I like to run. I've learned that it really isn't about where you're going, it's about the getting there - the how, the why, the who with. This blog is just a little repository for my thoughts along the way; the setbacks, the lessons learned, and the occasional triumph.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Race Report: Chicago Lakefront 50K

I signed up to run this spring’s Chicago Lakefront 50K on a bit of a lark. I had several 20-mile runs planned for my training schedule and though a 20-mile training run doesn’t feel as daunting as it once did, they can get a bit monotonous. These last 2 seasons, I’ve started looking for ways to spice up those 3 hour training runs: different locations, different days of the week, running with or without my music and NPR, etc.

I’ve never run one of the Lakefront 50s. It’s a twice a year event (with a 50-Mile distance added to the fall version), and it’s held just 2 miles from my apartment, but I’ve always missed it for one reason or another. Back in early February it popped into my mind, and when I checked the Spring date, I found that the Saturday morning it was scheduled for was the same day I had planned to do my of my 20s.

What an easy way to liven up my training run! The LF50K is a simple, 10+ Mile loop course, 5 out and 5 back. It’s held on sections of the lakefront path which I already know so well. Aid station support is set up every 2.5 miles, and the entry fee is a super reasonable $30 dollars. I could sign up and jump in for the first 20 miles at a responsible, training pace, then see how I felt and maybe tack on the final 11 miles at a slow and gentle trot to see if I could earn a finisher’s medal. If I was spent after 20, I could easily call it a day, go home, and lose nothing.

The wrench in the plans came with the mail a few weeks later: an invitation to my cousin’s wedding in Auburn, Alabama scheduled for the Friday evening before the race. I missed a good friend’s wedding for a silly work-related reason 10 years ago, regretted it immediately, and swore that ever after I would remember that life, and family were more important than those silly things.

At the same time, I’m in the midst of a long, difficult training cycle, which I hope will culminate in my first successful 100-Mile finish in San Diego in June. These big 20-Mile (and 31-Mile) training runs are hard to make up when you miss them. How was I going to be in Auburn at 6pm Friday night for the wedding, and also at the start of the race on the Chicago Lakefront the following morning at 8:30?

I scoured the race schedules for Georgia and Alabama for the weekend: NO marathons or ultras seemed to be on the calendar for the area. I considered skipping the wedding, but that was a distasteful thought. I considered skipping the race, but that would have put me in a different kind of hole.

Finally I went back to look through flight schedules between Atlanta and Chicago. Of all the airlines, and all the flights between the two cities over that weekend, there was exactly ONE flight that would leave Atlanta after the wedding and arrive in Chicago before the race: a United Airlines affiliate, that would depart Atlanta at 6:30 am, local time on Saturday morning, and land in Chicago at 7:30 am CST. If – and that was a big “if” – the flight was on time, it would leave me 1 hour to get from the gate at the airport to the start line of the race.

So, yep. That’s what I did.

James and Leslie’s wedding was wonderful. I was the only cousin who was able to make it, so I was extra glad I was there. We enjoyed the reception until 11pm, and then Laura, my parents and I drove back to Mom and Dad’s house outside Atlanta, 30 minutes from the airport. We all got about 4 hours of sleep, then trucked up to the airport for the 6:30 flight. The plane was on time and even landed in Chicago a few minutes early. The taxi we jumped in hit no traffic at all on the way towards the lake and it turned out we had enough to time to get dropped off at our apartment, change clothes and drive ourselves to the race site at the lake. I had 15 whole minutes to pick up my race packet, pin on my number and loosen up a little before they yelled, “Go.”

Easy-peasy, no sweat, why was I worried again?

The quick pit-stop at home allowed me the chance to do one potentially foolish thing: pick up my new pair of shoes. I placed an on-line order for a pair of Asics Hyper Speed 4s. UPS had delivered them in the day and a half that we’d been out of town for the wedding.

I’m a looong way from becoming a barefoot runner, but over the last year, I have become a believer in lightweight shoes. Lightweight equals minimal. Since New Balance has discontinued the racing flats I was fond of, I’ve before forced to try some other brands. The Hyper Speeds are not the absolute lightest available, but they’re only 6.9 ounces, and they are $40 cheaper than the lightest shoe Asics sells.

I was stoked to try them out, and when we got to the front door of the apartment and saw them resting against the door frame, well, I couldn’t resist. I threw an old pair of shoes into my gear bag, and put the new Asics on my feet. They have red highlights, but they’re mostly bright white. Combined with my black compression socks, I had some old man style going, but I didn’t care. The shoes felt good.

Don’t be like me: NEVER where new shoes during a long race – especially not if they are fresh out of the box. Don’t be like me. I had my back-up pair on hand, and would be able to change every five miles if the new ones gave me trouble.

Back when I registered, I made a solemn promise to myself to go easy. I wasn’t out to do any racing. The real goal, I told myself over and over, was to get in the 20 training miles. Something at, or just slower than, a 9 minute per mile pace would get me that. I carried my own bottle, but I would enjoy the aid stations. I would enjoy a sub-5-hour finish, but a low-stress run would be more critical. And I was committed to dropping if I was pooped after the first 20 miles.

I was pleased, then, to see that the race was run as a laid-back, low-key affair. There were 200 runners (or less) at the start line, and it was an interesting mix of people. There were real trail ultra veterans, there were racing dudes with their singlets, there were the average city marathoner types, who were daring to go just a little bit farther, there were also (because the race is run in honor of George Cheung) a large number of Asian (Chinese, I believe) runners out to run as well.

It was a chilly morning, with a stiff breeze coming up at us from the Southeast, off the lake. I was grateful to have my wind vest and gloves on for the start. But the sun was out, the lakefront was only sparsely populated, and it was a lovely morning.

The race course starts out near the beach house on the lake at Foster Avenue. They were set up right on the running path. From there the course stays on the path until Montrose, where it diverts to a trail that follows the water’s edge on the east side of the golf course. The mid-way aid station is tucked in there at the 2.5 mile point near the clock tower. The route then goes all the way to the very tip of the entrance of Belmont Harbor and then swings around the bank of the harbor to spit you back out onto the bike path just below Addison. After that, you stay on the bike path all the way south to Diversey Harbor, when you loop under the bridge to cut inland to the south point aid station. Then you turn around and go back to the start. After three loops of that, you’ve done 31 miles.

Because I know the lakefront so well, the miles went by rather quickly. I found that all the little out-and-backs were easy to break down in my head. It’s always just 5 miles to the next goal. Seriously, it’s the easiest 50K you’ll ever run. And that was a nice, relaxing fact, too: Almost no matter what I did, I was going to run a 50K PR.

Just over a mile in, while I was still trying to settle into my rhythm, I heard a voice behind me say, “Hey, how long’s it been since you had a haircut?” but the tone was not a playful disdain, but admiration – something I don’t usually hear.

“It’s been two and a half years,” I told the fellow, but confessed it was more from laziness than intention. He’d gone six months without a haircut, and he thought that was a long time, but he had a purpose. He and his friend were training for the Comrades Ultramarathon in South Africa, and he’d decided not to get a haircut until he had finished that race.

Comrades is an amazing, famous, 56-Mile Ultra which has been held since 1921 and thousands of people run each year. It is the oldest, largest Ultra in the world. It’s famous for the amazing history of the race, for the hills, and for an unforgiving, 12-hour cutoff time. You don’t finish in less than 12 hours, you don’t get a time at all.

I chatted with these two guys for a few miles. We talked about Comrades, we talked about the 100-miler I’m training for. (They actually had a tough time wrapping their heads around the idea of running for 24 or 30 hours, which I thought was odd since they were already onboard with Comrades.) And we talked a little bit about running and training in Chicago. But after a couple of miles, they were ready to move on a little faster than I, and I let them go. I had no intention of getting caught up in someone else’s race during my easy little training run.

As it turned out, that was the only trail conversation I had with anyone the whole race. Once everyone got spread out in those early miles and found their pace, I really didn’t pass or get passed by many folks. In most ultras I’ve run, the hills and varied terrain winds up being a real equalizer and as the race goes on, lots of people fall off their early pace, so you wind up meeting new runners as the race goes on. I found that didn’t really happen at the LF50K. Nice then, that the course was such a small, contained loop, because you were constantly passing runners, both in front of you and behind you, who were headed the opposite direction.

I was also amused (and I mean that in a good way) to be cheered on by the marathon training clubs who were out doing their long runs that Saturday morning. I’ve no idea what distance they might have been covering, but it was fun to go by a pack of women in an 11 or 12-minute pace group and get a dose of the motivational “You can do it’s” that they are always getting and giving to themselves.

The only disappointing thing about the race for me was that my legs just seemed a little more sluggish than I’d hoped for. I expected to be able to hum along at a 9 minute pace, but I found it was something closer to 9:15s and 9:20s. Certainly not the end of the world, but still, a tell-tale sign of fatigue. Yes, I was operating on less sleep, but I was also near the end of the highest mileage month of my life. By the end of the race, I was at 193 miles for March, and 5 days later, on the 31st, I finished with 214, my first-ever plus-200 month.

Even after being a “runner” for seven years, and an “ultra-runner” for nearly four, I’m still learning a great deal about how my body responds to training. I turned in an excellent marathon last year after maxing out at 165 miles the month before. This year, the real goal is a 100-Mile finish in June, but I’m still hoping for another strong marathon on May 1st. It will be interesting to see what, if any, effect the extra miles have on my legs.

The cold and wind persisted throughout my first two loops, but after 20 miles, I still felt good enough to turn around and try for one more loop. My slightly slower than expected pace, plus a minute or two stop at each aid station had me through 20+ miles with a 3:20. A sub-5-hour finish was not out of the question, but it would be tight. I’d done each leg in right around 50 minutes. I’d need two more legs just under that pace for a sub-5. I considered. Ambition met sensibility and sensibility won. Forget the clock, this last 10 was just for fun.

Somewhere around the 23 or 24 mile point, I found I was really having one of those “why the heck am I doing this stupid $#!+” moments. 3 more miles south-bound into the teeth of that early afternoon wind sucked a lot of life out of me. My legs were heavy, and my torso started to feel like someone had been using it for a punching bag all morning. I walked a decent piece of that next-to-last leg. Not a lot of it, but enough to add about 8 minutes to my split.

When I got to the southern turnaround that last time, Laura was there waiting for me, as she had been at the top and bottom of the course all morning. She had my little bag of gear. I ditched a couple of layers, losing my vest, and the thermal, in favor of my long-sleeve ¾ zip. I dropped my gloves, and I handed over my water bottle. I wanted to free my hands up. I just had a little 5-mile leg to run to the finish line. No problem.

Even still, I was amazed at how much better I suddenly felt. The wind was at my back, the sun was out, and – this may be most important of all – I wasn’t carrying that 20 oz. water bottle anymore. For the first time all day, I got right into a nice stride and started to really groove my way up the bike path. I felt free and light and powerful. The lethargy that had zapped me just 25 minutes before had completely disappeared. I didn’t stop or even care to, when I came to the mid-point aid station. I powered on by. I blasted past at least a half-dozen other runners in those last 5 miles, and felt strong even as I crossed the finish line. I ran faster on that last leg than I did on any other leg of the day. My slow 5th leg prevented me from a negative or even split, but I still brought it home with a 5:08:58 – yes, a PR by nearly 10 minutes, and my first ultra with a sub-10-minute overall pace.

Oh, and I’m pleased to report that my brand new shoes served me beautifully. No trouble of any kind. They felt good, actually. I’ve still got my orange New Balance racing flats for my key road races over the next year or so, but I intend to my the Asics Hyper Speeds my primary training shoe for the time being. (Now I just need to settle on a good trail shoes for my upcoming ultras.)

I think there is a lot more for me to explore regarding the difference in feel I have while running with and without a water bottle in hand. This is only the final piece of evidence I have that proves I run better without one. Barring extreme heat (a la the Chicago Marathon 2007) I don’t think I’ll ever carry a bottle in a road race ever again.

But the obstacle still exists for my trail-based ultras when the aid stations are usually 5 to 6 miles and sometimes hours apart. I can’t be out there without carrying my own hydration. The backpack systems have always given me terrible shoulder pain. The waist strap bottles tend to give me stomach muscle cramps, and the hand bottles apparently do a lot to mess with my stride. Some further alteration thereof seems to be in order, yet.

In the meantime, I did, indeed, get a nice little 50K finish and a fun training run. I can’t say the LF50K is a remarkable race, but given its proximity and the low entry fee, I’ll be back when the schedule allows. Maybe I can return in the fall and knock out a “fast” 50-Miler!