Training - I won't talk much about training since I have covered this in previous posts. However, I do need to note that 2 weeks prior to the race I set out for a 16 miler which was my last big training run before the race. The Friday before this run Anchorage received about 8 inches of fresh snow, so I knew my run was going to involve some trail breaking, what I didn't know what just how tough this run was going to be. Running in 8 inches of fresh powder is actually pretty fun, but doing shin deep post holing for nearly 2 miles through dense snow that has been plowed off the streets and landed on the sidewalk is not fun, nor is it fast. About 4 miles into my run I actually called my wife to come get me because those 4 miles took me well over an hour, at this past 16 miles was going to take all day. Long story short, I managed to find a groomed section of trail for several miles before running on several more miles of very loose snow. This was the toughest training run I had been on this winter, and the reason I mention this is because it turned out it was great preparation for the race as it was actually so bad, the course conditions of the race were never nearly as bad as this.
Race Day Prep - The start was about 2 hours from the house so I woke up in enough time to eat and get through my race morning ritual. The difference here from other races is that I needed to pack snacks with me since race start was going to be over 3 hours after I ate, much later than I am used to. We arrived at the start line and it was about 15 degrees, which was well below the forecast high of 29. I had my clothing dialed in very well so I knew I would be comfortable anywhere between 5 and 30 degrees with what I would be wearing. I stuck to my plan and packed an extra set of gloves, a spare hat (to change mid race), my first aid kit, headlamp (required), rear flashing light (also required), and top and bottom wind gear as the course has been known for wind in some years. I packed as light as I could with my pack weighing probably just a few pounds. To my surprise there were several people with very large packs who looked more like they were heading out on a multi day backpacking trip then a 50k race, so I felt pretty smart with the relatively minimalist solution I used.
|Everything I need for race day. Not shown in this picture is my pack that all this goes into, and the extra set of hat and gloves.|
|Pre-race meeting, manditory for the 100 milers as it also includes gear check but optional for the 50k races. As this was my first year running this race, I decided to attend, it also gave me the chance to pick up my packet.|
The Race - The start of the race was unlike anything I had ever been a part of, but then again I had only been a part of shorter trail races and common distance road races. When the gun went off no one was in a big hurry to go anywhere, as tradition for winter races the bikers went first, then the skiers, and then the runners. I stuck to my plan and set out at a comfortable pace and would run for as long as I could. The first 3 miles were along a road but the trail was in good shape so I was doing about a 9:30 mile. I knew these conditions wouldn't last so I increased my pace to take advantage of the conditions but not so much that I got winded. After about 3 miles we crossed the main road and ran on a paved road for about another mile. I was actually really excited at this point because I figured this meant that at least 8 miles of the course was in good shape, but then I remembered the return route was different, I tried not to let that get me down and increased my pace a little more on the flat and fast road.
The sun was out and the temp was warm, probably upper 20's at this point, I was getting a little warm and actually started to cycle my gloves on and off through the remainder of the race. After the road section was my first taste of running on snow machine trails, and overall it still wasn't as bad as I was predicting. For several miles we then had a fun downhill section before entering the "tunnel of love." Picture a trail through the woods for about 3 miles that is only about 3-4 feet wide surround closely be trees, this is the tunnel of love, fun but tough section. I passed a few bikers on a rough uphill section and continued on until we got out onto the flats. This is section where I started seeing the first 100 mile racers that started a few hours earlier. I really had no idea where I was in the standings but simply pressed on at the best pace I could.
I really didn't walk much the first half except for a section in the flats that was more post holing and simply not runable, but that only lasted about a 1/2 mile. After another section of trail in the woods, which was actually really fun, we dropped down a hill onto Flathorn lake. This meant I was close to the halfway point, which had an aid station stocked with water and also marked the course where the 100 milers went straight and the 50k races took a left. This was also where we got some stunning view of Mount Susitna (the mountain the race is named after), running almost right up to the mountain gave me a little boost. I got to the checkpoint, filled up my pack with water, ate a frozen Stinger Waffle, changed my hat, thanked the aid station volunteers, and continued on down the trail. The aid station warned me about overflow about 100 yards down the the trail (we were still on Flathorn lake), I saw the spot, slowed down, and chose my path carefully while trying to stay dry. Which of course meant that the last step I took was right into ankle deep, freezing cold water, so much for staying dry. It turns out however that my socks are awesome and after about 5 minutes my foot was fine, which was good since I didn't break any extra socks.
About 10 minutes later just as the course took a left off the lake and headed back into the trees I passed a walker who told me I was the 9th runner. 9th? I am actually in the top 10? There are only 8 runners in front of me? I knew there were not that many runners in the race, but I was still really excited about the possibility of a top 10 finish, so I took a quick look behind me and didn't see anyone, nor had I seen anyone in front of me for a while, so I vowed to myself to not let any runners pass me.
The second half of the course had some exiting parts, but more some not so exciting parts, of course this might have been due to fatigue. I ran when I could, but walk breaks started to become more and more frequent. Running on loose snow for 20+ miles at this point was starting to wear on me. I was pleased to discover that both my body temperature and stomach were doing well. The planning I did on training runs in regards to calorie and water intake was really paying off, I never really got hungry or thirsty the entire race.
After running through some more sections in the woods which really helped break up the scenery of the course we entered into a very long straight section, turns out it was around 3 miles. Then the course took a dog leg left for another 3 mile straightaway, this is when I saw a runner about 1/2 mile in front of me that I attempted to pick off, but then he caught on and started running so I never did catch him.
I looked down at my watch to see something exciting, it said 26 miles, just a fraction of a mile more and I will have run farther than I ever have before. 26.2, this is it, an ultra, running more than 26.2 miles, I remember having a big smile on my face, enjoying the moment, then looking down to see that my watch died before I hit 27 miles, at least I got to see it go past 26.2.
At this point in the course I was on what I was hoping to be the last straightaway, I was also beginning to curse my decision for doing the race, which I was actually surprised took me this long. Usually I curse the race within the first few miles, but this race took me 5 hours, so to me this meant the race was going well. I saw what looked like the end of the straight section, which meant I was almost back along the road, which also mean I only had about 3 miles to go. This seemed right as it was soon after my watch died so I knew I was past 27 miles.
Just before I crossed the road again and was back on the section we took at the beginning of the race, I got my headlamp out and then got ready for the last 3 miles. I checked my fuel, only 1 gel remaining, so I took a sip of water, nothing, out of water, which meant no gel, I would to just tough it out for the last 45 minutes.
I ran what I could, which was between trail markers, I was really tired, and my hands were getting cold. The sun was starting to set so the temperature was dropped, fast. I kept looked ahead for the point where we crossed the road again and headed into the last 1/4 mile. Then I saw it, the small section of the course just up the hill from the start. I picked up the pace, took a right turn, and headed down the hill to the finish line. I could see Sara jumping up and down cheering and a race official with a stopwatch in hand.
6:58:13, just under 7 hours and good enough for 8th place! Which means a top 10 finish in my first ultra, I will take it! The winner on foot was 5:33 so I felt really good about my finish time. Overall there were 22 runners, 16 male and 6 female, which put me at the middle of the pack, again, I am very happy with that. I was 34 overall out of 74 of all divisions, a good day.
Having the short memory that ultrarunners have I am already planning on running the full 100 mile race in 2014. This involves pulling a sled with 15 lbs of gear through frozen terrain in the middle of an Alaskan winter, sounds fun right? It is also 4 points for the UTMB race in Europe that has now become a bucket list item for me, but one step at a time!