A very cold Tussey Start
I know what you are thinking. That must be a misprint. There’s no way he just ran a 50-miler almost an hour faster than at the Vermont 50. There’s no way he just ran an hour faster than a time he confidently declared less than a month prior…would be nearly impossible to beat again.
Well…you read it right. I really did just shatter my previous 50-mile PR by over 50 minutes. My “Perfect Race” performance at Vermont that I talked about just a few posts prior resulted in a crazy new 8:41 PR that stood for all of 4 weeks (and with a 5th place Oil Creek 100 race thrown in between).
It should be known that I had no intention or desire to run this fast or hard. The simple answer is that it was a perfect weather day, and the course is incredibly fast and runable. Michael Wardian was quoted after the race (Which he also PR’d at) as saying he “thought it was a faster course than JFK”. With that said however, I would not have ever expected to run 9:24 min/mile pace…for 50 miles.
On Saturday night, I had the wonderful pleasure of volunteering at the pre-race dinner/expo/packet-pick-up. I was in charge of handing out race bags and explaining the rules to the runners. It was an absolute blast. I got to talk one-on-one with legends like Mike Arnstein and Michael Wardian, and I got to banter back and forth with several like-minded ultra-crazies. It’s nice to know that I’m not alone in my insanity. There were quite a few local Nittany Valley Runner Club members hanging around that I caught up with as well. Being that the race is the USATF championship race, I felt it appropriate to finally sign up to be a member too (only 10 bucks). After the expo, I had the somewhat bizarre experience of hopping in my car and driving home to my own bed before a race. Weird…I know.
I woke up early Sunday, grabbed my gear and gummies, and drove the 10 minutes to the start of the race at the foot of Tussey Mountain. It was rightly chilly out. Somewhere in the high 30s. I stayed nice and warm in my car until the very last minute when I saw everyone gathering around the start. A quick national anthem and a few race instructions later….I was off.
Start (and Finish) Line
Rockin the Flaming Arm Sleeves
The course starts off on pavement and the leaders were out quick. For about 2 minutes I could still see the lead pack in front of me….and then they were gone. I settled into a brisk, but comfortable 155 bpm pace (whatever that is). It felt like 8:40-9:00 min/miles or so, but was probably closer to 8:00 min/mile pace. I figured I’d push my heart-rate a little at the beginning, and tone it down as the race progressed.
Every week for the past couple of months I’ve run on various sections of the course (multiple times), so I knew exactly what to expect, where the climbs were, and where the turns were. I’ve never had this luxury before. I have run races multiple times, but never had course details still so fresh in my head. With this sort of fore-knowledge, I knew exactly where I could push myself and where to stay conservative. It paid off. Almost the entire course was on traditional fire-road style roads (with a few paved parts), very similar to the Vermont 100 course (sans the horses of course). A quick glance at the elevation profile might make you think that this would NOT be a fast course, but in reality, the climbs are very long and low-angle. Likewise, the descents are long and give runners a chance to really turn on the afterburners for extended periods. So without sounding cocky, the course is deceptively easier than it looks. BUT (and a big but), it’s still 50 miles, and still chock full of climbs. So while I did run faster yesterday than I did at the VT50 last month, I still feel that the VT50 race was harder fought, and more honestly earned. Anyhoo…on to the rest of the report…
Tussey – Elevation Profile
Tussey – Course Map
Leg 1 starts off with a tough climb and brings the runners up to the highest point on the course. This leg forced me to watch myself and keep it at a decent pace. At the top though, I let it rip. Legs 2 and 3 are notoriously fast and easy. 7+ miles of uber-fast fire road. At one point I timed myself on this stretch and was running sub-8-minute miles (perhaps a big reason as to why I feel so destroyed today). Upon reaching the end of Leg 3 at Whipple Dam, I finally hit up an aid station and talked a bit with some folks. I opted to keep my arm sleeves and gloves, as it was still super cold. I hadn’t really thought about finish times or goals yet, hadn’t really looked at my watch seriously (other than to monitor heart-rate), and had a very loose goal of maybe running sub 9:30….but really to just keep smiling.
Morning fog around Mount Nittany
Heading out of Whipple Aid Station
Leg 4 out of Whipple is a tough one. It is a 10k stretch with a tough little uphill at the beginning. I kept it in check through this part with the goal to just keep running…even if slow. I had told myself that I wanted to try and run all 50 miles. Somewhere near the top of the climb, I realized that I was “running” slower than I could walk and switched to a brisk power hike for about a 3 minute stretch to the summit. At the gate at the top of leg 4, the afterburners fired up again. Leg 5 is FAST and downhill. I was cruising at about 8 min/mile pace (which is fast for me in an ultra, at mile ~20). Coming into the aid station at Alan Seeger picnic area…I was still smiling, and moving fast. I was hydrating well, eating well, keeping up on my salts, and overall doing great. As I approached the station, I decided it was time to lose the sleeves and gloves.
Cruising into Aid Station 5 (Mile ~20)
Enjoying some snacks and getting a refill at Aid Station 5
One aspect to the race that I didn’t anticipate is the car traffic. In order for the support vehicles to keep up with their runners, and for the relay runners to properly leap-frog, vehicles have to drive on the same roads that the runners are on. Usually this was a good thing as you got lots of honks and cheers. Sometimes though, the drivers were a bit reckless and weren’t paying attention. It made for some added stress to the running and certainly justified the “no-headphones” rule. In general though, it wasn’t a complaint in so much as it was an extra aspect to keep aware of. Thankfully, I was far enough up front where the traffic was somewhat minimal. I can’t speak for those that were two hours behind me.
As I continued on through leg 6 towards Penn Roosevelt Park I settled into a more modest pace. I was starting to feel the effects of going out too fast, and running the downhills too fast. I was just barely half-way, and starting to hurt a bit. I was in and out of station 6 quickly and began the very tough climb starting leg 7. About 2 minutes into the climb a runner came up on me. I turned around to move out of the way when I immediately recognized the familiar face. Smiling happily behind me was the one and only, Keith Straw. Yep…the same Keith Straw that I ran the last 1.5 miles of Oil Creek With. He had again forgone the tutu, but was sporting the pink gaiters in full form. I was thrilled to see him again and for the next 5 miles we ran together chatting it up heartily. We traded stories from Oil Creek, he told me all about Badwater, and we discussed possible future races. I simply cannot stress enough how good of a guy Keith is. A true gentlemen and a fantastic athlete. When we reached Station 7, I had hit my low-point of the race. The soreness was catching up to me, and all the chatting away with Keith had left me feeling pretty winded and sluggish. I gracefully let Keith go on ahead and spent an extra minute at the station. I needed to regroup if I was going to finish with a smile still on my face. I forced myself to spend another extra minute slowly eating some food and to give myself time to regather myself. Local runner, and fellow Vermont 100 finisher, Jeff Smucker (who I hadn’t yet met in person yet) was waiting for his relay runner at the station….so we chatted for bit. The weather at this point was awesome. High 50s/Low 60s, cool breeze, sunny…but shaded. Perfecto. I slowly began walking out of the aid station eating and taking long deep breaths. When I passed the last parked car I began running again and it felt ok. I kept the pace conservative as I knew I still had 20 miles remaining.
Mid-day view of Mt. Nittany
Legs 8 and 9 I knew would give me a bit of a reprieve. They are two very pleasant segments of the course (mostly flat and down). I comfortably went through these legs just trying to tick-off some miles while maintaining my running. The pace was slower, but a run nonetheless. Coming into Colyer Lake at the end of Leg 9 (Mile ~36) I was really starting to get tired. The year of ultrarunning combined with a fast race…was finally catching up to me. In the picture below, you can really see that I’m no longer smiling. I was starting to think that the next 14 miles couldn’t come fast enough. Thankfully, right after the photo was taken, I filled up on all sorts of good food and received some incredible support.
Coming into Colyer Lake feeling pretty awful…but excited to see my “support team”
Leaving Colyer was tough, but I forced myself out and began running immediately. I knew the climbs were almost over. If I could just make it up leg 10, the worst climbs would be over. I grunted and groaned my way up and several cars passed me giving me lots of verbal support. After what seemed like an eternity of running, I finally began hearing the cheers coming from the aid station. When I rounded the corner and pulled into the station, I was welcomed by an enormous crowd of people. I had forgotten that the station actually served as two-aid stations because the next leg was an out-and-back, back to the same station. Because of this, there were dozens of relay runners waiting to hand off for both legs. I was getting a lot of cheers from everyone. It felt incredible, and gave me that last little boost I so desperately needed. I filled up, fueled up, and headed out for the last 4 mile hilly bit before my final descent to the finish. As I headed out, I realized I had caught back up to Keith…who was now struggling a bit. I ran up to him and he put a big smile on. He said, “It’s good to see you back in your true form John. Ten miles back, that wasn’t you. This is the Oil-Creek John I know. Now get up there and run it in strong”. This was the absolute best thing I’d heard all day from a runner…and I immediately took off. I ran backward for a few seconds yelling back to him, “Don’t you stop running Keith, you are still going to get that sub 8-hour finish!”. Ten miles back, we had both talked about the possibility of finishing sub-8-hour. Up till that point, I hadn’t looked at my watch. When he said sub-8, I practically bust out laughing…but when I looked at my time, I realized it was actually possible. How the Hell was I running so fast? I didn’t feel like I should be on sub-8-hour pace…what gives? Eventually I just accepted it and decided to see if I could finish by running out-right. When I moved ahead of Keith, I figured I was on pace for something like a 7:58 finish (it would be close). I made my way the two miles to the furthest point of the leg and turned around at a pumpkin on the ground by a small table. There were also two volunteers there documenting the runners. This was the turnaround for the out-n-back section. Very quickly I passed Keith in the other direction, who was only about a minute behind me, and I began running the long uphill climb back to the aid station (the last climb of the day). I finally hit the top of the climb, very tired, and sloppily began hobbling back down to the aid station. I walked in, filled up, said “Thank you” to everyone, and happily made towards the finish 4 short miles away.
The last 4 miles are entirely downhill. I began running, and running hard. After about a mile, the fire road became paved and my knees were definitely not happy. The pounding really hurt badly, but I only had to endure for another 3 miles. I kept it up, methodically ticking away steps. Trees passed by, one by one, and I was chewing up the miles. About 2 miles from the finish, a young kid came up out of nowhere, basically sprinting, and flew ahead of me. Normally I would not be too thrilled with someone passing me this close to the finish, but there was no way I was catching him. I turned around and saw no one else behind me within a half-mile view. I knew I was safe from being passed again. It turns out the kid that passed me was actually in front of me all day anyway, but had stopped for a longer break at the last aid station (at least that’s my way of justifying it🙂
I hit the last mile right where the road splits off at the beginning of the first leg and I was now on the home stretch to the finish. I checked one last time for anyone on my tail, and I was still clear for as far as I could see. I happily, albeit painfully, ran up the road to the Ski Area at the foot of the mountain where I crossed between two telephone poles under the finish line with a final time of 7:49:50. Somehow, I had made up about 5 minutes in the last 4 miles….or instead of running the 9:30 pace I was trying to maintain, I ran more like 8:20 pace. After I finished, I immediately collapsed down onto the soft grass and began feeling all sorts of unpleasant pains. Yep…I ran too hard. I guess I really did just run a 7:49 race. Ugh.
5 minutes later, with a total time of about 7:55, Keith Straw came running across the finish. I cheered wildly for him, shook his hand, and thanked him for the wonderful in-race conversation. I’m sure I will see him again.
Post-finish and Post-grass-collapse
All I was thinking in this pic was, “Advil and bed please”
Overall, I am very pleased with the race and my crazy new PR. It’s been quite a year of running for me. Not only did I set many new PRs, but I re-set many of those same PRs multiple times. 2011 will definitely go down as one of my best years for running. I plan to do a full year-in-review look at my race highlights in my year-end post, but for now I will simply say that I have a big smile on my face when I look back at this year. Between May and October, I was somehow able to run 7 ultras (three 100-milers, three 50-milers, and one 50k), and several other marathon and shorter races…..without a single DNF. I feel very fortunate to have remained mostly healthy (although my damned “Rothrock-Toe” still acts up from time to time).
The race itself was full of some interesting new ups and downs for me. I felt pretty darn horrible around mile 35. I remember telling people at the end that had the race been a 100k (just 12 miles longer), I very well may not have been able to finish. I pushed myself just about has hard as I could have for the race. In all, I walked probably only about 1 to 2 tenths of a mile (or I ran 49.8+ miles out of 50), and never spent much time at the aid stations (except for #7). The powerbar gummies and cliff shotblox did ok, but in general I don’t think I fueled enough for the performance level I was running at. Today, I am VERY sore. More sore than I’ve been all year except for maybe after the Pocono Marathon.
From a race perspective, Michael Wardian absolutely crushed the course record with a time of 5:33 (that’s 6:40ish pace for 50 miles!). Todd Braje (the previous course record holder), came in 2nd almost 20 minutes later, with Michael “The Fruitarian” Arnstein right behind in 3rd. In general, there were a lot of very fast finishes. My time of 7:49 would have placed me about 15th in previous years. This year, I placed 24th overall, and 13th in the open mens category.
Now it is time to transition. Now I must change my focus from running, to Antarctica. I have two very different deployments coming up that will keep me busy from next week, until the end of January. So, with that, I will gracefully exit stage-left from the 2011 ultra season and began my plans for 2012. I have quite a few interesting ideas bouncing around my head….I’ll leave it at that🙂
For the gear heads and number crunchers:
– Avg Pace: 9:24 min/mile
– Calories burned ~7000
– Avg Heart Rate 151 (peak 176)
– Clothing: Patagonia nine trails shorts, VT100 race shirt, Brooks cascadia 6’s, Darn tough socks, Moeben arm sleeves, Buff gaiter/hat
– Salts: S-caps
– Hydration: Water and soda
– Gear: Nathan Mutation X-trainer belt with extra pocket, polar heart rate monitor RS100
– Carried food: powerbar gummies, Cliff shotblox, ginger chews
– Aid Station Food: chips, pretzels, cookies (no PB/J sandwiches – They didn’t have them)
More pics/stats to follow….stay tuned.
One last note to this entry. I would like everyone reading this to take a short moment to honor fellow ultra and Nittany Valley runner, Ed Thompson. During the Tussey race yesterday, Ed suffered a fatal heart attack and collapsed on the course. Emergency responders were unable to resuscitate him. This adds a very sad/somber undertone to the race for me and for everyone involved. My thoughts are with Ed’s family. You can read more about some of the wonderful things he’s done for Penn State and the community here: http://live.psu.edu/story/55974