Another beautiful run through the mountains of Virginia. This one is very close to where Mountain Masochist 2017 ended. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson National Forests provide amazing terrain to prepare for bigger races out west. I can’t get the altitude but the climbs are equally challenging and as technical. If you enjoy challenges and generally enjoy suffering, then get out there before the summer heat takes over. The climbs at Belmonte provided a good mix of steep and technical with long and rocky. Both of those present different challenges. There were also some very shallow creek crossings which always provide a rush of energy for me.
A chance to solidify myself as an ultra runner. Much of 2017 was spent leveling up and I never quite considered myself “one of those.” That’s how people respond when I tell them about my 50 mile races. I dare not put myself in that category as the ultra friends I’ve made make my training and racing feel like a walk in the park. But this was my fourth 50 miler in the past year and I was finally starting to feel at ease. That doesn’t make this distance any easier but experience is hugely valuable in this sport.
I normally dread out and backs, especially for training runs that create mental fatigue when you are going through a big block. But this course allowed me to take inventory on the way out and better manage the course on the way back. I knew coming back that the creek crossings and big climbs in the last 14 miles would give me a chance to gain ground if I could manage the course until then. The only surprise was the last 4 miles that felt longer. The course was a few miles over 50 but each mile after 50 felt longer and longer. Thankfully by this point the field was so thin I didn’t give anything back to the field.
What I learned
The hills are paying off. After Mountain Masochist, I made a conscience effort to seek out bigger and harder hills. I have a return trip to the San Juan Mountains in June and am considering a 100 for the fall. Bigger hills and a strong late winter race would be the perfect start to 2018. So I ventured out to the TWOT for three training runs between Christmas and late February. I’d go more frequently if I could but the two hour drive each way and time on the mountain make home life a lot harder. The TWOT is roughly 28 miles with over 7k feet of climbing. The climbs are big, long, and technical with each ascent followed by runnable descent. The extra time on my feet and forced running after big climbs prepared my body for the final climb at Belmonte. I could feel the difference, mentally and physically, as I worked my way back to camp. And I could feel the difference the morning after with my legs responding much better after all that pounding. But I can’t say enough about TWOT. It’s beautiful, challenging, and highly rewarding. I also hit the roller coaster section of the AT that is much closer to home but doesn’t have the big climbs. I look forward to using both trails as my main long run courses for San Juan. So yah, train high, race low, more hills, more hills, more hills.
I’m stronger than I think. I’ve gotten pretty good at handling adversity. Or I’m really bad at tapering. I’ve now started three out of four 50 milers with some form of injury or ailment. This time as a very poorly timed sinus infection from hell that started the Monday of race week. I did everything imaginable to get my body on track, including antibiotics which I so rarely consider. I barely slept all week and woke Friday barely able to get out of bed. The sinus pressure, congestion, throat, and sinus headache were all destroying my face like the Hatebreed concert I attended in college. I met some friends at packet pickup and their reactions said it all, I was in bad shape. So just like Bull Run Run 50 2017, I was prepared to run 1 mile or 50. I was prepared to walk more than I would otherwise. And I was really prepared to suffer. I gave myself one hell of a pep talk Friday night. It was one of those head in your hands moments when you realize it’s time to suck it up and go. I gave myself the same talk Saturday morning as I tried to ignore the obvious stupidity in what lies ahead. I pushed the first two miles fast to trick myself which only delayed the inevitable. The first climb around mile five was a real kick in the nuts. I immediately panicked. My legs felt like the end of the race not the beginning and everyone else swiftly passed me on the way up. I knew there was only one thing to do, put my head down and grind, one mile at a time. By 15 I was starting to give away more of the course. A runnable section brought me to a walk/run as I continued to fade. Finally around mile 20 I caught up to some friends and enjoyed the company of suffering together for a good bit of the middle section. This was huge. We discussed all sorts of stupid things that gave me the mental break needed. Once we reached the turnaround I knew today was a matter of suffering but not quitting. I still tell friends this was the hardest race I’ve ever completed given how I felt all week and on race morning. And my time still wasn’t that bad but well short of my goal.
A pattern is emerging. I tend to hit a wall between mile 30 and 35 before putting down a fast faster finish. This proved true at San Juan, Mountain Masochist, and again at Belmonte. After shuffling into the mile 40 aid station, I was quick to find happiness with my wife and boys providing much needed encouragement. I shed some layers and told her I wanted to catch the group ahead. This was my only way to get through the final stages, to start picking people off. I was determined to not give up any ground, running every section that was not straight up the mountain. It felt impossible at times but I finally caught them around mile 43 and when I looked back they were long behind me. I just kept pushing and going. I zipped up the last climb to find two people sitting on the ground, clearly struggling after that last ascent. I rallied them both which proved super helpful to grind out the last few miles together. The late pushes in each of these races gives me confidence that I have more miles in me.
Changing shoes mid race is amazing. Not much else to add. I didn’t change shoes at Mountain Masochist but did at Belmonte. This provided a huge mental and physical boost, especially after the rocky jeep roads we navigated from mile 20 to 26 and again on the return. I sense most people didn’t change shoes but I hope to keep this strategy for future races.
I’m getting better at Aid Station eating. Ultras are funny. The aid stations are well stocked with things you likely never eat! I’ve always carried most of my food for past races and sent rations ahead in drop bags (I’m big on Picky Bars, Honey Stinger Waffles, Honey Stinger Chews, Cliff bars, and Tailwind). There’s a convenience to mimic your race eating with your training but I’d also prefer not to constantly think about eating and packing and eating and packing. I’ve started to rely on aid stations more and more but through a smarter strategy which is not eating whatever you see first (likely candy or cookies). I like potatoes dipped in salt, bananas, peanut butter sandwiches, pretzels, and anything else that isn’t pure crap. Pickles or soup are a nice treat as well. I will also save the last aid station to binge on pure crap. This is just plain awesome. Oreos, M&Ms, and or coke at mile 40+ is amazing. I can use this as motivation leading into the aid station and enjoy the sugary awesomeness once I reach my destination. As a side note, this sugary combo typically induces a late race pit stop but that’s life on the trails.