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.
I felt strong at Hashawha – stronger than I’ve felt at an ultra in a long time. It’s probably got something to do with the fact that I spent a dedicated two months resting up and healing up after a demanding 2011. I still ran, but cut my mileage back to roughly half of what I usually do on a weekly basis.
But more so, I suspect this new confidence came at least in part from being named the VHTRC’s Most Improved Trail Runner of the Year for 2011. I’m lucky to be a part of one of the biggest and most talent-rich trail running clubs in the country and I was blown away by that kind of salute from such an amazingly accomplished group of trail runners.
At the awards ceremony, I was chatting with my friend Sophie, who paced me at the Grindstone 100 last fall, about what running two 100-milers in 2011 had done for my running overall. I didn’t realize this until I said it out loud, but knew that it was true even as I was saying it: I’ve gotten to a place with my running where I can take on a 50K and truly get after it.
To run without fear.
To know that you’ve got what it take to not simply finish a 31-mile run, to not just play it safe and know that you’ll finish respectably. But to go out and truly press hard against the edges of what you think you’re capable of and test your limits.
What a difference a year makes
Last year, I went into Hashawha Hills broken.
I was still fighting a couple of nagging injuries, and I’d had a rough encounter with the Massanutten Mountains the week prior on a training run for the MMT 100. I got tore up and spat out, and felt like 170 pounds of chewed bubble gum, physically and spiritually.
So last year, the race in Westminster, Md., was an event that served as a confidence builder for the tougher events that were to come on the 2011 calendar after making it through in one piece and in a respectable amount of time.
This time around, it would be a an early-season leg stretcher, a chance to play with my running tactics and take a few risks on a course blessedly free of rocks, roots and long climbs. With nearly 4,000 feet of elevation change total over two loops of 15.5 miles each it was no joke, but still a course that favors the bold.
We toed the starting line in mid-30s temperatures with 20mph-plus winds, a mix that left us all eager to get moving and warm up. So when the digital clock rolled over to 7:30 a.m., every one of the roughly 100 runners went off like a shot, even the ambling back-of-the-pack crowd. I quickly found myself looking at the backs of a few friends — Pete, Stanley and Beni — as they went out hard.
I knew that at least Pete and Stanley would hold a fast pace throughout the race and that Beni would turn in a strong performance as well, so it was tempting to get my foot into the gas and go after them. But I reminded myself of one of the early pieces of running wisdom I received along the way: “run your own race.”
So I resisted temptation and let them motor on ahead. My plan was to run a tactically sound race, not waste time at the aid stations, and take calculated risks wherever I could.
Within the first 10 miles, I reeled in Beni as she eased back to a more conservative pace, but there was no sign of Pete or Stanley. I suspected that they were only a few minutes ahead of me, but it was hard to tell on that twisting, turning course. The last time I’d seen them, on a quick out-and-back section early in the race, they were about a mile ahead of me, but who knew whether they’d pulled ahead or faded from there?
Not fade away
I reached the aid station at the start/finish line – which at mile 15.5 marked the start of the second loop – at 2:46 and change, which put me on pace for a finish in the mid-5 hour range, exactly as I’d planned. The Girl was there to meet me at the aid station, but made sure to shoo me back out onto the course – she’s already figured out that I dawdle at aid stations.
During that brief stop, though, she asked me how I was feeling. Through a mouthful of PB&J and a section of banana, I said – as much to myself as to her – “I feel out-fucking-standing.”
But as I headed back out onto the course, I had three big questions:
- How badly would I fade during the second loop?
- How far the hell ahead were Pete and Stanley?
- How soon, if ever, would the godawful wind stop?
I set a fast pace heading out of the aid station and, soon enough, I was nearing the 20 mile mark. Looking up one of the many short-but-steep hills that plague the Hashawha course, I saw Pete just ahead of me. I barked out a loud “ooh-rah!” – Pete’s a former jarhead like me – and motored up the hill to catch up with him.
As we caught up on how the last few hours had gone, he told me that he’d gone out harder than he’d planned on the first loop, caught up in the excitement of his second ultramarathon. But he was still running strong with 10 miles to go, so we rolled up the next couple miles together at a fast but comfortable pace.
After a few miles, though, Pete pulled off the trail to make a pit stop and told me to not wait on him.
So I didn’t.
Picking up the pace again on a nice flat section, I noticed that my mile splits weren’t too far off from where they’d been during the first half of the race. It wasn’t very likely that I’d be able to run the second half as quickly as I had the first, but I had a feeling I could get close. And I decided to go for it.
There were a couple of tough miles during the last 10 and I watched in frustration as my splits topped 12 minutes. But I knew I still had gas in the tank and kept pushing. I was eating well at the aid stations and a welcome injection of hot chicken noodle soup with about an hour left in the race provided a welcome boost of both electrolytes and morale.
After the second trip through the 2.3-mile loop at the northeastern end of the course, a tough section that required runners to run across some open, rolling fields where the wind was blowing hard and the traverse across a few just-steep-enough hills made for awkward footing, I knew the last five or six miles would be easy by comparison.
And with about three miles left to go, I could finally “smell the barn” and I put the hammer down. Those last three miles were my among my fastest of the race; as I rounded the turn toward the finish line, I looked down at my watch to find that I’d clocked an 8:41 in the last full mile. I laughed to myself, shook my head and sprinted the last few hundred yards to the finish area.
As I collected my finisher’s award – an awesome ceramic mug – I found myself itching to go log a few more miles. Instead, I checked my watch to confirm my finish time and was psyched to find I’d finished in 5:36:18. Good enough to put me at 29 of 91 finishers – the top third of the field.
I’d only dropped five minutes in the second half of the course – the equivalent of about 20 seconds slower per mile. That’s about as close to even as I could’ve hoped for across the two 15.5-mile loops, and the finish time was both a new personal best for the course and the 50K distance overall. I’d trimmed nearly 50 minutes of my previous finish at Hashawha, and about 6 minutes of my best 50K time ever.
(As it turned out, Stanley was just a few minutes ahead of me most all day, clocking a 5:29 to finish two spots ahead of me in the field; Pete logged a 6:02, a new best at the 50K distance for him in only his second ultra.)
In hindsight, I’d like to say that I was shocked by my finish time, but I wasn’t. I knew what I was capable of doing on that course, and I did it. Period.
What did surprise me, though, was how I felt later in the day, and in the days immediately following. By all rights, I should’ve been hobbling after a run like that, but I wasn’t. When treating a race as a training run for a longer event, the advice goes that you should feel “used, but not used up” at the finish. That sounds about right for this one.
So what to make of this new-found confidence in my running? I’m not sure yet. Not sure where it came from, not sure what to do with it.
Other than to keep running without fear.
This is me breathing.