Friday, October 24, 2014

Race Report: John Holmes 50k (aka My REAL Maffetone Test)

Finisher Glass and Tech Shirt 

I realize that it has been awful quiet over here lately. That is partially a function of the state of my running and partially a function of the rather quiet summer running season here in Florida. With the temperatures cooling down some I was able to do my first race of the season, the John Holmes 50k. This race served two functions. It got me back to the type of running I love (trail ultras), and it also gave me a chance to get an updated Maffetone test of sorts, which was long overdue (as one recent comment on the blog pointed out).

First let me give a quick recap. I have been training by heart rate since late January as I started on my quest to regain fitness after a move and layoff. I became intrigued by the method of Phil Maffetone, which I talked about in another post.  I spent the entire spring and summer training aerobically. Early in the process, I did a test and noted the slight improvement in fitness, but I did not do follow-up tests because the weather got hot, and my paces at the training heart rate slowed down because of this. Testing would have been pointless because it would not really represent what was truly happening in terms of conditioning. I just soldiered on trying to prepare for a September marathon. It was a disastrous failure because although I was aerobically fit, my quads and calves had other ideas about a severely downhill marathon that I was not prepared for.  Even before the DNF, though, I had already decided that would be my last road marathon. I just could not wait to get back to trails and ultras!

Fast forward to October and cooler weather in FL.  I was entered to run my first 50k since my streak of 50ks in 2012. The John Holmes 50k is on what can be considered a “local” course for me, as it was only about 30 miles from my house in the CroomWildlife Management Area. The course itself is a 7 mile loop, done four times (obviously) with short portions at the beginning and end to make up the mileage and get to and from the trail portion from the start/finish. I had not been down to the park to run, but I had seen pictures and read the descriptions. The course is pretty typical of this part of Florida: packed sand trails, mostly single track, pine and cypress trees, a few hills, a few roots here and there to keep it interesting, lots of sun by midday. The race was small. As per the site, the field is limited to 250 runners. The results show 79 in the 50k, with the rest spread over the 16 mile and 9 mile options.

I went to the race by myself, hoping to meet a few runners from the FUR (Florida UltraRunners) group on Facebook. My approach was very low key because this was just meant to be the first of several events used as training runs for a 50 miler (Bear Bait 50 miler) that I will be doing on my birthday in January. I was hoping to try out a few things to see things to see how they would work for the long haul. One was to try out racing by HR rather than pace. A second was to work on refining a run/walk strategy that would work to keep me going strong through the entire event. The third was to practice fueling and hydrating more effectively.

I got to the race early.  Start time for the 50k was 7 am, which is not quite daylight here right now. Unfortunately, for me “low key approach” is also a synonym for “didn’t bother to pack properly.” One of the things I meant to throw in our race morning but forgot was my headlamp. I stumbled around in the dark trying to get ready and use the bathroom, hoping that by the race start I would at least be able to see my feet. While I was waiting for the start I did manage to meet two FURs that were parked next to me. Goal one for the race completed. (That may not seem like a big deal to many of you, but I am pretty shy when it comes to meeting new people. I hate being the kid on the side of the playground who doesn’t know anyone.) As weird as it sounds to some who may already know me, introducing myself was probably the hardest part of the day.

By the time the race started, it was still a little dark, but thankfully the first ten minutes or so were on a flat packed sand (or maybe limestone) road that was nice and white. In the early light it was not difficult to see where we were headed, and there was not much to trip over.  I had decided for this race not to wear a pack. I knew it was going to get hot, and the aid stations were going to be close enough together (3 on each loop) that I did not think I would need more than a hand bottle. I was feeling pretty good at the start, with the cool temps.

I started mid-pack and just cruised along making sure that my HR was where it should have been. To keep my ego out of this equation, I had set my watch so that I could only see my HR and my lap time (so I would know when to walk).  I promised myself I would not peek at the other screens that showed pace, and even late in the race when I was wondering if I was going to break 6 hours, I resisted the temptation to check. (Okay, so I might have had a little bit of a time goal in mind, but I wasn’t chasing it. I was taking what the HR would give me.)

We hit the single track and the first loop went by pretty happily. I was just trying to get used to the terrain, noting where the hills were, the placement of the aid stations, and trying to keep my HR down. I was planning on keeping it right around 65-67% for the first half of the race, then letting it creep up to no higher than 75% for the latter part of the race. I had also decided not to use my run/walk schedule until after the first loop, just walking/hiking on the uphills for the first loop. That seemed to work pretty well. The uphills were typically :30 to 1:30 in duration, so I felt the strategy was a good one. The only annoying thing at this point was the number of people passing me because of the conservative start.

The second loop I settled in. I started my 10/1 run-walk strategy, with the occasional unscheduled uphill walk. I was eating off the tables for this race. This is a change in strategy for me, and one of the things I was testing. I had taken an Immodium as an insurance policy before the race (also something I had not tried before) and was anxious to see if it would really work to allow me to eat solid food without those inconvenient side trips off the trail. At one of the aid stations, one of the FUR runners who was volunteering had brought cupcakes!! I grabbed one of the mini chocolate ones, decorated in a Halloween theme, which went well with the ghoul who was guarding the aid station (pretty scary by the third time around), and decided to just go for it. Just in case that wasn’t tempting fate enough, I also grabbed a handful of M&Ms and headed off. For the next 30 minutes or so, I kept waiting for the tell-tale rumblings that would normally mean that my digestive system was not going for the eat and run thing, but they never came. I was ecstatic, and I took full advantage of the situation by making plain and peanut M&Ms my fuel of choice for the rest of the race.

Toward the end of the second loop I had a little scare. I had a stabbing pain at the top of my lower leg, below the knee and kind of on the inside: new pain in a new place. For a few minutes, I could not run. More people came flying by me. I asked how far to the aid station, and they said about a mile. Great. I pulled out my phone to text my friend Leslie that I was going to have ANOTHER DNF. I was beside myself. My fingers were sweating, and I could not get the touch screen to work. I heard runners behind me, shoved my phone in the belt, and tried to jog. Pretty soon I could actually jog.  It was still painful, though. As I approached the aid station I realized I was going to need to go a little further to get off of the loop and back to the finish under my own power. I grabbed some aid and walked out of the station, up and down a little hilly part. As I came off that section, I decided to try to jog again. Amazingly when I started going, the pain was completely gone! I could not believe it and thanked the running gods that I had not dropped at the aid station.

The third loop was the worst for me. It was getting hot, and I was running with the fear that the pain in my leg would come back. I  passed a woman who had lost her bottle and who was really suffering in the heat. I slowed down for a bit to give her a drink from my bottle. I could not imagine being out there without fluids. I drank my whole bottle way before the last aid station and was really thirsty by the time I got there. I filled my bottle took another electrolyte cap and drank, drank, drank.  The volunteers there were so great, making sure I had all I needed.

The fourth loop started, and I started to feel really good. My HR had risen a bit on the third lap because of the heat and probably some dehydration, but with only 7 miles to go, and with it still well within the aerobic range, I was feeling great.  I started to pass people, some of whom were women. That made me feel even better. My legs were tired, but I was not nearly as wrecked as I was afraid I would be at that point (with my longest run prior being the 21 miles of the DNF marathon).  The heat was not bothering me as it appeared to be some of the other people. I mean I was ready for it to be over, but I was not thrashed. The hardest part for me on this last loop was not looking at my watch. I was dying to know if I was going to be under my secret 6 hour goal. I thought about how much it would suck if I was 6:01 or something because I had not known and could have gone harder. But I didn’t look. I shook those thoughts off and just said, “follow your plan.” 

The final section of the trail, from the loop back to the finish line, is a booger. It is uphill and full of the most humongous roots. I was terrified of this section, not because I am not good on technical trails, but because ever since the fall where I ruptured my spleen, I am all too aware that another fall like that could actually result in death or at least a trip to the ER and surgery (either of which is such a horrible way to end a  good race). I ended up power hiking up a lot of this section, trying to get to the finish line upright. Finally the probably .5 mile section from hell was finished. The finish line was in sight. I looked anxiously at the clock, which for whatever reason was not showing a time. I crossed the finish, hit the stop, and anxiously pushed through the screens on my watch. HOLY COW!!! Not only did I come in under 6:00. I was at 5:45:48!!! That is my fastest 50k since 2004!!  I was amazed. About that time, they also told me that I had won my age group, which also was a super pleasant surprise.

Unfortunately, also at about that time, the overwhelming soreness hit my legs. I was still walking, but it didn’t matter. The pain was overwhelming. I stumbled to my car, trying to cope with the pain. It was at that point that I realized that my "low-key approach" to packing also meant I had not brought a towel to wipe the dirt, sweat, mud off before changing clothes or getting in the car. I also did not have any ibuprofen. FUR to the rescue!!  Another woman at her car, also a FUR, and someone who obviously has a better approach to packing than I do, supplied me with the 4 ibuprofen I would need to be able to get in the car and drive home.

There was a fairly robust post-race barbecue and get-together going on, but I honestly was in too much pain to go over and meet the people that I was hoping to meet. I headed back to get a bit more diet Coke and a brownie, check the official time, and then decided I just wanted to see if I could manage to get myself folded into the car to drive home. (Amazingly, with all the post race pain, I was barely even sore the next day -- weird.) 

As a whole this race was a huge success and the best test of the Maffetone method that I could have designed. After 9 months of low HR aerobic running and with a race that was run by HR, which is the best measure of my true fitness level (rather than pace), I was able to run my second fastest 50k ever and my fastest 5k since the peak of my fitness in 2004!  I can’t wait to see what I can accomplish with more time training this way and with a higher training volume. 

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