This past weekend I ran the Mt. Si 50k. This race, in 2017, was the first ultramarathon I ran, so it was a bit of a full circle homecoming to return and run it again this year.
I am, of course, six years older, which in turn makes me somewhat slower. But I also have quite a bit more experience with ultrarunning under my belt, having run many ultras since that initial foray. To top it off, I now weigh about 25 pounds less than when I ran it that first time, and I’ve got the cumulative benefit of the training over the intervening years.
Still, the big weight loss effort early this year made really intense training efforts difficult, so I was heading into the race with no single training run longer than 15 miles (well, actually, two 15 mile runs back to back), so I had some significant concerns about how things would go toward the end of the race.
My coach and I had discussed race strategy beforehand, and I had proposed a fairly simple plan.
The race course is five miles of almost perfectly flat trail to the first aid station (Tanner Landing), a gentle climb to the second aid station (Rattlesnake Lake), more gentle climb and then a sharp descent to the aid station at the halfway/turnaround, and then the reverse sequence back to the start/finish - just a simple out and back.
My plan was:
My nutrition plan was to carry either full strength Tailwind or simple Endurolyte depending on how I was feeling, and supplement that with Golden Oreos and bite sized chunks of meat stick as I saw fit. I was planning on something like 200-250 kcal/hour if I could manage that without nausea.
My wife Paula was going to crew, and perhaps pace a couple miles at the very end.
I woke up feeling good but anxious about how things would go. But I’d gotten a reasonable night’s sleep so I was well rested and ready to go.
Race Start: At the start the entire pack ran off running something like an 8:30/mi pace - just crazy insanely fast. I was modestly successful at not getting dragged along faster than I wanted to go, and after the first few hundred yards I was second to last. The woman who was behind me and thus DFL had run Vol State 500K and was planning on running it again this coming summer. We had a nice chat.
Mile 0 - 5: I was aiming for a 12 minute pace and was going a bit faster than that but also running comfortably and not pushing.
First aid station: I’d consumed about half a bottle of full strength Tailwind, call it 100 kcal. Paula gave me a fresh bottle of Tailwind and I ate an Oreo. All told something like 170 kcal for the first hour. I had been trying to get a lot of fluid down although it was cool (~50F) and raining. At this point I was feeling like my hair was on fire and I was considerably ahead of where I thought I’d be time wise. Paula advised me that I was looking good and was absolutely crushing it on pace.
Mile 5-10.5: up the steeper climb. I was aiming for 12:00-12:30 and probably moving a little faster than that, feeling good the entire climb.
Aid station 2 (Rattlesnake Lake): again about half a bottle of Tailwind down. I ate two oreos. Call it roughly 240 kcal for the second hour. Still feeling strong and like my hair was on fire.
Mile 10.5-15.5: up the not quite so steep climb. Still running roughly 12:00/mi and toward the end beginning to tire a bit. The trail is a bit rougher (bigger rocks) and in the wet it was just a bit slippery. Big deep puddles so I tried to keep my feet more or less dry with not much success as water was flowing downhill on the trail surface from earlier rain. At the top of the hill there’s a sharp downhill to the aid station and I pretty much bombed down, passing several runners as I went.
Aid station 3 (turnaround): maybe a bit more than half a bottle down, took a fresh bottle of tailwind again. Two oreos and some meat stick, and one tentative potato chip that I decided was not what I wanted. All told call it 250-270 kcal for the third hour. I ate the oreos and meat stick on the climb back up to the main trail. On the climb back up to the trail I realized I was starting to tire a bit but was still feeling strong.
Mile 15.5-21: Back on the trail I looked at my watch and realized I was way ahead of where I thought I was time wise, and still feeling pretty invincible. I was feeling like maybe a 6:30:00 finish might be within reach if I picked up the pace now that I was headed down and then managed to just keep moving fast once I hit the flat section that is the last 5 miles. So, down I went, pushing the pace on the sections where the trail was not so rough. At about mile 20, I was still feeling really good, and there’s a short section of maybe 3/2 mile of perfectly smooth downhill trail and I just rolled down, pushing to take advantage of the smooth trail.
Aid Station 4 (back at Rattlesnake): a little less than half a bottle gone, took a fresh bottle of tailwind and an oreo, call it 150 kcal for the fourth hour. This is the point where the smooth downhill run starts - this section of the Snoqualmie Valley Trail is perhaps my favorite section, I’ve run it many times and it’s very familiar to me. My race plan called for me taking the next 5 miles as fast as I pleased, and I was excited to be doing well on time and still feeling strong enough to let it rip on the downhill run.
Mile 21-26: started out bombing down the hill. I was still feeling good but my legs were definitely starting to tire. Around mile 24, my left knee buckled and I nearly took a tumble. I walked for a bit, then resumed running, but the knee kept giving out and I was trying to balance holding the pace against not taking a fall. Over the next two miles I was struggling more and more. By mile 26, I was in a fair bit of pain in the muscles that stabilize both knees and was clearly tiring fast, and I could see the entrance to the Tunnel of Torment in the distance. I was confident I could finish, but no longer sure I would be able to hold a solid pace for much longer.
Aid station 5, mile 26: fresh tailwind, maybe 1/3rd of the bottle gone. Two oreos and a few bites of meat stick. Call it perhaps 220 kcal.
Mile 26-31: heading into the last five miles the wheels were clearly coming off, and I was trying to not be upset and instead just focus on making the best pace I could manage. By mile 28, I was deep in the Tunnel of Torment and trying to throw little 1/10 mile run intervals into what was a lot of agonized walking trying to hit a 16:00/mi walk pace. I could see the time ticking away each time I dropped to a power walk and realized I had pushed way too early. With a little over two miles to go, Paula met me on the trail ready to pace me to the finish, and my spirits lifted a bit although I couldn’t really speed up any.
The last .8 mile is on pavement and is pretty easy running and I wanted to run more but the knee just would not cooperate and basically pretty much everything hurt. I did manage to finish running.
I finished in 6:38:06, not quite half an hour faster than my 50K PR. Despite the miscalculation and bad decision to start pushing on the downhill at the halfway point instead of holding off until mile 21, I’m totally happy with that result.
My legs were pretty comprehensively thrashed. Knees hurt, kneecaps hurt. Quads were not quite entirely gone but standing up from sitting took some focus. Hip flexors/adductors/abductors completely toasted, it was hard to lay on my back and lift my legs. Abs very tired. Amazingly my back was not hurting.
Brain still working fine - feeling tired but mentally sharp and in good spirits.
One ultrarunning maxim I’m really fond of is “You’re better than you think you are. You can do more than you think you can.” It highlights what, for me, is one of the persistent puzzles of ultrarunning: the limits to your performance lie beyond where you think they fall, and always will.
I cut my 50k PR from 7:05:26 to 6:38:06. That’s so much faster than my previous times it’s not even in the same class, almost a minute a mile faster. It’s easy to simply say that the difference in body weight accounts for all of the difference in performance but I suspect pretty deeply that simply isn’t the case.
I think much of the difference in performance was that at the start line I had made a deal with myself: to start at a moderate speed, and around mile 4 or so, if I was feeling good, commit to running a PR, knowing full well that this meant that at the end, it was going to be a painful physical and mental struggle.
In some strange and hard to articulate way, the decision to accept the likely pain and run for a PR was liberating. Once I made the decision - once I embraced the coming pain - it was as if the pain became something I could observe, instead of something I was forced to experience.
It wasn’t that the pain was diminished. The text message I sent to my coach after the race read:
I was gunning for 6:30:00.
It hurt a lot.
So it wasn’t a way to evade the pain and mental effort. It was more that I’d blundered into a way to move the decision making part of me to a different place, a place outside the emotions of the experience of the pain. I recall when I was first in the emergency room suffering from kidney stones, and the ER doctor gave me morphine to control the pain. After he’d dosed me with morphine, he asked me “Does it still hurt?”, and my answer was “Yes, but I don’t care anymore.” This experience was akin to that.
During the race, toward the end, things hurt, quite a lot. But I had agreed to accept the pain as part of the price of the accomplishment of running a PR, and so it was no longer a question of whether I could make the pain stop, it was a question of what pace I could push myself to hold and maintain to the finish line. It was no longer a question of whether it was going to hurt, it was a question of how deep I could dig and still make it to the end.
This is all very poorly articulated, and part of the reason for that is that it’s not entirely clear to me yet. Clearly, more thinking is required. As it has been for so long, the fascinating thing about ultrarunning is the degree to which it is (for me, at least) inescapably a head game.