Walking under the start/finish blow-up North Face arch at Algonkian Park ( a few miles upstream of DC) brings back fond memories from last year. I surprisingly won the 50K event here, by far my biggest “W” and was back. This was to be no defend my belt day though, I was cranking it up a notch to “the big boys” 50 mile race as my running friend Kino would say. I needed a second 50 mile race in my legs for Western States 100 and with four weeks to go, this made a lot of sense.
I had a plan for the race. It was fairly straight forward. 9/min mile would get me in at 7 hours 30 minutes and a top 5 place based on previous results. Midweek leading up to the race, DC (and New York for that matter) got hit with heat wave temperatures in the 90’s and humidity sky-high to boot.
Knowing this didn’t throw me off my time goal but I did begin to toss around different ideas with people of how to run in such heat. I hate the heat but part of me was secretly happy. Western States 100 will be hot, probably hotter so in terms of ‘training’, the conditions were going to be a great test for me out there. The best advice came from my Novo Nordisk teammate, Matt Patrick. “Run em while you can” he said on the plane ride down their meaning run your miles before it gets too hot you have no choice but to walk. The race begun at 5am so I had at least two or three hours of cooler temps (if you can call 70’s-80’s cooler!) before the sun was to rise and the sauna was to kick in.
My new plan was to run 8/min miles early for as long as possible, maybe to the Great Falls aid at 19 miles. By the time the sun was beaming down on us, I would have a gap on competitors who would have to work really hard to catch me. If I was out of sight an albeit a mess, I still might pull off a good time and placing.
Now, most of my friends disagreed with this plan calling it borderline suicide or not saying anything and just pulling me the ‘ug face’. I think part of their disagreement made me want to experiment with this kamikaze idea even more. Something is definitely wrong with me!
My BG was a shy over 200 at 4:45am. I had been managing it closely since 2am when I gave up on sleeping and got the pre-race routine going. I diluted my Gatorade hand-held bottle down slightly. No backpack today – another experiment, also a big risk because of the heat but after the back pains I got during Bear Mountain lugging around 70oz rather than 20oz (a handheld bottle weight) I wanted to feel as light as possible, especially with my aggressive start. )The DC race course is set up far better for refueling with the biggest gap between aid stations being a shy under 7 miles compared to Bear too).
My other teammates (Matt, Ryan and Benny) were still asleep at the hotel with later start times for the 50k and marathon races. I did not mind one bit getting going so early though. I would have taken 4am if I could! I stood at the front of the start line near Michael Wardian (The North Face athlete with too many accolades to list here) He was being announced by the MC, a clear favorite to win the race in my eyes.
We blazed out of the start into the field. Down a dip, up a dip, along flat grass surrounded by waist-high grass – it felt very Cross Country like. I ran on the heals of the leader. The pace felt really easy. I think it was 7 minute miles.
Wardian came by. I re-introduced myself after we had briefly met at JFK50 (my first 50) in 2011. We begun too small talk, dead easy guy to talk too. We ran the long flat section south and the leader joined in the conversation as we now ran as three with several others hanging behind.
A lollipop extension around a pond was a new part of the course to me. (This is not part of the 50K course). As we returned to the main stretch we passed the first aid stop. I struggled to find the water section rather than sodas (way too early for that!) and immediately I fell off the back with no one else stopping to refuel. I knew carrying water bottles I would have to stop more but didn’t expect everyone else to blaze ahead and wait until mile 8.5 aid.
At first, I thought they were gone but within a few minutes staying at a good pace and not trying to run anything but my pace, I had jumped back on to them as we went up and down the banks along the golf course. No golfers were up this early to see the shenanigans of our race. Last year, I remember we got some funny looks during the 50K!
The more people spoke, the more I got to know my company. In the lead, a guy who had just paced David Riddle (JFK50 2011 champ etc etc) to a 50M win, Michael Wardian, Nikki Campbell’s (The North Face athlete) pacer and then a quiet, serious runner decked out in North Face gear, arguably the most intriguing of the four. He was all business. For that, I decided to call him Ivan Drago, the Russian nemesis from Rocky! And then there was me. What was I doing here?! Well, it felt great and I was having fun so I stood my ground and went with the plan.
We reached the first climbs around mile 10. This would be the end of the road for the gang of five. Instantly, the top 2 ran the hill. I knew my endurance level and hiked it hard instead. Nikki Campbell’s pacer (who I later found out to be Dennis Ball- we have several mutual friends) tried to keep up, saw I was right behind hiking and quickly followed suit. Rocky’s rival followed.
Several short but steep up and downs followed as we hiked and ran south, the Potomac River on our left, water flowing down towards the capital. This was a fun section, possibly my favorite. A stream crossing was ankle-deep. the same crossing was waist deep the prior year. What a hugely different experience this was on the exact same course.
I now sat in clear third but had lost sight of the front two. I was clipping off 7:15’s and that was definitely better than I had hoped for. The sun was rising fast and he heat too. I ran through six-foot tall grass, turned a corner and saw Wardian to the side of the trail ‘watering the plants’. I ran by. Whoa. Hold that thought. I ran by Michael Wardian.
I’m a big advocate of saying race yourself, not others. Your placing is merely determined by who does or does not turn up on any given day. But, this was Michael Wardian. I had to pinch myself that I was ahead of him running in 2nd place a third of the way into the race.
I ran through an open field and used the space to have a quick look back to see what was going on. Rocky’s arch nemesis was there but not Mike.
On a flat and then long descent I stretched my legs to try to get a nicer gap on the rest. I ran into the Great Falls aid station (mile 18) in 2nd. I met my girlfriend there. I think she wanted to tell me I was going too fast but instead smiled and said I was doing great. Like clockwork, we wiped my sweaty hands down, did a blood test (144) and refueled for the first of three Great Falls loops. But just like that, I was back in 4th. Both North Face runners were really efficient at Great Falls aid and were off.
I climbed the long hill road steadily as I watched Wardian pull away slowly. By the time we hit the top, I was back on my own. On paper, the Great Falls loop looks like a maze but in reality if you just follow the arrows, it’s not rocket science.
At the first of two turn around points, I saw a teenager sitting by a traffic cone with earphones in showing little interest of the race. Probably the son of a super keen runner/volunteer Dad I assumed. He pointed at the cone and mumbled. I paused and looked at him and said “This is the turn around?”. He nodded. “Really? Are you sure? Positive?” It felt wrong “Did see two runners ahead?” He jumped off his perched rock and ran off to find them.
I turned back and felt like I had cheated my placing back into 2nd. But this was not my fault. Within a mile, Wardian was back. He joked he wasn’t having he best day with a long pit-stop and then this mis-hap. The gap on first was already quite large at mile 23, he had a lot of work to do. Off he went again to push on. I just felt great to be running almost up to a marathon with someone of his caliber. I was waiting to blow up but really enjoying being up front that my confidence was growing and my body followed suit.
After the second turn-around point (people marked your bib as proof you made it, EMT was there and a full aid station – quite the contrast!) a fun descent followed with a few tricky rocks at the lowest point. This led us back to the river and to the most scenic but also treacherous part of the course – the Great Falls cliffs. Diagonal dagger rocks spread the trail and the use of hands became important. My hand-held went subconsciously back in my right hand in case of the worst happening. Tip-toeing through the rocks, I chose a safe controlled pace. This helped my heart rate lower as I slowed the intensity.
One loop done and back at the aid station. Blood glucose steady and off again. My Rocky friend nipped ahead of me pushing me back to 4th just like last time I was here. The climb was tougher but almost all runnable still.
The turn around point was now greeted with three mounted bikes, three adults and a sulky teenager who had clearer got an earful for letting two of the lead runners go past the cone and up the hill off the course! It was a pretty amusing site.
On the return to the spine of the loop you pass all the competition. This is all mind games stuff, looking at each other straight in the eyes to see if they are tired, broken or just god damn having a great day. I opted for the latter every time I had this opportunity. I hiked/ran sections now but was wary not to do so much of the hiking near my competition.
A shirtless duo were working well behind me and I feared them for a few miles since I first spotted them earlier on loop one. By the time I had clocked a marathon under my feet, they were heading on by and looked strong. I now lay in 6th.
Coming back to the aid for the final loop, I felt OK. I was running well, albeit loosing a couple of places. My glucose continued to sit tight, right in the mid-100’s. The course was now busy with two races, mine and the 50K. I overtook some of the back of the pack runners up the climb, who were not enjoying the long hill and complaining to me! I just shrugged and said “almost there”. Why complain? Negative thoughts won’t get you very far.
Wardian ran by me fully in the zone, followed by the silent assassin who still didn’t want to even say hello to me and then there were the twins looking very comfortable working as one. The turn around (for those interested) was now decorated with a natural road block (tree branches!) and an again lonesome and still sulky teenager. I kind of wanted to do a bonus loop for the next display!
I noted I had about three guys behind me but my gap was definitely a few minutes on each of them. The initial nods of heads from the first loop were now replaced with more fiery stares looking for any sign of weakness in me. But I knew they had to now push up a gear to get me and the heat was now my friend and their foe.
I was drinking really smart. 20oz (my entire hand-held water bottle) between every aid station. This worked out to be about every 30 minutes. Just to make sure I was cool enough, I was grabbing the water out of the volunteers hands and pouring it over me. The only negative of being this wet meant my CGM sensor fell out of my stomach so I was now reliant on actual blood tests for the remainder of the race.
I caught up with Ryan towards the end of the final loop. He was not having his best day with the heat really getting to him. Sensibly, he chose to run it in easy and save his energy for Western States down the road.
The idea of being paced for some of the race had been tossed around and I wasn’t that keen. I’m extremely stubborn and don’t ask for help very much I guess. But when Tiffany gave me a fresh bottle of Gatorade, more food for the umpteenth time at Great Falls with a pacer bib on standby should I want her help, it was an easy answer.
Off we went, 18 miles to go back to Algonkian Park. We ran along the riverbed getting cheered on by the Great Falls spectators. We soon took a left and cranked up a tough climb.
Benny flew by us in first place of the marathon as we had all predicted. He was a white blur of awesomeness. Tiffany and me counted minutes between him and 2nd. It took the distraction away from my pain and race for a few minutes at least. My whole body was worn out. No cramping and my lungs felt great but my limbs and torso just ached tremendously.
We reached the open field and walked sections that I would run on any other day. Was now the time the wheels were going to fall off and drop back twenty places? I did my best to keep my mind from such negative thoughts. I didn’t want to be thinking like the runners who were complaining earlier.
Running became less and less an option in the mid-30 miles. Downhills and sunshine spots, without a doubt were running territory but flats were becoming a real issue. Luckily, we hit the climbs next so I could break up the pacing between hiking and letting gravity take me back down into the valleys.
We caught up to some 50K runners. Every time I spotted someone, I hoped it was 5th but by now, I knew what and who they were. We reached my teammate, Matt and he was having an OK day but nothing heroic for him. We talked for a while in single file as I happily slowed to his pace to regroup. Tiffany departed back to Great Falls before she got stuck too far along the trail. Her surprise pacing section really helped keep me going strong.
After half a mile, walking and talking with Matt, I had decided that I had recovered enough and didn’t want anyone to gain too much time on me.
I shot off and wished Matt well. I had about 12 miles to go and all I could focus on was where the next aid station was. For what felt like miles and miles, I was hoping it was the next corner or the next or I would hear voices. My memory from 5:45am was faint, the same as how I felt. I was walking way more than I would have liked. I kept knocking back more water, kept throwing in the S-caps (salt capsules). I was holding up but it was a real fight five inches between my ears.
Finally the aid station came. I grabbed the water and gave myself a shower. Grabbed some chews and received my bottle back from a volunteer. And out. I had not been that efficient at an aid stop all day. My watch told me I was still ahead of my goal time. My average pace was around 8:45’s now. Having not seen 5th for miles, I was content with my place. I was even so wiped that if 7th had made a go at it, they could have taken it.
At the lollipop loop with 4 to go, the sun blazed down on me by the lake and I was pretty much done for the day. Then, Benny calls from behind and catches up to me. He’s still leading the marathon but not looking as good as he had done on his way out to the turnaround point.
Without much thought, I caught back up trying to go his pace. Even, if it was just for a few hundred yards. The fire came back, we started working together. I knew I had to dig deeper to stick with him through to the finish. And then, Benny stopped. He walked, he groaned in his own agony. Good to know he is human. I was now the one telling Benny to keep going, encouraging him to dig deep.
We came back to the main stretch of the lollipop and saw 5th running towards us. He asked where to go, clearly lost and panicking. He followed me and Benny. (I was less than convinced he had run the lollipop at this point).
At the turn by the aid, we had 2.5 to go. Benny was still struggling and took in more fluid than me at the aid. I was ready to go, he wasn’t and now I had 5th place up for grabs. He was staring at me in the face! 5th ran ahead. It was a tough call but I waited for Benny. We had agreed to help each other home without really saying it verbally.
A long, long straight followed. Benny put on his after burners and caught up to the guy ahead. I’m not sure where he found that energy but I had to try to do the same.
I took off and gave everything. I recall seeing 6:30’s on my watch. I passed 5th and this time with utter purpose. The problem with this, was I got so pumped that I blew past Benny too! I kept going at that pace all the way down the straight. I pretended to myself that the finish was right at the end of the straight. It was lactate threshold excruciating! I didn’t dare turn to show 6th my worry but I really wanted to make sure Benny was coming right behind.
I reached the end of the straight, an absolute mess. Definitely sub-6’s down that stretch. I stopped, turned and prayed Benny was close and not 6th place. Why did I doubt him? As Benny got to me, I looked back and saw an orange dot that signaled game over. It was almost in the bag, a top 5 place.
We stayed side by side on the golf cart down to the car park, crossed the road and made the sharp left under the finish chute. I let Benny have his moment. He had crushed the field and the marathon course record too.
I cruised in behind and was ecstatic to take 5th in the 50 miler, a year after winning the 50K. There’s something about DC racing (my marathon PR is still from Marine Corps down the road).
Benny and me celebrated, completely exhausted. Tiffany dragged me off. I knew I needed shade and found some in a tent. I collapsed there for a while, my body was in bits. I had really hammered those last four miles with Benny but to grab another place and see him win was well worth it.
This was a great race. A real moral boost for me after a disappointing 50 at Bear. I didn’t like the heat at Bear but this heat and humidity was way higher and I coped really well in it. I thought I didn’t like the heat. Maybe I just do well in bad conditions? This is all good feedback, looking forward to ‘The Big Dance’ in California. Temperatures are predicted to be in the 100’s and likely hotter in the canyons.
I say “Bring.It.On!” Another fantastic weekend with my Novo Nordisk teammates. We shall all regroup in 4 weeks at Squaw Valley, CA and do it all over again, just a few miles more with a bit more heat. Can’t wait.
P.S. Wardian won. I’ll get him next time ; )