Sunday, October 7, 2012

FlatRock 50K 2012

I’m not going to lie.  At first, I was a little disappointed with Flatrock this year.  Of course I don't mean the event itself, or the amazing people that show up, both to run and volunteer.  I was disappointed with myself.  I totally expected to suffer and struggle running a 31 mile trail race, but I have been here twice before, and last year was one of the best runs of my entire life on this same course, so I had high expectations for myself.  I've spent the last week since the race licking my wounds and pondering the event.  I learned that past experience is not indicative of future performance.  I learned running ultras is not like riding a bicycle.  Just because you have survived a hard race before does not automatically mean it will come easy for you the next time you try it.

When I approached the starting line, I was still feeling fairly confident.  I was well rested and well caffeinated.  The jittery energy of anticipation was coursing through the system and I was enjoying the buzz and watching everyone gathered.  I always love the diversity of people at runs.  Today there were 90 some runners ranging in ages from 19 to 63.  23 were women this year.  Sara and Jake had come with me again, my diligent and faithful support crew.  I think I relied on them more after the race this time than I did during.  I've never gone to a race by myself but I don’t think I would like it as much.

We all stood together in the cool 58 degree morning.  It was overcast and would remain that way for pretty much the entire race with a high only forecast to reach 75.  There was a cool breeze, and aside from the 94% humidity (subtle clue of trouble to come later), it was a perfect day for a race.

The race director gave a quick roll call (thanks for stopping to say hi, Eric!).  At 7:30 sharp we were turned loose on the course.  Everyone took off at a fast clip.  I had tossed over the idea of staying at the very back of the pack and slowly turning the engine on.  I'm a loner and run differently when I'm on my own, which is 99% of the time I go running.  I usually cruise from a slow jog and gently work my way through the gears until I’m moving at my regular clip.  Sometimes before I reach cruising speed I stop for a minute or two and stretch out any kinks.  Races never work like that, though.  Ever.  Bang, the gun goes off and everyone sprints for the finish line, despite it being 5, or 6, or more hours later.  Runners take off at speeds they will never be able to maintain for the day.  Now, I’m not judging or excluding myself from this phenomenon, it just seems to always be the case.

See the smiling guy in the blue shorts on the right?  That's TBG from last year's blog. I now know his name is Ron and he won this year!  Way to go, Ron!  

I was almost able to resist the urge to join the stampede this time.  I set myself toward the rear of the group and tried to governor my speed.  Unfortunately, my patience only lasted a couple minutes before I started to worry about being trapped behind the group heading through the super steep and narrow beginning miles.  I picked it up a bit and jumped past as many people as I could and only got hung up for a few minutes in the conga line heading up the hill into the woods.

Congestion on the trail at the beginning.
After a couple miles I had found my groove and was moving at a good strong pace.  I took my first glance at my watch to see where I was at and noticed I hadn't hit the start button.  Crap!  I was next to someone at the time so I hit the start button and asked him how long we had been running, “13 minutes,” he said.  I would get lots of practice adding 13 to different numbers for the rest of the day.  I made it through the first aid station at 4 miles without too much trouble at just over 40 minutes.  Not a terrible pace considering there is a ton of climbing and rock scrambling in those first few miles.  Shortly after this point, however, things started going poorly.

I started to develop a sharp cramp in my upper left quad.  I still don’t know why.  I have never cramped that early into a run before.  It totally took me off my game plan.  You have to use those muscles when you’re running rocky and hilly terrain so it was at the forefront of my mind and a real drag.  That's the sport though, deal with what you have and keep moving.  I needed some electrolytes.*  I had a water bottle and a 3 hour nutrition bottle.  The nutrition bottle had electrolytes in it, but apparently not enough, and I couldn't just slam it down to get more or I would get too many calories at once causing a whole different issue.  Normally, I would just reach into my pocket and pull out my baggie of Endurolytes (an electrolyte supplement), swallow a couple pills and be back to normal in a mile or two, but, I hadn't brought any this time.  I had gambled with the cooler temps and chance of rain that what I had in my nutrition bottle would be plenty.  I was wrong! That 94 % humidity had the sweat really flowing.  Strategy mistake: Always carry extra electrolyte pills!  I vowed to never make the mistake again and hoped they would have some at the next aid station.

About 6 miles into the race, I was the fortunate recipient of what can only be described as a miracle, or maybe you could actually just call it a coincidence, but most likely dumb luck.  Despite the cramping, I was still running a decent pace but the pain was becoming a real emotional downer.  I was starting to re-evaluate how long this day might actually be.  You watch the trail closely when you run at Flatrock.  Always!  Because of the steep and rocky terrain their motto is, "If You Look Up . . .You're Goin' Down!"  So as I’m scanning the trail directly in front of me, rarely looking ahead of where the next couple steps will be, I stumbled across a Ziploc bag full of electrolyte pills that someone in front of me had dropped.  Hallelujah!  I remember quickly weighing the ethics of the situation:  Do I carry them for a while in case the person who actually planned ahead might need them?  Wait, I have no idea who they belonged to and they would never come back.  I certainly can’t speed up to catch them, whoever it was.  I pulled out 3 pills and washed them down.

Free Drugs!
(dramatic re-creation shot in my backyard)
If you were the one who lost your pills, from the bottom of my heart, I thank you!  I hope you didn't suffer too much because of the loss.  Kids reading this, I would strongly suggest you don't pick up an unknown bag of pills in the woods and swallow a handful of them.  It occurred to me afterwards that I probably should have broken one open and tasted it first.  Regardless, whether they were Endurolytes or Quaaludes, they helped me immensely.  The cramps got significantly better but didn't go away for the rest of the day.  They would start to re-emerge every 30 minutes or so and I would take a couple more pills to numb them again.

The rest of the way to the halfway point turn around I was doing pretty good and not horribly uncomfortable.  I saw Sara and Jake there for the first time.  They handed me new bottles and I tried to keep the stop short.  I have learned to limit stopping when you’re having a hard time.  It becomes all to easy to give in to the urge to give up.  Better to keep your mind focused on forward movement.  This was the mindset for miles 6-28.  “When you feel like stopping and can’t go any further…just keep going.”

That humidity would cause me another issue I did not expect.  I was totally drenched, like just turned off the shower dripping wet within the first few miles.  Here is something you might not know, after an hour of being wet, when your skin is soft and waterlogged, and when the seam of your running shorts is right where your thighs brush together mid-stride, there can be a serious amount of chaffing.

Since the turn around I had fallen into a loose knit group with a several people.  There were 3 or 4 of us staying at generally the same pace.  We didn't talk much except during the moments when we would rotate the lead and move back and forth past each other.  After hitting the last aid station with only 4 miles to go, the desire to just be finished was becoming stronger than the pain of picking up the pace a little more.  I started shoveling coal onto the fire.  My body responded well.  With less than 2 miles to go it suddenly got much easier.  With just under a mile left I hit the edge of the woods and came out onto the asphalt road to the finish running fast.

There are interesting forces working on you at this point of the race.  You can hear people cheering and cowbells ringing.  Desire and pain wrestle for control of your body. Your motivation goes through the roof.  It is that close but it hurts!  You're so beat up from the miles and time on your feet that every step is solid work.  The road seems to go on and on and on forever.  There is a hand hanging from the top of the finish arch.  Eric reminded us in the morning safety briefing that until you hit that hand, your race is not over.  In the past I have given the hand the standard high five.  Some people really nail it hard and send it swinging.  This year I let the hand do to me what the course had done, I jumped up, turned my chin, and let it slap me across the face.

The photographer caught the frame just before impact (I was kind of hoping for one of those hat and glasses knocked off, face distorted and scrunched up, sweat slinging shots).
Flatrock thoroughly chewed me up and spit me out this year.  This is why at first I said I was disappointed with myself.  The event itself was as amazing as it always is.  Eric Steele and Epic Ultras put on a first class show without a doubt.  A week later, after most of the pain is gone and I’m getting back to normal, I can see the experience for what it was.  Useless disappointment has faded and been replaced by acceptance and appreciation of all the good moments that were sprinkled about the miserable ones.

I've always liked solving problems and to me, endurance sports are like a complex math problem.  They take several steps, that must be done in the proper order, with each step performed correctly, in order to reach the final accurate answer, or in this case, the best finish I‘m capable of.  I always replay and evaluate my mistakes in life hoping to understand them more deeply, not to find excuses so much as to design better plans of attack for the future.  The mistake I made that lead to an incorrect answer for me in this race was in the very first step of the problem.  Almost everything negative I experienced was from insufficient training.  An honest assessment of my summer shows I simply didn't put the same amount of time on my legs as I did last year.  Sure, it was enough to get by.  I reached the finish line, no easy task at Flatrock, and I am proud of that.  But if you want to do better at something in life than you have in the past, you have to give it more than you have always done.  Next year I’m just going to have to run a lot more.  See you in 2013, Flatrock!

Most excellent race schwag.  My first belt buckle from a race.

* The magazine they gave away in the goody bags had an article that said although it has long been thought hydration and electrolyte levels cause cramping, this is not actually the case.  It said experts now believe it’s caused by a sudden increase in pace and premature fatigue.  This is not my personal experience, however, I suppose it could just be a placebo effect for me and electrolytes have healed my cramps every time in the past simply because I believed they would.  I need to research this more.

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