Land Between the Lakes 50 Miler Race Report
Troy Shellhamer March 12, 2011
Trying to sit here the week after the race I have so many thoughts on the race I am not quite how I want to spin my report of the Land Between the Lakes 50 miler. Should I start with an action packed opener? …At the halfway point I couldn’t believe it; I caught and passed Zach Gingerich, one of the fastest ultra runners in the country, winner of the infamous Badwater Ultramarathon. My goal pace was 1h30m per lap and I was currently ahead of schedule running 1h25m per lap. We were setting a blistering pace, both on par to crush the course record. Who would blow up first?
Should I discuss training leading up to the race? …The weeks leading up to the Land Between the Lakes 50 Miler were some of the best weeks spent training in the past several months. Finally completely free of concerns of injury, I could tackle the climbs out at Jefferson Memorial Forest once again and get in big miles. That was my goal, getting in big miles to lead up to the Umstead 100 which was only 7 weeks after Lovin’ the Hills. Squeezing in Land Between the Lakes would be considered a training race for Umstead, but one in which I was trying to break the old course record in hopes of leading up to a great performance at Umstead.
Should I start with a deep introspection? Telling the story of how it feels to achieve a goal of beating the old course record, but still coming in 2nd place to the old course record holder.
Or, should I just recall it all- tell my story and recall what really down during the LBL 50 this year.
The week leading up to the LBL50 was rather smooth. Much smoother than a usual race week I might add. There was no threat of a head cold, which usually appears the week before a big race. There was promising weather on the horizon. I wasn't stressed about race day, even though I had high hopes of setting a course record. All in all, it was just calm and smooth. I believed it was just another training run. The course at LBL is set up in a loop format, which is run 4 times. This is a stress free set up, in that you can have a drop bag at the beginning of the loop, and there are several aid stations throughout the course for extra fluids or nutrition. I didn't need to worry about the course markings or fluids or nutrition, I have run hundreds of miles at previous LBL races. So all I had to do on race day was go and run 50 miles as quick as my body would allow. I made the decision on race week to stick with my tried and true La Sportiva Crosslites. They might be a little heavy and overkill for the high quality singletrack at LBL, but the new shoes I had ordered and toyed with were a little tight in the toe-box and maybe a little too minimal. If I went with the minimal shoes, my legs would probably get a little more trashed from the lack of stability offered and unfortunately, this race wasn't the end-all be-all. I had to think about my "A" race which loomed in the future, The Umstead 100, only 3 weeks after LBL.
Two weeks ago I went down to LBL and ran some practice laps on the course to assess the possibility of breaking the previous record . The course record was set by Zach Gingerich the previous year. Last year was the first year anyone has ever gone sub-seven hours on the course. Zach ran the 50 miles in six hours and forty minutes. That equates to running 4 laps at one hour thirty minutes per lap, and then allotting forty minutes of time for the road run section. (The start and finish is in Grand Rivers, which is a little resort town several miles outside of the loop which the race runs the majority of its miles on. You start in town and then run to the loop, then run back from the loop to the town on the road once again when you have finished your laps on the trail.) When I went down for the training run, I ran laps of 1 hour 24 minutes which would have broken the record. My training run was only 32 miles though and I needed to hold that pace for the entire 50.
As no one before Zach Gingerich had run a sub-seven hour pace at LBL, and I was shooting for his six hour forty minute course record. I felt I was in good company. I didn't think many others in the race would be shooting for that time. I was curious as to the likelihood of Zach Gingerich showing up again this year, which could put a big damper on my hopes to win this race. To clarify; Winning was goal number 1. Setting the course record was goal number 2. I heard it through the grapevine that Zach had not signed up to race the LBL 50 this year, but that Steve Durbin, the race director, (a great guy too!), had held a spot open for Zach "just in case." I was fairly certain Zach wouldn't be there and that the race would be open to the lowest bidder in the field. I don't quite know why I didn't think Zach would be there. Maybe it is the win of Badwater, or the 100 mile PR he ran at Umstead last year in just over 13 hours. (Yes, 13 hours and 23 minutes to run 100 miles) For some reason, I just didn't know what his goals were this year, and I didn't think he'd be there since he hadn't signed up.
Race morning was the most beautiful start I have been present for at LBL. It was in the mid-fifties already at six in the morning and there was not a cloud in the sky. I saw Russ Goodman at the starting line, (who thankfully was running in the 60K! ), and other friends of mine, Ricky George, Lee Lingo, Cynthia Heady, Melanie Bloemer, and a whole crew of Louisville people who are all awesome fun. We were all chatting away taking pre-race pics and then I felt immediate anxiety like when you're five years old and your parents just busted you doing something naughty. My stomach dropped out slightly and I felt tightness in my chest. Seeing Zach at the starting line was like seeing the hangman walking with a noose. I know he has been beaten before, but not on this course. This is flat and fast, his style running. He was coming off of a DNF at the Rocky Raccoon 100 miler in which Ian Sharman just ran a sub-thirteen hour 100 miler. Zach probably had something to prove.
In ultras if you begin to slip for one second and get caught up in running someone else’s race, you lose. The trick to running the perfect race is to run for yourself and yourself only. You can't gauge your performance and more importantly your race on another’s position relative to yours. Finishing strong is everything, and to do that, you must forego the wild antics in the beginning when everyone else is starting like bats out of hell. Long and slow and methodical is the key to success. It is a magical balancing and juggling act. Therefore, seeing Zach at the starting line should not have altered my race in any shape or form.
At the command to start I jumped on Zach's heels and began pursuit. I was in front of 99% of the race field, including hundreds of racers who were doing much shorter distances. I didn't mind this scenario, as honestly, a strong runner can recover from a quick start after their bid has been made in the beginning and their claim has been staked. My strength is strong finishes and so by the time that we had run our 1.75 miles on the road to enter the trail network, Zach was already out of sight. I knew that since I jumped in front of the rest of the field early, I wouldn't have to contend with maneuvering my way around the other racers as I ran on the narrow singletrack trail. The course record was 6:40, and I knew that if I stayed true to my effort, strategy, game plan, whatever, that I would run the best race possible.
The first few miles on the trail I ran with a guy named, Tim, from St. Louis. As always, the best aspect of Ultra is the multitude of 'Ultra-cool' people you run into. After the first aid station I was by myself already, and making haste. I didn't have a sense of ease and calm. I wanted to assassinate this race and destroy it. I wanted to do with flowery emotions or a good time out in the woods today. I do love the trails and the mountains, etcetera but today was about running fast. I wanted a continual effort from start to finish. During the Lovin' the Hills race, my competition stayed with me, not in front of me. I could rest and then take off again. This race though, the finish line was pulling me recklessly towards it like a city slicker being drug behind a rabid devil horse in the wild ole west. I don't think I was honestly running for me. My first lap was one hour and twenty four minutes, which was six minutes ahead of schedule. I didn't slow and recover for lap two; even though I was putting forth what I felt was less effort. I once again ran a one hour twenty four minute lap. Towards the end of the second lap I was doing great. I had settled into the pace I wanted and I was running with the mentality that no one else was out there, (which is when I do my best). Then the unthinkable happened. I caught Zach Gingerich. Near the end of the second lap, I saw his red baggy shorts bobbing through the forest and I was gaining on him. My plan was NOT to pass him, but follow behind him at his pace while I recovered and then I could wage my attack once I had recovered by running the pace he was setting that enabled me to catch him.
I led the 50 milers into the beginning of the third lap, with Zach Gingerich in tow. How could this be? It lasted about two minutes. At the aid station, I had no crew to pass me a bottle and so I had to run to my race bag to grab my bottle. This cost me a minute in which Zach took off. The first half of the loop was flat, and Zach was faster. The second half of the loop is hilly, my specialty. I would catch Zach at the end of the lap, see his red baggy shorts in the woods, and then I would have to WASTE another minute at the beginning of each of my laps, and he would be gone. It would take me another 11.3 miles to catch him, when the routine would start all over again.
My third lap hurt. I ran a fraction faster than my goal pace, at one hour twenty nine minutes. I was still ahead of schedule to beat the course record. Zach and I spoke briefly while running together at the halfway point about how the LBL course record would probably fall today. It was refreshing to finally talk with one of the fastest runners in the world. Seriously, this dude ran the Umstead 100 in thirteen hours twenty three minutes. He won the Badwater Ultramarathon which is 135 miles of pounding pavement in the heat to through Death Valley to Mount Whitney.
He was right in front of me, dragging me through the Land Between the Lakes Recreation area. Was this my greatest race ever or my worst? What could I do besides delay the burning in my entire body? I wanted to stop but there was no chance I could, or would ever do that. By running my first two laps six minutes faster than goal pace and running a minute faster for the third lap, there was no room for a stellar finish. I was hanging on for dear life, pushing through the pain and trying to not think about anything. As I stated earlier, I find the best ultra finishes come when you can surge ahead the last 25% of the race. To "surge" ahead, all you really need to do is hold pace. This strategy has worked beautifully in the past, but it just wasn't going to happen today. I had dug too deep. I was in maintenance mode. Fighting hard to hold pace but it was proving to be a difficult task as I clocked in my final lap at one hour thirty-six minutes, only six minutes slower than goal pace. I was still far ahead of the curve and knew that the record was going to fall that day, but I still wanted to seek out Zach and bridge the gap.
I knew that as soon as I completed my fourth lap, I would be able to hammer on home. I could handle any amount of pain for the last three miles of the race, especially since these miles were on the road. I knew I could jump up to at least 8.5 miles per hour from the 7.5 miles per hour I was running on trails. Once you exit the trail, there is a small out and back section of the course that is uphill. You have to do this small out and back before heading back to the finish line in Grand Rivers to actually make the race 50 miles.
I saw Zach on the out and back. We gave each other a high-five and congratulated one another. I knew that although he was only a few minutes ahead which is a tiny gap in a 50 miler, I could not catch him on the road. I did however, want to kill myself to try to get as close as possible. I wasn't giving up. I was attacking. I wanted the smallest fraction of time possible between our times. I managed to run just over 6 minute miles, (just under 10 miles per hour), for the last two miles. I lit a fire under my tail as soon as I realized that I might be able to break the six hour thirty minute mark. I crossed the line in 6:29. Six hours and twenty-nine minutes for 50 miles. I broke the old course record by eleven minutes.
Zach broke the old course record by around 18 minutes; Unbelievable. He finished in 6:22.
Apparently, Zach absolutely demolished the last two miles as well. I did not gain any time on him in those last several miles at all, and I was absolutely flying. I would like to think that maybe seeing me that close at the out and back, lit a little fire under his tail, but who knows...
It has taken me over a week to really take a step back and analyze this race. I was so shot after it was done; I was just rather emotionless and stoic. I said I was happy, but I didn't really know how I felt. Could I have done better? Could I have paced myself better for a stronger finish?
I honestly don't think I could have raced any faster. True, maybe I could have taken the first lap a bit slower, but my last lap was only six minutes over goal pace. That basically negates going slower the first lap. This violates everything I usually practice. But this was a true race, and I believe it is because I truly pushed myself to the complete edge, and barely held on, that I was so shot. I did hold on. I didn't blow up. I wasn't able to hold pace for the last lap, but going slower in the beginning wouldn't have saved my fourth lap. My fourth lap was actually pretty good, I was just fried, and I like finishing strong.
The emotion wasn't overflowing the day of or after the race. I was pleased, but I didn't really know how I felt. It was a mixed bag. It was a huge and complex race. I am, however, growing happier with this race as each day passes. It was just a lot to take in at first. I was really close to winning. My goal wasn't to get second. It was to win, and set the course record. In the past I tried to not gauge success on placement, but on finishing time and goals more pertinent to self and not others. By setting my goal on winning and not just breaking the breaking the course record, I managed to go above and beyond the realm of what I thought was reality. I thought on the best day possible I could run a course record 6:40. By spending my day chasing down Zach in hopes he would drop or blow, I ended up surpassing my own expectations of self. I stayed ahead of the 60K, (38 miler), race the whole day. I am very happy with that. There are a lot of factors I am now seeing that show me this race was more intense than I felt originally.
As always, the best part of the day was hanging around at the finish, talking to friends and racers about their races. Land Between the Lakes was my first 50 miler five years ago, and I have run it every year since. It will always be held deep in my heart as a very special event, with amazing people and community to support it.
Now, in only two weeks I tackle the course at Umstead, one hundred miles on a crushed granite running path. A super fast running surface, with the same elevation gains as Land Between the Lakes, just doubled. The course holds approximately 8000' of climbing on its 8 laps of 12.5 miles each.
Every race holds lessons. Sometimes the best performances aren't the most fun, and sometimes the most proud moments aren't relative to placement. Pinhoti holds such fond memories, and Umstead shall too. Running 100 miles in less than a day is always the definition of an epic experience. I can't wait.