Monday, April 28, 2008

Promise Land 50K

According to the website this race is “The Toughest 50K You Will Ever Love!!

Is it ever... I crossed the finish line after a horrific 5 miles of downhill (2000ft elevation loss) swearing I’d never run it again. But by the time I was saying goodbye to r.d. David Horton a few hours later, wishing him well on his Continental Divide adventure this summer, I knew I’d be making my way back here again as soon as the opportunity arose! The Blue Ridge Mountains are an incredible setting for trail running. And the group of friendly local and regional runners, seasoned veterans alongside an increasing number of students from LU and VT, together with Dr. Horton’s unique blend of charm, quirkiness and absolute devotion to this sport, combine to make this race one of my favourite...

Having run my first ultra just over a year ago this is the only one I’ve ran twice. I hadn’t planned on returning to Virginia this year given my slightly hectic schedule of races. But the week before Chippewa I was running by myself in Afton thinking through plans for an upcoming business trip to DC when it hit me that Promise Land was around that time. Sure enough when I got home that afternoon and looked up the website it fit perfectly with the trip. Entry form was in the mail the next morning.

There was a small matter of two 50K’s in the intervening two weekends. Up first was Chippewa which was a lot of fun (in retrospect). Then Trail Mix which turned into more of a social event chatting to Kami for the first 25K and drinking coffee with friends in place of running the second 25K! My legs had felt very tired during the second loop of that race so as I set off on the road south from Regan airport last Friday afternoon, I wasn’t quite sure what I had let myself in for. But I felt better rested - unlike the week after Chippewa where I had worked out everyday including 2 bike rides, this previous week I had taken it much easier and gotten plenty of sleep. Still, I was considering the race as a training run for an upcoming 50 miler at altitude in New Mexico. Or at least that’s what I was telling myself. After some more thought, knowing full well that I am completely incapable of not racing a race, I decided it would be a test race. I’d try a few things just to see how it impacted my race. I didn’t really know what but as it turned out the list went as follows - being way over-dressed for the conditions to see how the heat would affect me (it didn’t, but it was damn uncomfortable); getting my feet soaked at every water crossing to see if they would blister (they did); and falling sideways off a water crossing onto the rocks getting a bruised ankle, knee and hip around the half way mark (not recommended).

Once out of the DC traffic, the drive was pretty non-eventful. Until a few hours later when I missed an exit or two and hit the by-passes around Lynchburg and ended up at EXACTLY the same spot I’d been at 30 minutes earlier. Bad and all as Mapquest directions can be I wished I had remembered to actually bring the printout with me… eventually I made my way to Bedford and north to the campground. I got the tent up in record time between thunderstorms and then grabbed some food I’d picked up at a grocery store along the way and headed over to the pavilion where about 60 or so runners were gathering to sign in and listen to David’s frequent flurries of advice – most of which are designed to scare first timers but are generally pretty accurate. The one story I wasn’t likely to forget was about the local runner who had recently been training on the nearby Mt. Masochist course and happened upon 3 cubs, mama and papa bear!! I’m happy to just enjoy the scenic views thanks all the same.

I was delighted to meet up with Dorothy from NC who I’d gotten to know while running the 50 miler last November. I think Dorothy has run all 8 years of this race, or at least a good number of them, so when I decided to sign up I emailed her to let her know. It was great to catch up and talk about our recent races and plans for the year ahead. Dorothy was just coming off her first 100 miler 3 weeks earlier – which made my 50K series pale into insignificance! Her legs feeling strong and her feet just about recovered she was looking forward to completing the second race of the Lynchburg series, the first being Holiday Lake 50K in February. Around 8:30pm I headed back to the tent and got settled in for the night. I dozed off around 9pm and even though I woke several times I fell back to sleep straight away and felt pretty rested when David’s voice came booming over the loudspeaker at 4:30am. Race start was 5:30am so I rolled out of the tent with about ten minutes to go, grabbed my runners from the car, quick toilet trip and was all set for off. Dorothy and I ran together for about the first hour. Well, the first 45 minutes was mostly walking. It was still dark but it was road as far as the first aid station at 2.6 miles and by the time we hit the trail it was light. Single track for most of the next section so I settled in a fairly easy pace. We hit the fire roads and some decent climbs over the next hour followed by a steady downhill towards the second aid station at approx 8.5 miles which I reached with just under 2 hours on the clock. I was wearing my HRM trying to keep an eye on how the hills were affecting me this early in the race. I thought I’d try to keep it below 160 – that soon fell by the wayside as we started climbing again with about 2800ft over the next 2.5 miles! We crossed the Blue Ridge Parkway at the highest point of this section and took a dirt road mostly downhill towards aid station 3 at 12 miles and 2h50m. This aid station at Sunset Fields is the busiest spot with lots of crew filling the small parking lot. I was looking forward to the next section of technical downhill which I remembered clearly from last year. I felt like I was doing pretty well at this stage but couldn’t really remember my aid station times from last year. I love the challenge of running downhill fast knowing a wrong step could be the end of your race. Not to mention the end of your season if a tree got in the way! I was running by myself for most of this section just passing a few people further down the trail as we neared the next aid station at Cornelius Creek. This was just a little further than half way so I was pleased to see 3:30 on the clock as I knew if I maintained my pace I could pick up a little time on the last downhill section (knowing my quads would be paying dearly for it over the next several days). We would be coming back to this aid station after a loop of approx 8 miles. After a quick double take as I realized the guy beside me was actually at the aid station for his second time – he was in 2nd place – off I went along the mile long section of road. It felt good to be running on the flat and steady surface – a welcome break from the serious concentration required for much of this race. I passed quite a few runners along here before hitting the trail again with a little gentler climbing for the next few miles to aid station 5 – before which I had my encounter with the slippery water crossing and ended up splayed across the rocks. It was not pretty. But thankfully no lasting damage – just a little disappointed that I didn’t even have a bloody knee to show for it considering the nice laptop bag that was going for “Best Blood” award!

Aid station 5 was serving ice-cream which looked rather appealing in the bright sunshine but I had to decline considering I was already having a hard time juggling my water bottle, a handful of grapes and the obligatory stash of gummi bears. My nutrition worked out pretty well for this race with the exception of downing 2 cups of coke way too quickly at aid station 3 and feeling like I was going to throw up a half mile later. But things had settled down again and I went through the race mostly munching of fruit and pretzels at the aid stations and filling up on water. I was carrying 3 power gels but didn’t use them. I did take the 6 electrolyte tablets though – definitely needed them with the heat. Ah yes, the heat… I don’t know what I was thinking when it came to packing clothes for the race. I decided to wear what I had worn the previous Wednesday morning for a training run around the Lakes at 5:30am and 40 degrees! Even having failed miserably to check the weather forecast you’d think I would have known it would not be anywhere near as cold. And driving south in the sunshine on Friday didn’t make me question my choice of clothing. I even stopped in at the Charlottesville Running Company to buy a cap as I had forgotten to pack one! Granted, I didn’t wear it. But I got a lot of strange looks throughout the day in my long sleeve icebreaker top and lightweight NF vest! I would have shed a layer except I really like both garments and was worried I wouldn’t get them back again… I couldn’t do much about the vest – no arms making it a little hard to tie around my waist. I did think about taking off the long sleeve and just wearing the vest but that seemed like altogether too much hard work. In any case, I don’t seem to do so bad in the heat which is just as well seeing as it got to around 80 and there was very little relief from the wind even at the higher points.

I ran mostly by myself for the journey back to Cornelius Creek which doubled as aid station 6 at around 24 miles. I was getting a little fed up along here as I vaguely remembered reaching the aid station at around 5 hours last year and had though I’d be a lot further ahead as I felt like I had gained more ground early on today. But as the minutes ticked away and the trail seemed to go on forever I was getting more and more despondent - until I met up with a pair of entertaining guys, one of whom had actually been to Sligo! They lifted my spirits as we continued along towards the aid station getting there at 4:50. Now for the fun part... after a half mile of relatively easy climbing the Apple Orchard Falls Trail kicks in and it is one-long-climb… for some reason I had it in my head that it took me 45 minutes last year so I was mentally prepared for that. Well, I guess I had looked at my watch a little further along last year as 50 minutes later I still hadn’t reached the falls – which weren’t even at the top of the climb! But my hiking pace wasn’t so bad despite the tight feeling in my hamstrings, especially my right one, all the way down into the back on my knee. There was a slight reprieve passing the waterfall along the boardwalk and being able to run for all of 60 seconds – just enough for the photographer to snap us with the scenic backdrop. About ten minutes later I finally reached the top, back at the Sunset Fields aid station with 5 miles to go. Phew – so glad to be through that section. Now I just had to figure out if my legs still knew how to run… thankfully we started out on a nice soft grassy trail for about a half mile. A brief climb and then we were back onto the early section of the course. I ran with a few people along here but took off once we hit the steeper downhill section of trail leading out onto the road at the last (and first) aid station. I saw 6:17 on my watch and took off like a bat out of hell on the ridiculously steep downhill. I knew from last year how much this hurt but I also knew that I really wanted to beat my time! This section on the road was just over 2.6 miles long so I figured I would finish under the 6:42 but I knew that as it flattened out towards the end my quads would really be screaming at me. I searched for that 1-mile orange marker painted on the road that we’d joked about as we passed it hours earlier. At one point the light filtering through the trees appeared as a cruel mirage up ahead... but finally there it was in reality. I glanced at my watch and funnily enough the time didn’t even register as I was mesmerized by my heart rate of 184 - how about that – hitting my max heart rate in the finishing stretch!

I crossed the finish line in a little over 6:36 to the congratulations of Dr. Horton and any hint of disappointment at not cutting more time off last year quickly faded as he told me I’d finished 5th female (after first noting how completely overdressed I was…). Sweet! I’d come 9th last year and even though a few of the top women were missing this year I felt really good to have placed well. The next few hours were spent soaking in the creek – which felt at least 10 degrees warmer than last year, relaxing in the sunshine - interspersed with a few torrential downpours, and sharing stories with the other runners – it’s always comforting to know I’m not the only demented person around. As the race director’s follow up email confirms we ultra runners are a breed apart...

"Please consider writing an article about your Promise Land experience especially if this was your first ultra or you had a memorable experience. I and other runners really like reading stories about events that we participate in. I’ll try not to bug you again today... but don’t count on it. I have definitely bugged Rachel, my secretary who’s typing this email, she says I’m weird... I probably am... and so are you! You run ultras!"

Helen's HRM data: Overall avg 153 (1st half 149/2nd half 157)

A little bit of climbing in the Blue Ridge Mountains...