50K to Freedom

So, it's been a while since my last post. I had been mostly complaining about my DNF in the Northface 50 miler, and was determined to make up for it, even though it wasn't a lack of training or anything I could have avoided, the DNF simply was a product of sickness. I was encouraged by my friend and fellow runner Carl, who had successfully completed the Northface 50 miler, to look to another race that he was doing, and invited me to join him in a 50K in Woodside CA. I was eager to make up for my DNF, seeking a chance at redeeming myself I signed up for the race with only four weeks to prepare. Now, my level of fitness wasn't too bad, I had been training for the 50 miler for six months and despite being sick for a few days, hadn't lost much endurance. I started right away, cranking out some mileage and even headed down to the track for some speed work as well. What I didn't anticipate though was those three weeks being crazy busy! After the first week, which was Thanksgiving break so no work, I was able to put in a decent amount of miles, but the next three weeks were booked to the edge with work and even more work! Before I knew it, two weeks blasted by and I had done a total of 40 miles...barely a scratch compared to my average of 70 miles a week as part of my pre-Northface training. Finally, I reached the weekend before my race and was able to put in some decent runs. I felt great, and was excited about the race coming up...and then I got sick! Sunday I started coming down with a cold: cough, runny nose, sore throat, and achy muscles. It held on for three days, preventing me from running. Now, I know you're supposed to taper the week before a race, but by the time Thursday came around I was ready to hit the road. I jumped into trails to try and get some elevation training since my race included 5,400 ft of elevation. Friday came and went with barely two miles of jogging, and I found myself lamenting the fact that I was very likely facing another rough race, and I began praying against another DNF.

Raceday came, Carl picked me up at 5:30, and we were off. Carl's Dad Rich driving, Carl, Dave and I nervously sipping water and sharing stories of past races. At one point Carl asked me what my goal was for the race, I simply responded with, "Just to enjoy the race, after being sick I just want to have fun and finish!"

After the two hour drive, we pulled into the crowded parking lot and luckily found a spot. Nervous laughter and some quick snacks lead us to the starting line. It was a beautiful day, a light chill to the air and a slight breeze in the early morning sunrise just before race start. Before I knew it, we were standing at the starting line and listening to the race director shout out a countdown. The race started on a nice downhill and my spirit was high; the ghost of my DNF was sitting on my shoulder as the race started, I kept telling myself to just relax, take it easy and enjoy myself. The race was crowded at the get go, like all other races; the terrain was mostly single track with quick ups and downs, so not much room for passing. After the first 5K, the trail opened up and I settled into a pace, feeling good and already the ghost on my shoulder was fading a bit. Still apprehensive I kept telling myself "just be comfortable," as I slowly kept passing other racers. The race started it's main climb and I was still feeling great, and still kept passing people; I wanted to do well, but mostly wanted to not be in a position of another DNF. Once the race hit the heavier climb I found I was starting to pass even more people, which I wasn't shocked at, after all, I always call myself a hill guy, and my athletes always complain about the hill training I make them do; so up I went and continued to be positive. Close to the top of the first major climb I came up behind a young spry runner, he looked like he was 16, and I matched his pace, I had seen him shoot ahead at the start and he seemed to be maintaining a pretty decent pace, I figured as long as I was able I'de keep up with him. It was a challenge as the trails twisted and turned, I chased him as the miles passed by, more than a few times thought about slowing down and losing him, but overall felt good and decided it wouldn't hurt to keep up. After about 4 miles together, he stepped to the side to let me pass, but then hung on my shoulder, never leaving me alone. It's one thing if you are the chaser, it's another if you are the one being chased. I felt this incredible pressure to keep pace, and I loved it! I felt like dying, but I also felt a responsibility to help this kid to keep going, so I pushed on, all the while the wind had been increasing.

The day had started to heat up, but the warmth also brought a breeze, not to much on the trail but up above us in the high branches of the redwoods. As the day whore on we started getting pelted by bits of debris, leaves and small sticks rained down on us between gusts, until the gusts got stronger and stronger and larger branches started coming down. The sound of our breathing and feet pounding the trail was being drowned out by gusts of wind and the creaking of trees. A few loud cracks caught our attention, and off somewhere in the forest larger branches crashed to the floor, breaking other branches along the way. All the while I kept pace with my young chaser, however, we both kept an eye out for falling branches. At one point we heard a huge cracking sound, I stopped immediately and put my arm out to block my running partner as we watched in awe as a 20ft branch crashed down on the trail just ahead of us, then tumbled down the side of the hill. We exchanged an easy look, then did what any other ultra runner would do, we hopped back on trail and into our pace once again, one eye on the trail and one on the trees swaying around us. Thankfully the worst we endured was a few twigs and acorns hitting our heads, though we did see loads of branches and debris all along the trail for the remainder of the race.

My young companion and I hit the last aid station on the way out, stopping quickly to refill water and grab a snack. Much to my surprise, my buddy turned and said, "thanks," then promptly turned around, and started running back the way we had just come from, he was competing in the 35K...not the 50K that I was running! Because the race was an out and back course, I very quickly calculated the placement for my young friend, he was currently sitting in the fourth place spot for the 20 mile race, I had paced one of the top racers for the shorter race! After realizing this, I grabbed my water and a handful of pretzels and was off. After having run with my young running buddy for so long, I suddenly felt rather alone. I couldn't see anyone on the trail ahead or behind me, it was just me, the trail and the wind. The trail started to descend quickly and get very hot. I was suddenly feeling the pace I kept earlier and all the fears of burning out and DNFing started to creep back in; it's incredible what your mind does when your by yourself on a trail and nutrient deprived. The miles out on the back side of the loop that turned us back to the return route were rough, especially since as the trail turned around, the climb was beastly, extremely steep, and lonely. Finally, with the climb out of the way, and the knowledge that I had at least passed the halfway point, I started to get a second wind.

The second half of the race was pretty uneventful for me. I was still feeling pretty good, well, as good as running a trail marathon felt, and was staying positive. I hadn't been passed by anyone at all since the start fo the race, I had no idea how many racers were ahead of me, but I couldn't see anyone behind so I started thinking I must be doing ok. I began passing the slower 35k racers who were looping back as well, and was beginning to be a little bit done mentally. Passing the final aid station, knowing there was only 6 miles left was awesome, and a boost I needed as I was starting to run low on energy. At about mile three I finally heard footsteps coming up behind me, I hadn't been passed at all in the race so I was bit startled when the racer came up on me fast. A quick glance identified him as another 50k racer and I suddenly felt the need to get my butt in gear. Unfortunately that portion of the race was rather technical, lots of roots and rocks, and I stumbled, but caught myself. When your muscles are that worn, and you suddenly tense, every muscle protests and I found myself with five, yes five, charlie-horses in both legs. I stopped dead, trying desperately to stretch. The other racer stopped to check on me, I waved him off and thanked him, saying "I just need a stretch." He took off and after a few painful seconds I was on my way too.

Those last two miles were killer, I was losing perception of time and distance, and the trail itself kept switching back and turning, so my usual impeccable sense of direction was off and I had no idea where or when I was going to finish. Much to my disappointment, I had a slow uphill turn, the trail jumped around a tree, and I found myself suddenly seeing the finish line up ahead. Seeing the small crowd and the flat finish I mustered my strength and started a push, as I cleared the trees and made it out on the flat grassy field leading to the finish, the crowd started cheering...just in time for me to get yet another charlie-horse in my right calf that stopped me dead in my tracks. You could hear the crowd go from cheering to saying "ohhh." I shook my head and sucked it up, half-jogging, half-limping across the finish.

After such an anticlimactic finish, I glanced over at the finish clock and was shocked...I had told myself that I'd love to finish within 5hrs, and the clock was staring back at me reading 4hrs and 37min! I was elated, and in a moment the ghost of my DNF was gone, I had kicked butt and was in pretty good shape too, minus the charlie-horses!

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