Sunday, April 20, 2008

Promise Land 50K (2007)

No, this is not a premonition. Yes, the 50K is next weekend. But I ran it last year and in preparation for next weekend I looked up my race report to remind myself what I am getting into... it is kind of funny to re-read the first paragraph. Only a year ago I thought it was nuts to run 3 longs races 3 months in a row... who knew a year later I'd be attempting 3 in 3 weeks. Though after yesterday I already know the folly of my plans!

Never say Never

So you hear about the crazy guy who runs a marathon every month and you think you’ll never be like that no matter how much you enjoy running. And then one day you find yourself writing a race report only a month after the last one, which came about a month after the last one… and the calendar says the next one is only a few weeks away. I’m claiming temporary insanity...

Back in February I ran my first 50K on the rock and sand trails in Utah, then it was home to Ireland for a road marathon in beautiful (and hilly) Connemara, and then four weeks later, at the end of April, Kami and I headed back to the trails for another 50K, this time in south western Virginia. But to be fair, this one wasn’t in the original plan. After Utah I began to think I was ready for a 50 miler so I dug up an old copy of Trail Runner magazine to find an article I had read last year about a race in Virginia. I knew the race was in November so I was just thinking I’d read up on it and maybe enter in a few months. Turns out there’s a series of races in the same general area and the Promise Land 50K in April sounded like the ideal way to check if I’d be able for a real ultra at the end of the year. Kami didn’t take much convincing and so we started to plan the trip - with just one requirement – that it would be less stressful that the 20 hour journey to Moab (Utah). But of course we couldn’t make it too easy. So while we had the option of booking flights to Lynchburg, approximately 20 miles from race start, we decided to fly to Washington DC instead… 200 miles away and 200 dollars cheaper!

We landed in Dulles International Airport on the Friday afternoon and set off in a very smooth Mazda 3 (upgraded due to a mix of charm - Irish accent - and sympathy – race elevation chart) for the trip south. Once we got rid of the dreaded DC traffic, the scenery was lovely, much greener than I expected, with lots of farmland and forested mountains as we drove through the Shenandoah Valley. We stopped enroute to get food for the weekend – did I mention we’d be camping? Yes, an added sense of adventure on this trip was the recommendation by the race director that everyone camp the night before at the race start since it was sort of in the middle of nowhere and the race started at 5:30am. Didn’t sound so bad until an email on the Thursday told us the bathrooms and showers at the campsite weren’t working… but there was a stream nearby. Great. We arrived at the campsite around 6:30pm and got the tent up surprisingly quick. Then the dilemma of the mattress. We had packed a blow-up mattress complete with electric pump. But we were at a campsite without toilets so would we find a plug? We did, and at the risk of being laughed at by the hard core trail running contingent we got the mattress inflated and squeezed it into the tent. After a bite to eat it was time for bed. I felt very nervous about the next day and was not really looking forward to it. I had the usual feeling of pre-race un-preparedness but was also more anxious than normal. However, I dozed off quickly and luckily a major transformation occurred in my brain over the next few hours as I woke at 1:30am ready to rock! It would be another few hours before our wake-up call but there was no getting back to sleep. I was ready to go and the excitement continued to build so that by the time we set off I was really charged up for the day ahead… a completely irrational feeling which I blame on lack of sleep. As for the irrationality of being there in the first place, more on that later.

It was still dark when we started out from the campsite along with the 300 or so other runners, about 70 of whom were female, a fairly high ratio for a trail race. The first few miles were on a road and were straight uphill so there was a lot of walking and just trying to settle into it. By the time we reached the aid station at mile 3 it was light and then we turned off the road and onto the trail. And up and up we went, starting from an elevation of just over 1000ft we climbed to 3,000ft in the first 5 miles! But as soon as we hit level ground the fun started… with a few miles of flat and downhill on mostly wooded trails and then some lovely stretches of grass covered forest roads. We chatted to a few people along this section and found that a lot of the runners were local and ran the series of races every year so they had some good advice for the day ahead. The views from these grassy stretches along the side of the hills were breathtaking in the early morning sunshine. Aid station 3 was at around mile 9 and unlike every other trail race aid station was rather poorly stocked – but with good reason. The unfortunate volunteers had run into problems with their truck and had to hand-carry all of the drinks and food in from the road so they were probably more tired than us! Luckily it was only another 3 miles to the next aid station so we took what refills we could and continued along. We then climbed to the highest point of the race at just under 4000ft and after a short downhill on a gravel road we arrived at aid station 4 at Sunset Fields which is a popular picnic area with an overlook across much of the valley. Given the easy road access there were quite a few supporters here which makes a nice change for this type of race. We filled up on salty crackers, bananas, M&Ms and coke and set off on the most fun/nerve wracking/ankle twisting section of the course. The terrain was mostly packed earth with plenty of rocks and tree roots to keep us awake and a few stream crossings. We were flying down here loving every minute of it knowing that all too soon we’d be climbing again. Because it was quite a narrow path there was a little congestion every now and then as we came across small groups of runners who were a little more cautious than us. It’s always difficult to find the right balance between going all out on the downhill since it’s so much fun while also needing to save your legs for the next fifteen miles… but we were feeling good and figured we had to enjoy it while we could.

After a section of gentle downhill alongside a stream which we crossed a few times trying desperately not to get soaked, we arrived at aid station 5 – our first visit to Cornelius Creek – with around three and a half hours on the clock. We would be back here again after a loop which took us on a gravel road for about a mile followed by a relatively easy section in terms of climbs. But it was also the section of these longer races that I find most difficult – when you know that if you just stuck with road marathons you’d be done by now! Having said that the stretch of gravel road just didn’t feel as good as the uneven softer surface of the trails. It was only about 30 minutes to the next aid station at Colon Hollow (where do they get these names?) where the volunteers had t-shirts with the elevation map printed on so they reassured we still had about five easy miles before the BIG climb. After filling up on the usual mix of sweet and savoury carbs washed down with flat coke, we continued on and met a few people along the next section. Just when I was beginning to feel quite tired we came across two college students who were running together and the guy was suffering with IT-band pain so that stopped me feeling sorry for myself pretty quickly… thankfully I’ve only had one experience of getting injured during a race and it’s something I ever what to experience again. It must be especially bad when you really don’t have any choice but to keep going – no medical tent at mile 20 of this race!

We reached Cornelius Creek for the second time at just under 5 hours. I was feeling really good again and continued to run most of the next section before the trail started to climb back up towards the highest point. The next hour was spent mostly walking but I guess I was doing a decent pace and passed a lot of guys on this section. I credit this to regular yoga practice which has helped me finally develop core strength that helps a lot in the latter stages of longer races. My first trail marathon a few years ago took me over six hours and even though it was a wonderful experience one of the things I remember most clearly is that despite feeling strong in my legs over the final stages of the race my lower back and stomach muscles just weren’t up to the task, resulting in a general feeling of breakdown. But on this day, I was delighted to still feel good as the six hour mark approached. And because of this I managed a big smile as one of the race photographers captured each of us passing a stunning waterfall just before the top of the climb. Which was just as well since despite my love of trail running being largely due to the scenery I was definitely in competitive rather than contemplative mode at this point so instead of enjoying the view I passed the 2 guys who had stopped for a bit of sightseeing! Finally, after an hour of climbing we emerged from the trees at aid station 8 to be told by a volunteer that the worst was over and we had just flat and downhill left with one little uphill. Not quite believing it someone beside me asked the guy what his idea of a “little” hill was… but we were reassured it was nothing compared to what we’d just covered.

So, with a little left in the tank I set out along a nice flat grassy section and enjoyed being able to run upright again. About 25 minutes later we emerged from the trail and arrived at aid station 2 which also served as number 9 and after a very quick stop for a drink of coke, I set off on what was now a serious downhill. While this might seem ideal after all that climbing my quads were definitely not in the mood for speeding down a hill. But knowing that it was only about 20 minutes to the finish I figured I didn’t have much choice. About halfway down the hill I passed a guy who then caught up again and we ended up running the last 2 miles together. I was glad of the company as several times I wanted to stop and walk but at the same time wanted this to be over with! We hit the flat road about 200 meters from the campsite entrance and both cheered – my legs didn’t know what to do with themselves after flying down the hill but we managed to race each other to the finish line and crossed it together in 6:42 and 84th place (12th female). I was so happy to be done and thrilled to have finished strong. Kami finished a few minutes later with the very same feeling. After a few minutes chatting to people – and most importantly getting our pictures taken – we cooled off in the stream and got cleaned up, even managing to wash our hair! I know, blow-up mattress, washing the hair… not exactly hardcore but it worked. We relaxed in the sunshine for the next few hours, enjoying the BBQ and watching people finish. The look of pure satisfaction on (almost) everyone’s face was a reflection of what we were feeling. It’s not everyone who would chose to spend half a Saturday running/walking through the woods in an unknown corner of the country but all we could think about was coming back in November for the real one!

Other than the fact that at some level we are all designed to run (or at least I think that’s what Darwin said), I don’t believe I have any natural running talent. But I remember reading, after a year or so of shuffling along on a treadmill, that the only difference between jogging and running is determination. Well, that’s something I never been short of so I thought what the hell. Four years and many miles later, sometimes I still need determination to get me out the door but mostly I run because for me, it has become one of the most natural and rewarding things I can do. This feeling is captured much more eloquently in a book I’m reading by John Bingham (he writes the "Penguin Chronicles" in the US edition of Runners' World):

"I recall running once in rural northern Carolina. I was waddling along with a sense of urgency when an elderly man pulled alongside me in his car. He stopped to ask me what I was doing. Astonished at his ignorance, I announced with measured indignity that I was running. Obviously unconvinced, he looked at me with suspicion and asked: 'Running? From what?'

I didn't have time to tell him from what. I didn't have time to tell him that I was simply running to run. That I was running because on that day, on that road, the thought of not running never occurred to me. I didn't have time to tell him that I was running for no more important reason than because I could. I didn't have time to describe the emotional rush that overwhelmed me when I realized that I could."

And three weeks ago, running on the beautiful trails in south western Virginia, that’s exactly how I felt.