This fall has been less about racing per se and more about setting myself up for 2018, when I have three big (for me) races on the calendar, plus hopefully an attempt at the Bob Graham Round (fingers crossed that trip comes together). But racing can be part of training as well. Races are good opportunities to experience stimuli that you might not be getting in your weekly training, either in terms of distance or intensity, and they can be a nice gauge of fitness as you shape your plans and goals moving forward. My experience in September at the Mountain Madness 50k fell into the former category. I travelled to North Carolina two weeks ago for the latter.
My sister and her family have lived in Charlotte for about 12 years now, only about 20 miles from the US National Whitewater Center, which is a really cool facility for aspiring elite kayakers and rafters. Since opening in 2006, the center has grown to include rock climbing, zip lines, high ropes courses, and many miles of mountain biking trails, and they now host all sorts of events and races. The WC 50 in Charlotte, North Carolina, now in its fifth year, is the ultramarathon entry into the Whitewater Race Series, and a race I've wanted to run for some time due to its proximity to family. The dates worked this year for a quick trip down for my nephew's birthday party and an early-morning jaunt in the trails. I expected a low-key day out; I had no idea of the competition, but looking at previous results, I planned on running a relaxed effort near the front and seeing where my fitness level would get me.
We started in the dark, at 6am, on a fairly warm morning--temps were already nearing 70 degrees. The race started out with a short "parade loop" around the whitewater course before heading into the trails for the first of three 10.2-mile loops. I set off at a relaxed but quick tempo and was immediately at the front of a field of about 100. By the time we hopped onto the singletrack about five minutes in, I was out in front with one other runner and it looked like we'd be on our own most of the day. We ran together at a nice pace; the miles were marked with signs tacked to the trees, and we were clicking off splits in the 7:40/mile range on some fairly technical but runnable mountain bike trails. It was a bit tough monitoring our footing with just headlamps, but it was fun running at speed through the darkness, and the early miles passed by quickly. We ran together throughout the first lap. The second half of the loop had a few significant climbs, though we kept up a solid tempo. The mile splits suddenly had jumped up to over 10-12 minutes per mile, but I think this was due to incorrect markings as opposed to any change in our effort or actual pace. (This sense was supported by subsequent laps, when we would again run 7:30-7:40 pace on the early "miles", followed by 10-12 minute "miles" later on.) Regardless, we rolled through the first 11+ mile lap in about 1:39; I grabbed my Orange Mud handheld and ran on through the start/finish aid station, while my companion--a strong local runner named Chase Eckard--took a quick break with his crew before catching back up within the first mile of lap 2.
We kept the effort steady and chatted through the early part of the lap. Chase said, "When do you think Karl will catch us?" I knew that Karl Meltzer, the winningest 100-mile runner of all time, had been in town for the pre-race dinner, promoting Made to Be Broken, a film about his record-breaking run on the Appalachian Trail. I hadn't realized he was racing, although I had considered the possibility. For some reason I had assumed that if he was racing, it would be in the 50-mile, which had started at 5am on a course that incorporated our entire 10-mile loop plus an additional 7 miles on each of three 17-mile loops.
"Oh, is Karl racing?" I asked.
"Yeah," said Chase, "he started off at the back."
I have no idea why--partly because of my pre-race assumption, I guess, and partly because we were leading the race and why would I be leading a race against Karl Meltzer?--Chase's comment simply reinforced my notion that he was in the 50-mile. I wasn't sure if he would run the opening 17 miles of his race in under 2:40 on this course, so by my twisted logic I wasn't clear if we were actually ahead of him or not at this point. "Well," I said, "if we finished our first lap before he did, we might be ok; he might catch us later in this lap. But either way, we'll pass him when he does the extra seven miles on lap two." Chase didn't really have much to say about that, which given that Karl was actually in our race makes perfect sense; in retrospect I must have sounded like a freaking moron.
ANYWAY, we ran together until about the 16-mile mark, when Chase blasted away on a long downhill stretch and I eased off a bit, resisting the urge to really open up this early in the race. Instead I took in some calories, slamming down two GUs in rapid succession (my first calories to that point, I realized, even with the fat adaptation I've got to be a little smarter about that) and settling into a nice solo rhythm. I caught a few glimpses of Chase on some longer stretches, about a minute ahead at a couple of spots, before we started in on the climbing again. I didn't expect to start racing for a few miles yet, but suddenly he appeared in front of me near the 20-mile mark, walking at the top of a long but runnable uphill. We exchanged a few words of encouragement as I made an easy pass. By the time we reached the end of lap 2, a little over a mile later, I already had about two minutes on him, and I was feeling good. Barring disaster, I felt like I had it in the bag.
Disaster is exactly what happened about 25 minutes later. I rolled through the opening miles of the final lap feeling a little tired but generally relaxed and strong. My splits were within shouting distance of my first two laps. I passed the 4-mile mark of lap 3, about 25 miles overall, in 3:52; doing some quick calculations (and taking into account the longer "miles" in the second half of the lap), I was looking at about a 4:55, maybe right around 5 hours if I slowed down a little. I briefly stepped off the trail to fertilize the soil, not realizing I was near one of the myriad switchbacks on the course. Somehow I got turned around and ended up on the wrong end of the switchback. After a couple of minutes of running, I started getting a sinking feeling in my stomach. The trails all looked the same, but some of those turns were looking too familiar...as if I had just run them...and then I came around a corner and arrived back at the one-mile mark.
Well, that was just too much. I sat down on a log by the side of the trail and had myself a little pity party; after a couple of minutes I started walking backwards towards the start, ready to throw in the towel rather than run another nine miles. After a few minutes of that, though, I felt pretty stupid, having travelled all the way down and then not even bothering to finish; I thought about Jim at States last year, sighed, turned around, and trudged back over the same three miles I had just run. I finally cruised into the mid-loop aid station about 40 minutes behind schedule. The volunteers were all very confused--none of the leaders had actually gone past me--but after I explained what happened they were sympathetic, as they had seen Chase and I up front all day. They told me Chase was now running second to Karl, which is how I came to finally realize that Karl had been in the 50K all along; they poured me a shot of bourbon, which at this point I figured what the hell, and sent me on my way.
I actually felt pretty good the rest of the way, and managed to pick off one or two other folks en route to finishing in 5:41, officially 6th but in actuality 5th (looking at the splits, the 5th place runner is credited with a second lap of 1:21--fifteen minutes faster than anyone in the race ran any other lap on the day, and almost 30 minutes faster than either his first or last lap, so there's no way that's legit, but whatever). I felt fine afterwards, and actually wasn't even all that sore the next day, so it confirmed at least a decent level of fitness. And for the first hour or two I didn't even care about what had happened; I basically shrugged afterwards talking to Karl and said "That's trail racing, shit happens." But after a little while the disappointment really set in. I had put over seven minutes on Karl after one lap; on lap two I had given back barely 30 seconds. I had basically tossed away probably my only chance to beat a legend like Karl--and not some outside chance; the race was basically over--by being a fucking idiot.
In retrospect it was the perfect commentary on my ultra season for 2017. I did fine, winning a couple of small races that I fully expected to win; I came into every big race (Rocky Raccoon, Cayuga Trails) in great shape and then had great performances sidetracked by weird shit happening. Only difference was this time I brought the weird shit on myself. A fitting ending to a frustrating year. Fuck.
Twelve weeks to Bandera.