I knew it wasn't a good sign when I got so sick that I didn't get out of bed for 20 hours on the Sunday before the race. On Monday I didn't feel much better and stayed home from work laying on the couch. I felt better after that, but just for good measure I had two really strenuous work days on Thursday and Friday. Don't tell me I don't know how to taper. So when I woke up Saturday morning for the race and my quads hurt walking down the stairs, I knew it was going to be an interesting day.
But I had a plan, and everything was going to be just fine.
Running with Frank Gonzales and Sam Dangc on the Saturday before the race, I was privileged enough to get some insight from two of my favorite fast guys. Frank told me when to start running hard, and what he would do here, and what not to do there, and I soaked it all in like a sponge. I really respect both of them, and feel honored to get to train with them so obviously I take their opinions seriously. Until they start talking all crazy on me. Frank asked what my goal was, and I told him 5:30, and he laughed at me. "You can run it in 5," he said. And he meant it. Crazy.
So I had a plan, Frank's plan for me actually. I felt good at the start line, I was ready.
Step One, take it easy on the climb to Camping Gap, the race hasn't really started yet. So I head out at an easy pace, comfortable enough to talk. I had looked back on last year, and I made the climb in about 48 minutes, but my friend Charlie Peele took an hour, and then beat me by almost 30 minutes in the race. So I fell in behind Phil, one of my new running buddies who is a good climber. I hiked a couple of times when I didn't really need to, and ended up getting to Camping Gap in about 46 minutes this year. Faster than I planned, but I didn't push it so I figured it would be alright.
Step Two, don't push too hard on the five miles downhill of Hunting Creek Rd. That will just blow out your quads, and Terrapin is mostly a climber's race anyhow. I fell in with a couple of guys running down the long gravel road who had the same idea that I did. We let about six or seven runners pass us, commenting on how it was too early to push that hard. About the time that the road leveled out the conversation turned to 100 milers, and it turned out that between these two guys, that had completed about ten thousand hundreds. Needless to say, I let them go on without me on the next climb.
Clark Zealand (race director) asked how I felt at the Goff Mountain Aid Station (about 9 miles). "Not as good as I should," I told him. Even taking it easy on the down hill, my quads were complaining about deep muscle soreness, and I just felt kind of weak. I filled my bottle, grabbed half of a banana, and started to climb. And climb. And climb. I'm not sure how long the climb up Goff Mountain road is, but I ran every step. I wasn't feeling good, but I knew that I was trained for these hills, and running Ultras is a mental game.
By the time we turned back into the woods, I had never been so happy to see trees. The weak feeling stuck with me, but being a little kid at heart, I find it easier to run in the woods than on the roads. I ran most of this section pretty strong, and before I was ready for it, it was over and I was back on Hunting Creek road with a 3.5 mile climb back up to Camping Gap.
Frank had told me that this is where my race starts. This is where I was to start exploring my pain cave. I hit the gravel, waved at the aid station workers without stopping, and started climbing. It had been my plan for weeks to run that hill. Every step of it. I am ashamed to say that I
When you get to Camping Gap the second time, the race is half over. I felt like I was more than half way done at this point. I didn't spend much time at the aid station, because I knew that how I was feeling it would be too easy to linger. I started off up the WHOR loop, feeling like I should be running faster than I was, but unable to muster much more than a shuffle. Then the leader passed me, looking strong and fresh like he had just started running. He had a 5 mile lead on me at this point. Then I passed Frank and Sam, side by side, 2nd and 3rd, smiling and joking. I tried to feed off of that energy and push myself, but as the terrain started to climb again, I started to hike again.
I have hit some low points in races before. One time at a 40 miler I ran past my drop bag and forgot to pick up my gels and had to push through a 13 mile loop at the end of a race without them. One time at a hot half marathon I bonked so badly I couldn't get my legs to move and had to lean against a tree for 5 minutes. But never had I entertained the idea of quitting a race the way I did in the WHOR loop this year. I walked and I walked and I walked, all the while wallowing in self pity.
And then the climb ended. My ability to run downhill is nothing stellar, but I am always willing to accept the help of gravity when it is offered. So I ran down and out of the WHOR loop, back on to the road that leads back to Camping Gap, and something changed. I was passing a lot of runners who were entering the WHOR loop, people who were miles behind me in the race, and most of them looked happy. Their smiles were contagious I started greeting every runner I passed with a "good job," or "looking strong," and my energy levels started to rise. By the time I got back to Camping Gap for the third and last time I felt like a new runner.
I filled my water bottle and grabbed a few gels from my sister-in-law Erin who was awesome enough to hike to Camping Gap (4 miles each way) to crew for Alexis and me. I started up the climb to Terrapin Summit,
the steepest section of the race, feeling better than I had since the beginning of the race. This section of the race is where almost all of the fun of the whole 50K is located. It is only about 4 miles from Camping Gap to the Terrapin Lane aid station, but you get to summit the mountain, visit an awe-inspiring overlook, crawl through Fat Man's Misery, run the ridge line, and then rocket down through the Rock Garden. This single section of mountain trails makes the entire race worth while.
At the last aid station it is easy to get a little deflated. The fun in over, and there is nothing between you and the finish line but 5.5 miles of hard work, most of which comes in the form of a monotonous rolling trail filled with identical seeming switchbacks that make it hard to gauge your progress. At the Terrapin Lane aid station my friends Charlie and Dennis were there hanging out and encouraging runners. They seemed a little surprised to see me when I got there, but were very encouraging. I headed out on a mission to run hard the rest of the way, and PR this race.
I knew that I wasn't going to hit Frank's time goal for me, but I was in range for hitting my own. I ran the best that I could, stopping to hike a couple of times on little rollers that I knew I should have been running. When I finally hit the Reeds Creek crossing I knew that I had two miles to go and it was mostly down hill, and I started pushing for all I was worth. Then I passed Chelsie hiking back up, shouting at me to run faster. I tried. Or at least I tried to try. By the time I got to the finish line my legs were so sore and tired that I didn't want to walk another step let alone run any farther.
I hit my goal, with a finishing time of 5:25. But more importantly I learned a couple of things about myself and perhaps a better way to manage my resources better during a tough mountain race.
Terrapin Mountain 50K is a very tough, yet extremely rewarding race to finish. Everyone who finishes that course is an accomplished runner, and I am proud to have so many of them as my friends. I will see you all on the next mountain!