Sunday, November 20, 2016

Conquer the Castle 100k Race Report

This wasn’t supposed to be a focus race. I signed up for it, in its inaugural running, after the rest of my racing calendar had been filled out – a local race at the end of the year with a director (Eddie Carrigg) I knew would put on a well organized event. It would be a good chance to practice fueling strategies for longer races and spend time outside in iffy weather.

            Then the election happened. For a week I was consumed with anger and sadness, incredulous that half the country had made what I considered such a reckless and repulsive choice. On one hand the race now seemed beside the point. On the other, I needed a release, and felt determined to run all out, fueled by the bitter emotions I’d been feeling all week.  
Race start - photo by Stuart Siegfried.
            The race started at noon, with temperatures in the mid-40s. I mingled a little after picking up my bib - and it was nice to see and chat with a few friends - but I wasn’t much in the mood for company. This was a race I would need to run alone, inside my own head. Everyone – 25k, 50k and 100k runners – started together, and I quickly settled into my own pace. After a couple of miles, I had warmed up enough to remove my light windbreaker and hat, and wouldn’t need to put them on again until the sun went down.
            The course consists of a “25k” loop (more like 26k+, actually) that winds through the North Chagrin Reservation, northeast of Cleveland. It is mostly bridle trail, with some asphalt (~15%) and some single track. The trails are not technical, except in a few stretches, but in mid-November there are plenty of trip hazards - mainly roots - buried under the thick carpet of leaves.

I train on the trails in the park fairly often, mostly to do repeats on steep, root-covered hills behind Squire’s Castle (which were not part of this course), but enough on some of the other trails to have a sense of the overall layout. Still, when I glanced at the map before the race I found it to be a bewildering, convoluted mess. It would be hopeless to rely on the map and my spotty knowledge of the trails for navigation - so I put the map away and decided simply to follow the course markings. That worked out well. The many turns and junctions were well marked, and aside from a couple of tricky spots I found the course easy to follow. There were some longer stretches between turns that had few if any confidence markers, and on these sections it was no doubt a benefit to have some familiarity with the trails.

The first loop went smoothly. I exchanged a few words with people along the way, but focused mainly on navigation and my nutrition experiment. In a 100-mile race my stomach typically begins to turn sour around the halfway point, and often a little earlier – around mile 40. I’ve found that I can manage it through a combination of tums and (especially) calorie restriction, but it remains persistent and makes a large chunk of the run unpleasant. The calorie restriction eventually takes a toll on my energy budget, and fear of gastrointestinal catastrophe holds me back from pushing in places I really should.

After my last race (Grindstone 100) it was pointed out to me (thanks, Sage Canaday and Sandi Nypaver!) that my GI issues might be related to a tendency to frontload calories. I typically start with a couple of calorie-laden bottles (320 in each) and consume ~70% of those calories in the first hour. My intestines can’t keep up with the influx – it’s way too much. Even after cutting back to ~150 cal/hr after the first hour or two, the gut bomb has been planted, and it ticks away until it explodes (slowly) later in the race.

That was the hypothesis, anyway. So at this race I decided to try a different approach, beginning with only 150 calories in the first hour and then increasing the load after my GI tract had warmed up. I started off with two 200-calorie bottles, and it turned out that was all I consumed during the first loop (2:41). Returning to my drop bag, I picked up a 400-calorie bottle (filling the other with water) and a couple of gels. From there on, I took in ~275 cal/hr, and my stomach handled it with no issues at all. I didn’t need any tums, and my energy was stable through the whole race. Next time, I’ll try ramping up my consumption a little earlier. When I took a swig from the 400-calorie bottle near the beginning of the 2nd loop, I felt an almost immediate surge of energy, at which point I realized it had been flagging a bit toward the end of loop 1.

I reached the end of loop 2 right around sunset. I’d been carrying a headlamp (Petzl Tikka) with me, but didn’t want to slow down to pull it out. I made it back to the start a little before 5:30 pm, just as it was getting too dark to see on the wooded trails, and quickly grabbed my Petzl NAO headlamp from the drop bag, figuring I would use it as long as possible. It died after only an hour and a half (apparently I’d charged it to less than a quarter of its capacity), but was great while it lasted. I like the Tikka too, but the NAO is on a different level, in terms of brightness and field of view. For the rest of the race I had only the Tikka to rely on – and had forgotten to bring a backup battery. A careless mistake, but it turned out that I didn’t need the extra battery.

At this point the field had cleared out, with the bulk of the racers (25k and 50k) having finished. I was mostly out in the dark by myself for the rest of the race, with a nearly full supermoon shining through the trees above. On the asphalt section near the beginning of lap 4, I turned off my headlamp and ran by the moonlight. A few times I heard large animals rustling through the brush near the trail – deer, the one time I caught a glance. Otherwise, I was left alone with my thoughts. At least, those I was unable to purge.

I’m no good at meditation, but usually find that I run more easily and efficiently if I’m able to empty my mind of thoughts that aren’t pertinent to the task at hand. During the previous week I’d forgotten this, and really believed that my amplified emotions would provide fuel for my race. They didn’t. I don’t think it’s possible to run an ultra on strong emotions - at least not for me. Instead the negative feelings evaporated away while I ran, not providing any fuel, but not presenting much of a distraction either.

As usual, there was music playing in my head for much of the race. It mostly consisted of pieces from Leonard Cohen’s Songs of Love and Hate, which I’d been listening to a lot the previous few weeks. The songs matched my mood, and were rendered more poignant by the death of the great songwriter and performer earlier in the week. And then, there was the random song that came out of nowhere toward the end of lap 3 - “Top of the World” by the Carpenters. I guess I was feeling pretty good at that point. Or something.

I completed loop 4 just before midnight, at 11:48 – the first of the 100k runners to finish. Eddie was there to present the finisher and overall winner awards, which
he’d made himself by hand. Looking back through my lap splits, I had slowed down a little more than I’d planned on throughout the race. The first two loops were almost even (3% positive) and the second two were as well (2% positive). The big jump (13%) was between laps two and three, which coincided with sunset. Part of the slowdown was due to running less of the technical/leafy sections in the dark, but accumulating muscle pain also played a role. I was able to run the last half mile or so comfortably at a pretty good clip, and it was good to know I had more in the tank if I’d needed it. 

            In the end, I’d consider this one of my most successful races, not so much for the win (which is always nice, believe me) but for what I learned about fueling. I’m confident the revised nutrition strategy will pay off in future races. And the negative emotions? Best to just let them float away.