Sunday, March 24, 2013

2013 Prairie Spirit 50

During the Prairie Spirit 50 this weekend I started wondering how I'd relate my experience to half marathon training while doing my typical post-ultra-blog-retelling-of-misery. Perplexed, I pulled a GU from my pack, since I hadn't eaten in a while, and chased it with some water... Then it hit me!

They're the same race!


Trust me on this.

Here's the story.

This weekend was the inaugural Prairie Sprit 50/100 mile race. The race started in Ottawa, KS and basically followed the Prairie Spirit Trail 25 or 50 miles out, then back. 50-milers (me) turned around in Garnett, 100-milers (crazy people) turned around in Iola.

You want a flat ultra? Good luck beating this one. I bet most of the elevation gain my Garmin registered was from my arm moving up and down.

The weather forecast was suspect. I even considered not going because I didn't want to get stuck down there in a snowstorm. But, despite gentle protest from my mother, I decided I didn't want to miss a shot at a fast (for me) 50.

Since I'm only an hour from Ottawa, I got up at a somewhat normal time, ate, then headed out. I got to race HQ at about 7:15, giving me plenty of time to get my packet, get my clothes ready and make sure I had what I needed in my pack.

Race similarity #1: always bring more with you than you think you'll need, then make last-minute adjustments as race start approaches. I think I had four pairs of gloves, two pairs of pants, four shirts, a coat, three hats, two pairs of arm get the idea, right? Instead of stressing out at home over what I'll need, I just bring a variety of things with me, then decide what I'm going to carry or wear as close to the start as possible. This is true for 5k's and 50-milers.

Because of the impending storm (I thought it'd be rain midway through the race followed by snow at the VERY end of my run) I decided to carry two extra beanies, two extra pairs of gloves, a light jacket, an extra shirt, and something to wrap around my face. I stuffed all of this into my Ultimate Direction pack along with several GU chomps, salt, and GUs. My pack can hold 100oz of water along with a 24oz bottle attached to it. Because of the cool weather and the water frequency (about one every five miles) I decided to start with about 32oz of water in the pack and the bottle full. The plan was to empty the pack first, then re-fill the bottle as needed. This freed up a lot of room in my pack for warm clothing.

Race-not-so-similar #1: don't carry this much stuff with you during a marathon or a half marathon. Carrying a light jacket...maybe. GU and salt? Sure. But do you need an extra shirt and two pairs of gloves for a half? No.

I didn't have crew, which was another reason I was carrying so much stuff with me. And, in reality, the extra gloves and beanie were for emergencies. I knew I'd need the jacket. Did I really need the extra shirt? Probably not, but it was nice to know it was there.

My race strategy was simple: run the first 25 miles in 4:30, then finish. If I could do the second half in 5:30 or less, I'd be happy, but I wouldn't stress if I wasn't having a great day.

We started off with little fanfare. Ultras are like that. Low-key.

The first few miles were a little rough: pavement through Ottawa. We went under I-35 at about mile 3 and transitioned onto a very nice pea gravel trail. It was gorgeous. The trees hang over the trail, providing shade and blocking the wind a bit. You could see forever. That was okay tho. You could really relax since it wasn't hard to follow the course, just run straight, on the trail. Easy.

After a few miles I realized I hadn't eaten yet.

Race similarity #2: eat early. It takes about 30 minutes to an hour for food to go from your tummy to your intestines, where it's actually useful. If you're running a 2-hr half and you don't eat till mile 6, then you're likely not to get as much energy from your GU as you would have if you ate it at mile 1 or 2. Same story for an ultra. If you're eating when you're hungry, then you're eating too late. This is one reason, when I'm pacing, that I strongly encourage runners to get something sugary in them at the first couple of aid stations. It's going to pay off later for them.

I traded places with a few people during the next few miles, chatted, laughed, but mostly kept to myself. I caught up on some podcasts and listened to some music. It was nice to have the time to just think. I don't get those long uninterrupted stretches of mental nothingness anymore and I miss them. Maybe that's why I run ultras, maybe they're a bit of a break.

I blew past the first water station without stopping. Still had water in my pack. The second aid station, around mile 10, was staffed. I grabbed half a sandwich, some heed, some pop, and got out as quick as I could. It's easy to burn time at aid stations. This wasn't a race that I wanted to do that at.

It sounds strange, but the trail really was beautiful. I was really enjoying the scenery and the weather was still nice.

We hit another staffed aid station 9 or so miles outside of Garnett. Again, I ate quickly and moved on. Traded places with more people and enjoyed some scenery.

Coming into Garnett was fun. I finally felt the wind that was picking up from the northeast. A gentle little "hi, I'm here, and you're about to turn around and run into me". It had a sly "don't mind me" tone to it.

About two miles from the turnaround I knew I had a sub 4:30 in the books. I expected a 4:10 and ended up coming in at 4:08. 22 minutes early, perfect. With the weather, I was happy to bank time.

I ate more than I felt I should in Garnett just because that's a rule. Eat early and often, it'll payoff later. And it sure did.

I walked for about 10 minutes after leaving the turnaround. I was putting fresh GU into the front of my pack, got my jacket on, put a beanie on, and grabbed something to wrap around my face for when it started raining. I also texted Angie to tell her I was still alive (she worries sometimes) and told her when I expected to finish. I finished some AMAZING beef stew that I picked up in Garnett, then started to jog slowly.

I don't care who you are, you're tired after you've run 25 miles. My legs were sore and getting my stride back was tough.

Looking back at my Garmin data I see that I ran the next 5 miles, which is surprising. I slogged along slowly, at about 11 min/mile.

My next break was the first water stop after Garnett. I quickly filled up my bottle and left. Running the next 5 miles without walking!

This surprises even me. I ran 35 miles with a 10-minute walk break. That's shocking.

At some point before the first staffed aid station after Garnett it started snowing. Well, not so much snowing...snowing is a nice way to say I was getting pelted in the face with tiny ice pellets. It hurt. I wrapped my face with my trusty thing-that-goes-around-my-neck-that-I-have-no-idea-what-it's-called and kept moving.

At this point I started running with Josh. Of the last 15 miles we probably did half of it together. Once great thing about ultras is that you always meet nice people. This was no different.

The last 10 miles of the race. Photo by Josh Watson.
The snow really picked up from mile 35-40. The trail was one of the first things to start accumulating and I was happy for it. It's always nice to run on snow. It's soft.

Race similarity #3: it never always gets worse. This is an old ultra saying, and it applies just about everywhere. When things start to suck you need to channel some Churchill and remember that when you're going through hell, keep going.

Look, it was cold. I was accumulating snow on me. I had 10 miles to go. I was getting tired and my muscles hurt. I had to drive home in this weather. I couldn't feel my legs because I was wearing shorts. Why was I out there? Arrgh.

It's okay to loose it for a few minutes every once in a while. As long as you get it back together quickly.

I was 4/5 of the way done with the race. I loved running in the snow. The roads wouldn't be that bad because it was interstate the whole way home. It was okay. It was beautiful.

The trick to running any race is to put it in perspective. Sure, it sucks. But it only sucks for so long, then it doesn't anymore, because it's over. Enjoy it while it sucks because you'll only remember how fun it was later.

Deep stuff, I know.

At some point Josh ditched me or I ditched him, I dunno. I did the last 5 miles alone. Music, me, my thoughts. Hard to beat.

Once I saw I-35 I knew I was good to go, or so I thought. The last three miles were actually the worst. The trail through Ottawa was totally exposed, so the wind was hitting me straight on. That, plus the snow, hurt. My face burned, my legs burned from the cold.

Finally, I turned the corner and saw the finish. Crossed a few streets. Got some VERY strange looks from people driving by, and crossed the finish line.

9 hours and 11 minutes. Good enough for 14th out of 55. Beat my 10-hour goal, got to run in the snow and made it home safely. Hard to beat all that.

They're the same race, one just takes a little longer.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

SmartPacing Strategy

I was going to wait a few more weeks before launching into a soliloquy about how wonderful pacers are at races, then I looked at my calendar and realized we're about a month out from the start of the spring marathon/half-marathon season. Yikes!

I'm also starting to get inquires from runners who are eyeing times that I'm pacing in various races and, upon seeing that I'm the pacer for their goal time, correctly assume that I'm a somewhat shady looking character and proceed to question my strategy. 

So, let's get this all out of the way early.

Hospital Hill, and many other local races, will be using SmartPacers this year. We've been pacing local races (and not-so-local races) for several years now. We're a lively collection of merry fools who, for reasons our friends and families don't understand, love running races at set times, taking on the stress of getting not only ourselves across the finish line in one piece, but anyone else who's been tagging along with us.

Yes, we're all nuts, and yes, we love it.

We're led by Eladio Valdez, the coach for Runners Edge here in Kansas City. He came up with the SmartPacing strategy.

It goes a little like this. Let's say I'm the 2:00 pacer at Hospital Hill (I'm not, I'm 2:05 for reasons I may or may not explain later ;-) ). This is all going to be ballpark, but you'll get the idea. 

A 2:00 pace in a half is a 9:09 pace. Many pacers, for reasons passing understanding, will run a 9:09 pace all 13 miles. What the flip? Why would you do that to a) yourself or b) others?

This makes no sense. This isn't how most of us run. Our pace changes. We run slower up hills and faster down hills. We start a little slower to warm up.

Running an even pace in a race is asking for disaster.

Our strategy uses common sense, you know, that thing that's lacking in politics? Yeah, we have it all. (And may I say, we're getting way more mileage out of it than politicians usually do.)

We start races slow. The 2:00 pace group will probably run their first mile at a 10:00 pace. 

This lets the group warm up a bit. It also gives the group flexibility to work through the crowd at the beginning of a race.

Mile 2 would come in at about 9:30. At Hospital Hill it may be a bit slower, say 9:45. That's because mile 2 is that MINOR climb up Gillham.

By mile 3 we'd want to be close to our race pace, so we'd probably be looking to hit a 9:00 mile. 

Now, being the observent reader you are, you're thinking "hey, we're over a minute in the hole on the clock!" And you're right! We've burned a little time at the beginning of the race in order to get you warmed up and moving well for the rest of the race.

We'll get back the time we borrowed by running the core of the race a little under the race pace. For the 2:00 group, we would go through those middle miles in the 8:50-8:45 range, slowly repaying the time and banking a little for the end.

In the last few miles of the race we'll start to slow back down. At this point, anyone with the group who is still running strong should start to take off, leaving their pace group behind. Anyone struggling to keep up will notice the pace per mile slowly start to creep back up. In our 2:00 group we'd probably hit mile 11 at a 9:15-9:30 pace and mile 12 at a 9:30-9:45 pace.

One thing I didn't mention is water stops. I'll always make time to walk the water stops, at least 10-15 seconds per aid station. I'm only half a doctor at this point in my training, but I do feel comfortable saying that liquids are likely more effective when they're in you than on you, so taking a few seconds to walk and take a drink is worth it.

To make time for water stops I'll typically steal 5-10 seconds from each mile and bank it for the walk. Runners never notice. I have yet to have someone say "uhh, pacer-dude, you really suck at this because that mile was supposed to be 8:50 and you ran it in 8:45. I'm out of here."

I'll also put 10-15 seconds away for random course disasters (read: mismarked miles). This has never been a problem at Hospital Hill, but other races... It's a habit, and I think it's a good one for a pacer to have.

If you'd like to look up the pace times and who's pacing them you can visit the SmartPacing website for Hospital Hill.

If you've got any questions about pacers drop a note in the comments. I'll do my best to answer.

I'll write up a "how to run with a pacer" post in a few weeks/months. I've got all kinds of stories, like people whose entire race strategy was to stay in front of me, people who constantly ran 25 yards behind me, people who thought they had to pay me, etc.

Ahh, good times.

Stay warm, spring is right around the corner.