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Wherein he earns his first Top 10 finish

I went into this year’s Rosaryville Trail Run 50K with a plan. A conservative plan.

After blowing up at last year’s race, I decided I was going to treat this like the training race it was meant to be. I’d gone out way too hard last year, so I did some calculations and figured out the pace I needed to run to turn in a respectable finish while still feeling used, but not used up.

The 50K course, at Rosaryville State Park in the Maryland suburbs of DC, consists of three 10-mile loops, with a couple of additional short sections to bring the distance up to 31 miles. I crushed the first loop last year, clearing the main aid station in 1:40 and change. I hammered through the initial miles of the second loop as well, only to realize halfway through that the wheels were already coming off.

I’d been in the hunt for a Top 10 finish up to that point, but didn’t have enough left in the tank to hold my pace.

So this time around? Better strategy and smarter running. Run the first loop in 1:50 and reassess. If I was feeling good, the plan was to run the second loop at the same pace and reassess again. If I was feeling good at that point, I’d push the third loop. If not, I’d do the best I could.

That plan would’ve gotten me across the line in about 5:30, roughly 12 minutes faster than the previous year.

But like last year, when the start command came, I threw all that out the window and drilled it.

‘Go forward, make your road, forge ahead’

It was 4 a.m. in the town of Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, and under the awning of the Treasury House, about 50 African runners were singing.

We were 90 minutes away from the start of the Comrades Marathon, and whether out of a sense of excitement or a simple desire to pass the time, the impromptu group had formed up outside the race corrals.

It started small at first, with only a dozen or so runners singing traditional Zulu songs. But as runners arrived at the starting area, passing through the glare of the spotlights shining up at the old Pietermaritzburg city hall and into the shadows of the darkened street, they peeled off in ones and twos to join the group.

Some produced whistles they’d stashed in their running gear, while others pulled out vuvuzelas from who knows where. But most were content to let their voices be their instrument, so long as they could share in the joy of raising their voices in song before starting their 89-kilometer journey to the coastal town of Durban.

Rediscovering the joy

It’s the bad races that teach you the most about yourself.

What I learned from the Bull Run Run 50-miler? That I don’t bounce back well from bad races.

For about a month afterward, I didn’t want to write about running, didn’t want to read about running, didn’t want to run, period.

I had a choice in the matter on the first two, but not running wasn’t an option. It’s what I do. It’s who I am.

Besides, I had the Country Music Marathon coming up just a couple weeks after BRR50, a pacing gig at the Massanutten Mountain Trails 100-miler two weeks after that, and the Capon Valley 50K the week following.

And my goal race of the season — the Comrades Marathon 89K in South Africa — was looming large in early June.

So I leaned hard on one of my favorite Robert Frost quotes, one that got me through some of the toughest times of the past few years:

“The best way out is always through.”

The battle of Bull Run

Setting a fast pace on flat ground near Centreville before the day warmed up. (Photo by Bobby Gill)

The day after the race, the girl asked me: “Did you go out too fast?”

“No … I mean … I was running hard, yeah, but I felt like could have held that pace.”

I hadn’t looked at my splits yet — didn’t want to — but I thought that I had run the first 20 miles of the Bull Run Run 50-miler at a smart pace.

In hindsight? Not so much.

When I could finally bear looking at the Jeckyll-and-Hyde difference in my performance over the first and second half of the race, the evidence was there.

When I hit the Bull Run Marina, 21 miles into the race, I was on pace to finish in 8 hours and 45 minutes — a full 90 minutes faster than my 2011 finish. I’m faster than I was last year, but not that fast.

And as I was leaving the marina, I knew it. The unseasonably warm temperatures predicted for the day were already climbing at 10 a.m. and as I picked up pace I started feeling tired and a little dizzy — the beginnings of a mild case of dehydration that would dog me for the rest of the day.

The next 30 miles were going to be hard earned.

On witnessing greatness

The Umstead 100 consists of eight 12.5-mile loops through Umstead State Park, near Raleigh, N.C.

“Would you rather play naked Twister with Dick Cheney, or punch a baby in the face?”

This is the stuff great pacer-runner conversations are made of.

Toni and I were just starting loop 7 of the Umstead 100 miler. She was 75 miles in, with 25 left to go.

It was just after midnight, and I’d already paced her through one 12.5-mile loop. We’d spent the previous loop catching up on how her race had gone up to that point, assessing how she was feeling, and going over what needed to happen to get her across the finish line under 24 hours.

She had about nine hours to cover 37.5 miles at the start of loop 6. That’s a totally reasonable proposition for an ultrarunner if that were the task in and of itself. But with 62.5 miles already in the books, it’s a different story.

Fifteen hours into a run, already sore as hell, the sun long down, the rain still threatening a return, and a tough night ahead. It’s enough to leave you feeling like the last Cheerio in the bowl, looking for someone else to cling to.

You know you’ll make it if you’ve got someone else to float with. My job that night was to be a Cheerio. One that could help bring home a sub-24 finish.


The HAT Run and what happened after

Nearly 500 runners lined up across a field for the Braveheart-style mob start of the HAT Run 50K.

In the four years that I’ve been running ultramarathons, there is only one race that I’ve managed to fit into my ever-expanding calendar year after year: The HAT Run 50K.

I’d be hard pressed to pick a single race as my all-time favorite, but the HAT Run would definitely be in my Top 5.

There’s no one thing that makes it an obvious choice, but the combination of a lot of little things make it a race that I eagerly anticipate each spring. I love the familial vibe, the Braveheart-style mob start, the cool finisher swag, the always-freezing creek crossings, the combination of short-but-steep hills and runnable field sections that caters to my preferred running style. All of the above, really.

This fourth running of HAT was particularly special because it fell on a noteworthy day — my friend Sara’s birthday. (It also gave us the chance to belatedly celebrate Tom’s birthday, which had passed earlier in the month, on a weekend when he was out of town.)

This year, it was a Birthday HAT Run and we decided to do it in style.

Chocolate cake, pink champagne cupcakes, champagne to drink out of red Solo keg cups and, of course, birthday hats for everyone.

Oh, and there was this 31-mile race beforehand, too.


Racing against the cutoffs

What if I couldn’t run anymore?

God, I don’t know what I’d do.

A little over five and a half years ago, I felt the itch to go run during an otherwise lazy day watching the waves on Cape Cod.

Those first couple miles hurt like hell, as I recall. And when I got done, I wanted more.

More time, more miles, more of that feeling you only get when you’re out on the ragged edge — that gray and scary area between what you thought were your limits and the discovery beyond.

Back then, two miles was the outer edge of what I thought I was capable of doing. Now, anything less than four or five miles feels like a waste of time. Like, why bother lacing up the running shoes for something so short?

But a few seemingly unrelated incidents this week conspired to remind me that every mile matters. That every second you spend pursuing the passion that in so many ways defines your life is meaningful in the moment.


This is me breathing

There’s this great scene toward the end of “Grosse Pointe Blank” where John Cusack’s character, a professional hitman who’s returned home for his high school reunion, is getting ready for the Big Night.

This is me breathing,” he says as he slides a magazine into his pistol before heading out the door. It’s a simple action, but in that detail you realize that this is the moment when he feels most at home, most comfortable in his own skin, doing what he does best.

Maybe it was the fact that the music that accompanies that scene – Joe Strummer’s “War Cry” – was in rotation on my iPod at the time, or maybe it was something more. But regardless, my PR-crushing run at the Hashawha Hills Trail Run 50K made me think of that scene, as the run felt as natural as anything I’ve ever done.

This is me breathing.


Blasting through the noise

The Uwharrie Mountain Run is a tough race in the best of situations.

It’s 40 miles of rugged single-track trail in North Carolina’s Uwharrie Mountains, the kind of race that veterans say “runs like a 50.” Rolling hills, stream crossings, roots, rocks – a little bit of everything.

Add in the fact that it falls in the first weekend of February, making it one of the first major East Coast races of the year, and Uwharrie can be a tough day.

Especially if you haven’t run more than 25 miles a week in the last two months.

Unlike the last couple winter seasons, I decided to play it smarter this year and ease back considerably for a month or two, to give myself a chance to heal up after a huge 2011. I didn’t want to repeat the mistakes of 2009 and 2010, both years that ended in injuries worthy of a few months in physical therapy.

So after the Magnus Gluteus Maximus 50K in mid-December, I backed off. I knew Uwharrie would be coming up fast, but decided to trust that the base fitness level I’d built up over the course of training for two 100-milers in 2011 would see me through.

It’s only 40 miles in the mountains. What could go wrong?

The Ultrarunning Index, 2011

By the numbers…