Wednesday, August 29, 2012

North Country Run, 50 Mile Race Recap

Sometimes 100% Isn't Enough: A Tale of How I Gave Everything but Came Up Short

I said, "No comment!"
I've run hard before, occasionally. Relatively hard anyway. Not, make-myself-piss-blood-afterwards hard. But hard enough. After all, this is ultra running. We can't suffer at the same intensity for a 50 miler as we can for a 5K. Well, perhaps we can. But really, who the hell would want to? That's a lot of suffering!

This past weekend I travelled to my home state of Michigan to take part in The North Country Run 50 Mile in the Manistee National Forest. I won't lie: I was hoping to win!

You never know who's going to show up at one of these things, or who's going to have the race of their life. But I figured that unless some Midwestern bad ass like David Riddle, Zach Gingerich, or Zach Bitters showed up, I should have just as much of a chance as anyone of bringing home the win.

Spoiler: I didn't win. I did however manage to claw my way (albeit briefly) up into second place with just two miles left in the race. But then I promptly fell back to third place in the last mile when both of calves decided to stage a work protest. Note: In case you haven't tried it before, running with fully-seized calves doesn't work well. It also makes one look rather ridiculous.

As I hobbled toward the finish line (in what felt like ultra slow motion) with my legs flailing in all directions, my left arm pinned to my chest (my left bicep and pectoral muscle had cramped as well), and my face contorted in a twisted grimace, I couldn't help but wonder if all the teary-eyed, overly-supportive spectators cheering their heads off were thinking, "Oh my goodness, look at that special-needs guy! If he can finish a 50 miler anyone can. How inspiring! Way to go little buddy!"

But I've gotten ahead of myself. Let's regress a bit...

Pre-Race Game Plan

John (right) and pacer Bill Pritchett (left)
My pacer looked me in the eye at dinner the night before the race and asked, "OK, what's the plan for tomorrow?" Plan? What? Huh? I'm supposed to have a plan? Oh shit!

My buddy Bill Pritchett had agreed to pace me for the second of the two 25 mile loops that I'd be running during the race. Bill and I met years ago at an SAP conference; we had both brought running shoes to the conference in hopes of slipping quietly out of a session or two to sneak in a run.

We've been "conference running buddies" ever since, logging runs together at SAP conferences around the world (by "world" I generally mean the greater Orlando Disney area of course).

Bill works for Dow Corning in Midland, Michigan. He's an accomplished marathoner (and triathlete) who has run the Boston Marathon several times. When I told him that I was coming back to Michigan to run a 50 mile race, he was excited about the chance to run the last 25 miles with me.

I casually mentioned that the course would be "a bit hilly", while conveniently neglecting to mention that there would be about 2,500 ft of elevation gain per 25 mile loop. Whereas Bill's hilliest road marathon, the Boston marathon, only had 783 ft of elevation gain. This would later prove to be rather important!

First 25 Miles: Wee, What Fun!

He's won Badwater (4 times) and climbed Mt. Everest
For reasons unclear to me at the time (and never later explained) our 50 mile trail race included an additional gratuitous "bonus mile" on an out-and-back section of parking lot and paved road. I can only assume that this was done in order to allow guest race official, ultra-stud Marshall Ulrich (driving an off-road ATV) to lead us on a ceremonial opening mile along the road.

Unsure of where we were going or why we were running down the road AWAY from the trail, I decided to hang back conservatively in the lead pack until we figured out what the hell we were doing. There was a lot of mumbling and confusion.

No one seemed overly concerned when a stocky young woman, who looked more like a Rugby player than a long distance runner, charged off the front and opened up a huge lead. I would later learn that it was 3:07 marathoner Megan Rieger -- and yes, she went on to win the women's race and finish 8th overall, just 15 or so minutes behind me.

Confusion at the starting line
After we hit the trail and started the first long climb, I made an on the fly decision to back off the pace and let the lead pack of 8 or 9 runners go. I felt everyone was moving at much too fast a pace to maintain for 50 miles. My plan (loosely formed and rather impromptu) was to run the first loop at a comfortable pace, while ideally staying near the top 10, and then to reel in as many people as possible on the second loop once I had picked up my pacer Bill.

At the half-way point of the first lap I came across Jesse Scott, who I had run with at both my Tahoe Rim Trail 100 and the North Fork 50 in Colorado. Small world! Jesse was running the marathon race, and then pacing a friend and client of his for the last 14 miles of the 50 miler. All this after having just run Leadville 100 a couple of weeks prior. Dude is crazy!

I kept moving along at a decent pace, slowly moving up in the field and catching a couple of runners on the second half of the first loop. The last few miles were rather hilly and I was able to run all the hills without too much effort. Note: this would not be the case later during the second loop!

Second 25 Miles: Ugh, Help!

As I finished the first loop and came into the start/finish area I was happy to see my pacer Bill waiting and ready to go (and not stuck in the port-o-potty line or otherwise occupied). Bill, with his fresh legs, set a good pace on the first long climb. In fact he set too good a pace. So good that I watched with admiration as he effortless ascended the hills, getting smaller and smaller in the distance as I slipped behind.

I yelled up at Bill to hold on for a minute, fabricating some story about need to stop and pee. Actually I did pee. I didn't know it at the time, but it would be the only time I would pee during the nearly eight hour race. It would also be the last time I would pee normal looking clear fluid that didn't look like used engine oil or coca-cola mixed with blood. I guess it's called Rhabdomyolysis. Whatever.

Eventually Bill's adrenaline wore off and he slowed down a bit. We were still moving at a nice clip though. Suddenly we came up on the back of a group of three shirtless runners. I had prepped Bill the day before on my strategy for passing other competitors during the race. I like to pass decisively with such force and acceleration that people don't even think about trying to go with you.

I flew by the group of runners at what felt like 5K pace. I heard a bunch of groans and expletives. More importantly, I didn't hear any footsteps. Just the way I like it. But to be sure, I stayed on top of the pace for another half mile or so, just to make sure that I opened up a big enough gap to keep me out of sight.

Bill and I continued running steady and moving up in the filed. We caught a couple of more runners. Things were looking good! And then things hit the fan. I'm not sure how exactly it happened, but at some point Bill and I found ourselves with empty water bottles miles out from the next aid station. Bill offered me his last sip of Gatorade. I felt like Chevy Chase in that desert scene in The Three Amigos.

The dehydration, combined with the 90 degree heat and the hills, took away our will to run. We started walking the hills. Eventually we made it to the next aid station. I drank what seemed like a good 5 or 6 liters or water and sports drink before moving on. Oddly though, I still felt thirty. But I rationed my water and kept moving forward -- walking the hills and running the flats and downhills.

The Finish

World's largest finisher's medal?
I assumed that I was moving pretty slowly and probably slipping back in the field. So I was quite surprised when I caught two more runners. Then people at the aid stations started telling me that I was in third place and that the lead runner was just ahead. My pacer Bill had stopped to use the bathroom and had lingered at the last aid station to eat some watermelon. So I made the decision to push on alone and try and catch the runner in second place.

Finally I saw him. He appeared to be in almost as bad shape as me. We were both walking an uphill. I dropped the hammer and shifted into a higher gear, cranking the speed up to 3.5 mph. I blew by him, hobbling up the hill like... an 80 year old man with a broken hip trying to navigate an icy sidewalk. It wasn't pretty.

However, my glory was short lived. Eventually the uphill ended and we had a mile of downhill and flat. I simply couldn't run. Both calves knotted up. Then, just for good measure, my left bicep cramped up. And so did my left pectoral muscle. WTF!

John representing California
I limped the last mile in agony, cursing and laughing intermittently. Finally the finish line came in sight and I launched my finishing "sprint". The last 100 meters probably took me over a minute. I don't know. And I don't really care.

On the one hand, I was disappointed that I didn't win. This was a race that I had been looking forward to all year, and one that I had invested a lot of time, money, and emotional energy into. On the other hand, 3rd place isn't too shabby I guess.

And apparently I ran a 50 mile PR. My finishing time of 7:54:43 is about 24 minutes faster than my previous best of 8:18:16 at Dick Collins Firetrails 50 in Oct, 2010.

Click here for Strava data.

Note: Special thanks to my pacer Bill Pritchett to getting me to the race (it's a long story) and doing a great job pacing me the second lap!


Jeremy said...

You are funny. Good job though, third place is great. I get cramps in my pecs if I get behind on hydration too, you should have seen me after AR this year- I thought the massage people could help me- I don't think they ever had a basket case like me before- the only thing that kept my body from curling up into one tangled mess of spasming muscles was limping around the parking lot while wishing I was dead. Silly sport.

JVK said...

Great Race John!! I was there and finished 20th... Jesse coached me to my first 50 miler.
I saw you ahead of me for about the first 8 miles and then lost you for the remainder of the day.

John Burton said...

Hey Jeff! Yes, I remember you. You've also got some tattoos, right? Great race! Congratulations. So, did that second loop suck as badly for you as it did for me? That was one tough race huh?