Monday, November 7, 2011

A Race Within a Race: Masochists 2011

On Saturday I ran the Mountain Masochist 50 for the fifth time. I love this race for many reasons: the gorgeous fall foliage and views from the ridges; a course that has been more or less the same for 29 years; a great mix of technical trail, jeep roads, and lots of climbing (over 8,000 feet); and the wonderful friends and memories I have made over the years as a runner or crew member.

In 2003, "Masochists" (as it is known by the old guard) was my first 50 and I suffered greatly in the second half to finish in 10:25. I was injured in 2004 but was able to crew for my friend Mike Broderick and join many of my VHTRC brethren for a great reunion, which Anstr Davidson documented with an entertaining reflection on the race, its history, and David Horton. I came back in 2006 with more experience and proper training to run a 9:40, but felt horrible at the finish with toasted quads, and in 2007, I trained all year for a PR and was able to get it on a perfect day in 9:34:18. I then took a few years off from the race to run Grindstone 100 before venturing back in 2010.

Mike Broderick on the Wild Oak Trail, 2004

 Last year's race was bittersweet. We lost Mike to stage 4 lung cancer the day before the race (and his 53rd birthday) and I was determined to run as he would have wanted me to---within myself, smart, and patient. Mike was a beloved ultra and marathon coach who had trained hundreds of runners with that same philosophy, so with Mike's voice inside my head and spirit urging me on, I ran a 9:34:41, close to a PR but off by 23 seconds. I was thrilled to have come so close, but also emotionally drained and not in a huge celebratory mood, so Rusty met me at the finish line and took me back home...with a stop at Blue Mountain Brewery just a few miles away, of course...

This year, Masochists presented a new challenge: the final race of the Lynchburg Ultra Series (LUS). I had never been able to run the LUS due to schedule conflicts, so I was excited when the race dates worked out in my favor. I wrote on this blog in January that I wanted to "welcome change, seek out adventure, and take a chance at failure" in 2011, and this mantra has guided my training and racing decisions all year. The first three races in the LUS, Holiday Lake 50K, Terrapin Mountain 50K, and Promise Land 50K reward leg speed and turnover, while Masochists favors strong climbing and overall endurance, so I knew I had my work cut out for me. By the end of the spring season, I sat in second place among the women in the LUS standings, just 13:14 behind 22-year-old Jamie Darling, an up-and-coming LU graduate.

The concept of running a race-within-a race is really fun and satisfying, as many of my ultra buddies can attest. The challenge of going for an age group or overall masters win keeps training interesting and fuels motivation on cold dark mornings in the winter. Being only 13:14 away from the overall LUS title gave this year's Masochists training a little more of a focus on developing speed and strength for the the last miles when I seem to fade. My SNP adventure run in September gave me a huge confidence boost, as did a hard run on the Wild Oak Trail, the Buck Mountain Half Marathon as part of a 23 miler, and pacing Rob Colenso at Grindstone, where I was on my feet for eight hours. I also ran a lot of long runs incorporating marathon and tempo pace, and lifted at least twice a week, focusing on core and upper body strength.

CAT members Harry, Drew, and Cristina Krueger

However, the best decision I made was enlisting Harry Landers as my "handler" (another old-school ultra term for "crew"---a throwback to the 100 mile endurance horse races). Harry volunteered to help me on a whim about two weeks before the race, and I gave him my instructions for getting me in and out of the aid stations quickly. When I arrived at Long Mountain aid station (about 27 miles into the race), Harry told me where I was among the women (ninth), that there were two ladies just ahead, and that I was gaining on them. Perfect! I love climbing, and particularly love climbing the next section, Buck Mountain. The theme from "Rocky" plays on an endless loop from the aid station 3 miles away, and there are motivational scripture passages that greet the runners as they climb. Just like last year, I found myself getting very emotional as I ran by, thinking of both Mike and of my father, who had passed away in October after fighting pulmonary fibrosis for over six years. Regis Shivers, Jr. was on the trail just ahead and it was comforting to talk with him, as his father had died six years ago after struggling with cancer.

Leaving the Loop
 The next section after Buck Mountain was rolling, runnable trail and jeep road, with leaves falling all around and the sun shining, so with two Angels on my shoulder, I wiped away the tears and went to work! I eventually came upon Jamie and my friend Meredith Terranova, whom I met at Masochists in 2007, and both seemed to be having a tough day, so after chatting a bit I made my way up the mountain. I was feeling great and climbing well, and looked forward to seeing Harry again at the entrance to the Loop at mile 35. The Loop gets a bad rap, and I can see why. The first few miles were great running, and then it got rocky and technical. This would be the first technical trail of the day, and I found myself cramping a bit as I descended some slippery scree. It was the highest point of the race, so more climbing was involved, often over slippery leaves. My experience has been if you are on the edge of having a tough day, the Loop will either make or break your race. Fortunately, I managed to run it in under an hour and pass two more women as I was leaving, so I got a shot of adrenaline when I saw Harry and grabbed my bottle of Perpetuem. He told me that I had gained 4 minutes on Jamie, but this meant I still needed to run hard all the way to the finish to get beyond the 13 minute spread. Time to hammer!

The last 10+ miles of the race are a mix of long downhills and steep climbs on dirt road, and then a long, tough section on leafy trail. This is traditionally another place where MMTR races turn ugly, and I had prepared for this in my training. I knew that keeping my pace strong and close to my PR splits would be the only way I could make good time. I cranked up the iPod shuffle and the songs that popped up were great omens..."Clocks" by Coldplay, "Almost Home" by MCC, and "Little Wonders" by Rob Thomas (and my ultra anthem) came up 1-2-3 and I was hammering (at least it felt like it). I hit the last AS right on PR pace and thought, "Hmmm...I may have another chance at breaking 9:34:18 this time..." but then I told myself, "Shut up and run!" This became the mantra for the last, long 3+ miles to the finish. I hit the one-mile-to-go mark in 9:25ish, knowing that I just needed to run marathon pace to get the PR, and 7:45 later, that's exactly what happened, in 9:33:31!

At the finish, with Horton and Ashley double-checking my time
Horton yelled and pointed at me at the finish, most likely thinking, "I can't believe she is running as sixth woman when I/Clark seeded her 11th!" HA! I pointed right back at him, thanked Clark, and promptly lay on the grass, waiting for the rest of the field to arrive. This was the best part of the day: cheering for friends as they made their way down the road, digging deep for the PR, the top-10 placing or the final cut-off time. Everyone had a story and you could see it on their faces, in the way they ran, sprinted, or cried at the finish. Meredith arrived with her huge trademark smile, and Jenny Nichols, who came up to train many times with the CATs and VHTRCers, cruised in with a huge PR and for the final top-10 spot with the biggest grin on her face. I was so happy for her!

Jenny and me
 When Jamie arrived just a few minutes later, Horty and Clark went to work adding up our final LUS times, and when it was over, I had crept ahead by just 1:08. Jamie had worked incredibly hard and was visibly drained, and I am sure bummed that this "old lady" (as Horty likes to call me) was able to pass her in the standings. But she was very impressive with her 1:30 Masochists PR despite having a tough day, and she made me work for every minute of my race. I have written before that I relish the opportunity to race with other women as they always make me bring out my best, and this was no exception.

The rest of the evening was spent cheering the final finishers, road-tripping back to Lynchburg and the awards dinner with CAT friends Q, Bob and Joey, and enjoying the camaraderie that comes after a race like Masochists. Clark had told us at the pre-race meeting that 2011 may be the last iteration of this particular Masochists course due to Park Service pressure, so next year we could have a slightly altered course or something dramatically different. But what will remain the same? Running 50+ miles in the Blue Ridge mountains in November, chasing PRs and cut-off times, sharing race stories at the finish line, and being part of another Mountain Masochist with good friends, new and old.

Charlottesville Area Trail Runners (CATS) at the finish

Happy Trails!

Photos by Brock Nichols and Christian Dalhausen