Monday, February 12, 2007

I've Seen the Future

Yesterday (February 10, 2007) I ran the Pemberton 50K at McDowell Mountain Park northeast of Fountain Hills Arizona, together with a total of five longtime fellow members of the Dead Runners Society, a highly social online running club that has been in existence since the early nineties: four from out of state, two local, plus a local lurker who served as a volunteer.

People who know me are aware that I work hard at ultrarunning despite having no discernible talent for it. Often my reports are about failures or DNFs.

At Pemberton 50K I ran my heart out, and had what must be described as a good race relative to my present condition — in the sense that I kept hammering from beginning to end without letup.

One benefit of low expectations is you don't have to rise very high to meet them. For all the effort I wound up with a finishing time of 7:25:50, a personal worst by 48 minutes over the previous time that I ran the race three years ago.

I was not Dead Last nor even Last Dead, but I had to haul serious butt to keep in front of the two people remaining on the course I knew to be barely a minute or so behind me.

I should start by pointing that I did not train for this race at all. My single longest run in 2007 has been 10.75 miles, run on the indoor track at Bally's gym.

Because it has become my passion for the last eight years to reserve my best effort each year for Across the Years, January is inevitably a month of recovery, as I take inventory, rest and recover, fix what is broken, and gradually get back to where I can run regularly and passably again, before ramping up for the next year's plans. Running an ultra in early February has become an unreasonable proposition for me, but I made an exception this year because of the other five Dead Runners who were planning on running, and I wanted to connect and enjoy the experience with them all.

Under the circumstances, I knew that covering the distance would not be an obstacle for me. I'd gone nearly 160 miles at ATY six weeks earlier. The question was whether I was ready to run again on trails and to push as hard for a respectable time as my body would allow.

It was an utterly beautiful day for running, with a starting temperature in the low fifties, bright but cloudy skies, and an official high of 77, which did not become a factor for those inclined to be affected by such a mild warmth who were still out on the course until after noon, and only barely at that point.

An advantage I have over some others who were running is that I live locally, train frequently on Pemberton Trail, and have logged every one of the 52 loops that I have now run on it, plus several short (Tonto) loops and also extended loops including side trails. Therefore, I've developed a keen sense of strategy on how to approach this run.

Although the aid stations are placed close to equidistantly on the course, the nature of the terrain is such that when run in the clockwise direction (race direction for PT50K), the first third is by far the toughest and slowest, even on fresh legs, the second is not quite as hard, and the final third is quite easy, providing occasion for anyone who is inclined and able to run like the wind. Negative aid station splits are not only possible, but normal, as Cathy Morgan's race report, listing her aid station splits, demonstrated with empirical data. From this I calculated that she ran 35.88% of her total race time time from the start to the first aid station, 33.80% from the first to the second aid station, and only 29.86% of the time running the third section, even though most people slow down the further they get. The only reasonable explanation is that the three segments vary that much in difficulty.

Because I know what to do, the beginning of a race at Pemberton Trail reminds me of the alleged Big Bang, as those who don't know better go tearing off at an insane clip, while I deliberately lay back to get my legs warmed up, walking much of the first part, at least until I cross the base of the Tonto Tank intersection about twelve minutes out. By the time I climb up onto the high, rocky ridge and have a view, I see many runners fanned out before me, while I am already by this time close to last and running nearly or actually alone. I'm confident that if I don't overdo it, I will do relatively well on the jeep trail eight miles ahead.

For a while on the ridge I ran in close proximity to Dead Runners Jane Colman and Ironwoman Cathy Morgan. We jockeyed positions for a while. Eventually we separated. There was one other person, a man close to my age, back at our end of the race. I never got his name, but later learned he is from Sacramento, had run Jed Smith 50K last weekend, and is planning on running two east coast marathons next weekend.

My first goal of the day was to get the best time I was capable of for that day. A secondary but important goal was not to finish Dead Last. While I was running among friends, it was nonetheless a race, albeit one to avoid being in last place.

One thing I did quite well this race was to manage my turnovers at the aid stations in record time. I lived the entire race on water, Hammer Gel, and Clif Shot Blocks — my new favorite race food, which I carried in a baggie in my hand — plus some Coke at the aid stations on the second lap. I never took any significant time at the stations, even at the headquarters. I think I drank and took a sufficient number of electrolyte tabs on a more-or-less regular schedule, and did not use any Advil or caffeine tabs to get me through.

I wasn't inclined to look back often, particularly at the beginning, because I didn't want to get into an "Ohmigosh, I'd better pick it up!" panic mode. Whatever would happen would happen, as I concentrated on running what was the best possible outing for myself.

It took me longer than usual to feel thoroughly warmed up and in a mood to run, but was starting to feel normal by the first aid station. I replenished my water supply and headed off immediately, but spent some time juggling gear as I'd made the mistake of tucking my Succeed caps in an inaccessible place. I moved them to a front pocket where I could grab them readily, re-hitched my UD bottle belt, and was off again, now behind Cathy.

Less than five minutes out of the aid station, on a section that was not particularly tricky, I caught a toe and took a dive onto both knees and hands. It hurt a bunch, and broke the skin on my right hand and right knee, leaving scrapes elsewhere. The effects were pretty visible, as thereafter whenever I saw someone he or she would say "Did you take a fall?" Or from those who know me: "Did you fall down again?" But I had not fallen on that trail for over two years, as I've actually gotten much better about picking up my feet and don't shuffle nearly as much as I used to.

At first both of my palms felt like they were on fire, so I walked for a couple of minutes while the pain subsided. It was not a factor in the race, other than losing maybe a minute or two from the recovery walk.

After a while I passed Cathy when she headed off the trail, apparently to inspect a tree; I stayed ahead for the rest of the lap. I didn't know how far back Jane was.

When we hit the jeep road, I told Cathy, who was then right behind me, that this was the place I'd been telling everyone that a person could run hard if inclined. Sure enough, I ran all the way to the aid station, about 15 minutes from the turn onto the jeep road, where I first hit the portapotty, which I urgently needed by that time, losing about three minutes taking care of nature's business.

By the time I vacated the booth, Jimmy Wrublik had already grabbed my stuff, refilled my water bottle, and had it waiting for me. Cathy was waiting to use the portapotty. By getting there first, I actually got a couple minutes advantage, as she wound up losing a couple more minutes waiting for me.

Just as I turned to take off running again, Jane came into the aid station with the other man who was running with or near her. I managed to run pretty much the whole way back to the end of the loop from there, walking only three or four 50-foot uphill pieces on the single track section.

Just as I crossed the road, where there is a trail marker saying it is 1.5 miles to the trailhead, Paul DeWitt came blazing past me, as he had already lapped me, on his way to winning and setting a new course record of 3:11.NN. (That's an astonishing 6:12 pace, calculated as 3:11:00 and in knowledge that the course is actually about 0.3 miles short of a full 50K.) My stopwatch said 3:02 at the time.

My lap split, which I forgot to punch on my watch, but memorized when I saw the clock, was 3:21:50.

Ebullient DRS supporter Kevin Smith, crewing for his Dead Runner wife Sally, omnipresent at all DRS gatherings (and at one time a pretty good runner himself) was there to take pictures and offer enthusiastic encouragement and assistance, as I lumbered right through the stop, getting only a water refill, and dumping my now mostly empty Hammer Gel flask, which I never did recover. He ran ahead on the trail a piece to take more pictures.

I believed that by running hard the last third of the lap I put a significant gap between me and both Cathy and Jane. I was now running quite alone. Because I don't like looking over my shoulder, which takes energy, and accomplishes nothing, I continued to assume I would stay ahead of the three people I knew to be in back of me, and had locked in a final finishing position of fourth from last.

The road that goes up to the rocky ridge is a switchback. Upon getting on top of it, I was able to look down to the road below, and still saw no sign of anyone else, so figured I had a comfortable lead. Because I know both Cathy and Jane are tough as nails, I was positive neither one would have dropped after a single lap, so they were back there somewhere. I just didn't know how far.

I ran less on that ridge than the first time, having already fallen once, and because I had the same experience as Cathy wrote about in her own report: after catching a couple of toes I concluded that I didn't want to fall again on this day, so played it conservatively, but continued to walk hard hard more than run.

IMAGINE MY SURPRISE — when barely 20 yards from the aid station, Cathy pulled up beside me, took close to zero time refueling, and forged ahead! Whoa! I hadn't expected that.

As both an Ironwoman and a Clydesdale, Cathy is an incredibly strong woman. When I headed off to the second station, I watched her build a lead on me as she climbed inexorably up the still mostly uphill terrain, until eventually she was out of sight. There wasn't a thing I could do to catch up. I never saw her again until the end of the race. Her report says that she finished in 7:12, 13 minutes ahead of me.

Way to go Cathy! Excellent second lap.

So I still was not in last place, but by this time I had begun to experience some pain in my lower right back, and stopped every ten minutes or so to bend over and stretch it out for just a few seconds. I'm guessing that falling during the second lap probably helped to wrench my spine into a pretzel, and I was now suffering the consequences.

IMAGINE MY SURPRISE — when around two thirds of the way to the next aid station, two very cute and cheerful young women in their early twenties pulled up beside me wearing race numbers. Say what?? I asked: "Do you mean to say you've been behind me all this time?" "Wellll ... yeah." The chatty one said they walked all the way to the first aid station on the first lap because it looked real hard and dangerous, and they didn't want to trip on the rocks. Then they took a long break somewhere. So they were way back there, but then decided to get moving. And off they went. They remained in sight for another twenty minutes or so, alternately trotting and walking, visibly gabbing all the while, and eventually disappeared. They saw me and jumped up and down and waved to me from across the parking lot as I was headed to my car later on — telling me they thought I was awesome. Hmmm. What irony.

Ah, sweet youth.

IMAGINE MY SURPRISE — when minutes after I met the young sweeties, yet another couple pulled up and said hello! Sigh. This was getting ridiculous. When I said that I certainly had not expected to be passed by anyone else at this point in the race, they explained they were not in the race; they were just out doing a loop for fun and wanted to say hello and wish me well. Whew! That was much different. What a relief.

Before long I hit the jeep road again, and as it turns out, I did have the legs to run it all the way to the aid station, which by virtue of taking an extra five or six minutes to get to this time, seemed to have been moved.

IMAGINE MY SURPRISE — when not long after turning down the jeep road, what should my wondering eyes behold?: "Hi Lynn." It was Jane. Whaaat? I thought she was at least two or three minutes behind me, probably more. Actually, I had stopped to irrigate a bush shortly before the turn, so gave up a bit of that gap on Jane and the man of unknown name who was still behind us both, but not by much.

From this point on it became in my mind a race between me and a woman my own age plus two months who didn't know a race was on. Being basically uncompetitive in my heart, I'm inclined to yield readily to someone putting forth an admirably superior effort. Perhaps I'm way too polite when it comes to racing.

But on this day I wanted to do my best, so after jockeying positions for a couple of minutes, I relaxed, worked on my running form (because it helped my back to concentrate on running upright), and breathing, told myself that walking was not an option right now despite my aching back, and pressed on.

Again I got through the final aid station swiftly, and as I shoved off, I saw Jane and Mr. Anonymous coming in. So I ran and ran and ran all the way past Cedar Tank by the 158th Street exit (a couple of steady miles), and onto the single track section that leads back to the finish. This time I had to walk a little more frequently over the lumps on the single track section, but I refused to give in and just walk it in. I really didn't need to, and was actually doing fine, so why stop now? I could rest at the end.

For the rest of the race I refused to turn around and look behind me. Every so often I imagined I heard footsteps behind me (but probably didn't), and pressed on.

Cathy reported being 0.1 miles from the finish. There really is a sign there with that distance marked on it, as it's an intersection to another trail called the Scenic Trail — which it is, but it's way tougher than anything on Pemberton, as it goes through a sandy wash, and then steeply up to the top of a mountain ridge on very single track trail — narrow enough to hide nearby snakes, which I have almost clobbered a couple of times when running it.

When you see that sign you can also see the edge of the ramada, and you know you're done. I put it into what was left of high gear, and went sailing in. The Dead Runners who had finished before me were all congregated at a table in the ramada, waiting for the remaining two of us to come rumbling in. When they spotted me, wild cheering ensued, so I picked up the speed a little more, stood up straight, and sucked in my gut for the sake of a good finish picture, as Kevin was there waiting with his camera. My final time was 7:25:50, as noted above.

The first thing I said over the line was that Jane had to be at most a minute behind me, and sure enough it was no more than that when she came flying across the finish, looking outstandingly strong. She won her age group award! (I'm told there was one other lady in the group, but she dropped.)

Way to go Jane!

Way to go Dead Runners!

The last one across was Mr. Anonymous, barely thirty seconds later, and that ended the race, as we were assured they knew there was no one left out on the course.

Following DRS group pictures, I headed over to the ramada to get some delicious chili, of which there was still a bit, hot enough to eat, but my body was in too much of a turmoil to eat more than half of what I took. It was 7:00pm before I could tolerate a meal.

After goodbyes were said, the other Dead Runners headed off for showers and to reconvene for dinner. I hung back for a little while to chat with Woofie (locally well known ultrarunner Anthony Humpage) and two-time ATY runner Erin Richards, who had succeeded in locking herself out of her car, and was waiting for a service truck.

Last night, rather than hanging out at home and resting, we went to Herberger theater to see a production of "Souvenir" — must-see theater, if you are interested in such things. Almost every Saturday of my life I do a long run of some description, and because my wife and I attend many music and theatrical performances, I'm usually galumphing by the time I get there. I'm sure at some time or other some wife has observed about me to her husband: "Oh look honey — there's that poor old man who limps!"

I've arrived at the point in life where I'm experiencing diminishing returns for the same amount of effort. I work at running just as hard as I always have, maybe harder, but seemingly every race I get slower, as at age 63 I'm beginning to fall inexorably off the bell curve that measures who even tries to participate in such events. The evidence has let me to this conclusion:
I've seen the future —
and everything I see is in SLOW MOTION!
But that doesn't mean that I'm planning on giving up. This year I'm already committed to attempting to complete Leanhorse 100, also Wendell and Sarah's San Francisco 24-hour, and if we can get it together, Across the Years for a ninth time.
You must never give up! — Richard Nixon

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