Photo courtesy of USATF
Don't call it a comeback....
After JFK last November, I often wondered if I would ever again have an experience in a race like I did that day. That feeling of pure joy, ease and speed without pain, effort or faltering from wire to wire. That feeling, the inexplainable thing when everything comes together just as it should. That feeling of your entire mind, body and spirit working together for a common purpose. I wondered if I would ever again have such a day.
This year, for the most part, I have had good races but not like JFK. Lake Sonoma I won/set a CR, Miwok I ran a strong second against a deep field while staying in a controlled "eyes on the ultimate prize (WS)" mode. Both races I had highs and lows, but overall pretty satisfying days. WS was much of a polar opposite and didn't turn out well despite my best efforts. So I wondered if I would ever again have another day like JFK. I know I had set a high bar for myself on that day and I know that more often than not races will not go flawlessly. I didn't worry about it; that kind of day where everything falls perfectly into place doesn't happen every day. But when it does, it is beautiful.
This weekend, I had one of those days.
I was slated to run Tussey Mountainback 50 miler last year but contracted H1N1 while staying in NYC after racing Vermont 50 a week before. I was really keen this year, after spending the first half of the year focusing on 100 mile trail racing, to get road fast again and go after the 50 mile road national championship at Tussey. I thought it would be a great transition race from 100 mile trail races back to the marathon and an attempt at an OT qualifier (January in Houston).
After opting out of CC100 in August, I utilized my taper for that race instead as a nice extended mid-season break and added a week to it for good measure and extra rest. It felt like a true off season though it was short. I came back to training feeling ready to do the work to get faster and stronger. I don't think my training for Tussey could have been better. I was dedicated on the track and pushed myself in tempo workouts and long runs. I did numerous doubles, did strength and flexibility work with my trainer Josh and on my own. I ran my second most mileage month all year in September. And I felt great doing so. Each 100+ mile week that passed, I felt better and better and even capped off my training with a final long run of 25 miles in 3 hours flat. But without a successful race since Miwok, I was only feeling cautiously optimistic for the race.
I was very lucky for this race. I flew into Akron where Kristin (Nathan's sister, as well as his parents) lives and she was to be my crew, long haul driver, cheer squad and great company. Kristin is an extremely dedicated and gifted crew person. I cannot thank her enough. Akron is a 4 hour drive from State College, PA so it was perfect.
Prerace was pretty typical. Eat, relax, check stuff, try to sleep and fail. The drive out from Akron was beautiful (fall colors!) and easy (easy for me to say). We arrived at our host family's house, Dan and Kelly Wright. Dan and Kelly were running the relay at Tussey and were very gracious hosts. I cooked everyone dinner, my typical pre-race fare-white rice with butter, salad with sweet potato and goat cheese and a nice juicy steak. Unlike before my other races this year, I wasn't feeling any nervous energy or anxiety about the race. Kristin and I went over my fueling plan, checked all my supplies and I headed to bed about 10pm. Naturally I couldn't sleep and just as I was about to fall asleep around 12:30 my phone rang (had it on to act as my alarm). I didn't answer it, but when I listened to the message post race it was a friend asking for a gluten free cookie recipe: might I suggest consulting my recipe page?
Even though I wasn't nervous or even thinking about the race, I just didn't sleep great. I don't usually when I am not in my own bed.
Kristin and I before the race. Brrr. Mittens were necessary.
5am alarm. I was all business. Not nervous energy or anything. Coffee on, typical pb&j on Udi's gluten free bread and a banana. Still no nerves. I recognized the feeling from before JFK. Calm. Deadly calm. Even with the local paper hyping me and my potential for breaking the CR, my goal truly was just to run happy and enjoy a race in a way I haven't in a long while. I felt no pressure to run to prove myself to anyone or run a great "comeback" run. Comeback from what? WS. Nah, I don't see it that way. All I needed was to comeback to the way I run and experience running.
We loaded up the car and headed to the race start, a quick 15 minute drive. The race is interesting because it is an ultra and relay with the relay starting in waves beginning an hour after the ultra starts. What makes this interesting is the fact that the race and all the support vehicles share the same gravel road. Thus vehicles all have to be carefully staged and early in the race we all spent a good amount of time slinking along the shoulder of the road. It also meant Kristin didn't get to see the start of the race because they sent the vehicles off before the runners. Smart but it also meant I had to relinquish my jacket and (her) mittens and stand shivering at the start for a few minutes in the pre-dawn low 40s temps. Todd Braje (defending 50 mile champ, my 100k teammate and friend) and I huddled together for warmth and joked that between the two of us we might have enough body fat to keep one person warm. Soon Howard was leading us in the singing of the Star Spangled Banner and Olympic Marathoner Brian Sell said go.
Just for the hill of it is right; there was only up & down on this course.
I went out with a comfortable stride. Other than being quite cold, my legs felt really good. All the aches, pains and weirdnesses acquired in taper were all gone. I had a mild concern for my lack of ability to um, clear the pipes, pre-race but I figured I wouldn't worry about it and cross that bridge if I came to it. I warmed up a bit as we climbed up the first leg, a 3.2 miles steady climb. Things were clicking along. I carried one small gel-bot and felt like my Salomon Exo 3/4 length tights, technical shirt and sleeves were a spot on selection for the race. I fell into a comfortable pace and watched a decently deep field of men's leaders, plus a few fool hardy and overexcited runners, dash away from me.
I felt fantastic on the climb which quickly became switchbacks. I keep thinking- look at how easy this is; running up these hills. Let's be real, "just for the hill of it" (the race motto) is spot on. Tussey may only have just over 5,000 feet of climbing but this course is all hill. Even the "flats" are at a slight grade.
I rounded one switchback and glanced to see how the field behind me was shaping up. I knew my main competition was Connie Gardner (who is also a friend, mentor and amazingly talented runner). She just won the 24 hour national championship and a week later ran Akron Marathon. I saw Connie but no other woman, so I settled in to run my race.
Kristin and I decided that she shouldn't go to TR1 (transition 1 aka aid station 1) because I wouldn't need anything and it would be much easier. I had given her a range of times which were the earliest she should expect me at the aid stations. They were pretty ambitious times with nothing but good training to indicated that kind of fitness. But they sounded good, so I said why not. I knew Anne Lundblad's CR was very stout at 6:36 and also knew that Tussey and all its hills was likely a slower course than JFK. But I still gave Kristin times for a 7:30-7:45 min/mile range for pace (that is a 6:18-6:28 finishing time).
I came into TR1 about 25 minutes and then got to enjoy stretching my legs out for 4 miles of downhill. My stomach was a little gurgly and I needed to pee but there were many many cars on the road heading from TR1 to TR2 and I had to hold it until the aid station.
I arrived to a cheering and prepared Kristin in 1:23 which was right smack int he middle of my expected range. I took my salt cap and dixie cup of gatorade and switched bottles with her. But not before I hit the porta potty and made everything right in the world (well in my digestion). I have to say everytime I had to pee during this race I thought "yeah my kidneys still work!". I headed out of the aid station feeling great. Another 3.8 mile downhill section passed without incident. I was starting to enjoy fewer and fewer cars as the field spread out.
And so it went. I just comfortably cranked out the miles. I looked forward to seeing Kristin every few miles, taking a new bottle every other station, a Vespa every 1.5 hours. The scenery was beautiful, a perfect fall day among the vibrant fall foliage.
I passed through 20 miles feeling like I hadn't even been running at all. Mentally, I felt a mixture of "f-yeah" and curiosity of just how long I would feel so good, solid, speedy and downright giddy.
Although the mile markers were way off, I crossed the halfway point under 3:15 and was very pleased. Kristin had acquired a new passenger, Jason Bryant, who won StumpJump a few weeks ago and is Nathan's La Sportiva teammate. He was having back problems and was forced to drop. I was bummed for him but it multiplied my cheer squad which I didn't mind. I was so damn happy & feeling good that I couldn't stop grinning and being excited every time I saw them.
My fueling plan was working perfectly. I had a plan of taking 2 gels per 70-80 minutes plus water and 1 Saltstick tablet every other time I saw Kristin. It worked perfectly with the Vespas every 1.5 hours. I never felt an energy lull. I didn't lose the bounce in my legs. I didn't feel mentally or physically fatigued despite getting no sleep the two days prior to the race. I hit the 50k mark in 3:56 and started to realize, or more accept, what I had been hoping for: this was my day. This was the day when nothing would go wrong, it would all click. I stayed comfortable and didn't press as I was already ahead of CR pace.
Getting ready for the lift and spin. Mile 37 is a great place to do ballet moves with strangers.
We tackled each section with surgical precision. Kristin fueling me up and telling me exactly what the next section contained, me running my little heart out. I pushed on the downhills, banking speed for the bigger climbs that I knew were waiting at the end. I came into TR 9, did a spin around the course monitor and prepared myself for a grueling 5.8 mile uphill which I knew would only deliver me to TR10 and the hardest climb of the day.
This was the only exposed section and I was warmed by the bright sun in a nearly cloudless sky. I had relinquished my sleeves at TR9 and settled in to do work uphill. It was crazy how good I still felt. My pace was slightly slower with the grade but I was on. I took a Roctane gel, the first caffeine of the race for me, to add a little pep to my step on the hills. I passed another runner and moved up in the field. I knew I was top 10 overall at that point but wasn't sure where exactly. I was running along when I heard a man from one of the houses along the road (there were very few- I saw more hunters than I saw houses!) say, "getting tired yet?" I looked over to see a lone old man, sitting on his porch, watching the runners come slowly past. "Nope!" I replied. "I feel great!"
I hit TR10 and Jason told me to expect a .8 mile steep uphill then a .8 mile steep downhill then a flat section to the turn around and then back .8 mile up and .8 mile down back TR 10/11. I had seen Dave James leaving the out and back and I knew I would get a chance to see how some of the race was shaping up. The only runner in front of me I didn't see was Todd, who had taken over the lead. I saw Howard powering up the final climb and he gave me an "atta girl!" and I felt equally as pleased for him to be racing so well. It was a comeback run for him after recovering from an injury. Howard told me later I'm the first woman to ever be on the out and back with the top me. I climbed the hill and chuckled at the fact that the hardest hills by far were between miles 41.8 and 45.8. And even they did not dampen my spirit or make me feel more tired. All I could think about was how excited I was to reach the top of the return because that meant it was all downhill to the finish and I was ready to blaze it.
I hit the top and started cranking. I came back into the aid station and declined my new bottle from Kristin telling her I wanted to go light and fast. They relay was finally catching up and the aid station was full of relayers and their teams cheering.
I picked it up. Here I was at mile 46 and felt amazing. My legs were nibble and fresh. I joked to myself that I should do the final 4 miles as a tempo run so I could finish tired. I laughed, naaaaahhhh. Why would I? I was far ahead the women's field (having not seen the 2nd woman, Connie, on the out and back) nor were there any men close enough to chase and none were chasing me. I had 4 miles and 45 minutes to break the CR and didn't need to crack myself. I still sped up though. It was sweet downhill and I just had to open it up a bit. I felt like a machine. At mile 48 I got really choked up, finally realizing the magnitude of the run I was having. Holy s**t was it my day. I kept myself together though. When I saw the mile 48 marker, I calculated that even running 7:30 miles, I would arrive at 6:24 and some change.
I was in fact running faster than 7:30 and hit the mile 49 marker and pushed a bit more. I kept rounding corners expecting to see the finish line but it didn't come and didn't come. I glanced at my watch: 6:25, my mileage at over 50.5 miles. Finally, I broke out of the trees and saw the finish line. "Kick! Kick!" Howard yelled. I picked it up and crossed the finish line in 6:28. A new CR by 8 minutes and a PR by a minute on a harder course! National Champion and a perfect race. I embraced Kristin and then Howard (who finished 3rd and first Masters!!!). We walked a bit as not to cramp up and I couldn't stop smiling. Kristin exclaimed (having crewed for only 100 milers before) "man I love 50 milers so much more than 100s!". I couldn't agree more. I changed, cleaned up and chatted with winner Todd Braje who had broken the men's course record by 5 minutes, as well as 2nd place Dave James, Howard and Mark Godale (5th). I was 6th. Turns out that everyone's watches measured the course as nearly 51 miles (50.7+) meaning I averaged a rocking 7:39 min/mile.
Wow, what a day. I didn't go into this race feeling I had something to prove. I went into this race prepared and ready and just desiring to be consumed with joy, floating in the present and enjoying the the ability to run. This was my day.
We gathered up our stuff about an hour after the race and drove back to Ohio. It felt like such a dream that when I woke up in the morning, my legs barely sore, it took me a moment to realize that it was, in fact, not a dream at all. How cool is that.
Don't call it a comeback...