This was the North Country Trail 50 near Manistee, Michigan. There is a marathon as well, so the course is two loops of 25 miles (the marathoners add on a little loop to make it 26.2).
In my previous post, I described how I finally arrived at a strategy of starting out very slowly. I didn't warm up for one single second; I walked slowly around the start area, packed some chocolate into the pockets in my shirt, filled my water bottle (handheld) and walked gingerly to the start line.
I had tapered aggressively, mostly out of necessity; there hadn't been time to run. The Girl said it best: "I haven't run hard all week; I can't wait to start the race". Of course, I was pumped when the race began, but I had told myself to go very, very slowly the first hour and a half.
And I can honestly say I was a good boy for the first hour and a half. The first half hour, I just jogged slowly and walked a lot. I basically, stuck with the pace of the group I happened to be in at first. I ate and drank, and tried to stay relaxed. At one point, maybe after a half hour, I saw the Girl not too far back. Slowly, my pace started to increase just because I was warming up. I began passing a lot of people but this was still a very relaxed pace. I talked to a bunch of people as I was passing them; at the first two aid stations, I took plenty of time to eat and drink. It didn't feel like the race had started yet.
I had told myself I would give myself an hour and a half before I could start going fast but once I got there, I somehow convinced myself to go slowly for another 15 minutes. And then when the 15 minutes were up, I figured I could get to the 4th aid station (the half marathon) before I started gong fast. All this built up this explosive energy in me; I was just waiting so impatiently to turn on myiPod and fly down the trail.
After the 13 mile mark, I ran for a little while with the eventual women's winner. She looked very solid; her husband was there at every aid station, running with her to fill up her bottle so she didn't have to stop. I thought about just sticking with her instead of this stupid plan of speeding up. We talked for a while; turns out she has been in Wisconsin for a lot of the races we have here (Ice Age, Kettle Morraine).
But I felt too good to run conservatively so I told her "I"m sure I will see you again, but my legs feel so good I have to let them loose".
And off I went. The legs were warm by now and I was moving comfortably at 6-6:30 pace. It never felt like I was pushing it. I walked a lot of hills so I could eat and drink; really, it was just two gears:crusing pace and walking.
With this, I passed a lot of people. The section from 13 to 25 miles was great. I got into a rhythm where I would surge for a while until I saw someone in front of me. Then I would catch up, but instead of passing them, I would take a bit of a breather, typically walk and drink/eat and let that person get ahead a little bit. That way I could "use" each person I passed twice for motivation. Some of the people I passed were the top marathoners (the marathon was definitely the fun run of the day), who didn't walk the hills. One guy in particular, would pass me on the hills and I would pass him on the downhills or flats. We had a fun time with that and it probably made our respective races easier.
At 25 miles, I still felt strong but the legs were starting to give out. I came through in 3:35. This was after going fast for a long time and passing a lot of people so I was curious to know where I was in the race. I was told 5th place, which was a lot higher than I had thought (and it was actually 6th place) but it also scared me a little to know that I was done catching people constantly.
The legs were really starting to hurt and I had a marathon to go. The next section was really flat and I figured I may as well go out in style. So I kept up running the 6-6:30 miles. The legs complained but the pace felt very manageable. The next two sections, despite keeping up the pace, I didn't see a single person. At the aid station, two ladies told me that all four people ahead of me looked really strong and were going as fast me, except for the guy in second place, who looked tired. What?!? This just about killed me. If these runners, who, as opposed to me, probably knew what they were doing out here, were cranking out a pace like I was, I didn't stand a chance... I mean, my legs were starting to get really stiff and painful. I thought about my options, including taking a long break at the aid station and waiting for some people behind me to pick me up a little.
It turned out these ladies didn't know what they were talking about. I decided to burn off the legs while I still could and passed two runners before the 38 mile mark. These guys were looking a lot worse than me. This time, I planned out the pass so I would fly by going a 6:30 mile. I talked to both of the guys but really didn't want any company.
And now I was hurting. With a half marathon to go, every step was a hot poker in my quads. The last 10 miles on this course are cruel. It's on a typical ski trail; steep up, steep down, steep up, steep down. Maybe a little flat section here and there. The first time around, the steep uphills were great natural breaks to drink and eat and the downhills were places to build up speed. The second time around, the uphills were still ok but the downhills were horrible. I screamed down the hills, literally, as every step hurt.
I was definitely falling apart and just wanted it to be over with. I still had a good crusing pace that I could rely on on the flats, probably going close to 7 minute miles (probably a little slower) but I walked even the slightest uphills and painfully waddled down the downhills. Once in a while I forgot whether I was going up or down and would cramp up because my body was suddenly trying to "cruise" up a hill. It wasn't pretty. With about 5 miles to go, I passed another guy, who looked pretty strong. He had obviously done a few of these before. Again, I locked into the cruising pace, and flew by him. I told him this sucked and that I was falling apart. He told me "everyone is falling apart; you're looking good". He was a nice guy.
I waddled scared the last five miles. I think I knew that all the top guys that I had passed would have a hard time coming back but, on the other hand, a fresh person coming from behind would have a field day eating us all up. At this point, I thought I was in second place and I had been told repeatedly that the winner, Zach Miller, would be absolutely untouchable (which he was). So I didn't even think of who was ahead. I later learned that I was in third place and that one of the guys ahead of me had been interpreted by the aid stations as a bandit because he wasn't showing his number.
Anyway, I kept looking behind me to see if someone was coming. My legs hurt so badly. The cruising gear was gone; the legs were stiff. The downhills were terrible. I just wanted to finish.
At the end, with 100 yards to go, I passed a marathoner, and we both cramped up and walked for a bit. I tried to convince her to do a mock sprint and lean in for a photo finish but she didn't want to.
My time was 7:27. 3rd place. Much better than I had hoped for.
It felt like I could not have run one more mile. After 60 seconds, I was so stiff in my legs I could barely walk. There was a nice lunch buffet, from which I had a hot dog and a couple of brownies. My stomach had held up decently during the race but once the race was over I didn't get the food cravings I had anticipated.
I won't spoil the Girl's race report, in case someone reads this before hers.
Her parents had watched the Lorax and had been in a few spots around on the course. Everyone thinks it's so cool that the Girl is doing all this stuff just a few months after giving birth, but it's really only possible because of her parents. They had a long day, too, out on the trails, cheering us on and watching the Lorax.
So what are my thoughts? Did I have fun? Yes, but not in the last 10 miles. Could I have raced any smarter? I don't think I could have done much better. Physiologically, it probably doesn't make sense to suddenly turn on an iPod and start running at a much faster pace; but it made psychological sense to me and gave me a boost.
Yes, I sandbagged it like no one else... But it worked. From mile 5, probably being in 50th spot, I only passed people the rest of the day. Mentally, you can't beat that.
I ate and drank well. I had even brought a litttle plastic bag for chips and M&Ms to carry with me. I would stop all the time to munch. I drank close to a botttle of Gatorade per aid station (every 3-4 miles) and drank de-fizzed coke or water at the actual aid stations.
The North Country Trail Run? In my opinion, a great race. It's a tough course, no doubt, but in a sense the hills make it easier because you get an excuse to walk. The downhills are bad at the end, though, but I think 10 flat miles at the end would have hurt even more, just because I would feel like I had to run it all. The aid stations were plentiful and nicely stocked. I love candy and had hoped for Jelly Beans and Mike and Ikes etc. but there was only M&Ms, chips, GU, PBJs, etc. A couple of aid stations had Sports Beans but they looked too clinical and gray for me to try. I basically ate M&Ms and chips the entire second loop. I tried a few GUs, which were nasty (but may have worked).
In short, I would recommend the race to any beginner. The marathon they have at the same time is very low-key, and it's pretty easy to make out who is in the marathon and who is in the 50 miler. Having the marathoners around in the first loop is nice so there are more people to talk to.
What a day...