Thursday, February 22, 2007

Holiday Lake 50K++

Two miles to go at the Holiday Lake 50K++, photo by Andrew Wilds Photography.

“The Reason I Run” (quoting another HL runner)
By Michael Valliant

I know I am having a good run when there is ice in my beard. We aren’t a mile into the Holiday Lake 50K++ trail race in Appomattox, Virginia, when I smile, noting that that indicator is in place. This same semi-masochistic enjoyment is likely a part of what got me to sign up for my first ultra-marathon.

Starting at 6:30am on February 10, the temperature is 14 degrees, and the outlook is dark. There are more than 250 runners signed up and we all corral ourselves through the starting gate and push up a paved hill, following the guidance of those runners who are wielding flashlights.

Turning off onto winding single-track, the line of runners snakes through the woods with mild road-blocking at turns, quick descents and climbs. The first aesthetic epiphany comes on a turn out of the woods and across a longish foot bridge over the lake, with a nice drop of rushing water crashing beneath us before climbing wooden stairs and winding back through the woods.

This stretch is right along Holiday Lake, which now has fog lifting off the frozen surface. It’s a good idea not to spend too much time taking in the view, as a couple stretches will drop you 15-20 feet into the drink from a rocky misstep.

After more singletrack and some forest road, we check in at the first aid station, where I opt not to grab anything since my water bottle still has its share of Gatorade and I am a few gels on the rich side and feel on stride with pace and nutrition/hydration. We turn hard left and I let my legs go down a good stretch of downhill gravel road. It feels great to fall down it, until I think about the fact that—with the course being a loop around the lake, and then retracing the same loop backwards—I am going to see this hill again from the bottom, when I am much less inclined to have good legs.

On the descent, I see and start to catch my training partner who, as I am, is from Maryland’s Eastern Shore, where you will find more people with the last name “Hill,” than you will ever see elevation above sea level. We are from the land of flat farmland, plentiful rivers, creeks, and the Chesapeake Bay, where only Tuckahoe State Park will give trail runners any rolling terrain.

Coming up a rolling incline, we emerge from a stretch of woods into an open pine area, headed north, northwest, with the sunrise coming up over the east. Melissa, a fellow Maryland trail runner, with whom I had fallen in stride, says to a group of us, “This is why I run!” She has spoken for the bunch of us.

We later catch up with my fellow Eastern Shoreman, Mike Keene, and a new aquaintence, Todd from Pittsburgh, who, like Melissa, has a number of ultras, including 50-milers under their belts. Perspectives from all the runners I meet over the weekend are hugely helpful.

Everything is plodding along a-pace as we check into aid station # 3, at the 9-mile mark, which I hit at 90 minutes, spot-on. I am pleased, as this is my pie-and-chips-in-the-sky pace for the race.

A small bridge and a log, each a hair downstream from stream crossings enable the packs I was running with to keep mostly dry feet on the first loop (I would lack the energy or wherewithal to care on the way back and just trounced through the crossings the second time through).

After aid station #4, we fall into a single-file line through the woods, five runners deep, and hit a cadence that feels like boot camp. I point this similarity out, and Melissa from Maryland deftly points out (with a laugh) that there is nobody standing over us or barking at us to make us do this! Looking back, perhaps race director David Horton has cameras and loud speakers in the trees to bark at slack runners.

It’s at this time when the frontrunners of the race begin to pass us on their return loop. They are flying and inspiring and receive cheers from all of us.

Between aid station #4 and the turnaround, we start to hear an odd, but beautiful song from the lake as the ice cracks and melts. That sound, along with the sunrise, has taken residence in my being. Of course, I did posit later that it could have been the croak of the giant playground frog on the lake, which would have been memorable for different reasons.

We begin to pass an increasing number of runners in this last stretch; all are gracious, encouraging, and fast on their return. The grind is just starting to get to me as we reach the half-way turn-around point. We check in at about the 2:55 range, which I am happy with, but get the feeling I will not maintain. I ditch the Outdoor Research jacket I started the race in, which was perfect, but has become too warm, change to a lighter baselayer and zip up a Patagonia Houdini, which works well for the return loop. I fill my water bottle and grab some pretzels and M&Ms.

Gear is about the only thing that goes well for me on loop two. Before I reach the second incarnation of aid station #4, intense cramps set in on both of my quads and into my calves. This has happened to me before on my longest runs, but I was hoping they wouldn’t hit today until mile 25 or so, not mile 18. I walk through the cramps and run until they return.

About this time, my stomach turns sour and protests the thought of any more gels. It begrudgingly agrees to pretzels and a few M&Ms at aid stations as I encounter them. So I’ve got recurring muscle cramps and a stomach on strike against nutrition and hydration. Other than that, things are great!

I fall into and out of several great people on the trail—fellow sufferers in many cases, working through issues, beating down their own demons. I feel like crap, but I am enjoying the effort and the people, and the spirit of both. I never consider stopping, though I am not moving fast by any standard.

The last cut-off point comes and goes, and the enthusiastic volunteer informs me I am 45 minutes to the good, which is encouraging news. My favorite crutch to lean on for the loop home are the bright orange course markers—I pick one a good space ahead and make a goal to run to it before succumbing to a quad-cramped stumble. I can understand how easy a “Best Blood” award can be had; letting go on a downhill when my legs aren’t working well could easily bill me as a human slinky.

The aid station volunteers are both a source of nourishment and encouragement. They welcome us, grab and fill water bottles, and broadcast the ever-decreasing number of miles to the end. After checking through the last aid station at 6:05 hours in, calf cramps are an issue, and the final 3.5 miles of singletrack are tough, but fun.

Emerging from the woods, I hit the pavement, which Horton has been gracious enough to give to us as a downhill to finish. On my way to the finish, I pass some of the folks who gave me support and conversation, as they are heading to their cars, and each throws out knowing congratulations. I pass through the finish line at 6:48:00, managing some time before the 7:30 cutoff. I have just finished my first ultra-marathon.

Trails are my preferred terrain and a source of soulful sustenance. Having said that, by necessity and background, I have run more roads and competed in more road races. My road times in distances from 10K to 20 miles range between 8 and 9-minute miles. I have some work to do to acclimate to hill country. I have to dial in my nutrition—eat and drink more—and figure out how to ward off leg cramps. During the second half of Holiday Lake, I was most looking forward to the race being done. The days after the race, I look forward to more time on the trail; to figuring out how to run a better race; and to my next ultra marathon goal: 50 miles at the JFK 50 in November.

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