I have been waiting for this race for many months; almost from the same day a year ago.
Last year race left me with great feelings, a lot of enthusiasm and the belief that running on trails was way better than running on asphalt. I met new friends 12 months before at this very course: I could eye Stephen England running the 20 miler (his speed made me believe he was running the 10 mile race), and I exchange a few words with that beast of Ryan Jones who whipped me along the course.
Last year it was my first attempt at a distance longer than a marathon; I got second place and – obviously – 12 months later I’ve created a little more pressure inside me to at least confirm the good that came from the previous year race. I really wanted to do well, but for little issues here and there in these months, training has not been perfect the way I envisioned it at the beginning. On top of that I had been welcoming snow and snow cover trails for the last 4-5 weeks, knowing that I could have had and edge in this type of conditions, were I in good form.
A week before the race it was clear that the trails were going to be packed with snow or ice, and the idea was not promising: when I attempted a run in Bear Mountain, I had to give up running just after 3 miles and had to proceed hiking for another 6 trying not to get my ankles cut or bruised too much. A one inch thick layer of ice on top of soft snow was constantly cutting my legs when retracting the feet that were sunk into the soft snow below. This was the result:
With that said I sweared that if conditions were the same, I would not have run the Febapple. Three days before the race, on Wednesday evening after work I went for a quick inspection of the course and had to sweat my ass through 4 miles of virgin snow in the dark and with no idea of where the course was. The trail was in bad shape, but at least, I could not foresee cuts and bruises.
It was going to be a huge to complete the race, since lifting legs and feet more than one foot above the surface each step could mean a lot of effort.
This year the race was also somewhat special because it marks Bud’s debut as an ultrarunner and Michelle’s come back to trail with the 10 miler.
We got to the start line almost last minute, and when the RD gave us the green light I was still pinning my bib to my shirt.
I started the race conservatively, watching a few other guys running faster the first mile on asphalt. I recognized the guy that finished third at the Wildcat, and I knew he was not going to be a factor after the first loop. I saw a well shaped guy wearing spandex shorts under regular running shorts and I saw Ryan Jones keeping an eye on the pack. I preferred to settle in fourth and look at how things were unfolding, courious to know if my equipment was going to give an advantage or a disadvantage. In fact, everyone alse on the lead was wearing Yaktrax under regular trail running shoes; I preferred to go bear naked with my new pair of Salomon. I bought them last minute, probably just for the Febapple, but hopefully for other races too. The nice part of this shoe is the sole: while being pretty much the same of the S-Lab Sense, the sole is much more rugged and captivating. I saw it for the first time in Colorado, under royal feet belonging to Tina L., Kilian J., Emilie, etc. Too bad they were not in the market till recently. Well…I made it in time and bout a pair, a little unhappy that they used this sole on the “ultra” version and not in the regular S-Lab Sense (the white and red colors give me more focus when I look down, than the red and black of the ultra), but I was willing to give them a try. The grip on the snow was great, and maybe I was just lacking some traction on the ice, compared to the other folks, but that was not a problem given that temperatures were raising to the mid forties to the low fifties.
After a couple of miles I witnessed the wildest fall ever. It must have hurt a lot, and for sure the other runner was a little shocked by it. He went down horizontally after sliding on a wet rock with his Yaktrax into a creek filled with frozen water and ice. At that point I passed him and followed closely Ryan who took the lead but had no intentions to break away from the rest of us. He lost a yaktrax while running on deep snow and that’s when I realized I was going to have an advantage: I did not have to worry about things falling off my feet nor did I have to worry about losing balance and sliding on rocks. My shoes were one piece, and they would have not broken.
Ryan and I kept running together for a few miles, with a small lead on the rest of the group and we kept an eye on who was following. We completed the first 4mile loop and proceeded into the 6mile. The downhill part was nice. Not as fast as last year, but tricky and slippery. Many runners would lose time in this section and I could have a little edge here. Without realizing it, Ryan slightly lost contact, just a few seconds here and there, and by the aid station at the far end I had a small lead.
Knowing it was early in the race I did not want to push, just wanted to be alone so nobody could follow my steps and see my weak points. When I closed loop one and ran the asphalt section I could not see anyone closer than half a mile or so, and I figured I could have pushed a little more and see how the general condition of the body was. I started to develop two crazy ideas:
1) Inspired by Matt Flaherty and one of his recent wins: winning the 50k with the fasted 10mile time
2) Run fast 20 miles and call it a day, dropping out and stil get the win on the 20 miler
In both cases I had to push during the second lap and I did so. Behind me, other runners were alternating, getting closer or further behind: #2 would drop back to #3, and #4 would bump back to #2, but the lead never opened up more than 5-6 minutes I think.
After 14 miles I saw Bud completing his first loop and he was looping surprisingly fresh, happy and in great shape. Maybe I should have slowed down to enjoy more the day like he was doing?
At the end of the second loop I had Option 2 still fresh in my mind and I felt like giving up and stopping. The time was probably good for a win, but inside me the feeling was not good: I came here for a 50k race, and I was not accepting a defeat by the course. A defeat by another runner is one thing, acceptable and possible. But not by the course.
So, while going through the aid station, when the RD asked me if I was continuining, I gave him the thumb up and kept going.
I felt energy levels were running low, probably because I had used only 2 gels in the first 3 hours and a half, so I swollowed one trying to bump back to life. The uphill portions began to kill me. I had no push through them, and hiking was the only way to proceed. Actually, out of desperation I kicked some running, but they were all pathetic attempts, that resulted in wasted energy and tired legs.
I dragged myself ok along the flat portion of the 4 mile loop, but the little ascent to get back to the aid station seemed like a wall. I was really punishing myself there; I wanted to drop out, walk, stop, rest, but how could I give away so easily what I had built to that point?
The photographer, or a dude with a camera told me to hang in there.
At the aid station I threw down a couple of cookies; they helped me last year…I was hoping for the same result next year.
I asked the RD what kind of lead I had (hoping for something like…20 minutes, or more) and the answer killed me: 3 to 4 minutes.
In those conditions I felt like a mouse being chased by a bunch of hungry cats.
After a few minutes I got some energy back and used all I had to open up the gap more on the snowy downhill portion. And I think I did because when I started the rolling hills by mile 25, nobody was in sight. And nobody could see my mishappenings.
My left hip was bothering me, and my right abductors tensed up and locked. I spent more than a minute standing in the middle of the trail stretching, stretching and restretching, hoping for improvements.
My right leg did not want to move and even hiking was a challenge. I looked back and I saw a runner maybe 2 minutes behind.
It was not clear if he was a 50ker, his shape looked familiar, but not his clothes (the son of a b#%&@ took off some layers and I could not recognize him; he was a 50ker!!). Still, when in doubt, don’t offer any opening. I pushed through the pain and started a light run, just not to show the possible competition that I was not wounded.
In reality I felt chased and that gave me a reason to keep my mind off the legs and focus on moving forward. At the aid station I realized I opened up a little more the gap, and figured it was better to keep going, without wasting time for cookies this time. 3 miles to go, no time to waste.
I kept pushing and pushing, passing other runners from the 20 miler or lapping 50kers, until I reached the waterfalls climb. That was the last challenge between me and the accomplishment of the first win for 2014.
At this point I had no gas in the tank any longer. I was running on fumes but nobody behind was coming closer. I let a couple of runners I passed previously go by and I proceeded with a comfortable hike up the climb. It took me more than 14 minutes to complete that mile, but I could not see the runner up coming close, so I kept hiking almost to 3/4 of a mile from the finish.
At that point I saw unclear shapes behind me and I figured it was safer to run well the last stretch. So I did, and got my first win of the year, about 50 minutes slower than last year time, but much much harder and difficult than the effort I did that time.
Second place came in just a couple of minutes behind, then third and then Ryan, who ran very well coming off a great 100 miler a few weeks prior and finished only 5 minutes behind me.
Michelle in the meantime got 13th overall and 5th woman in the 10 miler in her first trail race after the injury (with very light training), and Bud 21st overall in the 50k.
Of course the day was not over, and once the shoes came off, we took care of business at Top’s diner in Newark. Refuelled and rested enough to make it back home. A not so nice surprise was the condition of my legs after the run. Scratches a bit all over from the ice, and swallen lower parts near the ankles made it look terrible
When the results came out, I was glad to see that not only goal #2 was accomplished, but also #1 got in the bank: won the 50k, ran my fastest lap and first two laps faster than the 10 miler and 20 miler winners.