2010 Promise Land 50k

Promise Land 50k is the 3rd of the 6 races that comprise Beast Series and the last of the Beast 50k’s that make for a fast and furious Spring schedule.  Last year I ran Promise Land while dealing with on-again off-again IT Band issues, so this year coming into the race healthy meant I could expect an entirely different experience.  With the beauty of the course, the extremely stacked field and the awesome post-race party, I was greatly looking forward to this year’s race.

I carpooled down with Keith Knipling and Mario Raymond, two good friends who, in addition to giving me a run for my money at our weekly WUS runs, will be giving me a run for my money in this year’s Beast.  Mario and Keith set up camp while I opted to sleep in the Element, a precautionary measure on my part given the forecasted showers for the entire weekend.  Raindrops hitting the car woke me at various points in the night, but in morning the only evidence of rain was some humidity that would die off as soon as the sun rose.

At 5:30am the race started and we started the 2.6 mile climb up to the Overstreet Creek Road aid station (AS1).  Not wanting to deal with a light for mostly just a climb, I followed other front-of-the-pack’ers who guided the way and set a nice fast pace.  Jordan Whitlock and Jake Reed pushed the pace hard from the get-go and quickly faded into the distance as they took the lead.  Seeing Jake, a first-time ultrarunner, running with Jordan and without a water bottle, I thought for sure that I would be seeing him later in the day keeled over on the side of the trail.  Without giving too much away (ok, giving it all away), Jake went on to win his first ultra with a very impressive 4:49.  I believe he scored a water bottle somewhere during the day, but that remains unconfirmed.

Promise Land aid station #1

AS #1 in the dark - mile 2.6 (pic from last year)

I did my best to stay true to my #5 bib seeding and held 6th place as we continued climbing, this time on trail, for another mile or so out of AS1.  The sun poked its head out as I crested the first climb and started a 3-mile downhill section.  Since I’m a heavier dude (compared to elite ultrarunners), I fly on the downs and can really gain some time with my gravitational advantage.  I caught up with Jeremy Ramsey and Brian Schmidt after a bit, but as soon as an incline would come along they would pull away.  The terrain became a rolling jeep road and we shuffled between 4th and 6th place for a few miles.

Around mile 8, while the 3 of us were running single file I caught a toe on a rock hidden by the overgrown grass.  I faceplanted and impaled my left quad on another conveniently placed rock, resulting in a nice bloody gash across my thigh, a bloody knee, pebbles that I have yet to remove from my palms, and a throbbing sensation that came with every activation of my quad.  I was worried that this acute injury to my quad, combined with the expected trashing of the quads that would come later in the day, might produce the perfect combination for rhabdomyolysis and consequently ruin another beautiful Promise Land for me.  Thankfully the pain lessened over the next couple miles and I was able to pass through AS2 (mile 9.7) while continuing racing as planned.  Rather than trying to ride their coat-tails, I decided I needed to run my own race and they pulled ahead out of sight.

The climb to Sunset Fields (AS3, mile 13.7) was rather uneventful, but afterwards we were greeted with a fun, fast and technical descent.  This was my favorite section of the day.  I love the adrenaline kick that comes from bombing down a steep technical section.

Somewhere around here, out of nowhere I passed Jeremy who has barely off trail taking care of business (TMI, I know).  Since he was running shirtless and now had his shorts around his ankles, this crouched down naked muscular figure looked like the Terminator as it appeared from the lightning.  Laughing, I said some choice words of encouragement and went about my business of running while he tended to his business of… not running.  He caught back up shortly thereafter before we got to Cornelius Creek aid station (AS4, mile 17.8).

During a flattish road section Jeremy seemed to be slowing, talking about how he wasn’t feeling it today, so I upped the speed and did what I could to put a gap between us before the eventual monster climb up Apple Orchard Falls.  Knowing that I am a stronger downhiller than a climber, I was positive that the climb up Apple Orchard Falls would be the determining play of the day where I would blow up and Keith, Mario, Jack, Micah and a slew of other great runners who were probably only minutes behind would leave me in the dust.

A bridge. No idea where on the course.

Shortly after Colon Hollow aid station (AS5, mile 20.8) you get a little bit of climbing as a precursor to the Falls.  Right as this climbing was starting, Schmidty, Jeremy and Jonathan Bryant all blew by me.  See?  I had predicted that this was coming. The real climbing up Apple Orchard came as we left Cornelius Creek aid station for the second time (now AS6, mile 25.9).  Getting to Cornelius Creek requires a brief out-and-back that lets you see who is immediately in front of and behind you.  Schmidty and Jeremy were only a few minutes ahead and, to my surprise, there was no one on my tail.

Starting the climb up Apple Orchard Falls

Starting the climb up Apple Orchard Falls

Knowing that the fast guys were all saving their energy to dominate on this climb, despite the fact that I didn’t see them on the aid station out-and-back, I did my best to run as much of this climb as I could.  This goes against the typical ultra rule of “walk the ups and run the rest”, but I am quickly learning that when in the front of the pack you don’t get to relish in as many walking breaks.  Sigh.

This 3-mile climb starts out gradual with lots of small waterfalls to your left.  Every hundred feet or so there was a large rock step that would throw you off pace.  Then it got steep and technical, at times going over large boulders that required navigation on all fours.  After you conquer the technical stuff you are rewarded with a beautiful big waterfall and a wooden boardwalk that goes around it.  Last year I was taking my sweet time so I hung out here and relaxed for a bit.  This year I was on a mission and instead I just made sure to turn my eyes from the trail to the Falls for a second.  You gotta take what you can get, right?

Immediately after the Falls come the steps.  These aren’t just any steps, these are 176 oddly-spaced steps that you must climb after running 29 miles.  Fun!  (Farouk told me there were 176, so I blame him if this count is off).

Apple Orchard stairs

Apple Orchard stairs - 176 of them

I saw Schmidty just ahead as we were both slogging through the steps.  I caught up with him and, since there were only a few miles to go, figured that instead of battling it out for placement we could run the last few in together.  We continued climbing together for a bit, but just before Sunset Fields (AS7, mile 29) he mentioned that he had a knot in his glute that needed some stretching and he didn’t want to hold me up.  I told him to stay strong and continued on my way, back in 5th place.

I came into Sunset Fields extremely surprised that no one had caught me.  Throughout the entire climb I had been looking back every minute or so to see who was in hot pursuit.  I don’t know if it’s dumb luck, hard training or a combination of both, but at this point in the race there were only 5 miles of downhill to go and I could confidently say that I had my top-10 finish in the bag, much better than I had anticipated.

It was a quick 2.5 miles of descending trail to the last aid station, Overstreet Creek Road (AS8, mile 31.4).  I blew right through without stopping and then came the painful 2.6 miles of steep downhill road to the finish.  It’s painful because it’s so steep that it’s hard to NOT run sub-6 minute miles.  I was running what seemed like 5k pace, not 50k, but I saw this as a good thing because ultimately it was some additional leg-trashing that will get me in better 100-miler shape.

The descent finally ended, I came across the field of the Promise Land Youth Camp and crossed the finish line in 5:07:40 and in 5th place overall.  I honestly have no idea how I pulled this off, but it sure is a great feeling to come so far in less than 2 years of ultrarunning.

Best Blood pose

Showing off my Best Blood at the finish

I was also awarded Best Blood for the gash across my thigh.  In the end, I walked away with a pair of sweet Patagonia shorts that all finishers were awarded, an awesome embroidered Patagonia Nine Trails messenger bag for being a top-10 finisher, and a comfy red embroidered fleece blanket for Best Blood.  I definitely got my money’s worth from my entry fee on this one.

After a quick “ice bath” in the stream and a shower, I thoroughly enjoyed hanging at the finish line and enjoying the post-race camaraderie.  Everyone and their mother runs this race (roughly 300 runners), so there were plenty of VHTRC, West Virginia, Lynchburg and Pennsylvania friends in attendance.

I really love this race.

Stephanie, me and Martha post-race

Stephanie, me and Martha post-race

LINKS:
Full Results
Additional Promise Land Stories & Pics

snOMG Holiday Lake 50k++

If I had to sum up the 2010 Holiday Lake 50k++ in 4 words, I’d have to go with: “Snow. More snow. Ouch.”

A snowy start

Seriously, the presence of 6″ of crunchy snow turned what is usually a flat, fast, first-timer friendly 50k into one heck of a challenge that I was NOT expecting at this point in my race calendar.  Last year at Holiday Lake I ran my 50k PR in 4:10, good for 11th place but resulting in some nasty ITBS that left me unable to compete in my planned spring races.  Knowing this, I went into this year’s race telling myself that I was out there to run my own race and not compete for top-10, no matter how much instigating I got from Horty.

Let’s backtrack a second and start from the beginning: my supposed 3.5 hour commute down to the race start which ended up taking 6 hours due to glorious snow traffic on the lone day that government employees had to report to work this week.  Arghhh!  This caused me to miss the pre-race briefing and pre-race meal; thankfully I came prepared with my own dinner and rather than enduring hours of hunger, I only had to endure a cold piece of salmon, a cold sweet potato, and the awkward preparation of said food as I drove in stop-and-go traffic.  Yum?  Hey, whatever gets the job done.

Weather forecast was calling for temps in the teens, reaching mid-20’s with the occasional chance of flurries.  We woke Saturday morning to find a fresh inch or two of powder and temps closer to 30.  This just meant less clothing needed at the start and a few extra inches of white stuff to suck away the energy of every footstep.

At 6:30am we headed off into the “darkness”, but the presence of moon-lit snow made the use of headlamps absolutely unnecessary (Sidebar: Hey Clark, you have my headlamp, I’ll get it at Terrapin).  Matt Woods, the #1 seed and fellow Tuesday-night WUS runner, quickly took the lead as we headed a half-mile up the pavement to our turn onto the trail.  My screw shoes were audibly noticeable I’m sure, but later on I would become extremely grateful for going screwed rather than regular-shoed or Yaktrax’ed (yeah, I just made up some words… tough).

Matt Woods throwing it down

Once we hit the trail it became painfully obvious that today’s race was a horse of a different color.  Half a foot of crunchy snow forced us front-runners to high-step like a footballer through car tires, and with each step came the process of “step, crunch, drop down, stumble, lift, repeat”.  We all appeared to be searching for footsteps from those in front of us that matched our desired stride length and placement.  With all my barefooting as of late, I was unable to find someone with a matching short stride and was left running with the rhythm of a 4-year-old playing drums on Rock Band for the first time.  It had to have been equally comical.

Icy Pond Crossings

With not much elevation change and all the crunchy white stuff looking the same for miles and miles on end, there’s not much to report on for the first half of the run.  No rhythm, high-stepping and knowing that I was going to be out there much longer than originally planned led me to be downright miserable.  I even gave serious consideration to dropping from the race at the turnaround.  After all, I had the inaugural Cupid’s Undie Run waiting for me back in DC, an event that my roommate and I had organized without first considering my need to redeem myself in the Beast Series this year.  I voiced these sentiments to my buddy Jack Kurisky whom I was running with at the turnaround and he quickly slapped me back into reality.  I had unfinished business with the Beast, and no matter how much misery I was in or how many half-naked runner gals waited for me at a bar back home, I had to finish this stupid race.

Me starting my 2nd loop

…so on I went.  Counting the passing runners at the turnaround I found myself in 8th place and 2:39 in to the “fun”.  Hmm, I was about 40 minutes slower than last year but in a much better placement, guess the conditions were equally challenging for everyone else!  As I made my way onto the second loop (this time in the clockwise direction) I started passing a large number of runners in the final portion of their first loop who were only minutes behind.  The trail conditions, while wet, were becoming much more tolerable and runnable.  I was finally able to get into a groove and zone out.  Yes!  Thank you, Jack, for not letting me drop!

My hip flexors were sore from the 16 miles of high-stepping, but with my new-found ability to actually run, I became a much happier camper.  The miles ticked away and so did the number of runners who remained between me and the finish.  I wasn’t purposefully passing folks, but I had a mantra going in my head and it was motivating me to get to that finish line.  “Gotta get to the Undie Run, gotta get to the Undie Run, gotta get to the Undie Run.”  Hey, whatever does the trick, right?

More (fun?) snowy trail

I also knew that the faster I cruised along and the closer I got to the finish, the greater my chances of doing something stupid like blowing up or getting injured.  Neither of those are on my to-do list so I tried my best to maintain a steady but reasonable pace.  I hadn’t set out to race, and I didn’t think I was putting in race effort for a good portion of it, but now that I found myself in 4th place I realized I in fact was pushing a bit harder than originally planned, and since I had put in all that effort to get there, might as well not blow it at the end.

At one point I slowed to a walk near a hill and felt my hammies tighten up.  This was a sure sign that I was getting pretty fatigued, so I told myself no walking until the finish line is crossed.  It may have also been a sign that I was low on electrolytes, so I popped another S-cap.  The plan seemed to work and the hammies cooperated through the finish.

I honestly expected to get passed in the last mile by some marathon runner doing his first ultra like I did last year, but thankfully this year I was able to maintain a solid distance from others.  The final half-mile downhill on pavement is much more enjoyable when you’re able to run it at your own pace and you’re not tapping in to imaginary energy reserves trying to run down some speed demon who took your top-10 slot.

I crossed the finish in 5:10 and in 4th place, an hour slower than last year but in a much better placement.  Was this year’s field less competitive?  Did I get better?  Am I better suited for racing in difficult conditions whereas others who normally do well at Holiday Lake are not?  Who knows, but it was one hell of a race.

Oh yeah, I stuck around the finish line for all of 5 minutes before going to grab a shower and hitting the road.  Much fun was had at Cupid’s Undie Run, but I’ll save that for it’s own separate post ;-)

All pictures courtesy of Doug Sullivan.

Full race results here.

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