Saturday, December 06, 2008

12/6/08 Sunmart 50 Miler

The Sunmart Texas Trail Endurance Runs are two ultras (a 50k and a 50 miler) held at Huntsville State Park in Texas. Everybody calls this set of races "Sunmart" even though Sunmart is the sponsor. I suppose that would be a little like calling the Chicago Marathon "Bank of America" or the Tacoma City Marathon "Michelob Ultra", which would be confusing for a couple reasons. Nevertheless, this is Sunmart. And in this case, it's probably not a bad thing because one of Sunmart's big claims to fame is that participants get loaded down with stuff. Here's just a sample: gym bag, technical shirt, polo shirt, running hat, notebook, poncho, disposable camera, gloves, notebook, bandana, sewing kit, and a stuffed animal. I'm sure I've forgotten a few things. AND all the clothing items as well as the notebook (!) have multiple color choices. After completing the race, participants also get a jacket.

The race fee includes a free meal the night before, free hot breakfast before the race, and hot food after the race. The race also supplies the typical fare found at ultra aid stations, but unlike most ultras, the aid stations are only 2-3 miles apart. Staffed by super friendly folks who are there rain, shine, or snow for 12 hours. Each station has multiple portapotties. The race even uses chip timing, which is kind of funny in the 50 miler. Did I finish at 9:30:02? Or 9:30:03? :-)

Anyway, as you can see, they really try to take care of runners at Sunmart. The courses themselves are quite interesting. At a high level, the two races consist of multiple roly poly loops around a small lake. The race utilizes various trails and dirt roads in the park. The trail sections aren't terribly technical, but they do have lots of roots to keep runners on their toes (or their faces). As a bonus, because Sunmart is held in December after the leaves have dropped, many of the roots are hidden. Everyone likes a surprise, right? The good news is that the trails are not rocky at all... in fact, they are quite sandy. So if a root does take a runner down, it doesn't always hurt as it might in other situations. Not always. Sometimes it does. There are no true "climbs" at Sunmart. The courses definitely have ups and downs, including one section actually called "the hill", but these are nothing like what you find at a hardcore mountain ultra.

I've mentioned "courses", plural. Many of the miles utilized by the 50k and the 50 miler are the same, but not all of them. The 50 miler is a 12.5 mile loop (sort of), repeated 4 times. Actually, there's a 1.5ish mile section OUT before the loop, then the loop itself, then the 1.5 mile section BACK to the start/loop count/finish area. In the middle of the loop, there's a 3 mile out-and-back section on a dirt road. This is "the hill". The two out-and-back sections are nice because you get to see people in both directions, and you get to interact with people in both races. Because aside from the out-and-backs and a short section of the loop, the 50k course is quite different. It starts off with a six mile jaunt on wholly different trails (in the past, this was a crowded out-and-back, but they changed it this year), followed by two 12.5 mile loops. Except, oddly, after sharing the first section of loop and "the hill" with the 50 milers, the 50k course suddenly veers off onto a different trail for about 4 miles. Got that? Yeah, it's weird. Here's a map.

All in all, Sunmart is a fast course as trail ultras go. Of course, I am a poor runner on trails, so "fast" is kind of lost on me. I ran the 50k last year and aside from the 70s-and-muggy conditions, I had a fun experience. Albeit not with a fast time. So I decided to come back and try it again.

One big problem. When I got to packet pickup, I was on the wrong list. They had me down for the 50 miler. I have not run longer than 27 miles at one time since the end of July, when I slogged through the White River 50 Miler. Oh dear. I have had a bad history with 50 mile races *and* I wasn't optimally trained for this. I knew that my weekly mileage would probably get me through in one piece. Hopefully. But I might hurt myself. And although Sunmart is a fast course, I didn't know if I'd make the 12 hour cut-off.

I could have switched over to the 50k. I should have switched over to the 50k. But coulda, shoulda, I did not. I'm not exactly sure why. It certainly wasn't a sense of pride. I have neither pride nor shame when it comes to running ultras, especially the 50 mile kind. I think my brain was morbidly curious about what kind of punishment I could withstand. So I stayed in. I did what I could to prepare at the last minute: I ate a lot.

I knew that with all of Sunmart's aid stations, I wouldn't need anything extra beyond what I had brought... with one exception. 10-12 hours is a long time. The 50 miler would be starting at 7a, and sunset would be about 5:30. It gets dark, really really dark, in the woods at night. I didn't have a flashlight. My morbidly curious brain started doing some calculations again... I had run a gruesome 12:30 at White River, but that course was orders of magnitude more difficult. On a less challenging course, surely I could beat eleven hours. And, as I watched the sun go down outside my hotel window, it did not seem to be truly dark until about 6p, the eleven hour mark. Fine. I had a race goal. I needed to beat 11:00 or get lost and eaten by alligators.

On race morning, I got to the park early enough to score great parking and to consider breakfast. Lots of people were eating. Not me. Last year it had been warm, but this year it was ice cold: 25 degrees. It was dry, which was nice, and not terribly windy. I decided to go out in shorts, several layers of shirts, and gloves. I knew that with the 12.5 mile loop, I'd be back sooner or later to ditch some clothing if it warmed up. As I was trying to figure out where to leave my drop bag, I walked through a field of leaves next to the start. Stumbling around in the dark, I managed to step on a tree branch and somehow gouge a six inch scratch (a deep one) into my other shin. Great. I hadn't started the race yet and I was already bloody. This would be a bitter, bitter omen and I didn't know it.

I watched other people stuff themselves silly with a detached fascination, hit the portapotty a couple times, and then it was time to go. At precisely 7a, about 200 of us headed down the trail.

Four loops around a lake. Eleven hours to do it.

1st Loop
Heading out to start the race, I felt ok. I was nervous, but I did everything I could to relax... and most definitely to go out SLOWLY. The sun wasn't quite up yet, but it was light enough to see fine. Everyone was very chatty, but I wasn't. This is usually how I gauge my mental state in a race. If I'm chatty, that means I'm relaxed. If I'm not chatty, I'm either sick or nervous. If I'm not chatty AND other people's chatter starts bugging me, then I'm in a bad way. Relax. Relax.

I ran.

My first stumble happened quickly. My first fall (the kersplat kind) was not long after that. Sigh. It didn't hurt. The second fall did, though. I kept going.

One nice thing about attempting the 50 miler was that I got to see the differences between the two courses. The 50 miler visited a lot more of the lake as well as the lake's spillway. All in all, it was a more varied and fun course than the 50k. Which is nice since I'd need to be on it for 19 miles beyond a 50k.

Towards the end of the loop, I started playing leapfrog with a woman wearing vibram 5-fingers; these are essentially neoprene gloves for feet. She was almost running barefoot. I found this curious, but I didn't think more about it.

Then it was back up to the start/loop count/finish area and my drop bag.

# Stumbles: numerous
# Falls: 2
Locomotion status: all running, no shuffling, no walking
Mental/emotion status: detached
Time: 2:18

2nd Loop
As I ditched a shirt and grabbed a couple things from my drop bag, I noticed that I was incredibly stiff for 12.5 miles. This reminded me of my previous week at the Seattle Marathon where I felt beaten up way too early... and ultimately had a poor second half.

Uh oh.

And I'm only a quarter of the way into this.

The bad thoughts started creeping in. Oddly, though, at the same time, I started doing some math. My first loop's 2:18 hadn't felt too fast, although I was certainly stiff. It seemed to me that I could perhaps keep all of my loops under 2:30 and therefore finish at 10 hours. That would be cool. And so it became my new goal: "run 2:30 loops, and finish around 10 hours".

Yeah. I should have factored in those bad thoughts. Or, probably, I should have worked harder to banish those thoughts. But I didn't. And I started falling. I had fallen twice during the first loop. I decided that if I slowed just a little bit, maybe I'd stumble less. And not fall. I wish. My first fall happened before I even made it to the first aid station. And every joint hurt. I stayed on the ground for a minute to regroup.

By the third fall of this loop... yes, three falls all the way down in 12.5 miles... I started becoming weirdly fascinated by other people's reactions to my falls. Some people would just ignore them and continue onward. Some people, particularly for a more acrobatic move, would audibly gasp or hoot. A couple would actually stop to ask me if I was ok. Not as many as I expected, but at the same time, more than I wanted :-). "Yes, I'm fine, please go on."

I was really grim during this loop, and it seemed to take forever. Vibram 5-fingers passed me again somewhere in here. I noticed that she was wearing a different color shirt and no longer had on the vibrams. Huh. I wonder how she had gotten behind me? No matter, she left me in the dust.

Really, really grim. Bad shoulder angel materialized and started counseling me about taking a DNF. A 25 mile training run wouldn't count as a race finish, but it would count as a nice run. Hmmm. This went on for some time. Finally, as I headed up towards the start/loop count/finish area, good shoulder angel popped out and whispered sage advice. The middle miles of almost all races seem to be like this for me, regardless of distance, and usually regardless of how I otherwise feel. Mile 2 of a 5k always hurts. Miles 18-20 of a marathon are usually the hardest mentally and emotionally. Thinking back through my previous three 50 milers, I doubted myself in the middle of all of them. Ready to stop. Give up. But I never did... and I almost always recovered. And I have always finished.

# Stumbles: some, but not as many as the first loop
# Falls: 3 (!!!) (5 total)
Locomotion status: some running, much more shuffling, some walking
Mental/emotion status: woe is me; I suck
Time 2:38 (4:57 total)

3rd Loop
I didn't even go over to my drop bag before starting this loop. I stopped at the aid station and noticed I was breathing very hard for someone who had just taken over 2 1/2 hours to go 12.5 miles. This was over my 2:30 per loop goal, but I was still under 5 hours total, so I didn't worry about it. I told myself just to try the 3rd loop. Even if I walked the whole thing... just give it a shot and worry about DNFing after that. And so out I went.

Vibram 5-fingers caught me at the second aid station. What the hell? Once again, I had not recalled passing her, yet here she was again. This time she was in shorts and a 3rd shirt selection. I spent most of this loop considering all the other runners and trying to judge who I'd be running near for the rest of the day.

During the out-and-backs, I provided encouragement to the 50k and other 50 mile runners I encountered. Being more outgoing let me know that mentally, my outlook on life in general was improving. In fact, the act of offering up a "good job" and "hello!" and getting an acknowledgement in return helped to improve my mood.

The sun was moving across the sky. Now, aside from a half a mile of exposed running by the spillway, most of the course is in deep woods. It was interesting to see how the filtered sunlight changed the viewing conditions as the sun moved and shadows adjusted. What had been hard to see earlier became easier to see. And a few things became harder to see.

Which explains, blam, my next fall. I was talking to a couple people around me about falling when it happened. Figures. It didn't hurt, and I got a great audible gasp from the crowd.

Vibram 5-fingers passed me on "the hill" again. I still had no idea how/when she was getting behind me.

Onward. The rest of the loop was uneventful, but I felt better. As I pulled into the start/loop count/finish area, Steve and Paula Boone (50-Stater kahunas) cheered for me. "Are you done???" I didn't have the energy to respond. I just shook my head and held up a finger - one more loop. "Ok, we'll stay here and cheer for you."

I didn't process this at the time, but it meant that even though they were done with the 50k, they fully intended to stay for another 3+ hours to cheer on other folks. Wow. Of course, it also meant they thought that I was faster than I really am. And indeed, by now almost all the 50k folks and 12 out of 159 50 milers had finished. I ain't that fast.

# Stumbles: a few
# Falls: 1 (6 total)
Locomotion status: some running, some shuffling, some walking
Mental/emotion status: I am zen-like blacking all this out now
Time 2:45 (7:42 total)

4th Loop
As I stood over my drop bag, I noticed that I was shaking. I wasn't cold; it was kind of like I was trying to stand still on the deck of a rocking ship. Except I wasn't. I spent a little extra time at the aid station. That last loop had been interesting. My 2:45 was obviously longer than the 2:38 of the previous loop, but it had felt so much better. And it seemed to go by faster, even though it didn't.

Did I stop and DNF after the 3rd loop? Good shoulder angel was right... I was slow and achy, especially from all those falls, but mentally I felt a whole lot better. No DNF today.

As I went out for the final loop, I actually paid a bit more attention to the details of my surroundings. The start/loop count/finish area was lined with tents for various Texas running clubs where members had stashed their stuff (me? I had a trashbag next to a curb; no tent). And inside a tent was Vibram 5-fingers! Aha! She had been stopping after each loop to rest and change clothes, and this is how I had kept getting ahead of her.

The race had started at 7a. When I left for my final lap, it was about 2:45p. I had slowed enough that I had no real hope of making my 10 hour goal. In fact, I had been trending slower each lap, and a 3 hour lap seemed highly likely. 3 hours! To go 12.5 miles! Argh.

I returned to my contemplation of the sun, and I realized that I had made a grave tactical error. Sure, it might have gotten dark a little after 6p at my hotel. But my hotel was not in the woods. It was going to be dark substantially earlier out here, probably 5 or 5:30. And a 3 hour loop would mean finishing around 5:45p.

Ruh roh.

That was incentive to try not to shuffle away at a 3 hour pace. Then again, I had no desire to fall anymore PLUS my legs didn't care at all about the clock. I went as fast as I could possibly go, and that was only slightly faster than continental drift. My brain started getting paranoid, and I gave myself a case of Marty Feldman eye: I had to keep one on the ground to avoid more sand-in-my-hair encounters, but I also kept one eye tracking the sun. And it went lower and lower and lower.

Ok, two things. First thing is that it became a whole lot like a vampire or zombie movie where everyone watches for sunset knowing that Bad Things Happen After Dusk. I was soooo nervous.

The second thing is truly strange, though. Because I know that the sun sets in the west, I started getting interested in what direction I was running at any given time. And I realized that this race went all over the compass. That's not the strange part.

Then it happened. I got a song stuck in my head. HARD. This happens sometimes, and it is almost always a song I don't normally think about. I had been thinking about directions. And so here it came...

Eastbound and down, 18 wheels a-rollin.
We're gonna do what they say can't be done.
We've got a long way to go
And a (beat)
Short time to get there
I'm eastbound, just watch ol' Bandit run.

Yikes. But that's not all. It seems that I know all the lyrics to this song. And they came to me over and over again.

Put your foot hard on the pedal,
Son, never mind them brakes.
Let it all hang out 'cause we got a run to make.
The folks are thirsty in Atlanta
And there's beer in Texarkana
We'll bring it back no matter what it takes!

There was Vibram 5-fingers again, in her latest clothing collection. Heh. I also noticed during "the hill" out-and-back that most everyone had had the presence of mind to bring a headlamp. Whoops.

By the fourth aid station, the sun was just barely over the ridge and the trees. I knew I still had about 90 minutes to run, and I did not have 90 minutes of sun. Whatever. Go. Either the vampires or the alligators would be having me for dinner.

But a curious thing happened in here. The organizers had magically (for I never saw them do this) hung glow sticks from the trees. Not many... it wasn't like the approach lights at an airport. But at regular intervals, there was a tiny amount of light. How cool. Very helpful for marking the course - for those with flashlights. Unfortunately, it was not nearly enough to illuminate the path.

A couple of my Maniac teammates passed me in here. A few others did too. Then again, I passed a few folks as well. When I got to the final aid station, it was officially dusk. The later part of dusk at that. And I had 2.7 miles to go!

Old smokey's got them ears on
He's hot on your trail.
He ain't gonna rest til you're in jail.
So you got to dodge and you got to duck him
You gotta keep that diesel truckin
Just put that hammer down and give it hell.

I tried putting my hammer down. And with just a little over 2 miles left... 48 miles into my day.... BLAM... I fell again. For the 7th time today.


That's what I said. Really. And I said it outloud. It wasn't an exclamation, more of a statement of resignation. At least it didn't hurt. I was way past pain.

I turned onto the final 1.5 mile BACK section. I was seriously nervous about it getting any darker. My brain finally decided that even though running faster might mean a fall, *not* running faster probably guaranteed a fall once I started stumbling around in pitch black.

I put that hammer down and gave it hell.

And it seemed to have an effect on other people. I passed a couple folks who had been shuffling. "Good job, we're almost done!" But I noticed that their footsteps did not die away. I was truly running now, and running hard (ok, technically probably 10:00/mile pace, but it SEEMED hard for the conditions and my fatigue), and somebody or somebodies were right behind me.

I did not try to race them; I just wanted to be done. Had they passed me, I would have cheered. But it turns out that I was the one pulling them in. I heard some noise from the finish area. We were close.

I saw some lights through the trees. Closer.

Left turn, through the tent area and a bunch of people drinking beer. There's the finish area. And...

Robert Lopez, all the way from Seattle!

Done. Immediately another name was called out. Then another.

# Stumbles: numerous
# Falls: 1 (7 total)
Locomotion status: some running, a whole lot of shuffling, a little walking
Mental/emotion status: I'm a-scared of the dark
Time 2:48 (10:31 total)

It was dark now. My fourth loop was my slowest, but it was almost identical to my third loop. I'm pretty proud of that, and it felt nice to run the last bit. One guy finished 19 seconds behind me. A gal finished about 30 seconds later. I congratulated them both and noticed that the gal was a 50k-er! 10 1/2 hours to complete a 50k... but she was running hard at the end. I asked her what had happened - she had twisted her ankle in the middle and done a lot of walking.

And oh yes, it was very dark now.

Vibram 5-fingers finished about 20 minutes behind me.

I got my dinner (dinner!) and sat in the tent with Steve and Paula Boone. Yup, they had waited three hours. Nice folks.

Overall, I'm not terribly pleased with my 10:31. I finished 97th out of 159. Then again, I was not one of the 30ish folks on the DNF list. And aside from some bruises and scratches, I felt remarkably good.

If I want to beat 10:31, I have to train better. Meanwhile, back to those falls. I fell 7 times. In 193 marathons and ultras before this edition of Sunmart, I had fallen 8 times total. Er. Wow.

Now if I could only get that song out of my head...

Next up: The Honolulu Marathon, a race I said I'd never do again. Yet here I am. The 50 miler beat me up. Very, very up. I was able to run a bit in the week between Sunmart and Honolulu, but not that much. I have no idea how the race will go and probably won't set a firm goal until, say, M6. Subject to change at M7. Check back RealSoonNow and see what happened.

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