Monday, August 26, 2013

2013 North Country Run 50 Mile Race Report: To Piss Blood or Not to Piss Blood?

North Country Run: Finish With Heart
You're not coughing up blood yet. Hell you're not even pissing blood yet," I mumble encouragingly  to myself. "Come on Big Johnny, pick up the pace. They're coming. It's go time. Drop the f**king hammer! We have to move. We have to move NOW!!!"

It's only mile thirty or so into the fifty mile race, and I hadn't planned to launch my attack for another 10 miles. My original plan was to run the first twenty-five mile lap nice and easy, saving my legs and energy for the second lap when I would pick up my pacer, Bill. Then I hoped to tuck in behind him and cruise for the next fifteen miles of fairly flat runnable trail until we hit the hills. That's where I planned to make my move and unleash everything I had, reeling in the leaders and taking the win!

But things rarely go as planned -- especially when your plans have been thrown together at the last minute in a car ride to the race while running late after having missed your turn and gotten lost. But there I was, jumping out of a moving car as Bill, my buddy/pacer/chauffer/tour-guide/host, honked and swerved his way through a panicked crowd in front of the port-o-potties.

Megan Rieger and the "red shirts" lead the opening charge
I jogged nonchalantly up to the starting line (toilet paper still stuck to my shoe) with fifteen seconds to spare, trying to downplay the beads of sweat on my head and my elevated heart rate and adrenaline levels. I only had a few seconds to glance around and survey the competition. I quickly recognized a few familiar faces from last year, including Megan Rieger who had won the women's race last year and finished fifth overall after leading the early miles. The gun went off, and as expected, Megan sprinted to the front again leading the pack into the woods.

I found myself running in fourth at a pace that already felt too hard. I recalled from last year that Megan liked to go out strong but would probably slow down, at least a bit, later. But I didn't recognize either of the two guys -- both wearing red singlets -- and I had no idea if they were legit threats to win or just rookies who let their pre-race adrenaline get the best of them. I decided to let them all go, gambling that I would hopefully be able to reel them in later, perhaps in the second half of the race.

The motley chase group
I was initially joined by two other runners, Jesse Aukeman from Grand Rapids and Martin Schumacher from Chicago. The three of us ran together for a few miles until Martin slipped back, leaving Jesse and I to chase on our own for the rest of the first lap. As we completed the first lap and arrived back at the start/finish area loop I spotted my pacer Bill who was luckily all set and ready to run -- even though I had arrived almost thirty minutes faster than I had predicted!

I caught a glimpse of Megan and one of the two other red-shirt guys heading out of the one kilometer loop just as Jesse and I were rolling in. I wasn't sure if the other other red-shirt guy was further ahead in the lead, or if he was behind the other two leaders somewhere on the short loop we had to run before heading out on the second lap.

Bill was waiting at the end of the short loop and helped me slip into my Ultimate Direction AK vest (with two water bottles) which I swapped out for the one handheld bottle I had been carrying. I remembered from last year that it warmed up dramatically during the second lap in the afternoon, and I didn't want another repeat performance of last year's visit to the Emergency Room after getting dehydrated and being hospitalized with Rhabdomyolysis and kidney/liver failure. My goal this year was to not pee blood again at the end of the race.

Bill ran in front and set a strong pace, quickly pulling us past one of the redshirted guys and his pacer, and up even with Jesse and Megan. The four of us ran together for a while with Jesse setting the pace. I was a bit winded from the chase and dropped back a few feet to collect myself and catch my breath. Suddenly, out of nowhere, Megan launches a devastatingly beautiful attack, flying down the trail and ripping open an immediate sizable lead over Jesse and I. Bill looks back at me as if to confirm, "That just happened!" Yup.

Losing an argument with myself
So here I am, hurting, just trying to keep Jesse in sight with Megan now off the front and nowhere to be seen. And then to make things worse, I hear the other redshirted guy and his pacer flying down the switchbacks gaining back ground on us. Oh no! Ugh, it's decision time. Do I let them pass me and bide my time, sticking with my original plan to wait until the last ten miles to attack? Or do I just say screw it and go all in, launching an earlier than planned attack and risking everything for a shot at the win?

"If you're not coughing up blood, or at least pissing blood, you're not running hard enough," I remind myself! Ok, that settles it. Solid logic that I can't argue with. I step on the gas and start accelerating, tapping my buddy Bill on the arm as I fly by him to let him know that it's show time. We fly by Jesse (who is probably wondering what the hell is going on as people keep sprinting by him at full speed in the middle of a 50 mile race) and then catch up to and pass Megan exchanging a few friendly words.

After about a mile of hammering we take our foot off the gas and settle into a steady pace. We've suddenly moved up from fourth place to second, with only one remaining runner in front -- though who knows how far in front? Things are looking good! And then suddenly they are not. Just as Bill and I are leaving an aid station we hear cheers and look back and see the other red shirt and his pacer pulling into the aid station only second behind us. They look determined and are moving fast. Minutes later they pass us. Now we're back in third place. Boo, hiss.

I'm demoralized and really starting to hurt. Negative thoughts are creeping into my head. "Maybe I should just give up and jog it in instead of racing? Maybe I should lay down and take a nap? Maybe I should waylay one of the aid station volunteers and steal their shirt, then hide the body in the bushes, so I can get a ride back to the start/finish area." If I was on my own, who knows what I would have done.

World's best pacer, Bill Pritchett
But luckily Bill is there with me, and he is running ahead setting an semi-aggressive yet runnable pace. I lock my eyes on him and just keep moving forward. Miles pass. Hours pass. And then suddenly we are there -- the middle of the grueling last few miles of hills. Ah, this is what I have been waiting for. This is what I do. I can run hills in my sleep. I have run hills in my sleep (but that's another race report).

Unbeknownst to me, Bill has been quietly struggling with GI issues for the past couple of hours. But like a loyal lieutenant, he has kept his problems to himself -- quietly ducking into the woods every few miles -- not wanting to burden me with additional stress. But now, sensing that I am back from the dead and ready to hammer the last five or so miles of hills, Bill knows his work is done for the day and lets me run off ahead, now finally able to tend to his own issues.

Women's winner Megan Rieger, "first old dude" John Burton,
and men's winner, Jason Barhorst
At this point I'm moving well, but I'm still in third place and I have no idea how far either of the red-shirt guys are in front of me, or whether I will be able to catch one or both of them. I stay focused and keep grinding. Finally it pays off, I see one of the red shirted leaders and his pacer just ahead. I hammer down a steep hill and pull into the last aid station just a second or two behind them. I quickly refill only one of my two bottles, knowing that it's only three miles to the finish line. As I head out and run up a hill I look back and notice that the runner and his pacer are still at the aid station and don't appear to be planning to leave anytime soon. Huh?

I keep hammering, but I'm starting to run out of real estate. I'm at the top of the last climb with less than a mile of down hill to go and the other runner, the race leader, is nowhere to be seen. For all I know he has finished already. It was great effort, but I came up short. Still, second place isn't too shabby and glancing down at my watch I notice that I am at least 30 minutes ahead of my PR pace. I'm going to shatter my 50 mile PR as long as I don't trip and break a leg on this last steep tricky descent.

Masters trophy (I guess getting old is kinda cool)
I hear cheering as I emerge from the tree line and enter the finishing chute. It's finally over. Second place, a 35 minute PR in a time of 7:10:45. I'm exhausted, but ecstatic. The red-shirt race winner, who actually has a name, Jason Barhorst, comes over and graciously congratulates me. He finished 5 or 6 minutes ago but looks remarkably fresh, as if he probably could have run a lot faster if he had been pressed.

Several minutes (and several beers) later, Bill jogs out from the forest and joins me and some new friends (they offered me a beer and I am now in their debt) for a post-race burger and beer. Ah, life is good.

And while I didn't win the race outright, I was consoled to find out that I am now apparently considered a "master" having turned 40 earlier this year, and was therefore crowned the master's champion! Perhaps this getting old stuff isn't quite so bad after all.

Click here for Strava data.


Dan said...

Huge congratulations on the epic achievement. I was out there on my first 50-miler but my patella acted up at mile 14 and by 39 I had to pull out. Oh, well -- I live to run another day. But I was just out to finish -- second place is a remarkable feat. Well done, sir.

Here's my recap:

Jeremy said...

Dude, this is your year! Or maybe you just get faster with age...

Big Johnny Burton said...

Thanks Jeremy. Yes, I am aging like a fine French vinegar. Won't be long until I am 150 proof.

Big Johnny Burton said...

Big Johnny BurtonAugust 27, 2013 at 4:13 PM

Dan, sorry to hear that your knee wasn't as committed to the cause as you were. In general I'm a firm believer in the mantra passed on to me by the late ultra runner David Terry that, "Not all pain is significant". But knee pain is probably one area where I would make an exception and draw the line. Sounds like you did the right thing by calling it a day. Hopefully you get back out there and try North Country again.

P.S. Nice use of the word "insouciance" in your race report. You must be an English major?

Dan said...

Very intuitive of you -- that was my exact major. I have to use it somewhere, right? Thanks for visiting my page and for the comment. Best of luck with your continuing dominance of the ultra scene!