If you've never been to the TNF-Championships, here's how I'd explain the 50 mile race: WOW. If you've been before, but you weren't there this year, here's how I'd explain it: WOW (and wet). The course was challenging and the field was indescribably deep and unimaginably fast. As I explained to some colleagues: "Temp in the 50s, minimal visibility, rain at one inch per hour, and high winds, all while running dozens of miles up and down mountains on muddy trails? Yep, that was my Saturday morning." As I told some running friends around Madison: "People were running faster than you would ever possibly imagine given the conditions." Or as Ian Sharman said to me after I had dropped from the race (I'm paraphrasing here): "Guys came through Tennessee Valley [at 8.9 miles] over five minutes faster than last year, and the conditions are way worse this year. You wouldn't have been too far behind the leaders last year through [8.9 miles] with your time." But this wasn't last year. The race was wet, the race was fast, the race was, well, absolutely crazy. As my dad, who along with my step-mom and girlfriend did a wonderful job crewing, told me later: "I wanted to pull you off the course at the [Tennessee Valley aid station at mile 8.9] and tell you to get in the car, that we were going home, that this whole thing was completely crazy. But I didn't think you'd like that." I wouldn't have.
Here's how it happened.
I glanced at my watch on the backside of the first climb, at around mile four, to find that I was ahead of course record pace. So it surprised me that I was in around 40th place. Yes, 40th. After I came through Tennessee Valley (8.9 miles) in just under seventy minutes, I ran with Justin Ricks (18th overall) and Sage Canaday's former roommate at Cornell, Brad, into the Muir Beach aid station (12.9 miles). We ran hard and blind (it was dark with nothing but fog and rain in view from the headlamp). On the climb out of Muir Beach, we moved next to Maud Gobert (32nd overall, 3rd female). Justin moved ahead, Brad fell back, and I stuck with Maud -- for the next twenty miles. Maud was in the lead almost the entire time I ran with her and, while we didn't speak too much, I really enjoyed running with her. She was amazingly graceful (despite a pretty nasty fall at mile 28): always picking the best line, moving rhythmically up the mountains, gliding down the descents. It was most enjoyable sharing the trails with her.
But the fast pace, the constant elevation change, and grueling conditions proved too much for me on Saturday. I wasn't displeased though, since I ran like hell for as long as I could. I moved past Maud around mile 29 as we began to climb. I was power hiking/running, depending on the grade of ascent, at this point. Maud seemed to be losing steam (though she bounced back well) and Emelie Forsberg (29th overall, 1st female) had passed her while gaining on me. Once I reached the top of the climb, I hammered the descent into Tennessee Valley, hoping to put ground on my pursuers. To no avail. A 6:41 mile gained me nothing (although, I was evidently in the top-25 when I ran into Tennessee Valley at mile 32). Emelie was picked up by Anna Frost at Tennessee Valley and the two of them moved past me shortly after as we began to climb 400ft over a half mile. Mike Foote (26th overall) then passed me saying, "I've felt worse, but only once or twice." The mud, the rain, and the steep ascents got to most of us, all right (but apparently not to Miguel Heras, who won is an astonishing 5hrs:33!).
By mile 34.5 I had finished the climb out of Tennessee Valley and had been passed by only two people while mostly power hiking. When I hit the descent, however, my legs were gone. Anytime the muscles were engaged, I was almost reduced to a halt. Anytime the muscles weren't engaged, I was shuffling. No matter what I did, I couldn't get them to move. This was bad. Maud then moved past me effortlessly with her passer. And it got worse. As I made the c. 700ft plunge into Muir Beach, sliding, shuffling, and slopping around in the mud, I twisted, lost balance, and fell (sliding all the while). I managed to labor into the Muir Beach aid station, and it was there that my day ended (thanks to the folks there who warmed me up and carted me back to Tennessee Valley).
Mightn't I have finished? Of course. But perhaps at a cost. Indeed, it was during the next five mile stretch, from Muir Beach to Tennessee Valley, that Sage Canaday took a number of falls in the sloppy mess, was banged up, and dropped from the race.
It was the experience that I needed most, and that I had. This was the first challenging ultra course that I've run, and the first race with serious competition. With less than ideal training, with no mountains to train on, and with minimal experience, I had enough to hang in the top thirty-five for almost the whole race. I was running in the top-twenty five for awhile, I could climb with almost everybody that I ran with, and I had a taste for the incredible competition that is drawn to this sport.
What's more is that this was just my first full year competing in ultras. I have a good feeling about the years to come!
*Results are here.