My first race of the year would be an ultra. That’s largely due to deciding to pass on focusing on the Boston Marathon as I have done the past four years. I guess I’m just not a streaker anymore! (Runner slang for consecutive days running or repeat racing, not the other type of running with no clothes on). With the ‘freedom’ of no marathon to train for, I knew the calendar of winter race options was my oyster. Talking of oysters, I ended up turning my attention to a local race, not so far from Oyster Bay. A road 50K in Caumsett State Park (which doubles as the far more glamorous title of the USATF 50K Road Championships race) was my choice. It’s a race that’s been on my radar for a few years and now seemed the right time to give it a go.
I begun training at the start of December which felt odd to me starting my 2015 campaign in 2014. I’ve never trained through the Holiday season and I knew that would be a tough phase to get through without losing focus. I was slightly lost how to go about training for a 50K road race with a firm emphasis on the word ‘road’. All of my previous 50K’s have been on trails, some gnarlier than others, but all without too much fixation on pace or goal time. I would have to hang my head if this wasn’t going to be a PR day.
I knew this race could be almost run like a marathon, just slightly less gas to save the engine for another 5+ miles. But I just didn’t have any great knowledge of how to train for it. Luckily, my good friends at The Run Smart Project do and they customized a nice 3-month plan for me. Through the winter months, I found some excuses to not run every run prescribed, something I’ve never really had much trouble with before. Whether it was because training in December in NYC is hard (the park is dead), my travel schedule involved two trips to Europe (not complaining) or I just wanted to stay home and play with our new Weimaraner puppy, Miles, instead of facing the cold winter nights I’m not sure. But most of the time I did layer up and train and put in good, not great speed workouts.
The training plan gives a predicted goal time (if you follow it precisely) and mine for March 1st read 3:22 goal time. I knew my fitness level was not there (it would have meant a marathon PR en route FYI) so I played a more cautious approach of aiming for a window between 3:30-40 which was in the 7-min pace range. I was hopeful but not convinced that was where I was, which I shared with my friend Ken Posner pre-race. I was however convinced that my 4:33 50K PR was about to be taken down though!
Ten 5K loops awaited me on a course I knew little about. I had chatted with Ian Torrence and Emily Harrison about this race a year ago and they said it was “definitely not flat”. I didn’t know exactly how to interpret that but was about to find out.
I asked around for information about what drinks were on the course but couldn’t seem to find a consistent answer. Bremen told me he thought it was Hammer which is low on sugar compared to other brands and therefore low on my list (sorry Hammer). I jammed four Honey Stinger gels into my gloves and tights and had more in my bag if I really needed to come back and reload. I had made a rookie diabetes mistake of trying to calibrate a new sensor for my CGM in the morning but the calibration hadn’t finished in time so carrying it was now worthless. The plus side of this mini disaster was that I had room for some more gels! The glass is always half full as a diabetic athlete : )
We took off in the bitter cold and I found myself letting a large number of male elites bomb ahead as I settled into a sub-7 pace alongside the returning female champ and course record holder, Emily Harrison. She had run a 3:17 last year so I quickly decided to ease up some more and try to relax into an honest pace.
The first mile was flat and then a long downhill, mile two, uphill and some rollers and the last mile went past the finish chute on and out and back lollipop loop which unfortunately involved lots of ice sections and cold puddles. I have nothing wrong with getting dirty but wasn’t this a national championship road race? This section was definitely the biggest challenge and hard to maintain a good pace.
By now, I had figured out that Gatorade was the electrolyte drink of choice on the course every 1.55 mile or so. With this really great news, I was able to quickly recalculate how and when to consume my carbs. Being that the type of race was not dissimilar to a marathon (where I don’t check my CGM often), I opted for my ‘every even mile’ carb intake approach.
I ran lap 1 in sub-21 and felt that was probably slightly aggressive. The elites remained a bunch of five slowly stretching the gap on me (and others), Emily and Phil McCarthy ran separately ahead of me and I sat solo with a bunch of ten guys in hot pursuit to my rear.
I’m not sure how to ‘jazz up’ 10 x 5K loops but it was surprisingly far from boring. This is coming from the ‘I don’t do loop races’ guy. The repetitiveness of loops made the race a mathematical game for me. Lap after lap I was running consistent sub-21’s (I did not slow down after all) so I could predict the clock time down to a few seconds. As I passed by a really inspiring buddy of mine, Ken Tom, he said to me I made it look easy but I joked back “wait until lap 8”. But lap 8 eventually came and my pace did not waver. I am not trying to downplay the race or the distance. An ultra is hard, heck marathons are hard, running is hard. But today I locked in a pace and maintained it really well. I think I have to thank the monotony of loops for that.
Once I had finally caught and passed Phil McCarthy at the halfway mark, I knew I had to keep pushing on and swallow some more runners up if I was going to make an indent on the Top 10 USATF results board. I never actually knew my place but knew I was likely on the outside looking in. But to keep me in check of how this was all going, I got then got lapped by eventual winner Zachary Ornelas (Sketchers) before I could complete lap 6. I ate humble pie big time! He was flying.
Due to the course, especially the last section, it was obvious to see which guys ahead were my targets. All of my focus was on closing that gap. The only other thing I had to think about timing my next Gatorade or Honey Stinger.
Lap seven went by, same gap. Lap eight completed, same gap. Lap nine, same gap. Whatever my place, it seemed locked in. The two guys ahead were not slowing down. What was pretty cool about the second to last lap was running through the timed mat to collect an official marathon time. I saw my watch flip to 2:55 on the nose as I came by. Nothing spectacular but it made me smile as that was first ever sub-3 in NY state (I have a long-term goal of going sub-3 in 50 states). On the same lap, I did manage to un-lap myself from third place which did nothing for my overall place and then caught Emily Harrison which did nothing for my Top 10 USATF overall men place. But what it did do was show me, I was running strong while others were fading.
On the final loop, I pushed and pushed just in case I could catch someone but my pace stayed at 6:35. My body was telling me this is it buddy, shouldn’t have skipped those workouts in December!The uphills now really beat my legs up (although they were gradual gradients or short rollers). I was going to sneak a peek at the finish clock before my final out and back section to see if I would make sub-3:30 but I already knew that goal was locked in so just ran, and ran hard through to the finish in a time of 3:27, a nice 66 minute PR!
Bremen, who ran the 25K (2nd place!), met me at the finish as snow was now coming down and I soon quickly realized how cold it had been out there. A giant blanket donated from him and some tomato soup was just the ticket I needed. I was content with my performance (almost as good as my post-race blood glucose!). I had to be. I got out of it what I put into it.
At the awards, I had my fingers crossed that I had pulled off 10th USATF place but alas, I was short by two; 13th overall, 12th USATF with an average pace of 6:41. As the snowstorm continued, I hung out with my amazing ultra friends, grabbed some lunch and packed up shop before the storm got any worse. It was such a great race to be running with the likes of Keila, Zandy, Trishul and Ian Torrence and those mentioned earlier. Running and friends. Oh, for the simple life.
A huge thank you to the Run Smart Project for my custom plan. I surprised myself with how well I ran but know I can still improve dramatically at this distance and surface. Top 10 next year? We will see.