Lessons from the Wall

This past weekend was my second go around at the Sun Mountain 50k. This time it was a training run, but instead of going into it with the plan of running strong and controlled, my plan evolved from confidence in an earlier 50k and became “to crush my old time at any cost.” But, it seems that outrunning hubris is damn near impossible.

It all started a little auspiciously. I couldn’t decide what shoes to wear, I’d forgotten the shirt I wanted to race in and didn’t have anything of whimsy to wear and keep me cheered up along the way, my shoes were either too new or too minimal, and to top it, I realized 5 minuted before the start that my heart rate monitor was in the car — a 10 minute walk away. All the little things that add up. The last one seemed like the biggest deal. I’d gotten used to using my monitor as a brake to keep me from blasting away on longer runs like this. But, I’d studied my paces from last year and knew when I had to be at each aid station to at least beat my time and I knew that I should be happy heart rate wise if I keep those same paces at the fastest.

So, the inaudible pre-race megaphoning turned into a 5 second countdown and we were off. Man, there were a lot of people and they all looked fit as hell. The fitness was no different than last year, but the numbers were larger. The 25k race had ben split into its own day, so there were more entries for the 50k and 50 mile races. And I charged out and settled into what I knew was a way-too-fast pace. The first 5 k roll along Patterson Lake and I was cruising 5 1/2 minute kilometers meaning I was taking off about 30 seconds from last years time each kilometer. I’m fitter now, and I have a better understanding of the distance, but I didn’t think I was THAT fit!

Understanding what it means to run the distance is still a challenge for me after a year in which I’ve done it 5 times. It’s hard to wrap your mind around the idea that you will be racing for 5+ hours. Not just trotting for a training run, but actually in race mode: observing passes, pushing yourself a bit harder, trying to catch other runners, rushing through aids, and having just a slightly more tense mindframe. I can do the first 2 to 2 1/2 hours. My brain understands that and will find a natural pace to run that in. Beyond there is a terra incognita where mistakes can lead to blow ups of all kinds.

Anyhow, after those 5 kms of beautiful lakeside trail, the route dekes west into the hills and up a draw and the start of the first real climb. I tried to cool my jets around there and started forcing myself to walk climbs that nearby runners were running up. I let people pass and tried to keep myself under control. Without a monitor I didn’t know what my output was. My reliance on technology was exposed and made me uncomfortable. But, I seemed to settle into a pod of people that had about the same idea as I did. After the climb, there’s a long traverse with some ups and downs and, again, I was covering ground quickly. My downhill has improved in the interveneing year and I was racking up a lot of time running down things.

And so it went. I hit the first aid about 10 minutes earlier than last year. I was faster down off the mountain but slower on the intermingled climb owing to some time spent with a friend running the 50 miler (well on his way to an 8:50 effort). Then fast again down the last drop off that first hill and still speedy into the second aid station at km 25 — more than half way through the race.

I was all efficiency at this aid. Ate a lot, downed some salted potatoes from my drop bag, drank tons, took a pee and was off with a handfull of food walking while I ate. Shaved off 6 minutes at that aid alone and left 14 minutes ahead of my time from last year. But, I’d been running as if the race was shorter than it is and was starting to feel it. But I knew I had a long descent before the climb up Sun Mountain so aimed to make some speed on that and keep my pace up at least.

And onward. I kept drinking but somewhere in there I stopped taking gels and focussed on my candy. Strange inner thigh cramps came in at the top of Sun Mountain and coming back around I got overcaffeinated from some Gu gummies. But, I kept pace and was neither passing nor being passed and could see a blob of racers up ahead that I was hoping to pass.

By now it was getting hot. The forecast clouds didn’t materialize, and in the windless coves and valleys the sun was merciless. I’d been drinking my usual 1 1/2 liters per aid and ran dry right as I rolled into the final aid. Knowing the course maybe helped here, but I recalled Patterson being a long climb, but not overly painful last year. So, I charged the aid and was out of there really fast. But, I still wasn’t eating and only managed a bit of melon and some orange and coke and water before heading off. I was at 4:14, a full 21 minutes ahead of my performance last year. What could go wrong…?

Hubris. When reality pulls you out of your brain and back into contact with the world, the result can be painful and the transition abrupt. That orange slice from the aid station hit my stomach wrong and, in hindsight, I needed a gel and maybe a short easy walking break. But, I did none of those things. I kept charging on. “Power walking” up hills and trotting when it got flatter and then power walking into the last slope. As the elevation rose, so did the queasiness in my stomach. Just 100 m vert from the top I turned a switchback and suddenly was in a cold sweat, felt my bowels loosen, and could feel the world closing down on me. I staggered ahead, told the guy behind me to go by; that “I’m just going to take a breather” and laid down in the shade of a ponderosa. And stayed down. People asked after me. I remembered seeing this same hill littered with people last year who looked like fit bastards but were mysteriously collapsed in the shade and wondered why I should be so lucky to cruise on up, mostly painlessly. Well, now that was me collapsed on the hill. I contemplated what would happen if I stayed there. What would happen if I couldn’t get back up? How would I get off the course if I couldn’t walk?

Eventually, a fellow who I’d passed earlier and who was way worse off passed me and that kicked me out of it. I couldn’t let this guy beat me. He really looked like shit. So I clawed my self back to standing and staggered after him. And, as I walked, I felt a little better. A bit shaky, but better. And then a guy behind me was making funny jokes about my sexy, dirty calves, and that helped. And then we were at the top!

I turned and saw that the mountains were more beautiful this year than ever. Snow capped and sharp on the horizon. The wind was whipping up there cooling me down. And so we desceded and somehow my legs actually worked okay. I followed the jokester all the way down and then passed him on the flats (with some guilt and no words ’cause I couldn’t conjure any). I mustered some faster kms and then ground into the last climb. Fuck. But I wouldn’t, couldn’t stop. I ground up and past the previous years turn off passing some people and then imagined that James had lengthened the course by some unknown amount. What if it was 5 more k? He had the right to. What if there was a new hill? I’d planned on the end being in a certain place and had no recourse for a different end. And just as the winding seemed like it would go on and on, it ended. The band played and I could hear people cheer. Then I rounded a corner and heard Kate shout my name and cheer for me and I knew I was home. I remembered to really shake James’ hand this time and thank him for the great race, stopped my watch and was done. I rolled in in 5:41 having spent 12 minutes of the banked time from the first 3/4 of my race on Mt. Patterson. I’d found the fabled wall in a very real fashion and it was costly. But oh well.

After 10 minutes of lying down the first waves of endorphine came and I began to feel the invinceable sense that makes me want to keep trail racing. I slowly started forgetting hubris and started imagining sub 10 hour 50 milers in my near future…

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