At the end of the day I did miss my race goal (more on that later), but that fact is overshadowed by the huge sense of accomplishment I feel, all that I learned during the race, how well my training paid off (more on that later as well), the mental clarity and discipline I experienced during the race, and all the support I got from each of you and my family.
The race started at 7am local time (8am Indy time) and it was a rather pleasant morning; the race director promised all that would change later when the heat would arrive (how right he was). We got to the race later than I would have preferred so there was no time to dilly-dally around. I picked up my race packet, changed, hit the head, and jumped into the starting corral. Right on cue, the starting horn blared and off we went. Only 7 hours 59 minutes and 59 seconds to go. But hey, who's counting.
The course was a 3.29 mile loop. The first 1/2 mile or so was pretty uneventful, just open grassy areas. The second 1/2 mile was a gravel/dirt road false-flat; nothing too extreme, but the false flat felt progressively longer during the last few laps. This ended up being about the only shaded part of the route once the sun was overhead.
Mile 1 to the half way point aid station (around mile 1.5'ish) had a short section of paved road which turned onto another grass road/trail. You had to be more mindful in all the grass sections as there were plenty of opportunities to twist an ankle or do something stupid and end your day early.
The 1/2 way aid station was awesome, which kinda sucks sometimes as it makes it harder to want to leave. They had great music blaring, which you could hear about 1/2 mile away. The tunes ended up being good motivation to get into the station, especially later in the day. They had a "Margaritaville" theme; grass skirts, coconut bikini tops (on the dudes), Hawaiian shirts, etc. It was a well stocked station with plenty of bananas, boiled potatoes that you could dip in salt, chips, crackers, pb&j sandwiches, and maybe a few other things. I relied mainly on liquids all day, so I really didn't pay that close attention to what else they had. There was also Pepsi, Diet Pepsi, Mt. Dew and loads of ice water and Gatorade.
Heading out of the aid station was another gravel/dirt road which was the most scenic part of the race, though it also proved to be one of the hottest sections of the course; no breeze, no shade. This led to the only other paved section of the route. As soon as you hit the asphalt, you hit the only hill of the course which was about 250 meters of somewhat steep climbing followed by another 400-600 meters of moderate up hill. This whole section was fully exposed to the sun and by noon it felt like it was melting the soles of my shoes. The last 3/4 of a mile was more grass trail which lead back to the start/finish.
All-in-all, a pretty simple course; nothing too technical, nothing too difficult. By far, the greatest challenge of the day was the heat. While I had been training during the heat of the day for several weeks, with the cooler trends we have had, it was difficult to really be acclimated for the conditions.
My pre-race goal was 35 miles. My strategy was pretty basic: start conservative, yet on pace, re-evaluate 5 hours into the race. If everything is good to go, pick up the pace in the last couple hours. My "markers" would be lap 4 (13.16 miles) and lap 8 (26.32 miles), these points would help me determine pace, and predict my finishing distance.
For the first 4 hours, I was on pace for a 40+ mile finish and I was feeling great. I knew I had not gone out too fast, too early (typical rookie mistake) and my body was holding up perfectly, only some mild calf discomfort. By the second lap I had found the ideal places for walking breaks, I was keeping my aid station/pit stops to only 1-2 minutes each and I was actually holding back in order to stick with my game plan; fueling and hydration was on par. After a few laps I switched out of my trail shoes for my road shoes. The route surface was pretty hard and my road shoes were more appropriate for the conditions. It was a good call and the mild calf discomfort vanished. As a side note, this mild discomfort and some blisters turned out to be the only physical "pain" of the day.
All was going better than planned until around 12:00 that's when all hell broke lose, or at least it felt like someone had opened the gates of hell. The heat began to climb and the shade was sparse. After noon, I noticed fewer and fewer people on the course, fewer runners at the aid stations, and I saw lots of people in trouble. 1pm was around the time I started seeing the ambulances rolling in.
As mentioned earlier, I mainly stuck with liquids all day, ice water, and lots of Accelerade. I had also planned to take in some caffeine around the 5th or 6th hour. I ended up drinking some Mt. Dew at the aid station around hour 5.5 and had some Red Bull around hour 6 - both had merits and I will use Red Bull again, though only for an ultra. Otherwise, I stay away from the stuff.
By the fifth hour, the real game was about thermoregulation, flat out, nothing else. Could I maintain some level of performance without exceeding my body's ability to cool itself and causing a problem? My pace was clearly slowing, as was everyone around me, yet I felt 35 miles was still very doable.
My cooling efforts consisted of filling one of my water bottles with ice and water which I used to squirt ice water over my head, face, and body. At each aid station/pit stop, I put ice in my bandanna (or "banana" as Jody wrote on the Twitter updates, which you can read HERE) and kept it around my neck. I would also pour as much cold water over my head as I could and even had a kid shoot me with his "Super Soaker" that was filled with ice water - anything I could to get cooled off, I was game!
In the end, I could only do so much, and at times it was really frustrating. My body felt great in terms of my legs and fitness, but after a short distance of running, I had to slow down and/or walk as I just couldn't stay cool enough to perform at any intensity. Like I said, very frustrating but I had to let that go, stay calm, keep moving forward and cover as much ground as I could.
I finished my 9th lap and there was not enough time to complete another full lap. With 30 minutes to go in the race, the main loop shuts down and you begin a series of "out and back" laps which are 1/2 mile (1/4 mile out, 1/4 mile back). This section totally sucked - another section of grass road but it was the roughest and most uneven of the day. Not exactly what you want when you have blisters and your senses/mindfulness is sucking after 7 1/2 hours of running/walking in the heat!
I finished my last out and back with 4 minutes on the clock; not enough time to do another lap. We watched the final countdown and the last few runners coming in. And then, it was done. No real fanfare other than the bullhorn blaring once again to signal the finish. A few people cheering and lots of people limping around like the walking wounded.
Officially I completed 31.11 miles and I'm listed as finishing 115th (though there were several of us that completed the same distance and I'm not sure how they decide who places in front of who. Age?). You can check out the race results by clicking HERE.
Originally I was disappointed that I didn't reach my 35 mile goal, I let that go and embraced the accomplishment for what it was. As it turns out, the heat slowed everyone down as the overall winner (a woman by the way!) completed 50.35 miles which is 8-10 miles fewer than the usual winning distances at the Howl. Not taking anything away from the winner, just putting it in perspective.
At the finish line, as I sat and took it all in (along with an ice bath, thanks to the guys next to us in the pits!) I knew there was nothing else I could have done to safely complete more miles. I gave all that I could give and I know anything else would have put me at serious risk for heat related illness. I was super-pleased with how my fitness and preparation had delivered and know for certain that had the heat not been such a factor, I would have reached or surpassed my goal. Though it's still a little frustrating, as it was out of my hands, I'm okay with it.
There is more I want to share about my new training approach, yet it will have to wait for another post. For now, let me just say that I was able to finish this race on an average of 4-5 hours of training per week, only 2-3 hours of that was actual running! A far cry different than the traditional approach to ultrarunning which usually entails at least twice that amount of running per week. Not only that, but the week prior to the race I set a new PR on the deadlift and the day after my race I did a short, high intensity workout that included pull ups, push ups, sit ups, and speed squats!
Could I have covered more miles had I put in more training miles? I honestly don't think so. Again, fitness was never a factor in the race. Plus, I really don't like running all that much and I sure don't want to spend hours and hours each week... well, running! I'm not a specialist, I embrace wholeness over specificity; balance to imbalance. For me, fitness isn't one dimension, it should cover multiple aspects: strength, power, endurance, agility, flexibility, etc. And it should also include mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being. I want to enjoy ultrarunning, yet not at the expense of huge amounts of time away from my family and things I'd rather be doing than running. I want to enjoy ultrarunning, yet I still want to be flexible, strong, and I want to have a life outside of training. I don't compare my results to others, only to myself and my goals. IF I use these points as my measuring stick, I have blown my "goals" outta the water!
Please check back soon for my training report as I think it's something you won't want to miss - a big "secret" is about to be revealed!
Thanks for reading and a huge thank you to my race crew - Jody and Christian, you guys made it more fun and meaningful. Thanks to those who followed the race on Twitter.com. And thanks to those who offered their support, thoughts, prayers and gave to the WWP.
What's next? The JFK 50 mile ultra in November. I can't wait!