Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Ice Age Race Report

I wanted the course record.  I needed the win.  It was never about Western States.

Honestly.  I've already turned down my spot into WS100.  Heck, I was so ambivalent about the Western States slot that my wife didn't even know Ice Age was part of the Montrail Ultra Cup and the top 2 finishers would be granted an automatic entry.  Here's the text message I got from her when she saw all the social media traffic about the auto entry:

Eleventh at WS100 and 3rd at JFK last year...both races I missed my chance to make the starting line again in Squaw Valley by one place.  Heartbreaking, right?  Why wouldn't I accept?

I'll get to that, but I have to tell the whole story first.

It just so happens that the Ice Age course record holder currently lives in Cincinnati.  His name is Andy Jones and I see him regularly as he still trains with a competitive group. (Not to be confused with Andy Jones-Wilkins (AJW) who is also well known in ultra circles.)  Andy Jones is a Canadian-born ultra runner who was very fast back in the late 80s and throughout the 90s.  He's run a 2:17 marathon, is 3rd on the North America all-time performance list for 100k with a time of 6:33:57, and he still holds the North American record for the road 100 mile at 12:05.  Suffice it to say, the dude had wheels.

When Andy saw the success I was having at races like JFK, he mentioned Ice Age.  He explained that he still had the course record, but it had been around a long time and he felt this new wave of ultra talent was bound to be on the verge of breaking his mark.  He suggested that I give it a shot.

What's more is the fact that I consider JFK, American River, and Ice Age to be the Triple Crown of fast, flat US 50 milers.  I've done JFK of course, and I wanted to race American River, but my work schedule prevented me from running it this year.  Ice Age fit into the schedule nicely, so I entered the event simply to run the race.  Western States was little more than an afterthought.

I wanted the course record.

After attempting my first 100 miler and dabbling in a couple more mountainous ultras in 2012, I had a quiet year without any headline wins.  Max King trounced me at JFK, taking my record down just a year after I set it.  I thought I ran well last year, I just felt like I couldn't compete at the very top level of mountain ultras when I had no mountains to train on.  Admittedly, my confidence was a little shaken.  I decided that I should return to my strengths and run races that I could properly train for in 2013.  I had a good start resetting my Mountain Mist CR in January, but that didn't mean much on the national level.  Ice Age was my first real opportunity to prove to myself against a national class field of fast 50 mile types that I still had it.

I needed the win.

The race started fast.  Really it was just the first mile, but still, I had no interest in getting caught up in the early shenanigans.  The leaders settled in relatively quickly about 30 seconds ahead of me, and I stalked them for the first loop of rolling, grassy jeep roads.  I don't think they were more than a minute up at the 9 mile aid station.  Josh Brimhall and Zach Bitter were starting to pull away together while Eric Senseman, Matt Flaherty, Scott Breeden, and Brian Condon trailed in a tight group.

I was now warmed up and starting to get into rhythm.  I slowly started to reel in the pack of 4 in front of me. I was very careful though, and didn't catch the group until around mile 14.  At the time we were in a section of tight single track so I was just content to sit at the back.  A short time later we popped out of the forest and were cruising on some super smooth single track.  This is my natural strength and I started stretching the string just a little here.  Keeping myself under control, but ever so slightly trying to pull everyone else out of their comfort zone.  Zach and Josh were still out of sight in the lead, but now our chase group was beginning to splinter a bit.  By the 22 mile turnaround I was solidly in third and closing on the leaders.  Most importantly, I was just running my race, according to my schedule.

Zach and Josh came into view on the return trip through the same field where I started to pass the chase pack.  I wanted to hold back and relax, but I was closing and could feel it.  I dropped a 6:30 mile and caught them at the 27 miles.  I sat on them for a minute and collected myself, but I had too much momentum and decided to push into the lead.  I felt Josh drop off the pace soon after, but Zach tried to keep in contact.  I knew I needed to back off into a more mangeable pace...I still had a long 22 miles in front of me.

At this point, I was on course record pace, but the relentless small climbs were taking their toll.  I ran a few miles of the course on Friday and knew it was going to be like this, but I hadn't seen the last 13 miles of the course, so I had no clue what I needed to prepare for.  I didn't know if I would be able to continue at CR pace. I could go after the CR, but it was risky, and I might blow up in the process.  I mentally made the switch.  I had to make sure I won.  I would have been very disappointed had I moved into the lead that early then fallen apart and given up the lead later in the race.

I dialed back the effort level a notch and started focusing on my nutrition.  I could tell I was still gradually pulling away from Zach so that was a good sign...as long as I could keep it up.  He passed me late in the race last year at Western States so I knew he could be dangerous.  I was able to pass him back before the finish at WS100, but I didn't want to try my luck again.

Why do you continue to run these stupid races?  This isn't fun. You don't have to do this to yourself.  I battled my own demons from miles 32 to 36.  I had been running too fast.  I had been neglecting my nutrition.  My quads were on the verge of cramping.  I had been listening to those scientists who say salt doesn't help cramps and had not been concerned about my salt intake.  Luckily, I had put a few S-Caps in my Salomon fuel belt as an afterthought.  That probably saved my race.  If my own experience wasn't enough, Meghan Arbogast and Jeff Browning set me straight at dinner that evening...we don't know why salt works, it just does.

The salt and a steady stream of Coke pulled me out of my funk eventually.  Another out-and-back section turned around at mile 40 and I found I had a 5 minute lead on Zach.  Brian Condon and Matt Flaherty were only 30 seconds behind Zach and looked quite good.  I was confident though that I had pulled through the hardest part of the race and I'd be able to hang on.  The last few miles were uneventful.  I knew the course record had slipped out of reach, but I was oddly content with the result.  I found one more 6:30 for the last cruiser mile and crossed the line in 5:56:46.

I haven't been more pleased with a race since I broke the CR at JFK in 2011.  I ran the 3rd fastest time in the history of the race.  Only Andy Jones and Dan Held have run faster.  Coincidentally, both of those guys also have run 6:33 for the road 100k (6:19 pace for 62 miles).  Guess I have a new goal this fall for the World 100k race in South Africa.

It was never about Western States.

The hardest part about turning down my entry is that everyone just assumes that I would accept.  There were so many comments and congratulations that ended in "See you in Squaw!" or something to that effect.  I didn't see AJW's iRunFar column until after the race, but it pretty much sums up what I think the popular opinion is regarding the Montrail Ultra Cup Series...the only reason to run a MUC race is to get into Western States.  But that's just not how I see it.  I treat the MUC like prize money.  Money rarely, if ever, has motivated me personally to run a race.  But money inevitably brings competition, and that's what I want. Same with MUC, it attracts a solid field.  Some folks trying to get into WS100, others just looking for someone quality to race against.

The problem is that the sport of ultra running is changing.  It is becoming more and more specialized.  People have long commented that the MUC races are unfair to 100 mile specialists like SpeedGoatKarl because he'd rarely be able to earn a spot in a fast 50 miler.  Fortunately, more 100 mile races have been added in the past couple years to help those types get into States.  But I have the opposite problem.

I can earn a WS entry in a fast 50 miler, but I can't do anything with it.  If I accepted my slot this year, I'd only have 6 weeks to recover from Ice Age, train for States, and then taper so I arrived well-rested.  If I was lucky, I might be able to crack the top 10 again, but I want more than that.  I want to be truly competitive.  This year I wouldn't be, so I'm not running it.  I believe that by making these tough decisions now, I will extend my career and be healthy enough to have more opportunities in the future. I just hope I can still earn my way in when that time comes.

See you in Squaw...just not this year.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Everything Bagel

...err, Everything Blog.

Panorama shot overlooking Ogden.

As the title implies, I'm going to cover a lot of ground in this post, so let's get started.

My last race was several weeks ago at the the Xenia marathon where I forgot how to run a marathon.  I felt quite good the day after the race, so I immediately started looking for another marathon to redeem myself in short order.  But two things happened that made me change my mind.  First of all, my legs didn't bounce back as fast as I thought they were going to and I was tired for a week (imagine that!).  Secondly, I decided that I really didn't run that poorly in Xenia.  If I had run 2:28 I would have been very pleased.  After some research, I think the 20mph headwind the last 11 miles was worth 2 minutes.  And if I hadn't gone out in 1:12 for the first half, I believe I could have run 2 minutes faster on the return trip.  So, I see a clear path to the 2:28 I thought I could run.  Plus, I ran completely alone after 7 miles so it was basically a time trial.  Sometimes I think I might be too hard on myself.

Pretty sweet setup for the Salomon/Suunto crew in Ogden.

Next up, the Salomon US Trail Team Summit.  A couple weeks after the marathon, I had the chance to go on a great trip that involved running, but it wasn't a race.  Salomon organized a summit for the US trail team at their headquarters in Ogden, UT and brought us all out for a long weekend.  It was so refreshing to go on a running adventure that didn't involve the focus and stress that comes with a race.  The Salomon crew took us on some beautiful trail runs just a couple miles from downtown, and I got to know so many of my awesome teammates in a way that wouldn't have been possible at another venue.  Of course, Salomon also hooked us up with a ton of great product, and I want to tell you about a few of my personal favorites.

Did you know that Salomon and Suunto are owned by the same parent company?  Well, now you do.  So my first new toy that I want to talk about is the Suunto Ambit2 S.  I've had the original Ambit for almost a year now and it's been a great watch, but it's a bit overkill for your average runner.  Suunto realized this and designed the 2S.  It gives up some battery life (now 6 hrs) and the barometer/altimeter to become a much slimmer, sleeker, lighter, and less expensive package.  It is now a full-featured GPS watch that is comfortable enough to wear as a regular watch.  It may be only a few millimeters thinner than the original Ambit, but it fits my wrist so much better.  It also has a new GPS chip that seems to be more accurate and consistent than the previous version.  If you need the additional battery life and barometer, there are refreshed versions of regular Ambit as well.  What's more, Suunto has also completely revamped the Moveslink site and it is also much improved.  For these reasons, I highly recommend looking into the Ambit2 S if you are in the market for a new GPS watch.

Testing out the Advanced Skin S-LAB Belt in Utah.

Another product I am excited about is the Advanced Skin S-LAB Belt.  It is designed to be used with the soft hydrapack water flasks.  I have run with a couple different water bottle belts, and they all bounce and slide up to my rib cage.  This belt, however, fits comfortably and stays in place quite well.  I also like carrying and drinking out of the soft flasks more than I thought I would.  Although this belt is a great idea, and I'll be wearing it this year, I'm hesitant to recommend it to the general public just yet.  The clip system is a little awkward and it doesn't stay cinched tight as well as I think it should.  It needs one more design iteration and it will be great, but I already like it better than anything else I've worn.

The S-LAB Belt with 2 full flasks.  Two in the belt + 1 in the hand = 24oz.

A quick comment about Salomon's shoes.  Building on the success of the Sense, designers introduced the Sense Ultra and Mantra this year.  I think these are great shoes that will work better for your average trail runners.  I have enjoyed running in the Mantra lately, but I'm not quite ready to race 50 miles in it yet.  So I still plan to wear my favorite XT 5's at Ice Age.  But there looks to be a lot of nice refreshes coming down the pipe.  I haven't run in it yet, but the Fellraiser looks awesome if you need lots of grip in a low-profile shoe.  I'm looking forward to running in the XT 6 shoes soon and I got a sneak peak at a big change in the XR Mission that is a little farther out.  I'm excited about the future, that's for sure.

A sneak peak of the XT 6 from runningwarehouse.com

So, next weekend is Ice Age 50 mile in the Kettle Moraine State Forest of Wisconsin.  Should be another very competitive race, but I think it suits me well.  I'm told the course is very runnable, but there are some short, steep climbs as well.  I hate mentioning names because it's so easy to accidentally overlook someone in a list of 400 entrants, but I'll give it a shot anyway.  From the Salomon team we have myself, Matt Flaherty, Glen Redpath, and Cassie Scallon.  Other top male contenders that I spotted on the list are Zach Bitter, Scott Breeden, Adam Condit, and Josh Brimhall.  I'm not as familiar with the women's field, but I see Denise Bourassa and Melanie Peters who should be able to give Cassie a good race.

My last ultra was in January at Mtn Mist, and it was only 50k, so I'm not exactly sure what to expect.  I think I'm in pretty good shape, but I've gone a little light on the ultra-distance long runs during my spring marathon training phase.  Luckily, there aren't any big mountain climbs, because I haven't spent much time climbing lately.  It should be interesting.  But this is why we race though, right?  

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