anything under 6. Except we were making fine time so far... Even accounting for the obligatory time spent admiring the views of the valleys below -- this grassy road being one of the best parts of the course for scenery.
I pulled ahead a bit by the aid station, which was one with a little out-and-back leading up to the table. Keith passed looking strong and going the other way as I headed up to the table, and then I passed Joe, feeling strong and going the other way as he headed up to the table. I had done 1:05 on that leg, putting me a little more ahead of my 2010 time. I wondered if it would last. This section had the last climb of the first half of the race, up to the highest point on the course, where it initially crosses the Blue Ridge Parkway. Again I tried to keep from walking to whatever degree I could -- which mainly meant something between a shuffle and a slow jog, though there was the occasional flatter part. Well, I was walking by the time we hit the parkway, but come on, that last bit is *steep*!
It was also a little cold. As in, it wasn't that hard to motivate myself to jog, because my arms were a little uncomfortably cool when I was walking. Yes, there were in fact two things that Harris asked about before the race -- whether to use a headlamp, and whether to wear long sleeves at the start. I said yes (and it turned out to be unneeded), and no (and I hope he didn't regret it). I said you'd have been going straight uphill so you'd be warm, and that was largely true, but perhaps not so much if you were walking large parts of it.
Anyway, I remembered last year we hit the top and I was skeptical -- you could see that the mountain went up just a little bit farther than the small service road we took, and I couldn't believe we wouldn't actually be dragged to the very tippy top. So I had stayed conservative on the initial downhill along the gentle gravel road, and just ended up losing time until we came out at Sunset Fields and I was convinced that the top was past. This time, I wasn't going to make that mistake, so I hit the downhill hard. I had lost Keith somewhere up ahead, but I passed another runner in the mile or so before the station.
When I pulled in, I topped off my pack. I had stretched it an extra aid station by drinking from the tables, but I didn't want to push my luck, and what's a little extra weight on the downhill? I also left my headlamp here. One year I left it at the first station and didn't get it back, because that station is also the last (meaning the last to close) -- and since the runners use the road that goes to it you can't really drive up to reclaim your gear. Since then I've ditched the light at Sunset Fields. They don't have a box there like at AS1, but one of the guys offered to throw it in the bed of his truck, which is where it ended up last year as well. I said I'd get it back the second time through, and he said "believe me, you'll have other things on your mind after that climb!" (The second time through is at the top of what's close to a 15 mile climb from the bottom of the course to the second-highest peak, including the brutal climb up next to the beautiful waterfalls.) I allowed as how I'd have a crew to help me, and then began the long, long descent to the bottom.
I had only managed to equal my 2010 time to Sunset Fields including the stop there, so I still needed to find some more minutes on the course. That other runner passed me back by not really stopping at the table, though I got him back in the early descent. And then started getting crampy. Uh-oh. I might not have wanted to hit that downhill so hard. Well, if there was anywhere to lose a little time, the middle of a lengthy downhill was probably it. I took some walk breaks, moved the second half of my gel supply from the rear pockets to the front packets of my pack, and watched other runners go by. Including that same guy. He had some kind of design on the back of his shirt where it was all text but shaped like a continent or something, so easy to notice. We proceeded to flip-flop fairly often for the next 10 miles or so.
But this section, I continued to have some trouble with. I upped my salt and water intake, and I did OK on the grassy road after the initial trail descent. But then we hit a rocky trail. Good because I knew the aid station was coming in the next couple miles. Bad because I really had to watch my footing. I could go faster than most of the runners nearby when not cramping, but I didn't want to fall. (Not that my preferences turned out to matter.)
I'm not really sure whether the fall or the cramps came first. I mean, it could have been that my calf cramped and that made my foot drag down and catch the rock. Or it could have been that I just tripped on the rock and my calves cramped when I flailed to recover. It was a lousy place to fall, steep downhill and rocky. I rolled onto my back as I skidded downward, and hoped for the best. Surprisingly, it didn't feel too bad! It felt like my forearm got a little cut up from the initial impact, but while there was a little blood, it really wasn't very much. My left knee felt like it got a little, but it looked totally fine. Now I just had the little matter of two solidly locked up calves.
There was a little dip by the trail, so I got into there where I could wedge my feet up and stretch out my calves. The runners I had passed came past, asking if I was OK. "Just cramps." Well, plus the fall, but the mud probably indicated that. "Need salt?" "Got it, thanks." I was rooting for S-caps as the question was asked. I took the salt with some water and got back on the trail. We did a little more flip-flopping -- I'd get ahead and then cramps would threaten and I'd walk a bit -- before I gave up and just stayed behind until the aid station.
When I pulled in, Clark was there, and cheerfully called out, "Aaron Mulder!" And then, equally cheerfully, "Best Blood!" And after a pause, "So far. Don't wash it!" Best blood? I checked my forearm, and it looked like more mud than blood. Checked my left knee, still nothing. I put it out of my mind. Until shortly after I left the station, I bothered to check my right leg, and found that the knee was bleeding most of the way down to my ankle. Pretty much every other aid station I came to, someone asked asked if I wanted a bandage and someone else called out "Best blood! ...So far."
Now despite all the problems, I finished that section in exactly the same time as 2010. But I had this niggling memory that I had stopped my watch late at this station, meaning it didn't really take that long. So I wouldn't really know how I was doing until the next station. And at least half that was a very gradual downhill and then flat, all on a gravel road. I tried to keep a decent pace there, but I felt more cramps coming. So I stopped to take some more salt right when it turned to a paved road, shortly before heading back onto a trail. I was losing more places, but so long as I could hold the line on time, I was OK with that.
I hit the trail a little behind the shirt guy, though I didn't keep up with him. But quickly someone came up behind me. I said "let me know if you want to pass" and he replied "you're good." Which meant I had to try to justify staying ahead of him, and I made pretty good time while we talked shoes until the last couple little climbs into the aid station (where it widened out and he passed). I had to stop there to drink, refill the pack, and hope I could rest my crampy legs enough that I could jog some of the uphill. We were now climbing up from the gravel road (which had been the lowest point of the course), and there was a lot of uphill to come.
This was also the aid station with ice cream, but while the sun had been up earlier, it seemed cloudy and cool now -- I wasn't tempted. I dumped my trash and headed out. I was planning to force myself up the climbs, but I was pleasantly surprised by how little climbing there was in this section. Now I don't want to give the wrong impression -- there was plenty of climbing. It's just that I had a vague memory of it being all climbing, and where I really fell apart last year. And it wasn't that bad. Furthermore, I had made fine time into the last aid station, just a hair over the 27 minutes written on my hand. So despite all the problems in the last two legs, I was still four minutes ahead. My spirits and energy level were fine, but my legs were not in great shape. Any PR depended on how I could do in the big climb and final descent.
So we covered the rolling grassy road, the climb on the gravel road, and then hit another rolling grassy road. I was keeping an eye on my watch as to whether I could beat the time on this leg, but I didn't really know where it ended. I remembered crossing a stream right before turning to the out-and-back for the aid station, so we had to get to a stream. But I didn't remember whether we ran upstream or down until we crossed it, so I didn't know what kind of turn to look for. I was pushing hard to keep moving on the uphills, as was shirt guy a little ahead of me. I wasn't always able to, but I was sure doing better than last year.
Finally we hit a longer, more consistent downhill on the grassy road, and I passed shirt guy for the last time. But people had passed me too. And then I heard the stream ahead, though in the end I had to weave in and out of the side of the mountain several more times before actually getting to it. Just as we headed down a rocky trail alongside the stream, another guy passed me, and then stopped to take care of business, and then passed me again. We hit the aid station together, though he stayed a bit longer looking into supplies, while I just tanked up and left. I had lost two minutes of my four, and this was the hardest section of the course, climbing up alongside the big steep stream and waterfalls and then on up to Sunset Fields again. Probably 2000 feet gained in 2.5 or 3 miles. Do or die time.
I'd like to keep you in suspense, but I won't: it was die time. I started out strong, virtually entirely jogging the first mile or so to the falls. I knew it just got steeper, so I had to jog whatever I could before I just had to walk. Even so, the German guy passed me. (I say "the" German guy because apparently he didn't check in on time and when they called his name they said "he was the German guy who was here last night -- has anyone seen him?") And then the falls just took it all out of me. It's all very steep, either scampering straight up huge piles of rocks, or arguably worse, stairs. I mean, the actual falls are beautiful, and well worth the climb, but I'm afraid I only stopped momentarily to admire them. I took an actual sit break at the top of the falls/stairs area, before we hit the steep trails for the last mile and a half. All it told me was that my legs were a wreck. I took my remaining gels as fast as I could stomach, figuring that the only thing that could save my legs at this point was calories. Of course, that takes a while to kick in, and I still had to make it up the rest of the mountain.
It was slow going. I hit the turn-off we had taken coming down, hoping there wasn't so much left to the top. One of the aid station guys was coming down just then, and said "ignore the sign, it's 1.2 miles." Naturally, I had hoped for less -- like half a mile, maybe. (A quarter would be better.) I was eventually able to jog more, off and on, but it was clear this wasn't going to be a record-setting ascent. I had some small hope I was even worse shape in 2010, but apparently I wasn't. I lost six minutes of my two remaining. Could I pick up more than four on the final downhill? Seemed unlikely, but all I could do was try.
In the mean time, Erin and the kids were there at the station to cheer me on, and give me my last couple gels. It was great to see them! I drank some water, not bothering to refill my pack for the last five miles. I'd drink here and if needed at the little aid station partway down the hill, and hope for the best. I was looking at the bed of the truck, and the guy came up with the headlamp and asked if it was mine. I said yes and Erin took it, and I said, "see, that climb wasn't so bad, we still remembered!" Then I headed out, in good spirits again.
I didn't have a super run out of the station, but I thought I moved reasonably well along the gentle downhill until we hit the meadow. This was where the course had diverged to take the "long way around" to Sunset Fields the first time. I wasn't able to run much up the last little grassy climb, but at least I walked quickly, and it wasn't that far. And I felt decent starting down the single-track toward the rockier trail to the road. Well, I held back a little, because it was steep and I was still getting some cramps threatening, and I couldn't afford that now. But not too much. I passed someone maybe halfway to the road.
Now it had taken 29 minutes up from the start to the turn-off onto the trail. How much faster could I go down? 20 minutes? 15? 15 seemed unlikely -- sure I'd be faster, but this was late in the race and my legs were only in so-so condition. I figured 20 was best case. That meant I had to hit the road by 5:19 to have a shot at a PR. And given how my legs were shivering with near-cramps, I'd need to at least take some water there. The road still wasn't in sight yet, so I checked my watch. 5:21. Hmmph. Maybe I could do 15?
I came out of the woods to cheers from the station workers, chugged two quick cups of water, and tried to push it down the hill. I started down the road at 5:26, and the volunteers said 2.5 miles to go. Even 15 minutes wasn't going to do it, but what could I do but try? The first part was pretty stinking steep, and I had to hold back a little. Even if my legs could take the speed, I didn't want to fall on my face. But I also didn't want to get passed in the final stretch. A delicate balance, but I tried to lean toward more speed. Then my calves cramped up again. I had to walk, though I quickly managed a toes-up walk on my heels that kicked the cramp. I gave it just a moment more, expecting to hear the runner pounding down past me, and picked it up again to a jog and then a run.
Then I spent the next ten minutes looking further down the road in search of the "1 Mile" mark spray-painted across the road, then forcing myself to watch the road at my feet so I didn't tumble over a rock, then almost inadvertently looking ahead for the 1 Mile mark. I saw it time and again only to have it turn out to be an assortment of rocks in the road that looked from a distance like it might have been writing. What can I say? It was late in the game and I was desperate. 5:30 came and went. I saw a house ahead and wondered if it was the bottom and the mile mark had just washed away? Of course it was not.
I finally hit the mile mark at 5:38. So it was not going to be a PR today. Well, good enough, I'd be close. It started to rain, gently at first, then quickly harder. Rain? I thought there wasn't supposed to be rain until overnight! Then the road flattened out a lot more, and I wasn't so sure about being close. But at least it never got totally flat, and no one overtook me. At long last, I saw the stop sign ahead, rounded the corner in the rain, turned into the camp, and crossed the long, grassy field to the finish line. I ended up in the mid-30s for place, and 5:45 for time, and I might have gotten the last pair of green shorts. Nice! Not the PR or 5:30 I had tried for, but neither was this one of my big goal races this year. Plus my mileage being so low, and any other excuses you'd care to hear. So yes, could have been a little better, but I was happy.
On the other hand, the rain was really coming down. I huddled with Erin and the kids, collecting hugs and congratulations. Then she said I needed to either run faster and beat the rain, or run slower so the cookout was going when I finished. :) Without either food or dry space for the kids to play, and not knowing what the rain would do, we decided to head right out. Caelan was bummed to miss out on his second chance at the pirate haven, but we weren't prepared to stand around in the rain to watch him just then. So now I guess we definitely need to come back! But the next VA trips will probably be to Grindstone and Hellgate.
Footnote 1: Somehow, I forgot to apply the usual Vaseline or Body Glide to my toes. I mean, I usually pretty well slather them with something, and still end up with blisters where they rub together, or I've stubbed them on rocks, or whatever. Yet this time, I totally forgot, and guess what? No blisters. Really no toe problems at all! I credit it to the shoes (Altras), which have a very roomy front. But Erin thinks maybe I just intimidated my toes so much with what I did to the rest of my legs, and they decided it was in their best interest to behave.
Footnote 2: Turns out, I did win Best Blood.