Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Drinking the Kool-Aid: My First Ultra-Marathon

I've wanted to do this for years, but it never fit into my schedule until now... my first attempt pushing the envelope beyond 26 miles, 385 yards... my first ultra-marathon... the Holcomb Valley Trail Race (33 miler).

Where? The mtns above Big Bear, 99% trails and fire roads... ~15 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail.

Elevation? ~3,850' net elev gain and drop... low point (start/finish) at 6,750'... high point (~mile 8) at 8,212'... 6 climbs to high points on the route.

Weather? Ideal... 50s at the start and 60s at the finish... bright sunny day... about 50/50 with shade/exposure on the route.

Why now? Good timing. I finally got that sub-3 marathon burden off my back. Time to try something new... and I love the mountains.

Training? I piggy-backed my training off of my winter and spring marathon training in which I ran 3 marathons in a matter of 12 weeks (somewhat unintentionally) culminating with marathon PR at the OC Marathon on May 2 in 2:59:28. Basically, I recovered for about 8 days and started training hard again. My key workouts for each of the next 3 weeks were:
• 6-mile tempo run at lactate threshold (6:34 pace then 6:23 then 6:21 then 6:24)
• tough longish (15-17 miles) run on big hills (~1000' elevation gain)
• b2b long runs (20/11 then 22/16 then 25/20)

Main goal: since I've never run farther than 26.2 miles, I wasn't sure how my body would respond in the final 7 miles. So my main goal was not to overdo it and finish strong without limping across the line in a death march. Goal accomplished. I ran a neg split (2:38/2:35) and my fastest mile was my last mile. (Here's my Garmin file which gives all the data on mile splits, HR, elevation, map, etc.)

I had no idea what to target as a time goal since this race was considerably farther than I had ever run and it involved big climbs and downhills... on trails (which can be tricky with rocks and roots)... and at altitude (all between 6,750' and 8,212'). But these were my "sketchy" goals:
Time Goal A: sub-5:00 (~9:00/mile pace)? This was so far-fetched I didn't mention it to anyone... but it sure would have been nice. Fwiw, only two runners ran sub-5 this year. Jorge Pacheco (a fast, elite ultra-runner who won Badwater 2008!) won the race and broke his own course record in 4:13. Second place finished 43 minutes behind him (!!!). I was a full 60 minutes behind the winner, but only 17 minutes from second place.
Time Goal B: sub-5:19 (essentially sub-5hrs for 50K... a very tough goal). Since this race was an odd distance (33 miles), not a standard ultra distance (like 50K, 50 miles, etc.), I thought it'd be cool to hit this mark. Goal accomplished. I looked at my Garmin when it read 16.5 miles (halfway) and I was at 2:38 (on pace for a 5:16 finish). I hoped I wouldn't fade at the end... but I just didn't know... and fortunately I didn't.
Time Goal C: sub-5:30 (~10:00/mile pace). Based on past results for this race, I figured this would probably get me into the top 10 overall... and it did... 6th overall and 1st in the M40-49 age-group (well, technically, 3rd AG... but the other 2 got overall awards and there was no "double dipping").

Race plan:
• Gels and an Endurolyte capsule (sodium & electrolytes) every 4 miles.
• Carry a handheld bottle and refill it at the 7 aid stations.
• Try to avoid overdoing it too early so that the end doesn't become a cramped-up death march.
• Wasn't sure what heart-rate zone I should target since this involved steep climbs at altitude. Planned to target 148-150 to avoid an ugly crash and burn at the end. A mile into the race, I had already abandoned that plan and targeted 158-160 (essentially my target HR zone for OCM)... and it worked out ok. My avg HR for the entire race ended up being 159... and I finished strong so my adjusted plan worked.

About my race:

The race had a staggered start of four waves started every 2 minutes to avoid too many runners clogging up the trails at once. The waves were seeded so the fastest runners were in the first wave. I was disappointed to be seeded in the fourth and final wave (since I had never run an ultra)... but that actually turned out great. At the end, when I was running near anyone, I knew I had either a 4- or 6-minute lead on them depending on whether they were in the first or second wave. :-)

Opening 3 miles were a steep climb... had to do some power-hiking even within the first mile to avoid spiking my HR too early. I didn't mind if people passed me at that point, I knew I could pass them back by the end... and I did... since I started in the fourth wave, I passed everyone except only the 5 people who finished ahead of me.

In the opening 6-8 miles, I couldn't find a nice steady pace... I was either going too fast and my HR was climbing or too slow and my HR was dropping too low. Finally, I caught up to some other runners about my pace (from an earlier wave) and that helped steady my pace... one of whom I ran with for ~12 miles on the PCT. I asked him if he minded that I followed him since this was my first ultra and was trying not to overdo it. He didn't mind. We talked a little bit. Around mile 21 on some climbs I ended up getting ahead of him. After the finish, he came up and congratulated me on my race and informed me that I won our age-group. I thanked him repeatedly for letting me tail him for all those middle miles and also thanked him for saving my race or else I would have crashed and burned for sure. I really owe my AG award to him.

I also learned the hard way that while trail running, don't follow the runner in front of you too closely... you gotta be able to see the rocks and roots coming up. Around mile 8 or 9, I took quite a tumble (nearly down a steep ravine) when I tripped on a rock. I cut up my right knee pretty good... but it's not a trail race until you fall... :-) And I must say, I saw more runners than not who had taken a spill during the race. Lots of battle scars.

The race went remarkably smoothly for me. I don't have time to tell about all the sights and sounds today. Suffice it to say, ultra-runners are interesting folks. And the route was amazing. Great views of Big Bear Lake from high up and also Holcomb Valley, the High Desert... and even the ghost town of Belleville. In 1860, the town had grown to 10,000 people and came within 2 votes of becoming the county seat of San Bernardino County during the (smaller) southern California gold rush. All that remains is a few old mine shafts, a log cabin, and "Hangman's Tree" where justice was meted out in this rough town.

What's next?
I always like a challenge. Some of my running friends think that since I've succumbed to the dark side of running and have run an ultra, now I'll be signing up for a 50- or 100-miler soon... well, not so fast. Yes, I finally drank the kool-aid and found myself part of the ultra-running cult... but I have no immediate plans to go farther... at least, not yet. 33 miles was plenty for me right now. Since I've (unintentionally) run a marathon (or more) in each of the four local counties this year (Diamond Valley Marathon in Riverside Co.; LAM in Los Angeles Co., OCM in Orange Co.; and now the HV33 in San Bernardino Co.), I'm gonna set aside the longer stuff for a few months and work on the shorter stuff... namely, speedwork for 5K/10K... something that's long overdue. And then I hope to arun the Cal International Marathon in Sacramento in December.

And I'd like to dedicate my first ultra-marathon to my friends Jay and Anita Finkle who are amazing ultra-runners who regularly run 100-milers. All the best to both of you, especially with the new challenge you're facing. You two are a great inspiration!