I first ran the Caumsett 50K in March of 2008, my third ultramarathon and my first national championship. The race, hosted by the Greater Long Island Running Club at Caumsett State Park in Lloyd Harbor, NY, has served as the US 50K road championships since 2006. I ran much of the race with Dan Verrington and Leigh Schmidt, two studs from New England, ultimately falling off their pace but running a (still-standing) PR of 3:25, finishing seventh overall. (Dan's 3:17 that day was, at the time, a national age-group record.) It was about five minutes slower than I thought I might do, but I had felt like I had put in a very good effort and all in all was pretty pleased with how it turned out, nabbing a top-10 in a national championship race. Of course, when I called Joe Puleo to tell him how it had gone, his immediate response was, "What happened? Too short?"
My immediate response (other than "fuck you, asshole," which I'm 75% sure I didn't say) was "Oh, god, no!" I was just scratching the surface of ultras at that time, and still had at least one foot in the marathon world; my marathon PR had come just 18 months earlier, and only six months before I had been in likely low-to-mid 2:30s shape leading into Chicago only to be foiled by an epically hot day. I still had the mindset that anything longer than a marathon was an incredible undertaking, and had not yet come to the realization that 31 miles miles really isn't that much farther than 26.2. The thought of going beyond that point seemed unimaginable at the time.
Fast forward eight years. Training for my first 100K this winter brought with it a certain measure of anxiety and self-doubt. Finishing was not my concern; I wondered, though, whether I really was built for the longer stuff. In the last eight years, I've grown very comfortable with the 50K distance, and had several strong performances at the 40-mile Mount Mitchell Challenge. But I had yet to experience any real success at 50 miles; certainly nothing commensurate with my performances in shorter ultras and trail races. I'd been unable to completely master the nutritional requirements or to fight through the fatigue in the late stages. So despite my long-standing (ill-considered?) belief that I get stronger as the races get longer, I was apprehensive that the 100K might not suit me all that well. As Bandera approached and my fitness progressed, I started to think that maybe I should take another crack at Caumsett. It was a known quantity at a distance where I'd experienced some success; a good fallback or safety valve if the 100K proved to be too much for me. My workouts were not far off of what I'd been able to do back in 2008. At 40 years old, could I run close to--or better than--that 3:25 I'd thought was beyond my reaching again?
As it has much of this winter, the weather cooperated nicely: clear and cool, high 30s at the start, low to mid-40s by midday, no significant wind. I lined up in the third row with Laura and Joe Murphy, behind the likely favorites, including Zach Ornelas, who last year had set the course record of 2:52; Jared Burdick, second at the 2015 Cayuga Trails; 2:20 marathoner Fred Joslyn; and my teammate Cole. My goal was to run even splits, even slightly negative if things went well, and try to stay near the front of the masters field, but ultimately to run my own race. Zach took off at the gun, opening up a 15-second gap on the field by the mile mark; I ran in the lead masters' pack, in about 12th place, with three or four other old guys until we hit the mile in 6:10. I felt pretty relaxed by knew this was not sustainable, and quickly eased off the gas and let the pack go. I was running solo almost immediately, but was able to find my rhythm quickly and ran 6:30 for the second mile, just a few seconds ahead of what I wanted. I settled in for the day.
The course is a 5K "loop" with a short out-and back section just before the start/finish, repeated ten times. With a couple hundred runners soon joined by a few hundred 25K runners (starting five minutes later) on a short loop, the road quickly became congested. Even so, I ran solo--as alone as you can be when surrounded by other people--the rest of the way. I was passing and lapping people throughout, but outside of the first mile, I spent almost no time with anyone running the same pace as I was.
The race had split up into a few groups. Zach was off the front, chasing the American record of 2:47. Jared and Fred led one chase pack; Cole and Eric Senseman another. Then came the masters group of three or four runners. Then four or five solo runners stretched out over a few minutes' gap, including Dan Verrington, still getting it done at 53, and Caroline Boller, the women's leader. Behind me lurked a few runners, including Joe and Laura, who was running very fast, though she looked pretty uncomfortable. (She struggled through the day with some hip pain--us trail runners don't take too kindly to the roads--but gutted out a fantastic 3:40 to place second. She is so, so tough.)
I struggled a bit getting comfortable in the early stages--I was running very even 6:30-6:35 splits, but my legs felt a little heavy and tight--but past 15K I started to feel great. The 6:30s started to feel too easy, and I had to rein myself in to prevent them from turning into 6:20s. Lap 4 was my fastest and easiest of the day, and lap five passed quite comfortably as well; I came through halfway in 1:41:06, in 15th place I believe, feeling very strong and confident that a 3:25 was well within reach. My plan now called for me to relax through laps 6 and 7 as much as possible while making a concerted effort to take in some fluid and calories. Through 25K I had taken in just a little bit of water and no calories, so starting lap 6 I grabbed my handheld and resolved to take in at least two gels, four S! caps, and the entire bottle by the end of lap 7. I was well on pace and was OK with giving back a little time here. Even if I gave back 30 seconds per lap over the next two, I was looking at a 41:30-42:00 10K and a 35K split of 2:23. I was then fairly certain I could run a 62-minute last 15K for my 3:25.
Lap six passed without much incident--I was getting a little tight, but nothing unmanageable--but it was becoming clear that I had a bathroom issue. From about the hour mark on, I had an inkling that I had to pee. Normally, in an ultra, I'd just stop and go, but a flat road 50K, like a marathon run for time, is unforgiving; afraid to stop and lose precious seconds, by lap 5 I was starting to psych myself up to just pee on myself as I ran. (What a stupid sport this is.) Which would have been fine, but midway through lap six my stomach was starting to make it known that my pre-race evacuation, while satisfying at the time, had been inadequate. I tried hoping it would go away, but that didn't work, and I really didn't have any other ideas, so I pulled over at the mid-lap aid station halfway through the seventh lap--almost exactly the 20-mile mark, in 2:11.
In a trail race, or a longer ultra, this would be no big deal. A road 50K, though, has much more in common with a marathon than with what we usually think of an ultras. One of the reasons I got out of marathoning (other than not being very good at it) was that the enormity of the effort coupled with the relentlessness of the clock was too overwhelming. There is just no room for error. Running a big-city marathon like Chicago or New York renders your place basically meaningless; I couldn't tell you if I had a good raced based on finishing 150th, or 500th. Only the time matters. To put so much effort into training only to be derailed by something as trivial as the weather, or the course, or, having to stop and poop--it's just too frustrating. And I was acutely aware of that feeling as I opened the port-a-potty door and thought, "Oh, well, my race is over."
I gave up two and a half minutes in the stall--150 agonizing seconds--and it took me another 1-2 minutes of slow jogging afterwards to shake the stiffness out of the legs. By the end of the seventh lap I felt like I had my rhythm back. I tossed my bottle and got back to work. The PR was gone, but sub-3:30 was still in play.
Lap eight passed quickly; I felt very strong and was able to earn back one or two of the spots I'd lost during my pit stop. By the start of lap 9, I was tightening up again; the pace had slipped from 6:35-6:40 down to 6:50-6:55, but I was holding it together. I split the marathon in 2:56:05 (pre-race goal had been around 2:50-2:51, so without my bathroom break, a 2:53 or so--not too far off) and caught Joe, struggling with hamstring tightness, a quarter mile later. I started the bell lap knowing I'd need close to a sub-21:00 5K to break 3:30. I couldn't quite make that happen, but by the mile mark I started seeing glimpses of Dan Verrington about a minute ahead. I'd been chasing him for nearly three hours, and thought I was likely to run out of room, but I gave chase anyway.
For a while nothing happened, but by the two-mile mark of the loop I had the gap down to about 30-40 seconds, and it looked like he was coming back to me. I still doubted I had enough time, but kept pushing, and it paid off, as I was able to draw alongside with about a half mile to go and put in a nice hard pass to secure the spot by about 20 seconds at the finish.
In all, it was a good B+/A- effort. I hadn't quite been able to pull out the PR--even without the pit stop, I might have fallen short--but subtracting three minutes from my seventh lap gives a 3:27, which I would have been quite happy with. I'm beat up like I haven't been for awhile; I almost forgot how tough road marathons are, and I'll be on the bike only for the next couple of days. But this was my second top-3 age group placing at a national championship this year, and I'll certainly take that. It was tough, though, returning to straight time-based road racing for the first time in a number of years, and I think that my answer nowadays to Joe's question might be: "Yeah. Too short."