Tuesday, May 27, 2014

One tough Nut

Weather forecast for tonight: dark. -George Carlin

Reckless confidence helps. Photo by Jared Spurlock 

As I'm sure is the case with a lot of competitive athletes, I have a bad habit of trying to predict how things are going to turn out by micro-calculating every detail leading up to race day. I spend way too much time weighing nonsensical variables, assigning numerical values to arbitrary factors, figuring those same asinine values with entirely made up systems of calculation, and basically working myself into a tizzy over details that will likely have very little bearing on what actually occurs. For example:

"If I extrapolate my long run cadence trajectory by a factor of exponentially decreasing stride efficiency, multiplied by a projected finish time based on (my Ultrasignup ranking (minus DNF's)) x (the Kilian "what if" potential actuator), add two minutes for drop-bag rummaging, minus (minutes per missing toenail) x (chafing factor of temperature/humidity), = The Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs?"

Pretty deep stuff. But, most of the time I somehow end up being wrong anyways, and going into this years MMT100 I made a mindful effort to let go of all expectations concerning the outcome of the race. I spent a good portion of the last six months recovering from, and attempting to train through, a persistent back injury. I really didn't know how things were going to hold together for 103 tough miles so I focused on getting in quality miles as well as I could, eating well (lots of chocolate), and getting some decent sleep in the days leading up to the race. I would have liked to have gotten in a few more miles earlier in the year but sometimes you just gotta go with what you got.

I was relaxed and rested on the morning of the race. My dad was running as well, looking for his sixth MMT finish. 4am and we were off. I ran with my dad for about a half mile before losing him in the herd. He would end up finishing his day at Camp Roosevelt, 63 miles into the race with stomach issues. Like the old saying goes: Some days you get the get the tiger by the tail and some days the chicken crosses the road to rough you up for your lunch money. Or something...

The area had been drenched by rain showers meaning we would be looking forward to a wet course but cool weather. I was trying to take it out a little slower than usual, in an attempt to have a more consistent race than last year. My feet were soaking wet within the first two miles, a foreshadowing of what the course would be like for the next 100 miles. What were dry stream beds and trails last year were shin deep runoff and mud holes this year. I was comforted in knowing that everyone would be enjoying the same fine conditions.

Photo by James Williams
My brother was crewing for me and was ready as I came into the first aid station, 12 miles in at Edinburgh Gap. He informed me that I was only five minutes behind the lead runners, which meant that I was starting out much faster than I had intended, but I felt like I was running easy so I tried not to worry about it too much.

The next twenty or so miles to Shawl Gap is one of the most technical sections of trails anywhere. Last year I fell here many, many times. I skillfully avoided most of my falls this time around by instead rolling my ankle, many, many times. Ouch.  About a half mile or so before Elizabeth Furnace fellow Altra athlete Angela Shartel snuck up behind me and we cruised into the aid station together. This would be the last I would see of her as she would leave Elizabeth Furnace before me and go on to crush the womens record and take seventh overall.

My brother Jared was waiting at Elizabeth AS with a swig of Ultragen. and a fresh pack. I took a quick minute to collect myself there and pose for a sweet picture (see above) before heading out and promptly having a full-blown meltdown. I had been keeping on top of my nutrition and fluids but all of a sudden I had that "maybe I should fall down for a little while" feeling. I sat down on the side of the trail and actually set 10 minute a timer for myself in case I ended up falling asleep. I don't know how many people passed me as I sat there but it was several.

I didn't feel well at all but I willed myself up just before my timer went off and tried to focus on just moving forward as fast as I could without putting myself deeper in the suck. I put down a caffeinated gel just before the next aid station at Shawl Gap and eventually started to come around. I don't know if it was the caffeine or just part of the ebb and flow but I really started to feel strong for the next few hours. I used the momentum to pass other runners on the road sections and maintain a steady pace on the climbs.

At Camp Roosevelt AS (mile 63) Jared was waiting again with a flask of Ultragen and some fresh gear. I took the time here to change my socks, not because they were wet but because they were packed with dirt and sand from the numerous creek crossings. This would prove to be a futile effort as the next three miles was literally a slog up a creek in shin deep water. Good times.

I got into the Visitor Center AS (mile 78) at almost exactly the same time as last year, just before sundown. I had purposely avoided knowing what position I was in all day so that I would be more inclined to run my own race. I was feeling good and ready to knock out the last 25 miles so I asked my brother what spot I was sitting in. "11th overall including two women." Dang. I knew the competition was a notch higher this year but I was gonna have to work if I wanted to break into the top 10. Time to go.

That would be the last time I would have any support on the course so tried to focus on the world in my headlamp beam and shut out the pain that always seems to creep in during the night. The climb up to Bird Knob went by quickly but the next "six" miles to the Picnic Area AS were the longest of the day. The section never seemed to end. The sounds of traffic let me know I was getting close to the Picnic Area AS when I saw headlamps ahead of me. I got into the aid station at the same time as the legendary Eva Pastalkova. She was looking tired but she barely took a minute in a chair before she was up and going again. Shit. No rest for the weary.

I had leapfrogged for several miles with Eva earlier in the day and I knew that she was the faster runner but that I could put some distance on her on the uphills. Fortunately, the next section was one of the biggest climbs of the course. Unfortunately, it was more like swimming than running. By the time I reached the top of the climb I had taken a full plunge in one of the several cold (so cold) stream crossings. But my uphill push had been successful and over the course of the next 15 miles I gained exactly an hour on Eva who would be the next finisher.

Can I please stop now?
The last three miles of road was more painful than it should have been but I had no idea how far behind Eva was and I had every intention of fighting until the end. I rolled into Camp Roosevelt 22h22m53s after I had started and I was beyond ready to be done. Massanutten wears you down from the start and I was mostly just happy that I didn't have to run over any more rocks. F#@k those rocks.

With a week now to process the whole affair, I really couldn't be any happier with how it all turned out. I got to spend a weekend with my dad, brother and extended running family that I haven't seen since last year. I cut about an hour off my time from last year. I finished a tough hundo without crippling back pain. I managed not to take a nap along the way. I got to stop running over those relentless rocks!

And maybe somewhere along the way I have learned, if just a little, to stop second guessing myself and what I am capable of. Maybe I will stop obsessing over the minutae and trust in my training and experience. Maybe sometimes it's just running and that's all it needs to be. I'll have to do some calculating...

The Spurlock boys.

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