RETURN TO ROCK CUT
I had a really good, strong run on Sunday!
The weather was great: temps stayed in the 60s the whole time; there was 100% cloud cover, so no brutal sunshine; the week has been dry so the trail was in good shape; there was even a gentle breeze coming in from the northwest – and I was feeling good going in, in spite of my (very) long week at work.
I mentioned it in my pre-race post, but wow, the course is really gentle and flat, for a trail race. Yes, there are hills, some that roll a little and others that are of the long, subtle incline type (sometimes those are more insidious), but there are lots of extended sections that are wide and flat. You can really get into a rhythm on those, settle into a good pace, and hit the hyperdrive just a little.
Last year I totally got taken in by that. I seriously blazed through the first of the two 15.5 mile loops. My overall pace for the first time around was under 9 minutes a mile. That might not be such a bad thing in a road race of the same distance, but out on the trails, it’s hard to quantify how much the varied and uneven surfaces take a toll on your feet and legs. Last year, I never got back up to speed again on the second loop. I slowed down and kept slowing down and really blew up in the last 7 miles. I just didn’t have the energy to keep pushing forward with purpose. Still, I had so much time “in the bank” after the first half that my final time was still a very satisfying 5:17:20 – easily my fastest paced ultra to date. (It was also faster paced than the sweltering hot Chicago Marathon 3 weeks later, but that’s a different story.)
This year, knowing better how the course looked, I planned to take it a lot slower on the first loop and try and keep enough energy in my tank to hold the same pace for lap two. Even just a ten minute per mile pace the whole way would still give me a PR. With the weather looking so favorable, I felt like my chances looked good.
EARLY RACE MORNING
I waited until race morning to make the 80-mile drive out to Rock Cut from Chicago, and arrived on site just about 15 minutes before the 8 a.m. race time. (Yet another luxury with these small, trail-based races.) I did a quick check-in under the picnic pavilion, picked up my packet and number and then went back to the car to change clothes and load up my fuel cargo. I had just enough time to duck into the grass line to take a quick pee when then megaphone boomed out over the lawn, “Less than 5 minutes to race start time!”
There were maybe 100, 120 of us, including friends, family and volunteers. By the time we had all gathered near the trailhead at the entrance to the picnic area parking lot, the announcement had been updated to, “60 seconds to race start!” There were a few announcements first.
First, they told everyone that 21 people were there to run the third leg of the Illinois Trail Ultra Grand Slam. That, of course, is the reason why I was there. 24 people had finished the first two events back in March and April and I was impressed that there were still 21 going for it this fall. (The last race is in three weeks at the Farmdale Trail Ultra outside Peoria.)
Then, they told us all that there were still 9 people trying to complete the weekend’s Hobo Trifecta. A couple of months ago, the event date was pushed back one weekend and the event schedule was rearranged. Instead of a one-day race with 2 distances, 25K & 50K, being run at the same time, now it was a three-day event with a 10K Friday night, the 25K on Saturday morning and the 50K finale on Sunday. Anyone running and finishing all three events would get a special prize. 10 people had started the quest on Friday night and 9 of them were lining up this morning to start the 50K. They each wore special yellow bibs.
There was an older fellow standing next to me at the start. He turned to me at that point and said, “Those people are crazy.” Now, when you’re waiting around to run through the woods for 31 miles and the guy next to you, who also paid for the chance to run through the woods for 31 miles, turns to you and tries to suggest that someone else is crazy to pay to run through the woods, just because they paid for a few more miles than you did, you know his tongue is planted firmly in his cheek.
THE FIRST TIME AROUND
They blew the horn to start the race a few moments later, and my new friend was still with me, talking about how nice it was to run a longer race like this where no one sprints off the starting line like an idiot. Then he started talking about having been in Northern Wisconsin for the whole of the last week and running through the forests there every day. He said while he and his wife were driving through the area they saw wildlife they’d never seen in person before, a bear and even a mid-sized mountain cat crossing the road in front of them. He said it gave him a little pause on his runs to think of that. That reminded him of the trip he’d once taken to Africa when they’d taken a wildlife hike and had to first be trained on how to escape a mad, charging hippopotamus!
With the gentle conversation to focus on, it was easy to hold back on my pace in those first couple of miles, but I didn’t see a mile marker on the trail for a while, even though I knew we should have finished one already. I didn’t see the 2nd mile marked when I expected to, either. I decided that maybe this year they hadn’t been able to mark the miles on the course as they had the year before. I usually like to see the miles marked, but on a long trail race like this, I’ve learned to do without.
After the first 15 minutes, my new buddy and I got separated going around a rare, muddy turn while he was in mid-sentence. I turned and looked over my shoulder to see if he was going to try and catch back up to me, but saw that he had already picked up the chat with another guy who had been running behind us. This happens in a trail race. People and conversations come and go, as most people can’t run the same pace from start to finish. Even though we all know it’s usually easier to run with a buddy to push and pull you along, no one feels obligated to hang back and wait around for someone they’ve only just met. It is, after all, still a race and we all want to finish as quickly as we’re able.
A mile or two later, the field had started to spread out. The rabbits had blazed off ahead. The back-of-packers were out of sight behind. I did most of the next mile or two with 2 guys running as a pair right behind me. I wasn’t talking with them, but I could hear all of their conversation. They clearly knew each other, were both in their early 20s, and were either current or recent military – I was guessing Army. They were also running the trifecta. They were comparing notes on various aches and stiffness from the first two days. At one point they started talking about some training runs a drill sergeant made them do with full packs and, I think, they said, “claymores” on their backs. So maybe they were Scottish Army. (Right.)
They moved on ahead of me a little bit just before I noticed a “3” on a yellow plate stuck in the ground by the trail. So, that was the first mile marker I saw. My watch said 27:28 at the time, so I was actually moving a little faster than I needed to. Probably just as well that I let the two army boys go by and stop pushing me.
This was about when my new friend turned up again. He greeted me with his now familiar, jovial tone: “You look like you’re doing pretty good up there,” he said to me from my right shoulder. Now he was beside me instead of behind me and I had a chance to take him in a little better. Definitely an older guy, wearing glasses, a long-sleeved, orange shirt with a white cap and also a thin white sweat band under the edge of the hat. He was shorter and slighter than I, maybe 5’8” and 145 pounds? (I'm not always a good judge of weight.) Oh, and I caught a glimpse of his age group division tag that we were all wearing on the back of our shirts. He was in the 60-64 age group.
This time, he didn’t start in with idle chat. This was a little more business. He clearly wanted to make a quick decision about something. “So, what kind of time are you aiming for today,” he asked me. I told him I was trying to be smart and take it easy, and was aiming for something in the general range of 9:30s to 9:45s for this first loop. He didn’t quite say it, but I could tell he thought that sounded more or less right for himself, too. So we both picked up a running buddy for the morning.
In fact, we did the whole first loop together after that. By the time we got to the 4th mile marker, there really wasn’t anybody else around us at all. (We’d past the 2 army guys again by that point. They’d pulled over for a pit stop and never caught up to the two of us.) Mostly we talked about running stuff. And, honestly, he did most of the talking. At one point, I found myself playfully thinking about scientific studies done with the common house fly. They discovered that when a fly’s legs aren’t touching anything, their wings automatically, instinctively flap. This guy was like that, too: When his legs were running, his mouth was automatically engaged.
But I really didn’t mind at all. He was very upbeat the whole time, was funny, and he told good stories. For twelve miles and two hours, we covered a range of topics. He told me about his experience running the Comrades Ultramarathon in South Africa. He talked about one of his daughters who lives near me in the city. He talked about his daughter’s husband and how he’d been coaching his son-in-law through his very first marathon training process. We talked about the marathon they were in training for, the Steamtown Marathon which is in 2 weeks, the same day as the Chicago Marathon. We talked about parenting. We talked about the time he spent as a student at Georgia Tech in Atlanta, where my dad where to school and where I used to live nearby the campus. We talked about his wife and the painting retreat she’d just been on. I know I talked about stuff, too, but it’s always easier for me to remember what I’ve heard than what I’ve said. Most of all, we talked about running. What ever else we talked about, it always came back to running. Training ideas, race strategies, places we’d run or thought about running, how we were running right at that very moment.
He confessed to me after the first couple of miles together that he was only doing one loop and would drop at the 25K point. His original plan had been to drive in for the official 25K on Saturday, but when he and his wife found they wouldn’t be able to make it, he decided to come on Sunday anyway just to do the same distance. He was using it as a final long run before his marathon two weeks later. Basically, the same as me, but with me doing the whole 50. This, of course, led us to talking about how each plan might work out and how to plot a good recovery schedule between each race. I knew a lot of what he knew, but repetition is always good for the memory and someone is always apt to add a new, useful wrinkle.
At 7.5 miles we passed an aid station and he stopped to eat the one gel-pack he was carrying with him. He told me to go on and he’d catch up in a minute. I’ve said this to or been told this by a lot of people in a lot of ultras, and usually, you don’t see each other again, or not until much, much later when one of you has started to fade. But there was a long, wide down hill right after the aid station and just about the time I got to the bottom I could hear rapid footsteps behind me, and then he yelled out, “Weeeeeee! I can’t stop!”, and laughed his way past me to the bottom of the hill. He had me laughing, too. This old guy was really having a blast!
We were 11 miles around the first loop before one of us remembered to ask the other’s name. I think he realized that we weren’t so far from the end of the first loop and his race day. “Yeah, usually you don’t trade names until the second loop,” he joked. He told me he was Richard, and after that I made sure I used it a few times to be sure I didn’t forget. But he was honest with me five minutes later and had to ask, “Okay, I already can’t remember, did you say your name was Daniel Isaac?” I corrected him and we both laughed again.
By this time I knew, both by the way he was running and from the conversation, that even though he might have been nearly twice my age, he was definitely faster than me. It wasn’t too much, but he was definitely holding himself back just a little bit so that we could stay together. It says something nice about him that he was more interested in a worthy conversation than he was in blazing some kind of new PR for himself.
But by the time we past the 13 mile marker, I could tell he was chomping at the bit. I was still feeling pretty good and would settle at a steady pace, and then he’d pull away from me without completely realizing, and I’d have to pick it up a little to stay with him. Then he would realize it, and ease off a hair, only to do it all over again. All the while he kept telling me that he planned to just stay with me the rest of the way in. He had, after all, told his wife to expect him back at the starting area about 2 ½ hours after we started, and it looked like we would easily meet that time goal. But then he’d speed up a little all over again.
It was funny: just as I was thinking to myself, well, he can obviously smell the barn, he said those exact same words to me, “I guess I’m getting a little eager because I can smell the barn!” I felt like that was okay. Even though I might be burning just a little extra fuel to keep up, he was keeping us on a good, honest pace, and we didn’t have that much further to go.
We passed three guys in the final ½ mile of the loop and, finally, in the last ¼ mile, I let him go to run himself into his finish. I peeled off 70 yards from the return point to dip into my car for a change of shirts and a reloading of supplies. Then I ran through the origin point and hit the split on my watch. Before I set out for my second loop, I jogged over to where Richard was already under the picnic pavilion. I thanked him for his good company, gave him a warm handshake (two-handed style), wished him luck at Steamtown in 2 weeks, and finally set off for my second time around.
AGAIN AROUND THE BEND
Richard and I had, indeed, made good time in the final miles of the first lap and we came around in just under 2:30. Adding in my pit stop at the car, my unofficial split was 2:33:36, a 9:55 overall pace. I did a good job on the first half. Not too fast, not too slow, and right on time to finish in a little over 5 hours. I had committed myself to not trying to break 5 hours. I didn’t want to waste myself Sunday and then be no good for Chicago in 2 weeks. I didn’t really think I’d be able to duplicate my first lap time anyway. I just figured I’d aim for 10 minute miles and see how long I could make that hold up.
I didn’t hold on as long as I would have liked – only four more miles, but my drop off wasn’t severe. It slipped to slow 10s, then into the early 11s and finally up into the 12-minute mile range. It wasn’t exactly because I was running slower. When I ran, I think it’s fair to say I was still moving at a 10 to 10:30 pace. The difference was that I was running less. I stopped at more of the little aid stations to refill the bottle that I was draining more quickly, or to grab a couple of watermelon slices. I was walking more of the uphills because I found myself more winded. Uphill walks are a common energy conservation strategy in Ultramarathons, because they are often trail based and even the short hills can be steep and draining on a rocky dirt trail. Every now and then, though, I just walked because I was tired. I didn’t want to have to, but there were a few times when I just needed to catch my breath.
I tried to stay diligent about my fuel intake. I’ve come to believe I often have more trouble at the end of my long races, because I’m not taking in enough gels and solid foods for calorie replacement. I had the pockets on my shorts loaded with gel packs. On the first loop I ate one about every four miles. Now, on the second loop, I switched that to one every 30 minutes. I’ve also read recently that sometimes the body can absorb more fuel when different types of sugars are consumed in food form. So, in addition to the gels, I was sure to pick up the watermelon and cantaloupe slices that were at a few of the aid stations. Whether it worked or not, the watermelon sure tasted good. A last remnant of summer time.
I also ran the vast majority of that final loop alone, no other runner at all visible in front of or behind me. Then, around 11 miles, out of nowhere, one of the army guys from the first few miles of the race blazed past me like his shoes were on fire. I practically did a double take. His buddy wasn’t with him, though. I’ve no idea what happened to him. Maybe he dropped after the first loop? Maybe he didn’t, but he was slowing so much he gave his buddy permission to take off? Whatever it was, the guy zipped past me. He was either holding back all day or he was really, really ready for it to be over.
After another mile, I had an odd realization: I hadn’t stopped to pee all day. It wasn’t alarming, but usually, in a long trail race, I have to take one or two pit stops. I didn’t really have to go right then, but because I thought about it, I just decided to stop and empty out the tank. When I finished, two more runners were coming over the hill behind me.
The first was a guy I recognized from a couple of the other ultras I’ve run in Illinois. He and I always finish in the same general time frame. I actually ran with him and a third guy on the second loop of the ’07 Farmdale Trail Race last October. I had already passed him early in this race. He was one of the guys that Richard and I ran past in the last half mile of the first loop. Now he’d caught back up to me again. He was instantly positive and supportive, but he was also wearing down. He complimented me on how well I seemed to be doing, but admitted that everything was starting to hurt and he was really ready for it to be over. I told him I was gonna test my memory and asked if his name was Michael. I told him who I was and where I remembered him from. “No, Michael was the guy I was with out at Farmdale last year. I’m Adam. But I remember you, you’re from Chicago, right?” “That’s it. Greg,” I didn’t make him try to remember my name. But just as the second guy was catching up to us, Adam begged off and gave himself a walk break to ease the muscles.
The second guy was really tall and slender, a gaunt face with a scratchy brown beard trimming the edges. He had a friendly face, but wasn’t so talkative. I could tell he had found a second wind and was just focused on powering his way to the finish. We passed the 13 mile marker together, then 30 seconds later passed another marker that also said “13”. (I’m pretty sure the first one was accurate, because I remembered it’s location from last year.) We joked about the little time warp, and he ran on. I didn’t think I could stay with him.
Maybe a third of a mile after that, the course pops out onto one of the park roads for four or five hundred yards. It’s kind of a long straightaway. So I was able to see that Adam actually wasn’t too far behind me. After he knew that I’d seen him, he called up to me, “How are we doing on time, Greg?” I looked down at my watch and was a little surprised. “We just hit 5:02.” It still amazes me how quickly five hours can pass while I’m running through the woods.
By the time we turned off the road again to do the final little mini-loop on the course, Adam had caught back up to me again. He told me we were going to run in the last couple of miles together. He and I were both flagging when I first saw him coming over the hill behind me, and we were both doing better by playing off the running buddy energy, so it only made sense that we should push each other home.
We kept talking to each other the whole way, but it was pretty much all about how we were doing and the race and any mutual encouragement we could contribute. We made a point of trading off who was in front, sharing the pulling duties. We passed the 14-mile marker with a 10:30 split and the race time was just under 5:10. Adam was definitely surprised when I gave him our split for that mile. We didn’t do quite as well the next mile, but it was due to a big hill that we wisely walked. We passed the 15-mile mark with an 11 minute split.
Then there was one more long, rocky hill in the last half mile that we walked, “so we can look really strong running across the finish line,” I said. Adam took me at my word. A minute later we were running around a bend, came to a grass line, and - surprise! – we were back at the finish line meadow. I totally thought it was another minute in front of us. I’d forgotten what the last turn looked like. Adam took one look at the finish and said, “Come on let’s do it!” and he sprinted off at full tilt. I trailed him, but didn’t feel the same need to burn up the last 80 yards. He got everyone at the finish line riled up, and they were all hollering at both of us, “nice finish kick, guys!” My official finish time read 5:26:26, with Adam 13 seconds in front of me. (Nice kick, indeed!) I was just nine minutes slower than last year. Coming in, with the good weather and a smarter race strategy, I really thought I had an honest shot at bettering last year’s time, but I really feel like a nine minute difference is really pretty small, and I didn’t totally tank in the last 7 miles, like I had the year before, in spite of my lower time this year. I was really satisfied. This is even more true in light of my results at the first two ultras this year back in the spring when, due to injury and illness, I had finished significantly slower than in 2007.
AN EXTRA SURPRISE AT THE END
I collected my finisher’s shirt and my commemorative 5th Annual Hobo Run Tin Cup, douse my head with a cup of water and had a slice of watermelon before hobbling back over to my car to dry off. I wasn’t going to be able to get home for an ice bath for at least 2 hours, so I wanted to sneak over to the swimming lake on the park grounds for a dip in the cool-if-not-cold water. I mixed myself more Gatorade and scarfed down my post-run Balance Bar.
Then I decided I ought to take a look at the finisher bulletin board to see how many people had come in and how they’d all done. Instead, I got a nice surprise. I saw my back tag stapled to the board, and when I counted back toward the winners I saw only two other men in the 30 to 34 age group who had finished in front of me. I could hardly believe it! I counted backwards again from the leaders and I was still third. So, I said it out loud to the volunteers monitoring the board: “I think I just got third place in my age group.” I showed him my tag and he also counted back to me and got three. “Yup,” he said with a smile, “looks like you earned yourself an award.” “Well, I’ll be snookered,” I said. (Yes, I really did say that. I remember because I was a little giddy about my prize and it was fun to say.) He dipped into the cardboard box behind him and pulled out an iron railroad spike with a little plaque on it that said “Rock Cut Hobo Run 50K 2008” I’ll have to get it amended to read “3rd Place Winner” It’s only the second time ever that I won an age group award at a race! So, I made a little speech. I said, “I have a speech: I’d like to personally thank all the faster people who decided not to show up to run this morning.”
All, in all, a very satisfying morning!