Sunday, November 8, 2015

NJ Trail Series One Day: multiple goals

As the saying goes: "Chase too many rabbits, and you will not catch either one." And it doesn't have to be rabbits of course...

NJ Trail Series One Day is the last ultra race which I had put in my calendar in the second half, hoping to improve my 133-mile PR at this format (at last year's 24-hour Road Nationals) and starting with a redemption for the disappointing 129-mile performance at the San Francisco Summer Solstice back in June, plus, with my DNF at the 50-mile Nationals 2 weeks ago, a redemption of that one as well. Big goals...

Now, running is only my second job and I'm fortunate to have a great first job to pay the bills, so it takes precedence on my work and travel schedule. 3 weeks ago, my calendar was earmarked with a consulting gig in South Africa and, given the time difference, I had to fly to Johannesburg on a flight leaving JFK at 10:40. Between the international check-in and the return of my rental car, the 1 hour 40 minutes drive between Augusta, NJ and JFK, a shower at the site of the race, some post-race recover, that meant I could not run beyond 5 am with a race starting at 9 am on Saturday, hence mission 5 hours. I used that as an excuse to focus on two Age Group (M50-54) American Records: 12 hours and 100 miles. The first one was set by John Maas in 2012 in Minneapolis at 84.64 miles, the second by Brian Teason in May 2013 on that course in 15:02:30. I don't know John, but I met Brian, first at the Invitational Desert Solstice 24-hour last December in AZ, then in March at the 50K Road Nationals in NY. Amazingly humble and gracious person who keeps sharing nuggets and quotes of human intelligence and wisdom on his Facebook page.

Brian has a very impressive ultra running resume, and here are just a few lines, excerpt from a recent message of the Race Director of the Snowdrop Ultra 55-hour Race which is not only a race, but also a relay and, more importantly, a fund raising event (and, yes, that's 55 hours, like Catra will enjoy doing for her birthday in 4 years! ;-).
He is a 21-year ultra-running veteran. In his 1st 100 miler, he finished 3rd with a sub-18 hour performance. He is a 3 time USA 50 Mile Champion (2x’s road, 1x trails) with a PR of 5:23. He is a 2 time member of the USA 100K Team.
With that, I knew it wasn't going to be easy, yet, I have already run 100 miles under 15 hours a few years ago at Run d'Amore, so it seemed that the bigger challenge would be to run 85 miles in 12 hours, something I never did (my two attempts at the distance were 78.6 in Oct 2010 and 79.576 in December 2011, both at Crissy Field in San Francisco. And, yes, 5 miles makes a big difference, not to mention 5 more years of age... Oh, and both these runs were not part of a longer format either.

Because, indeed, while I was going to focus on the 12-hour first, then on 100 miles, you know my phobia about losing percentage points in the UltraSignup rankings and that event was going to be reported as a 24-hour, with a few serious contenders in the mix. So I also had to think of running as long as many miles as possible or doable or bearable beyond 100 miles...

Starting with Le Grand Serge Arbona who has been on Team USA for 24-hour world championships. And, as I was going to find out, a few laps into the race, another amazing distance runner, Phil Mccarthy, who holds the American Record for 44-hour road with 257 miles! Just before the start, Race Director, Rick McNulty (with his wife, Jennifer, as Co-RD), teased us that we should follow Phil at least for the first loop in case we weren't sure about the way, since he has run it so many times, but I thought he meant at the 3 Days at the Fair event which is also part of this NJ Trail Series (72 hours). Speaking of Trail Series, most of the course is actually an amazingly smooth road, like a car racing circuit, with long straight lines, long curves, and a few chicanes to bring some variety, plus just enough feet of elevation to make several groups of muscles work repeatedly. With the perfect weather we had this week, which may be a bit of a gamble in November in the North East, I found the course much more suitable for top performance than San Francisco's Crissy Field loop (risk of wind, sandy half, mostly flat and two straight lines). But, again, I would certainly have said the same thing would we have had a snow blizzard blowing this weekend...
I arrived at the site just after 8, coming from Dover. We started promptly at 9 am, under an overcast sky and temperatures in the mid 60F. While a few local runners were complaining about the heat, it felt perfect for me, I didn't even have to use by Brooks arm warmers. Three races started at 9 actually, our 24-hour, a 50K and a marathon, with a 6-hour starting at 6 pm and a 12-hour starting at 9 pm. With that, and a 1-mile course, there was a lot of passing and the game became to recognize the patterns between the runners leaving the interior way, those not, those in groups, those zig zag-ing. At least that brought some variety to remain alert and think of something else than the monotonous and brutal pounding of so many miles on asphalt.

The average pace for 85 miles in 12 hours is 8:28 so I thought of aiming at 8:15 to take into account time for breaks (pit stops and bottle refill). Not having a crew, I took the excuse of running after a record to ask a few volunteers for help. Many runners had actually quite a serious crew, with tables, tents, chairs, ice chests and a ton of food. Being on the road for 2 weeks, with only a carry-on, I was not even able to bring enough GUs for 24-hour, as I was limited by the famous quarter-size bag limit for liquids and gels... Not to mention that I could not pack more than one pair of running shoes, or even much warm running gear, so a good weather was a blessing!

Back to the pace, I could not even slow down enough and ended up running most of the first 6 hours under 8 min/mile. While it felt comfortable, at least for the first 50K, I knew this could get me under trouble... To increase the pressure, one of the local runners I shared my goal with while running, told me that the course record for 12 hours here had been set by no less than Valmir Nunes at 80 miles, Valmir having won Bad Water and the Sparthatlon among many other feats. Oops, I had to bring on my A game then...

While I was pushing the pace, there were still a few 24-hour runners keeping up, which was a bit insane. I don't have all the stats, but I think that Phil and another runner were only 4 or 5 miles behind when I passed the 50-mile mark in 6:48. At this point, I was averaging 8:10 min/mile and, running some maths in my head, thought 85 miles was well in reach, I was more thinking between 87 or even 90. Then, I was thinking, from there, I'll have 3 more hours to run 10 miles, a walk in the park. Oh well, like it was my first ultra...

First, the night fell upon us around 5 pm, that's the issue with running in the Fall (yet, probably better than humidity in the Summer). Besides, it's not a great excuse because the course is so well lit that you don't even need a headlamp, something I really appreciated. Yet, from an internal clock, darkness is night... We were just 8 hours in the run, that was short/early to switch to night... Interestingly enough, around 4 am, we were finally bathed by some low sun rays, it was almost unreal. But that meant that the sky was clearing up for the night and, with the associated breath, explained the chillier temperatures announced in the weather forecast. I'm doing so much better in heat, yikes...

With that, I did slow down (finally...), and I think I ran the 100K around 8:32, that is around 8:15 min/mile. Still a good margin, except that many of my laps were now close to 9 minutes, so that wasn't a good trend. Rick was still quite optimistic but, with 4 miles to go and about 36 remaining minutes, I'm super appreciative that Serge accompanied me for the final focus and push it took to complete 85 laps in 11:58. Unlike some official time-events where the actual distance is measured wherever you finished when the horn blows, only completed laps would count today. Bottom line, that's going to be 0.36 miles added to John's record, pending the official certification by USAT&F which may take up to 2 years. And assuming no other M50-54 runners has done better on a USAT&F-certified course and event in the meantime...

I was quite worn out by that final push but still hopeful of running 15 miles in 3 hours to give a try to Brian's 100-mile record. I went on one more lap and, feeling cold, stopped by the car, changed and put my rain jacket on. I continued with a few laps but got sweaty under the vest and started shivering which was a bad sign. I decided to warm up in the car for a while and, at this point, made a stupind mistake: I was parked next two two tents and didn't want to turn the engine with the risk of waking them up, so I just tried to sleep, hoping I'll dry up in the meantime. First, I was shivering so much, it was hard to sleep but, I set my clock for 1 hour and 20 minutes and when this woke me up, I was super cold. At that time, I realized I could just drive the car a few hundred yards, and, indeed, got much better after about 20 minutes with the heater on, phew! With that, I lost 3 precious hours and was feeling so much better when I came back on the course. I had left the course in 1st place and was now in 6th but made it back quickly in 3rd place.

Serge, who is also 50, had told me he had barely trained for this race so he was 'just' hoping to run 110 or 120 miles today. But, at 12 hours, he had already logged 77 miles, so he had a much better day than expected. On the contrary, Phil had troubles before the 12-hour mark, and called it a day I believe around 19 or 20 hours. Then there was Megan Stegemiller who was actually leading the race, overall. With 6 hours left, I was 11 and 10 laps behind Megan and Serge, respectively. I was going to give it a try but, unfortunately, my adductors froze like it happened at the Summer Solstice in June, and that forced me to stop in the car for another 'warm air blowing' treatment, which, fortunately, resolved the issue and allowed me to have a few great laps in the last hours.

Serge was still running strong, despite fatigue and pain the legs and won the race with 135 miles. Far from his best (over 150), but on the high end of his expectations for the day with not training going in the race. Megan not only won the women race with 129 miles, which 4 miles over the Team USA qualifying standard for 24 hours. And I took 3rd with 123 miles. See full results in Rick's Google doc.

One record in bank (pending approval), one record missed, and another proof that it is super hard to keep going when you start fast. Yet, I needed the 85 miles for the first goal... But it's still so unnatural to think that it is so hard to run basically a 50K (32 miles) in 12 hours... One thing is for sure, I could have been smarter about my first stop, saving 2 hours at least, or getting a better return on the 3-hour stop rather than fighting with the shivering for 2 hours. Anyway, you can't rerun un ultra, this is been a great outcome overall. Many participants went through their own struggling, missing 100-mile or 100K goals, for instance (one was actually chasing a 150 miles as a matter of fact). I want to highlight Clifford who kept walking for 24 hours and managed to cover 59 miles. For one thing, he was wearing Brooks shoes (my ex-sponsor! ;-).
Rick and Jennifer were amazing the whole way, not only before the start (e.g. super responsive with emails) and post race, e.g. cleaning up the place in record time and giving us personalized and autograph license plates! But also on the course as a matter of fact as they did a few laps to accompany their daughter who did 27 laps! And, of course, attending to all our needs during the race, following our progress and time tracking, providing encouragements to us, and directing the few volunteers at the aid station. For once, I don't have much pictures, as a matter of fact, none during the race, but here is one of the cooks who served us so diligently though the night and morning, as far as making us egg/bacon sandwiches for breakfast at the finish! When I asked him if he was a runner, he replied: "yeah, but I never ran more than 100 miles like you guys!" That's quite humble, isn't it? Oh well, he plans on running the 3 Days at the Fair event, so he will go "ultra 100-mile" eventually...! ;-)
Very professional organization and a very friendly ultra community, I'm really glad I had the opportunity and privilege to be part of this edition! Thank you for offering this perfect setup to test and push our limits again, this is all what ultra running is about!

I want to give one more shout out to Vespa which really helped me minimizing my calorie intake during the first 12 hours. I also had 3 full servings of mash potatoes afterwards (a tip I found on my own but was later confirmed by Jon Olsen, 24-hour World champion), and took about one GU gel and 1 S!Caps an hour, plus a few cups of Coke, a few pieces of banana here and then, and one cup of chicken noodle soup. Oh, and one piece of cheese cake during my 3-hour stop, since I had time to digest! Could not resist it when stopping by Trader Joe's on Friday night (making the cashier wondering on which diet I was, and, after I told him what I was up to, he couldn't believe someone would run for 24 hours... ;-).
And the Brooks Launch were perfect to deal with all the pounding, combining cushioning and lightness needed to move fast.

PS: short of pictures during the race, here is a visual description of the course, post race (everybody was gone, but Serge and I as we were trying to get an hour of sleep before driving on our own), otherwise you'd see the tents and cars on the side of the course before and after the finish. But, overall, there was plenty of parking space.

The start, between the two trees. The white/green building on the right serves as the timing headquarters, the red building on the left (behind the trees) is the aid station kitchen.
 The super stocked aid station kitchen (closed promptly after the race).
The first turn on the right (and the steepest bump of the course), with the conveniently located and spacious restrooms, including 4 showers, in the background.
 Second turn, left, then right (chicane).
 The out and back to make the exact 1.00 mile distance (albeit, with all the sharp turns, GPS are easily getting 2-3% off).
 The turn around at the ned of the ~150-yard out and back.

The way down the Conservancy, a great opportunity to get some leg speed for variety.

 The start of the great curve.

 Entering the longest straight line.

 A chicane through Gate 8.
 Cutting on the grass for optimal trajectory.
Line before the last left turn to the start/finish.


Lori Guevara said...

Great write up! This was my first Trail Series event and my longest run to date. I completed a mere 24 miles in my 6 hr race but don't think I could have picked a better race to be my first. Congrats to you on your successes! I agree with you on many of your points about the races and the people there; runners and workers. I too counted on Brooks Launch to do the job :)

runstephane said...

Great job out there Jean! Or rather 'record-breaker' Jean. I didn't understand your schedule but I hope you caught your flight; happy recovery and can't wait for 2016. Congrats.

Helen said...

It was super fab watching you lap me time and time again :)Congratulations on your record!