Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Iron Mountain 50 Race Report

Damascus, Virginia will always hold a special place in my heart and mind. As a quintessential trail town on the Appalachian, it embodies the spirit of the trail I hiked in 2005. I spent time Damascus during my AT thru-hike, a period of my life when I walked from Georgia to Maine on a life-changing personal odysey of growth and cartharsis.

The mountains surrounding Damascus are beautiful as well, I have always wanted to come back and do a trail race. Ironically enough, this summer while attempting to thru-hike the Pacific Crest Trail which I had planned ever since doing the AT in '05, I decided to come home early for many reasons, one of which was to get my race season underway. While searching for possible races to break my legs back in to racing, (I had a pretty stacked race schedule through April and was using the PCT thru-hike as several months of "Base Training"), I rememebered that the Iron Mountain 50 was the first weekend in September and I knew I wanted to do it.

I got home from Oregon in early-mid August, and began the training which would hopefully get my legs used to moving faster than the 3 mph I had been walking the previous 4 months. I had less than 4 weeks to adequately train for the Iron Mountain 50, but I had a great aerobic base from hiking 18-36 miles per day on the PCT at elevations from 6000' to 14,000'! After being home for two or three weeks, I managed to set a personal record on my stomping ground at Jefferson Memorial Forest on the Siltstone Trail. The Siltstone's a 13.5 mile out and back with steep climbing and technical terrain. I knew I was as ready as I could be for the race given the circumstances.

During the weeks preceding the Iron Mountain 50, I was also given a great opportunity to run in the Ultra Race of Champions 100K. (Thats 62 miles for you non-runners!) By being entered into the UROC 100K it automatically became my "A" race, and it is only 3 weeks exactly after the Iron Mountain 50. This meant I would be training through the week prior to Iron Mountain and I wouldn't be at 100% theoretically for Iron Mountain, but as close to it as possible. As excited as I was about Iron Mountain, to run with the greatest ultra runners in the world at UROC obviously trumped my race card as the priority. I took off and rested  Monday and Tuesday and ran 20 miles on Wednesday and Thursday before the race and then an easy 3 on Friday before Iron Mt to allow for recovery. -Definitely not ideal before a race but it was required for the end-objective which is placing as highly as possible in UROC.

All that rambling aside, I came to Iron Mountain to win. I was not going to be holding back anything, and I was hungry. After last season my confidence was up and I was going to fight for it. Up until about a week before the race, I had studied my competition and thought the likelihood of winning was seriously possible. This was before Shaun Pope and Eric Grossman signed up! I looked at the entrant list about a week before the race, and noticed these two late entries and got very excited to have the chance to race against them. True, it meant my chances of winning were greatly reduced, but who cares, placement is only relative to who shows up, and I wanted to race against someone of Grossmans and Popes caliber prior to UROC later this month. Grossman has long been sponsored by Montrail, a trail running shoe brand, and Shaun Pope set the course record at Iron Mt last year. Grossman has won over 30 Ultramarathons from 50K's to 100 milers, and has podiumed in many more. These guys are amazing athletes. Runners like Pope are the future of the sport, young and fast with the potential to throw down seriously fast road marathons, they are raising the bar in Ultras.

I showed up race morning and coincidentally, Eric Grossman was parked right next to me. I knew him immediately as the founder of my hometown ultra here in Louisville, the Lovin' the Hills 50K. He, of course, had no idea who I was, just like everyone else there.

As I prepared to race I joked with Stephanie that my secret weapon was foiled! Grossman showed up bearded as I was, and that it would be a true battle! (I hoped at least, against someone of Grossman's caliber!)

My plan for the race was to let Shaun Pope fly out of the gait. I assumed he would start a bit faster than Grossman and I. I knew I would have to push the limit the first few miles, maybe the first 10 or so,  just to stay up front in the opening miles, and gain positioning for later in the race, and stake a claim as a contender. I used to start slow, but to truely be competitive I find I have to go a bit faster than I would like in the opening miles, and use the middle of the race to settle into a groove, and then hopefully pick up speed at the end when the "real race begins" during the last 30% of a race. I wanted to stay with Grossman as he is someone who paces himself very well, and doesn't lose any speed. I was hoping to stay behind him the first 25 miles to conserve energy and if I had it in me, I would try to make a move in the second half of the race.

My legs felt like concrete. It was mile 4 and we hadn't begun climbing much yet. Pope was out front as planned and I was a few feet behind Grossman letting him set the pace. I wondered if I had it in me today. I have learned though, to be confident and not let the self-doubt rule your thoughts in the opener of a race of such great distance. It doesn't matter where you are in the begining, just the end. I found the balance between running another's race and my own. I ran "their" pace for the first 8 or nine 9 miles, and then backed off, letting them attack the first climb. It came time to run in my own world, in my own race. Surely enough, my faith in running my own race panned out to put me in second place behind Grossman. Somewhere near mile 10, I saw Shaun Pope slowing greatly on a climb. He had gone out hard, and was struggling now.

As I passed him, I asked him about his experience at the Western States 100, the pinultimate Ultra in the country. I hope to run it next year, but it is unlikely to get in as it is solely a lottery system to gain entry. Shaun was very nice, and it is great to race with such amazing talent. At only 22 years of age, guys like Shaun are going to be setting course records for decades to come. I didn't see Shaun again after that climb, and I don't know what mile he dropped at.

Around mile 16, at the Aid Station, Stephanie told me my placement was currently second, and I was concerned because I knew there should have been another runner in between Eric and I, apparently I later passed this anonymous runner as he was relieving himself in the woods!

At mile 22, I prepared for a long descent, nearly 7 miles all downhill, preceeding a large 3 mile climb to regain all of the elevation gain. I was running shirtless now, to aid in cooling, as my shirt was soaked with sweat and I was extremely hot. The air was so humid, that wearing a shirt wasn't allowing my body to cool through the process of evaporative heat loss, so my choice to run shirtless was a wise one. It felt much better and I was cooler by doing so. My hat was soaked and I can't recall ever sweating so much in any race, including Ironman Louisville last year when the temps were in the upper 90's. The humididty on the Iron Mt trail for race day was gnarly!

Near mile 25 I checked my watch. I read that I was 3 hours and 40 minutes into the race. One of my goals for this race was to run in under 7:42. That was the time I ran Lookout Mountain last December, which has 1500' less climbing and the singletrack is smoother and less rocky. Being able to run a faster than at Lookout would be a great accomplishment and I wanted to succeed in that goal. It was looking possible, but I knew the day would only grow hotter, and my race nutrition was running low.

I only brought 5 energy gels and 2 powerbars with me to the race, which is much less than I usually eat during a race. I managed to balance this out though, and although it may have affected my energy levels a little, I wanted to do a little experimenting for UROC later this months. I had enough sports drink, (EFS), to get through almost all of the race, only running out at the end, when I supplemented with the sports drink that the race provided at the aid stations.

I started to crash pretty hard inbetween miles 30 and 42. My heart rate would stay up, and my energy and enthusiasm were falling as well. I had been holding second place for many hours, and hadn't seen another runner in the same amount of time. I had to force myself to still attack all the climbs and not walk anything. I had no idea where third place was, and I was still hoping to catch Grossman although I knew it was pretty much impossible. I at least wanted to lose to Grossman by the smallest possible margin. I have enough respect for him to know how smart of a racer he is, and I knew catching him was pretty unrealistic, however, I never want to race "Behind me", trying to hold position. I always want to be on the prowl, trying to gain placement as opposed to hanging on for dear life just trying to not lose placement. I want to race, "in front of me", trying to close gaps, even if it isnt' realistic. Make sense?

As the temps rose, I would manage the body wanting to overheat on the hard climbs. I did this by slowing and listening to my body. I didn't want to crack and I wanted a strong finish. I could NOT allow myself to overheat. I drank a ton of electrolyte replacement drinks at the aid stops and my sports drink of choice also has a phenom level of electrolytes. I was really proud of my ability to manage the heat by altering my pace during the hottest stretches to allow for a strong finish. Once you have cracked in the heat and become dehydryhated, returning to a normal state is NOT easy and usually can't occur without stopping completely.

I came alive again from my death march about mile 42. I had run out of nutrition, but some cool water to the head, and a small handfull of gummi bears and a shot of 5 hour energy gave me a jolt. I began to fly again. I became fired up as I realized that if I had an incredible last few miles, I could hit my goal of a sub- 7:42 finish which was my Lookout Mt 50 time, but this time on a much hillier and rockier course. I ran 6:29 at the LBL 50 this year, but that is on smooth trail and has exactly of the elevation gain at only 4000', a great course and a great race nonetheless.

In my favor, the majority of the last few miles are all downhill. I often looked to my garmin and saw speeds of 9 or 10 mph. I knew it would be close to break my 7:42, but I was running "in front of me", and I was totally secure in my ability to hold second place. I passed some folks finishing the 30 mile course and enchanged encouragement, hoping they wouldn't think me psycho for blowing by on the rocky downhill trail, but I was on a mission. It began to rain for the first time of the day, but I was now in town and knew the course would foster speeds of 9-10mph, and I had about one mile and I was currently at a time of 7:30.

I crossed the line in 7:38, running 4 or 5 mins faster than my goal. I couldn't have been happier with the results of the day. I ran the best race I could have ran given the day, and I reached my goals. Stephanie and I had the fastest aid handoffs I've ever had, not stopping or sitting once, I would literally run by her, grabbing a prefilled bottle, shaving off time. I managed the unbearable heat well for me, and I paced myself well. I wasn't as sore as usual and I was in good positioning training wise for UROC in only 3 weeks. It was a succesful day, and I ran MY OWN race! It was a blast.  

I hung around the gazebo at the finish for about an hour chatting with the other finishers and congratulating them. Everyone at these races is always so nice and I see them all as family. We're all out here doing what we love with the help of the awesome race directors and volunteers. We had some good food at the finish and then I topped it off with a double scooped waffle cone on the ride back to hotel. I ate a great dinner at Harvest Table, a restaurant outside of Abingdon Va which uses locally sourced foods, on a gourmet scale, and for the first time ever, I felt so great after the race, I even enjoyed a beer with dinner.

A great weekend to get away and just relax, enjoying great company and beautiful trails...


Race Wear and Nutrition

Shorts- Pearl Izumi Infinity Compression
Shoes- Montrail Mountain Masochist
Shirt- Quest Outdoors Patagonia Cap 1 s/s
Socks- Injinji micro-mini orig weight
Bottle- Nathan Quick Draw Elite
Visor- Headsweats
Watch- Garmin 305
Gels etc-Clif Gels, and Clif Blocks, (1 pkg blocks, and 5 gels_
Bars- 2 powerbars
Hydration- Camelback elixer tabs and EFS

A special thanks to Stephanie for crewing~! We really have a great system down and it's awesome to see the progress in the speed of bottle handoffs, etc! thanks for all your hard work! She's really an awesome talent, printing out aid station maps and dealing with all the logistics!