We just returned from Independence, Kansas for my second run of the FlatRock 50K. That's 31 miles for my non-running friends. I ran the race for the first time in 2007. I had only been running again for a short time and the last race I had run was a failed attempt at a 50 miler. So in 2007, finishing a race to restore my ego was my main goal and I set out with a conservative, I'm just going to make it to the end, pace. It took me over 8 hours! Partly my fault, because my training just wasn't sufficient, but partly, and I like to think mainly, because the course is incredibly tough. I chose the race the first time because it was only 3 hours from Springfield. This time, I was going to run the race to quiet the inner voice that was telling me I could do it better. The stated goal was 6 hours.
I'm not sure why I chose 6 hours. They have pace calculators that can approximate new race goals off of previous runs, but I didn't use one. I looked at FlatRock's results from 2010 and saw that in order to break the top 10, you had to go under 6 hours. Now, I do truly believe that participation is more than enough to prove your grit, but I'm a guy, and I have a large ego, and all that stuff. I've gutted out the distance and just finished several races, so I thought it was time to see if I had a little more. I checked a few other years to make sure that 6 hours would put me in the top 10. Seemed easy enough. I set my training pace to faster than 11.5 minute miles, the pace needed to break 6 hours, and cranked off miles all summer long.
I felt pretty good going in. I had done a 2 week taper taking it easy on the miles, and arrived in town with fresh legs and feeling confident. There are always moments during my tapers, however, where I feel moments of panic. I think to myself I should have done another long run, or a strange pain in my foot makes me wonder if I've done something. There were several of these moments in the weeks leading up to the race, but it was now time to throw down and I was feeling strong and optimistic. I knew there would be an amount of struggle and pain, but that's part of the fun. Right?
Race morning was perfect for running. Temperature was in the 50's. Forecast was for 80's, but I hoped to be done before the real heat of the day would set in. The race starts at 7:30 which was nice for me. I hate the crack of dawn runs that everyone else seems to like. I need time to drink coffee and warm up to the idea of settling in for a day of running. With proper Marine punctuality, we were good and early and had plenty of time to go to the bathroom, hangout and meet new people, and of course, drink more coffee.
The 15 mile trail is laid out around the edge of Elk City Lake northwest of Independence. The race headquarters is a large picnic pavilion. The race follows the full length of the trail out and then back again, with a little extra distance tacked on by running the road to the trail head from the picnic pavilion, in order to add up to the full 50K. But this isn't just an ordinary well groomed trail or some city path, it is a rock covered, unlevel, up and down rolling challenge with a net change in elevation of over 6,000 feet. There are very few times when you can take your eyes off the trail for even a moment without kicking or tripping over something. Much of the trail is like running up and down a stairway and the steps are shifting below your feet.
The pavilion is where the pre-race safety briefing was held. The race director, Eric Steele, is an outstanding guy who is full of energy. You truly get the feeling that it is his pleasure to do all the work necessary to put on an event like this. I have felt welcomed and important both times I have been there. Eric reminded us all that this is an extremely difficult race, so difficult that very few people have ever broke the 5 hour mark. After the briefing we all walked together about a 1/3 of a mile up the road from the pavilion to the official starting line. From there we would have a short distance along the road before turning abruptly uphill and onto the trail.
Sara and Jake walked up the road with me and stood waiting for the starting gun to go off. I thought it was cool that they actually had a gun to fire. Unfortunately, as they said go the gun misfired. I think I did hear it go off shortly after we started but I can't remember now.
I had been struggling all morning with the decision to wear a shirt or not. I tend to hate them once I get running if it's 60 or above but the morning air was still cool and I had decided to keep it on. Not even 5 minutes up the trail it was a decision I regretted all the way to the half way point where I finally handed the sopping wet shirt to Sara.
The group, as they always do at big races, took off at a fast clip. I prefer to take it easy for the first couple of miles but this race presents a challenge with that strategy. If you start too slowly, you end up behind a huge line of people when the course makes its turn from the road to the single track trail about a half mile in. The first part of trail is a steep climb so many people stop to walk and find sure footing. It is common ultra wisdom to walk the hills but I was on a schedule and had trained to run them. It's frustrating to get trapped behind a large group and waiting for a safe place to pass is a test of patience. I had remembered this snag from the last time but I still didn't want to start the race at a sprint, so immediately after turning onto the dirt, I had a line of about 15 people walking up the first hill in front of me.
It took what seemed like a mile or two to work past the group of slower runners, zipping carefully by them one at a time on wider corners, before I finally had an open trail in front of me. In the past, even though I would start with large groups, because of my slower pace I would usually end up spending long amounts of time running without seeing another soul. However this race, I ended up spending a lot of time with other people which, in the end, I think is a good way to move faster. Whether it was me trying to stay ahead of them, or me trying to keep them from getting away from me, I spent most of the race with 3 different guys.
My first partner was Karl. He had worked his way up the first hill and past the line of slower people right on my heels. He stayed right behind for the first 10 miles of the race. Occasionally, I would ask if he wanted to lead and he would politely decline. I didn't ask how old he was, but I would guess 18. I was surprised to see that he wasn't carrying any water. You see this sometimes, but it is usually the guys at the very front who can run from aid station to aid station fast enough not to get dehydrated. This run has plenty of water stops but not close enough for me to try it without at least one bottle.
In the past, I have stopped and refilled at every station sometimes spending several minutes talking to the volunteers (the volunteers at this race were exceptional). There were 9 aid stations at 3.4 miles, 7.2, 9.6, 12.2, the 15.5 turnaround, and then you hit the same stops on the way back. I was carrying two water bottles, so my plan was to run straight through to the 9.6 mile station before stopping for anything. Once there, I would fill only one bottle and then meet Sara and Jake at the halfway point to resupply on everything. Even if you only stop for 2 minutes, on a run with 9 stations, that would be 18 minutes lost, and consequently, would have put me over my goal. Karl, not having any water with him, had to stop at each station and drink. I would gain a little ground on him and then a couple minutes later I would hear him coming back up behind me.
With the exception of slowing to climb over a larger rock, or stopping to look up and see where the next tree with a bright blue marker was, with Karl on my heels pushing me to hold the pace, I ran without a break at a steady 10 minute per mile pace. Unfortunately, after running through the 7.2 aid station, Karl took a nasty fall on a slippery downhill stream crossing. I didn't see it happen but looked back just as he was getting up off the ground. He dusted himself off and then immediately came charging after me. He told me he had hit his head pretty hard. I was a little concerned for him as dehydration, combined with a concussion and a side of dangerous terrain, was a recipe for disaster. He assured me he was good but he did now have a headache. He said he wasn't dizzy or seeing blurry, though, and we continued running down the trail. Karl's family was waiting for him at the 9.6 station. I refilled one bottle and took off down the trail. Karl left with me but shortly after that his pace began to slow and I didn't see him again. I looked for him after the turnaround on my way back but I never saw him again.
I continued pushing forward and didn't spend much time alone before my next trail partner caught me from behind. I'm horrible with names. I have to hear them many times before I can remember them. In fact, I'm not even 100% sure Karl was really my first friend's name, but I'm sticking with it. So for now, my new pacer is Tattoo Bandanna Guy. TBG was a refreshing burst of motivation. He thought I had a familiar face but we later determined it was probably just the long hair and beard which are a common sight at trail races. Like Karl, TBG stayed behind and let me set the pace. I asked him once if he wanted to pass and he said he was just being pulled along by the power of the beard. We talked about shoes and other races we had run and the miles passed easily.
Tattoo Bandanna Guy
I was still feeling really good. I was maintaining the 10 minute per mile pace and cruised into the halfway point aid station at 2 hours and 30 minutes where Sara and Jake were waiting for me. For a brief moment, I started re-assessing my goal. Maybe 5:30 was possible. I filled both bottles and restocked my pockets with drink mix and Endurolytes and then ran out of the aid station as fast as I could. TBG had said he was stopping for a sandwich and when I left he was still talking with the volunteers. It didn't take more than a mile or 2 before TBG came bounding up behind me again, still seeming fresh and full of motivation.
At about 23 miles in, the fatigue was really starting to set in. Surpsingly, I hadn't had to stop for a bathroom break since we began. I started feeling the need several miles back but hadn't wanted to lose any ground to the clock so I was going to wait until it was slowing me down. When I couldn't hold it any longer, I told TBG I was taking a pit stop and he continued on with a, "catch up when you're done!" I didn't see him again until the finish line where he was sitting with others cheering for people as they came in.
Because there are very few places on the trail not covered with layers of rocks, the motto at FlatRock is, "if you look up . . . you are going down." If you are a toe dragger when you get tired, like I am, this is definitely a race designed for a fall. I went down 3 times in the last 10 miles. The most memorable time was a very dramatic, arms flailing, take several more steps trying to catch yourself before finally losing it and tumbling, wipe out. Embarrassingly, I did this all right in front of an older gentlemen coming from the other direction on the trail. From the look of concern on his face, it must have looked much worse than it actually was. Fortunately, I fall well and was able to take the brunt of the ordeal with my water bottles and then roll out of it onto my back. I skinned my knee and elbow in the process but was otherwise fine. I jumped back up on my feet and started running again. As I often say, if you aren't bleeding, you aren't trying hard enough.
With about 7 miles to go, I was starting to cramp in my calves. You know that feeling when a muscle tightens into a ball, like a charlie horse that comes on suddenly and immobilizes you. Both calves were feeling on the edge of a full blown lock up. I was able to keep shuffling at a decent pace but when the trail would climb I was having to slow and some times use my hands to climb up the steeper sections.
At some point during this last stretch, since I had dropped my pace to deal with the cramping, my last running partner had closed in on me. He said he was having the same problem. We were both shuffling along on the descents and flats and then groaning every time we faced a larger rock we had to climb over. I was able to stay ahead of my new friend and at some points even put a big enough gap in between us that I would lose sight of him. He always managed to reel me back in. We played this game for at least 5 miles. With only about a mile and a half to go, I took a couple steps the wrong way around a large bolder you had to climb over. By the time I realized my mistake, he had taken the lead and slowly began putting a larger and larger gap between us. We were still running almost every step but the pace had definitely slowed and every step was causing pain. Every toe stub and every step up onto a rock was causing me to groan.
Finally, the trail took its final turn down the last hill and out onto the road to the finish line. The sounds of the finish line carry across the lake and up the hill into the woods where you are fighting through the final miles. You can hear a siren being sounded when anyone comes around the final corner while you are still far away, long before you can see the end. The final 1/2 mile is run on the flat open road back to the pavilion. While that stretch of pavement is only 1/2 mile long, it seems to go on and on forever!
When I could finally see the race clock and the inflatable archway, I had the final confirmation that I had beat my 6 hour goal. The clock read 5:45! I took a seat on the ground and Eric came to shake my hand and give me my finisher's award. It's just a small token from a trophy shop that wouldn't seem like much to most people. To me however, every time I see it sitting on the shelf it will bring back a flood of memories. Memories of long summer hours spent training, time spent with new friends on the trail, having Sara and Jake waiting at the finish line of a difficult goal set and accomplished.
As I hobble around the house the day after the event, I'm not sure what the next goal will be. As usual, while proud of my accomplishment, I can't help but compare it to the winning time of 4:12! I wonder if I have what it takes to break that 5 hour mark?
Week of September 19 - Run 41, Bike 64