For the past few months, I have been targeting the US 50k Championships at Caumsett State Park, and wondering if I had a shot at breaking 3 hours (and making a US team). For a guy with a 2:28:54 marathon best, I realized this was ambitious. I would have to go through the marathon only a minute or two slower than my personal best at the distance, and then basically maintain that pace for another 5 miles. However, having run my 2:29 at Cape Cod over rolling terrain, I thought it might be possible on the flatter loop course of Caumsett.
I ran the longest runs of my life on my buildup to Caumsett, including a trail 50k at Bradley Palmer State Park in early January (3:32 but fairly relaxed), and one thirty+ mile workout on the roads in February. My training in December and January was the highest consistent mileage of my life, and even with a lack of significant speed work, I figured the sheer volume I was running would prepare me well. I also ran a 15:26 indoor 5k and a 8:54 indoor 3k early in the winter, so I assumed there was sufficient speed on reserve.
In late January the snows came to Massachusetts and training got a little more challenging, but my motivation to get ready for Caumsett was high. I kept most weeks around a hundred miles with one week of 120 in February. If anything, the weather prevented me from getting too carried away trying to put in the same high mileage that I had during the snow-free first month of winter.
I was forced onto the treadmill more than in any previous winter, but there were days where it was my only option. In years past, I probably would have taken a few days off, but I didn't let a day go by without getting some running in.
Last weekend, (after a little too much time gone by without a race,) I ran the NE Grand Prix 10-Miler. I worked hard to run 54:43 on a challenging course and finished 17th in a competitive field. It seemed that I was tight and sore from the effort for much of the week leading up to the 50k. I dropped mileage quite a bit this past week, though, (48 miles on the 6 days prior to Caumsett), and by Sunday morning, I felt like I had worked most of the tightness and soreness out. I had one moderate effort on Wednesday, with 5k at 50k goal pace (~5:40) that went fine on the snowy roads.
In an effort to make the weekend of the race a relaxed one, Heather and I took our two older kids out of school early last Friday, and I left work before noon so we could head to Heather's parents in New Jersey. We spent the night there Friday and then had a brief Saturday lunchtime birthday celebration for Heather (she spent her actual birthday providing race support for me at Caumsett). Then she and I headed to Long Island, while her parents ("Grammie and Grampie Jersey") took care of our kids.
We made decent time driving through NYC on Saturday afternoon, and arrived at Caumsett State Park just before sunset. This gave us enough time to get the lay of the land. We saw the start/finish area and the turnaround loop (which was wet, snowy and salty) and then checked in to the hotel.
Pre-race dinner was a little later than normal, but tasty (salad, pulled pork sandwich and steak fries), and we were back to the hotel at a reasonable hour.
I didn't sleep well, but hadn't planned to, and was up around 5 am on Sunday to eat something and get ready. I had a cup of coffee and a bagel with cream cheese on one half and peanut butter on the other. Standard morning fare.
We left the hotel a little before seven for the twenty minute ride to the park. Upon arriving, Heather went out for a run around the loops while I picked up my number.
In and around the "heated" registration tent I saw who I assumed were the four prime contenders:
Zach Ornelas (recent 1:05 half marathon; US Mtn. running runner-up 2013), who I knew (from Strava) had been planning on coming east from Michigan to try to win;
Tyler Andrews (2:16:59 at California Int'l Marathon, 2014 VCM winner), who had announced his attendance on Twitter;
and two "surprises" -
Joe Gray (multiple-time US National Champ at 50k, Mountain Champs and XC), who won Caumsett in 2012 and 2013 and had a DNF last year, and
Ethan Coffey, 2014 Caumsett winner and course record holder (2:53:32).
I also spotted CMS-West (aka Team Colorado) runner Pete Maksimow and we chatted pre-race about our plans as we stayed warm in the car.
Just before the start I saw Mass. resident and ultra-friend Scott Traer. Scott and I both got lost at Bear Brook (he was several minutes ahead of me by then) and he also ran the last 10k of the Bradley Palmer 50k with me, even though he had a lot more left in the tank than I did. I knew Scott was planning on going out easier than me, but I wondered if and when he would start to close the gap.
It was cloudy and pretty cold (around 20 degrees) when the gun went off. Right away, the four guys I mentioned went to the front. (Edit: I think Ethan Coffey was there, they announced him at the start, but the fourth guy in the lead pack was actually Chris Raulli). Pete and I, along with NY's C. Fred Joslyn (2:18 marathon, hoping to run 3-flat for 50k) settled in together behind them. The first loop felt like work, and we came through in 18:05-18:06. On the turnaround it was helpful to see how far up the top guys were (~15 seconds) and how far back the next guys were (~20-30 seconds). Each time through the turnaround you could gauge any time lost or gained when you passed someone coming the other direction.
The turnaround loop had some pretty serious snow pack, unfortunately, although it had been treated heavily with salt and sand. The path was maybe fifteen feet wide, with two-way traffic the whole way, and a cone at the end, that you had to do a 180-degree turnaround at. So it definitely slowed things down.
At the start of the second loop, Fred stopped to pee, but I figured he would make his way back up to us before the end of the loop. Instead, Pete and I clicked off a 17:45 and separated ourselves a bit. On the second turnaround, we noticed that Zach O. had opened up a little bit of a lead on the other top three guys (Joe, Tyler and Chris).
The third loop, Pete and I were finding our rhythm and feeling good, although maybe we were working a little harder than we ought to have been this early. We were just under 18:00 for the third loop and had put more space between us and those behind us (Fred, Scott and VA's Kory Cool). We were working out our fueling/hydrating routine with Heather, who met us just before each turnaround loop with Nuun water (around every 2.5 miles into the loop), and just before the start/finish (around every 5k mark) with snacks and Nuun again. We would take turns drinking and then toss the bottle to the side, where Heather could retrieve it and get ready for us the next time through.
By the way, did I mention how grateful I am to have a wife who would spend her birthday doing this?
On the third loop turnaround (or maybe the fourth), we could see that Zach was increasing his lead, and that Chris and Joe were starting to gap Tyler.
I really appreciated having Pete there and I worked hard to keep in touch with him, because it was great to have him to talk to and share fuel with. He and I had both opted for tights while everyone in front of us was in shorts, and we kept agreeing that we were happy we had the extra warmth and support from full leg coverage.
Our fourth lap was an 18:12, which put us at 1:11:59 for 20k and more or less right on pace for 3:00:00. I realized that it was going to be awful tough if not impossible (at least for me) to run 6 more loops at that pace.
The fifth was 18:07 and the sixth was 18:15, so we were slowing, but not dramatically (yet). We had also noticed that we were making up a little ground on Tyler, who was now much closer to us than he was to Joe and Chris.
At the start of the sixth lap, we saw Chris off to the side walking and judged correctly that he was done for the day. This meant that Pete and I were running in fourth and fifth (albeit with a long way to go).
On the sixth lap, I started to feel some tightness in my hamstrings and hips, especially on the easy downhills after the gradual uphills (the hills were pretty slight, especially compared to the 10-Miler the week before). I'm still not sure if the tightness was from the fast early pace, the cold, the race the previous weekend, or something else, but it became even more evident on the 7th lap that I was losing power and range of motion. On the turnaround loop of the 7th lap, I considered dropping out for the first time. Instead, I stopped and stretched my hamstrings and regained a little flexibility. As Pete came back by me on the turnaround, I wondered if I'd be able to catch back up. I knew he was starting to feel it, too.
My 7th lap was a 19:24 (1:09 slower than the 6th), and I still had a long way to go.
On the 8th lap, I had to stop and stretch twice, and the tightness was creeping more and more into my joints. I started to seriously doubt that I would be able to finish. Still, the marathon mark was on the 9th lap, and I knew I could earn a Boston Qualifier (provided I could finish). My 8th lap was 20:32 (1:08 slower than the 7th). Maybe I could finish with a 22-minute 9th lap and a 23-minute 10th? I didn't want to think about how far off my goal of 3 hours this would put me, but I started to.
On the hill up to the marathon mark, my watch read 2:37, and my hips and knees were killing me, like I was grinding the cartilage in both joints on both legs. I was struggling to maintain 7:00/mi. as I crested the next hill and walked into the water station at the halfway point of the ninth loop. I grabbed some water and walked. Not briskly, like I intended to return to running, but slowly and gingerly, hobbling. A nice older ultra-guy named Wayne slowed to a walk beside me and asked me how I was doing, congratulated me on coming through the marathon in such a respectable time and joined me in two failed attempts to return to a jog. When we got close to the start of the turnaround, I saw Heather, and assured Wayne that she would be able to relieve him of his support duties.
Heather accompanied me to the start/finish area, where I informed the RD I wouldn't be finishing, and we got to see Zach O. cruise through in 2:52:16 (!!!) on his way to a thirteen-minute victory and new course record. Tyler A. hung on for second and Kory Cool stayed strong to overtake Pete and Joe for third. I was happy to see Pete grit it out for fifth and Scott T. was 6th. Even Fred, who had faded back, hung in to finish.
As much as I would have liked to have made it across that finish line (especially as I look at how few people actually made it in - only 67 finishers in a national championship?!!?), I think I made the right call yesterday.
I'm thankful for everyone's support; I've had a bunch of folks already express a variety of sentiments which are all greatly appreciated as my thoughts uncontrollably run the gamut (from bouncing back quickly to retiring from racing).
(I suppose not all that) Amazingly, (considering how well she knows me), my wife has been gracefully balancing stroking my ego and giving me the space I need to process the disappointment.
Finishing a 50k is undoubtedly tough, as anyone out there yesterday can attest to.
And I can confirm that not finishing a 50k after running 43k of it is also tough. I got to take the last, grueling 7k off, and I admire the athletes who stuck it out even though they were experiencing similar or even greater physical hardships (Tyler, Joe, Pete, Scott, etc.).
The "tough" part for me now is trying to ignore the question of "What if I had kept going?" (And 'run in such a way as to get the prize' - oh yeah, the irony's not lost on me.)
A few of the easy answers are: I could have possibly been a top 10 finisher at a US Championship, I could have set a new 50k PR, I would have earned a 2016 Boston qualifier, I would know for sure what time I could have finished in, etc., etc., etc.
I've been fortunate throughout my years of running to have achieved some modest successes greater than what I deserve.
I remember after I ran a 2:38 marathon in 2005, telling God that I desired no more improvement at that distance; i.e., I was satisfied.
To then run 2:31 the next year blew me away; and to run even faster five years later (and break 2:30) (again, how many ways can I say it) was more than I could ask or imagine.
I guess the big lesson I learned yesterday was that not every long race that I've prepared for and targeted will come up roses.
Plus, I think part of building an ultra-running resume is loading it up with some DNF's. (citation needed)
So, I probably won't retire tomorrow, especially after a lovely 3.1 mile recovery run today with my beautiful and loving wife Heather, who once again put my needs ahead of her own and clomped along with me at 9:30/mile.