Friday, March 13, 2020

2020 50K Road Nationals: near Caumsett, at Hecksher State Park this time!

2 weeks have passed already, not much of a scoop in the result in the age of instant posting, but better get this race report out this Friday night as tomorrow is... yet another race day and... yet another National Championship: the 50-mile Trail Nationals on the Pioneer Spirit and Western States trails!

Ironically, I had written half this post on race day but got interrupted to celebrate my big day with running buddies. Then I got swamped again in work travel (New York, NY and Milwaukee, WI) all that in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic blooming... Anyway, here is what I had written on that Sunday March 1 of 2020...

I still consider myself injured as my butt still hurts at every left stride and it has been on going since November 2018 (Silicon Valley Turkey Trot 10K). So odd to think that most people always used to fear I'd break by logging so many miles, yet it was on a short 10K that it happened, after 20 almost injury-less years and more than 50,000 miles... There is a saying that every runner is going to get injured and especially those trying to push the envelope, but you always want to be the exception...

Anyway, after a 8-month hiatus which wasn't enough to completely solve the issue, I got two medical advices that I could try to run again in January. I did, without extending the stride much, including in Austria where something strange happened: while I was dreaming of running Jed Smith 50K and prepared with a 10-mile run as a short long run, it was below freezing and it's like my right knee got a cold. It took a good week to pass, thankfully, but that did cost me my first ever DNS (Did Not Start) nevertheless. But maybe it was more reasonable I didn't resume with an ultra right away...

The second race of our Pacific Association Grand Prix was last week's Mt Umunhum, our very first Mountain-format race of our Grand Prix. The hamstring was painless for 6 miles and the race was only 14K long, so that wasn't an issue.

Last Friday afternoon, that is less than 48 hours before the 50K race on Long Island, NY, I decided to get in and book a flight. The forecast was sunny for Sunday so what else could go wrong...? Well, what about the lack of training for a predictable missing component to success?

Short night between a great concert at the Harker School with the amazing and world renowned Kronos Quartet and an early flight Saturday morning, but a last-minute upgrade helped. I had forgotten that it was still quite a ride to go from EWR (Newark) to the middle of Long Island, through New York City, I arrived at the hotel just before 7 pm. With the tiredness accumulated all week to fight a bug I caught in Vegas, I slept like a baby, which is always much appreciated right before a race.

I had breakfast by 5:30 (I always want to be done 3 hours before the start) and even went back to sleep more, a good indication that I was either really tired, or extra relaxed as I wasn't going to shoot for a record like I did last year. Rich Hana broke my record at Jed Smith with 3:26, or 6:38 min/mile pace, when I have barely been able to break 7 min/mile in training... My goal this Sunday was to start around 7:10 and see if I could maintain it all the way. Based on previous years, that looked very reasonable, but I was so well trained back then...

As I mentioned, the forecast had the sunny part right. On Friday, they predicted 32F at the start at 8:30 but it actually turned to be 25F and windy, yikes! I'm so sensitive to the cold that I put all the layers I had packed in my suitcase on: long pants and shorts, plus 2 layers for the top, and hat, and gloves and Buff. And I stayed in my rental car as long as possible before the start, with seat heating on!

It wasn't as competitive as previous years because a few speedsters had been busy at the Olympic Marathon trials on Saturday. In front we still had two ultra legends, Michael Wardian and Camille Heron, whom I've met quite often already, as well as Boyd Carrington who had some tough competition in his M45-49 age group with Mike. Two other buddies I've the pleasure to meet at least at this championship, year after year, and both ex members of Team USA: Brian Teason, and Hall of Famer, Roy Pirrung.

Speaking of competition, ironically, our age group was the largest one of all, with 7 older guys in my 5-year age bracket out of 35 men overall. Weird. I started way in the back of the pack to check on rear age group bibs. I could see a few M55-59 but not all... I wondered if a couple didn't start, or had their bib hidden...

No drama with the format of this race, course wise, the same 5K loop, over and over. Here is how the series unfold for me:
  1. Lap 1: I was so much behind the pack that I lost sight of front of the race right away. I just had a glimpse of what was going on at the front at the end of that first lap, as we crossed the speedsters on their second lap. The first mile and half looked surprisingly easy and I realized what was going on at the turnaround: we were pushed by a strong wind through that first half. Oh my, the return was brutal against a strong wind, that felt like some hill training already and we were only 2 miles in. On that lap and the 2 next ones, I was able to maintain an average pace of 7:10 min/mile, breaking 7 minutes on the way out, and slowing down to 7:15-7:20 on the way back. So long for an even pace on a flat course for a change (this year the event moved to a new course, on the South shore of the island, instead of the usual rolling course of Caumsett Park).
  2. Lap 2: my shoe lace untied and, despite wearing gloves, my fingers were so cold, I lost quite a few seconds making a new knot, good thing I wasn't running for a record this time...
  3. Lap 3: I quickly lapped 2 other runners in my age group, that left 4 ahead, the hunt was on! The pace still looked comfortable although I had to push hard in the section back against the wind. If I recall, the wind was actually lighter on that 3rd lap, which was encouraging. On the opposite, being already lapped by the leaders wasn't so good for the morale. Other years, I was able to push that to the 5th or 6th laps, what a difference a year makes!
  4. Lap 4: I was just focused at maintaining a reasonable average pace as the hamstring had started acting again on the third lap. 
  5. Lap 5: apart from lapping quite a few other runners, including 25K and non-championship 50K runners, my major worry became the realization of a blister forming under the ball of my left foot, yikes! Not only it's hard to retrain the muscles and their memory, but it's amazing to think that there is also skin memory involved after such a long break! For the past 10 years I can count my blisters on my fingers, thanks in particular to the double layer Wrightsocks I've been wearing for 50,000 miles, I can't believe I got 3 blisters in the last 2 weeks, and in so few miles! Anyway I decided to stop by the main tent at the end of that lap, that it was worth losing a few minutes at that time, rather than having to shuffle or walk at the end. I felt in luck to see 8 EMT personnel inside. I asked one if I could have my foot taped and he has such a weird look at me, having just grabbed a sandwich, I felt my request was inappropriate and that wasn't going to be done quickly so turned back on the course promptly.
  6. Lap 6: apart from the great feeling of being pushed by the back wind in the first part, and battling against the wind on the way back, I recall being lapped again by the leaders who were on a sub 3-hour pace. And then I was worried about the blister growing up... That time, upon returning to the start/finish line, I asked for the medical tent and was directed to an ambulance on the parking lot. That was really not my day: as I arrived to the vehicle, there was a sense of panic with one of the EMTs yelling at two others "we have a job!" But it wasn't for me, they jumped on a light 4-wheel drive emergency vehicle to attend to someone on the course. Dang, I will have to run the last 20 kilometers with that darned blister. At least that was a good reason to slow down a bit. I had passed two other M55-59 runners but there was one of the registered 6 whom I could spot on the course, that kept me moving forward.
  7. Lap 7: the average pace was ineluctably going down but I was determined to find that missing bib. As I finished that lap, in the short section the out and back shared the same bike path, I did cross a runner with the bib #30. I had written down the list of runners in my age group and, bingo, that was one of them. No back bib, mystery solved (and that's an infraction to the competition rules). At least I had built a lead of almost 3 miles at that point, but I still needed to keep moving for the last 15 kilometers.
  8. Lap 8: the main memory I have of this lap is that the wind was getting worse and I had so much trouble moving forward on the way back, until I got passed by Kallin Khan who had taken the overall lead and was 1 mile away to the finish, still moving really fast despite that terrible head wind. Inspiring persistence and resilience facing adversity, wow!
  9. Lap 9: that is the lap we pass the marathon mark and get a potential official Boston-qualifier time, which is a great perk of this race for us ultra runners who aren't running standard marathons anymore. In 2016, I got a 2:47 on my way to a record 3:18. This year...? Ouch, 3:17. For the marathon mark. Still a qualifier by 18 minutes, but a slower time than my Boston finish last year, so not much useful. At the beginning of that lap, I finally managed to catch up with that runner wearing bib #30 (Michael Hunter). I stopped by before passing him and mentioned his hidden back bib...
  10. Lap 10: knowing that I had enough of a lead to win my age group, I actually lost some motivation and, against the wind, stopped twice to walk a few steps, until I realized I was going to have to sprint to the finish to eventually break 4 hours, duh. I wasn't able to sprint actually but picked up the pace from the 9 min/mile slog. 500 yards before the finish I actually saw a runner wearing a x5-x9 bib, and moving steadily, that pumped some adrenaline! Closing on him, that was M75-79, wow, there is really no limit in our ultra sport! More on this individual below.
I crossed the finish line in a time of 3:59:32, phew, close call for a pathetic sub 4-hour! There was no photograph on the finish line but you can see me in that video (not sure if that will start at the time of my finish, you can also try that link):
And a few pictures on the course:

Right after finishing, I went into the tent where the 50K awards had already been distributed (it had been more than one hour (!) since Kallin finished in 2:57:51!). To my surprise though, our USATF liaison for the event, ex Team USA herself, Lin Gentling, awarded me with a medal right away. I thought that was the first place for my division but, no, she said I made the top 10. I was blown away... in past years I had to run 40 minutes faster for that! Well, apparently, there had been a few computer glitches: in the final results, I'm only 13th male.
Needless to say, our world elite, Camille, won her race in 3:26!
The top 9 podium:

After that there was quite some wait as Michael (Hunter) finished 2nd in our division (4:35), then Brian (4:44). I reported the missing back bib incident to Lin who certainly took the protest seriously as she, herself, got disqualified from an international competition once, for that very same reason. Here is the rule from our 2020 USATF Rule Book:
Rule 341.6 - In Masters LDR championships, to be eligible for individual or team scoring or awards, a bib, supplied by the games committee which identifies gender and age group, shall be worn on the back.
Poor picture, but Michael's bib was under his white top the whole race.
I felt I owed Brian a request for consideration of that rule by the organizers. After all, I'm a Certified USATF Official myself so I do have to care about the rules... Eventually, after a wait of more than 30 minutes, it was decided that this wasn't enough of a photo finish so Michael kept his 2nd place, and, with his usual amazing life philosophy and sportsmanship, Brian agreed not to contest his 3rd place.
Then, some moments later... the celebration of this other birthday boy, Zeke Zucker, 76 years old! Zeke finished in 5:04, while Roy won his M70-71 age bracket in 5:46. Roy's 92nd National title, wow! Zeke was happy like a young boy!

More bling:
As I said, I started this post on race day but got interrupted for a very cool celebration of my own day with Brian, Roy, Lin and friends.
We didn't opt for a desert but the waitress was super nice and brought some cake anyway! And that candle...
A week after such a nice and happy celebration, Roy shared the terrible news of the passing of his wife, Chris. Thinking of you, Roy, and see you in a few miles as you say, Champion!

Just in time to wrap-up that report and go to bed, less than 10 hours before the start of the next race. It's going to be fun, it's supposed to be cold and raining all day! Can't complain, we are such in dear need of rain...

Take care all, indoor and outdoor, and let's be safe and keep our social distance!

PS: a few of the EMTs I didn't get to know...
As for the blister? 3/4 of an inch long... Better quickly teach my skin what endurance is again...

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