Thursday, October 18, 2012

2012 Oil Creek 100: A New PR! (barely)

Moments after crossing 
the finish line in 21:43:23!

If you were to have asked me how I was doing, or how I was feeling, about 12 hours into Saturday's race….I would have said "Terrible!".  I made a very rookie mistake this past weekend while out for my last long ultra jaunt of the season:  I ran too fast, too early.  Early on in the race I was feeling good, and I got caught up with running with some great company, and disregarded what was a much quicker pace and heart-rate than I prefer for hundred milers.  As the miles ticked away, I kept thinking that I was running too fast, and that it would all come back to bite me in the ass.  But, as the first 31-mile loop came to an end, I still felt surprisingly well.  Then about 15 miles later I wanted nothing more than to curl up in a soft bed and say "screw it".  I was lethargic, sore, cranky, and just plain heavy.  No matter what I tried, I just couldn't get my feet to come up off the ground with any sort of authority.  

Yet, in spite of a struggling mental state, an uncooperative body, and cold temperatures, I managed to cross the finish line 8 minutes faster than last year, and 5 minutes faster than my 100-mile PR.  Is it possible to have a horrible-feeling race and still PR?  I guess so.  I suppose you could ask,  "When does one run a 100-miler and not feel horrible?"  Hmmm…touche'.

This year has been an absolute blessing for me on the running front.  I am incredibly grateful for the races I've been able to participate in.  Somehow, someway, I was able to complete every race I ran, and still managed to keep a 4-year DNF-free record.  I realize that this streak won't and can't last forever, so I will take it while I can.  Oil Creek was my 5th 100-miler this year, my 8th ultra this year, and my 21st ultra overall.  Saying it's been a tough year would be an understatement.  I often think back to January when I had only recently found out that I'd be participating in the Barkley Marathons.  I think about those endless hours of climbing up and down snow-covered power-line cuts……over-and-over, day-after-day.  I think about the 10,000' elevation gain training days, and sitting in saunas for Badwater….and it occurs to me just how lucky, and fortunate of a year I've had.  At the end of the year, I would have been happy with just breaking 25 hours at Leadville, nevermind Barkley, Badwater, and Massanutten finishes, as well as a new PR at Oil Creek.  In all honestly, when I put 2012 into perspective, it occurs to me that there will likely never be another year like this one for me with regards to my running.  I'm sure I'll continue to run, and finish 100-milers.  I'm sure at some point I'll set a new PR….but I'm also sure that I'll DNF at some point and that my race accomplishments will never be quite like it was this year.  Of all of my running and ultra accomplishments, I have never, and probably will never again feel what I did when I touched that 5th gate at the Barkley.  To this day that is, and will probably always be, my proudest and most humbling ultrarunning moment ever. In addition to all of this, I've managed to keep another incredible streak alive:  The streak of never running the same race slower than before.  In other words, every time I've re-run a race venue, I've run it faster than any previous time.  Every time.  I've run Finger Lakes 50's three times, Vermont 100 twice, Leadville 100 three times, Oil Creek twice, Vermont 50 three times....and always ran each race faster than the last time I ran it.  Not sure how I've managed to keep that streak up, but I imagine it will also end soon.

I'll get to the Race Report in a minute here, but while I'm on the theme of other races and schedules, I've decided to post a few things regarding future plans.  
  • First of, I decided somewhere during the middle of the night on Saturday, probably around mile 70 or so, that my body needs a break.  I have had a wonderful year, and have been blessed with good I will NOT be running anything extreme in November (despite my last posting).  I have asked an enormous amount of my body these past 8 months, and it needs a break.  This doesn't mean I won't run, or hike, or even race on a smaller scale (50k's maybe).  Just no 100+ milers.  I like to think that I've earned it.
  • Second:  While I love running at familiar races each year, I also like experiencing new things.  So, with that said, I'd like to make a list of races and places that I would like to possibly run/hike sometime in the near future (lottery and time contingent of course).
    • Hardrock 100
    • The Continental Divide Trail (thru-hike)
    • The Plain 100
    • FKT-attempt on 200-300 mile trail (not sure which yet)
    • Be a pacer for someone again (I really miss this)
    • Vol-State
    • Laz's Backyard Ultra
    • The Vermont Long Trail (hike)
    • Western States 100/Wasatch 100 (and the Slam)
    • San Juan Solstice 50
    • McNaughton 500
    • and a few other "things" which I'm not quite ready to share just yet...

On to the Oil Creek Race Report:

Suiting up 10 minutes prior to start.

I drove up to Titusville Friday afternoon and set up my tent before it got too dark.  The forecast was calling for a hard frost overnight, and I knew it would be a chilly one in the tent.  After checking in, it was lights-out quickly.  I felt tired and wanted a good night's sleep.  Of course in the middle of the night, at least two car alarms went off (I've yet to attend an ultra where that doesn't happen), so that ruined any continuous sleep I hoped to achieve, but still I was rested enough.

At 5:00 am sharp, with temps in the high 20's, Tom Jennings sounded the horn and we all started the slow run down the paved road towards the bike path.  We were all cold, wearing extra layers, and hoping for a quick sunrise.  I settled into a nice groove, although admittedly a bit quicker than I probably should've been.  Once on trail, I weaved along the single-track trail in the dark, soaking up the cool-morning, headlamp trail running.  I simply love running at night, and being towards the front of the pack meant it wasn't crowded at all.  I've noticed that at Oil Creek, it doesn't take long to get into a solo pocket and feel completely isolated. 

It was ridiculously cold and I ran a bit hasty to keep warm.  The ground was covered in a thick frost everywhere.  I pulled into the Wolfkiel aid station still in the dark (mile ~7) in good time, and was in-and-out quickly to start the nasty little climb that follows.  A few miles later I caught up to Ashley Moyer who was cruising along at a nice/steady pace.  This should have tipped me off that I was going too fast as I knew Ashley was gunning for a win.  I couldn't resist the nice chatter and pleasant company though and kept pace with her up through the ~15 mile aid station at Petroleum Centre.  We rolled in together in about 2hrs 30 just as I switched off my headlamp and as it was starting getting a bit light out.

The aid stations and volunteers at the Oil Creek race truly are a big highlight to the event.  Just as I said last year in my Race Report, I can't comment enough at how incredibly helpful and thoughtful everyone is at the aid stations (nevermind all of the ridiculously awesome food - including hot pizza!). Needless to say, I find it very difficult to leave the aid stations at this race.  They are just so welcoming.

After a minute or two of wolfing down some food, disposing of my trash, and chatting with some folks, I reluctantly headed back out into the cold, to tackle the long ~9 mile leg of the course to the next aid station (Miller Rd).  I made the tiring slog up "Heismann Trophy Hill" just as Ashley caught back up to me.

Rolling in to Petroleum Centre with Ashley

Still mostly dark at the fully-stocked Petroleum Centre aid station

Leaving Petroleum Centre through frost-covered grass.

We ran together for the entire 9 miles again, and I was admittedly getting a little bit worried that I might be pushing too hard.  My 1st loop time last year was 6 hours even.  At my current pace, I was looking to finish it in about 5:15. A few miles into the loop, we came upon the Cow Run shelters on the trail...manned by a local boy scout troop.  This is always a highlight for me.  Again they had a nice fire going and I couldn't help but stop by it to soak up a little early morning heat.   Despite the sun now being up, the temps were still hovering in the 40s.  As I left the station I had made the soft decision to slow down a bit.  I finally let Ashley pass and go on ahead, but even at my slightly slower pace, I never really lost sight of her up ahead.  When we got to the aid station at Miller Rd (~23), I finally told her, "Please go on ahead, don't wait up for me".  Despite the good company, it was then that I finally realized I was just running at too high a heart-rate and could no longer keep it up.  I purposely spent an extra 3 minutes at the station so that she would get significantly far ahead and I wouldn't be tempted to stay with her.  On the climb up out of the station past the old cemetery ("Death March Hill"), I caught a faint glimpse of her in the distance, but then never really saw her again for the entire rest of the race (except at the turnaround).  She went on to win the race in 19:29, breaking the course record by over 2 hours (and finishing 3rd overall!).  To be honest, I'm surprised I was able to hang with her as long as I did.  Continuing...

So now I was on my own and I decided it was time to downshift a bit.  The last leg of the course is always my favourite.  I like knowing I'm headed home and it probably has the least amount of tough climbs.  Also, it features the thumping Drake Well powerhouse that can be heard from miles away.  I always know I'm getting close when I start hearing that thumping.  This was probably one of my best segments of the entire race.  I was still relatively fresh, I was now on my own to take-in the beautiful fall colors and warming temps, and frankly I was in my happy place: Along a wonderful trail through the woods.  I love having my little John Muir moments during's why I do them.  Usually this happens at 2 or 3 am on top of some mountain, but in this case it happened along the last segment of loop 1.

Drake's Well w/powerhouse

I finally popped out of the woods and rounded the Drake Well as it was just starting to get sufficiently warm out.  I jogged the last 1.5 miles down the bike path back to the school with a big ol' smile on my face alongside another runner, Ryan.  When we pulled in I saw Ashley heading back out.  I wished her luck and happily headed for the food table.  I took my time and enjoyed the great company of those waiting for me.  My watch read 5hrs 30mins.  Yikes...too fast!  I knew it too.  I also knew I would pay for it later.

The local cheering section!

Ryan and I finishing loop 1 (31 miles)

Putting down a high-calorie mocha Ultragen...mmmmm

Holy awesome food Batman!

I very reluctantly said goodbye to everyone and started out on my 2nd loop.  I knew it was going to be a rough one.  The 2nd loop is always mentally tough, but with my quick pace on loop 1, I knew my tank would start to run out very soon and I'd be pushing through some tough miles.

Starting loop 2 (5:32 on clock)

Leaving the school in much warmer temps

Just about to head onto some single track (Mile 33)

I made it along for the next 10 miles or so on auto-pilot, passing through the loop 4 turn-off spot and the Wolfkiel aid station a 2nd time, but then somewhere a few miles before Petroleum Centre, the wheels fell off and I felt like I ran into a brick wall.  It's almost as if with the pace I was running, my body assumed I was only doing a 50-miler and decided it was about to be done soon.  When I rolled into the aid station I was at the low point of my race.  The sun had gone behind the clouds, a light rain was threatening, and my body was not cooperating.  I wanted to go home.  I sat for a while at the station not wanting to leave, but eventually told myself to just get out there and make some progress.  I wasn't even half-way embarrassing, I thought.  I had slowed down significantly and was losing whatever cushion I had gained in the first loop.  I had thought during the entire first loop of perhaps trying to at least finish the race somewhere close to last year's time, even if I did miss the sub-22 golden buckle.  At this rate though, it was looking like I would fall off completely.

Coming into Petroleum Centre the 2nd time.  Not doing so hot

Heading back into the woods after Petroleum Centre #2

The next leg dragged on for a while.  I crossed the half-way point somewhere along it, and noted my time was about what it was last year...maybe a smidge slower.  When I came upon the Boy Scouts again at the shelters, I stopped for a couple minutes to enjoy their fire.  I wanted so desperately to just pack it in. I wasn't having fun and I still had 48 miles to go.  I was in no man's land and I needed a boost.  I pushed through the rest of that leg and when I popped out at the road before the aid station I immediately felt better at the sight of a familiar face cheering me on.  I happily trotted down to the station where I enjoyed copious amounts of food and good banter.  I left the station, made the "Death March" and began my last, and favorite leg of Loop 2. 

Emerging from the woods with a smile just before the Aid Station.

At this point I had surrendered any idea of a sub-22 finish and just wanted to plod along and tick off the miles.  Pending any major disaster, I figured I was still good for a sub-24.  I steadily made my way the 7 or so miles until that repetitive "thump" of the Drake powerhouse began to resonate.  I did the Drake loop and slowly jogged the bike path back to the school.  I rolled in with a lap time of about 6hrs 50mins:  Over 1hr 20 mins slower than lap 1, and 5 minutes slower than my 2nd lap last year.  Yep...the wheels definitely fell off, but not quite as badly as I had thought.  I hadn't really checked my time since I made the mental decision to not worry about the sub-22 back at mile 50 or so.  

Finishing up Loop 2 - Still holding on.

I spent a very long time at the School aid station seriously contemplating just calling it a day.  I had run a 100k and could very well go home.  I started telling myself I didn't need that buckle anyway...even if it would be my 10th 100+ miler buckle.  In a moment of frustration and anger, I started out on loop 3 before I could think about it any more.  Before I knew it I was 2 miles down the trail and committed....passing the loop 4 turn-off one last time.  I remember thinking that I'd get to see that turn-off sign one more time in about 7 hours (hopefully).  I walked a lot of the easy hills early on and when I pulled into Wolfkiel aid station, I was just switching my head lamp on.  I was indecisive on food but eventually put down a lot of potatoes, chips, fruit, and nuts.  It was the boost I needed.  As I made my way towards Petroleum Centre for my 3rd and final time, I could feel that I finally had some energy back.  Apparently I had gotten behind on nutrition.  So when I finally did roll into the station, I decided to keep the food intake up and wolfed down 2 slices of pizza along with some cookies.  This strategy worked and kept me energized through my final climb up "Heisman Trophy Hill" en route to the Boy Scouts again.  This time, when I made it to their shelters, I stood over their fire for a good two minutes soaking it in.  A light drizzle had started now and it felt nice to warm up.  My heart-rate just wasn't staying high enough to keep me warm.

Eating pizza at Petroleum Centre #3

It was somewhere around here that I turned my mind off.  I don't remember much of the last bit of loop 3.  I do remember thinking I couldn't wait to get out on that damn baby-loop 4.  As I made my way around the Drake Well the 3rd time, I finally glanced back at my watch figuring by that point I had lost a whole hell of a lot of time.  To my surprise, I was still very close to sub-22 pace!  With how slow I felt I was going on loop 3, I couldn't believe it.  I told myself that if I made it back to the school in under 20 hours total, I would give that last baby loop everything I had.  Last year I headed out on the final mini-loop at 20hrs.  I remember I had to push really hard and ran fast to make it under 22.  I crossed the line in about 21:51, cutting it really close.   I just didn't think I'd be able to do that again this year though.  Without checking my watch again, I jogged the 2 remaining miles to the school and the end of lap three.  As I approached I read the number off of the main clock.  It read 19hrs 58mins.    Looks like I'd be going for it!  The 3rd loop had taken me almost 7hrs and 30mins (10 mins slower than last year).

Coming Home: 
I quickly chugged some soda, wolfed down some food and immediately headed back out telling the volunteers I had no time to lose.  I hitched along with another runner telling him that we could do it, we just had to push.  I ran hard all the way to the end of the bike path and even some of the climb up the single-track before I finally ran out of gas and had to walk.  I walked hard though and was through the first trail section quickly.  Exactly 40 minutes after leaving the school I came to the turn-off for loop 4 and hastily tore down it.  It felt good to make the left turn at that sign, and not a right.  I remember this part taking forever last year, yet before I knew it, I was crossing the long expansion bridge en route to the dreaded "Hill of Truth".  Last year this hill was brutal.  It took everything out of me and took me over 20 minutes just to climb.  This year I hammered it!  All that Barkley hill training must have still been coursing through me, because I powered up that damn hill in 7 minutes.  At the top I looked at my watch and it read 21:05.  I knew I was golden. I downshifted, put a huge grin on and slowed to a very pleasant jog....and this was the situation until the finish.  It was raining pretty heavy now and I made my way down the paved bicycle path knowing I was not only going to beat last year's time, but that I was going to PR.  Somehow, despite how awful I was feeling, I still managed to do remarkably well.  I wondered had I not ran so fast during loop 1, could I have finished in under 21 hours?  Perhaps.  Still I was ecstatic and thrilled to say the least.

I rounded the corner of the finish-line road and gleefully trotted up to the end.  I crossed the mat in 21:43:23,  8 minutes faster than last year, and about 5 minutes faster than my 100-mile PR (Vermont 100).  I ran 8 minutes faster over the course of 100 miles.  That equates to about 5 seconds faster per mile.  Crazy when you think about how small a difference that is.  Tom came outside to congratulate me and hand me my 2nd sub-22 golden buckle.  Somehow again, I managed to be the last person to finish in sub-22.  Funny how my time last year led to a 5th place overall finish, while this year my finish put me at 17th place overall (15th men).  Crazy the difference a year makes!

So all in was a great result, but a tough race.  Especially the 2nd half.  I am very glad to have ended my 2012 ultra season with a new PR for the 100-mile distance.  There's still a chance I might squeeze in a 50k before heading back down to Antarctica next month, but for all intents and purposes, this Oil Creek finish caps off the most incredible and magical year of ultrarunning I could have asked for.

Hopefully, 2013 brings me just as many amazing experiences and memories!

The Finish

The Buckle: Front

The Buckle: Back

Thanks to Tom Jennings for putting on another great race, and thanks to all of the volunteers for being out there and for being so incredible!  Hopefully see you next year!

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