March 24th, 2012
Bethany: 2nd overall, 6:55 (course record)
Chris Helfer: 3rd overall, 7:07
The only other time I've lined up to race under similarly inauspicious circumstances was when I did the Tour de Park City 170mile bike race having been up all night the previous night on call at the hospital. (Strangely, that event turned out surprisingly well too.) Due to an achilles injury it had been about 3.5 weeks since I'd done any significant running to speak of, choosing instead to do lap after hiking lap on Mt. Wire. This approach can maintain some semblance of aerobic fitness but, unsurprisingly, has little bearing on the specific demands of running at a decent pace for 50 miles. Add to this a cold I came down with on Monday as well as the fact that our daughter Ada has been sick and sleepless for the majority of the preceding 2 weeks with night after night of 3 hours of shut-eye for the whole family and you understand why it wasn't until this past Wednesday that I decided I would at least line up and give it a shot.
The Buffalo Run 50 miler involves a lot of running. This may sound redundant in describing a 'running race' but it is a singularly distinguishing feature of this course (which involves a seemingly never-ending 20+ mile flattish out and back along the east side of the island) and places it in an altogether different category than other western ultrarunning events with substantial vertical and technical terrain such as the Pocatello 50, Speedgoat, Zane Grey, etc. The run takes place on the otherworldly Antelope Island, the largest of 10 islands in the Great Salt Lake, and home to populations of bison, mule deer, pronghorn antelope, bighorn sheep, and countless birds. The 50 mile course showcases the range of terrain on the island, from the central mountainous region to rolling prairie grassland along the north and east aspects.
We left from our house at 4:00am to pick up Chris Helfer en route and arrived at the start line around 5:15. Inside the tent we found Karl Meltzer wrapped in a sleeping bag, having finished the 100 miler about 2 hours earlier in an impressive 15:28 (course record). He mentioned off-hand that his first 50 miles was 6:33 (which is one of the top 3 fastest times for the 50 mile course in race history). The gauntlet was down.
We started off in the moon-less dark at 6am with headlamps and I was immediately in the lead with a few folks trailing just behind. I exchanged a few words with another runner from Grand Junction whose name escapes me now who ended up being just 30seconds to 1 min. behind me for the first 8 miles or so but who then apparently went significantly off course later in the first loop. I plugged in my earphones early on and just focused on enjoying the cool morning as I moved along at a quick pace seemingly effortlessly. I could tell I was running faster than I had anticipated and even my heart rate was high (low 160s) but it just felt too good to slow down and I cruised along into Elephant Head and headed out for the out-and-back, bopping along to M83 on the iPod and passing Greg Norrander, out on the course to take photos. Within the first mile or so of the out-and-back I came down hard on my R. ankle, twisting it fairly badly. It is always tough to tell how bad a sprain is right after it happens given the burst of pain and for a few moments there I thought my race was over before it had even really begun. I sat on the trail for a moment and rotated it around, then got up and took a few tentative running steps. It hurt for another few miles and then went numb (although it is bruised and quite swollen today). I continued along the Split Rock trail as the sun rose. Around 12 miles in I noticed my achilles beginning to twinge. This increased in intensity till about mile 20 and then seemed to progressively numb from there on, perhaps due to the increase in pain signal coming from the rest of my body. I swung by the start line area (mile 18+) and continued past just prior to the start of the 25k. I was wearing a Garmin GPS watch, a piece of equipment I typically eschew, and noted that at mile 20 my average pace had been 7:43/mile per mile- quicker than I expected given the decent amount of climbing on the first half of the course.
At the northeastern turnaround point (mile 22) I judged I had at least a 10-15 minute lead and settled into a sustainable pace. Given my faster pace for the first section of the run I had a fleeting moment where I thought the course record of 6:15 (Dylan Bowman 2011) might be conceivable. This would involve running just under 7:30 pace for the remaining miles which seemed at least theoretically feasible given the mellower terrain. My inability to hit these kinds of splits despite feeling relatively fresh however quickly informed me that this would be out of reach and I focused my efforts at maintaining a controlled pace.
Running is hard. I've never run a race where I didn't at least once wish I wasn't doing it. Being solidly in the lead from early on I didn't have a lot of motivation to push hard after a certain point and engaged in a fairly constant inner battle with laziness. At one point I recall even calculating how much I could slow down by and still win the race. Nonetheless, I was buoyed by the fantastic volunteers at Lower Frary aid station and by Jay Aldous who provided plentiful encouragement, not to mention 100-mile runners still out on the course who, despite being 24 hours deep in their own race (having started at noon the day before), offered energetic cheers and hoots, even stepping off the trail to let me run past. Knowing how shelled I was in the final stages of the only 100 miler I've done this was really inspiring and admirable and I consoled myself with the fact that however bad I was feeling they were assuredly feeling worse.
It was hot. And kept getting hotter. The story from here on out is just a linear increase in effort and similarly linear decrease in pace. Things never got all that bad and my energy levels stayed relatively intact- I could just tell that my legs were not accustomed to this task. To wit, they protested with aching hip flexors and hamstrings that started seizing in earnest over the last 10 miles of the course. I had been carrying one bottle but as the race progressed I would drain it fairly quickly after leaving each aid station. In retrospect I significantly underestimated my fluid needs in this heat (mid 70s) and was pretty volume depleted by the finish where I subsequently drank over 4L of fluid fairly quickly but still managed only a meagre amount of orange urine 3 hours after finishing (1).
Unsurprisingly, the best my legs felt all day was when I hiked up the steep uphill grunt around mile 43- now this is the kind of stuff I've been training for. Unfortunately, running mode returned all too soon as I dragged my body down to Bridger Bay to finish up along the Lakeside trail. The last 5 miles of the course are surprisingly refreshing: more ups and downs and plenty of rocks and features to negotiate which breaks up the monotony of identical foot strike patterns characteristic of the previous 20 miles. I managed 38:30 for the last 5 miles and stopped the clock at 6:30:31, as far as I know good for the second-fastest time in race history and a satisfying end to my 2nd 50 mile race.
Given the size of this race and the fact that at any given time you are finishing with 100 mile, 50k and 25k participants, the finish is a relatively anticlimactic affair involving just the perfunctory snip of a timing chip off your shoe. In my mind, this is perfect and completely captures the existential essence of this sort of endeavor: no glory, no external rewards, no money, no reasons for doing this other than the ancient need to explore your own personal physical and mental limits. (And then to blog about it.)
Bethany finished up looking smooth and strong in 6:55 which took over an hour off the previous women's course record (!) despite running a very conservative pace for her. In typical fashion she was coherent, cheerful, and fresh at the finish. In stark contrast I spent a great deal of time sitting lamely on the ground breathing in shallow breaths with my head between my legs, trying not to vomit on my knees. I can't imagine doing another 50 after running that pace. It's so cruel: you spend so much of the final stages of a race just wishing for the sweet relief of the finish and then you cross it only to be beset by seemingly unending discomfort. Helfer the Manimal finished in 3rd overall around 7:07 in his first 50 mile race and his 5th running race of any kind ever, having started running this past spring. Impressive stuff.
We hung around for a while at the finish which offered buffalo stew, beer, baking in the sun, and plenty of social time with familiar faces. It was fun to meet JB Benna and his wife Jennifer (director and producer of Unbreakable which had just screened in SLC thanks to Christian) who have a daughter named Eva born just a few days apart from our daughter Ada.
Today I feel surprisingly good apart from my achilles and ankle which are swollen and sore. Hopefully these will heal up in short order so as to race Zane Grey in a month's time. Race director Jim Skaggs and crew put on a great show- a well organized and well executed event in uniquely beautiful surroundings and a great start-off to the season.
(1) One great thing about having a running blog is having the opportunity to discuss and describe in detail my