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.
Hanging with the fast kids
Over the past few months, the term “fast-kid miles” has become a bit of a joke among my running friends. In our weekday runs with the roadies organized by the local running store, a few of us have been putting in some hard tempo miles and the occasional round of speed work or hill repeats.
And on weekends, the crew has been dividing up into two packs, with the faster runners pulling ahead to put in some harder trail miles before regrouping in the parking lot for post-run snacks and drinks. Once everyone gets back to the trailhead, there’s the usual joking around about us front-runners being “fast kids.”
I still don’t feel like a fast kid quite yet, but after this year’s Rosaryville 50K, I do feel like a faster kid, at least.
When the crowd of about 75 runners dashed off the starting line at Rosaryville, I looked around and realized that Sara, Mike and I were amid the front-runners as we blazed down the brief road section. I lost track of where I was in the pack as we turned onto the main single-track trail loop, but I did know that Sara and Mike were only one or two runners behind me at that point and that we were all running well.
I looked down at my GPS watch to find that I was way ahead of my planned splits, that I was on pace for a roughly 5:00 finish. And with a bit of cocky recalculation, I decided that I’d stick with that pace for as long as I could. What could go wrong?
In fairly short order, I was back at the main aid station with 10 miles under my belt. The girl was there, waiting for me to come through and helping out at the aid station; as I blazed through the aid station and looked at my watch, I shouted out to her “Yep, I went out too hard again!”
I’d been planning to hit that aid station at 1:50, but came through about 11 minutes sooner. Oops.
What I think about when I think while I’m running
As a brief aside, I’ve got a deep appreciation for ’70s muscle cars. Have I told you that before?
Runners often have a mantra, something they repeat in their heads as they’re pushing through a tough point in a training run or a race. Other have things they visualize when they’re not otherwise occupied by the random thoughts that inevitably pop up during an hours-long run through the forest.
Lately, I’ve been visualizing those ’70s muscle cars. The epic car-chase scene from “Bullitt” in particular. In that scene, Steve McQueen chases down the bad guys in a high-speed pursuit through the hilly streets of San Francisco. McQueen’s in a fastback Ford Mustang, while the bad guys are piloting a jet-black 1970 Dodge Challenger.
The cars go airborne over the tops of San Fran’s hills. Rear ends swing wide and tires squeal as they slide through sharp turns at speed. Wheels grip for purchase as the driver threads through cars and pedestrians. No white-knuckled, fear-gripped clutching of the steering wheel here. Completely at ease with the speed and danger.
Barely controlled, but still in command. I like that. It’s like live jazz when it’s at its best. On the verge of turning into a hot mess, but still beautiful.
I found that place on the second loop.
I fell in with another runner, a roadie who recently embraced trail running, and we talked races and places as we set a fierce pace on the rolling course. We blazed through the last three miles of the second loop, clocking splits in the low 9′s without missing a beat. The conversation was easy and I was on autopilot.
In my head, I was seeing a Dodge Challenger swinging wide through the turns.
Back at the main aid station at the finish of the second loop, I looked down at my watch again. 3:21 and change — a full 16 minutes faster than this point in the race last year. And I was still feeling good.
Holding on for dear life
As I left the main aid station for the third loop, I knew it was going to be a tough 10 miles. You can’t run that hard on trail over 20 miles and expect that the last 10 are going to be easy – I can’t, at least.
For the first couple miles, I found myself dragging a bit. The mile splits turned over on my watch and I saw 11:38 and 11:19. Unacceptable. Time to dig deeper.
I was pretty much solo on the trail at this point, having left the couple guys I was shooting the breeze with – they dawdled a bit at the aid station while I set about the business of getting my water bottle filled and getting back on the trail. So I decided to see whether I could catch anyone up ahead.
Finding any extra speed was tough, as the temperature was rising and the heat of the day was starting to take its toll. But once I was counting down single-digit miles, I started getting faster, not slower.
I rolled up about a half-dozen runners over that last loop, folks who had gone out even harder than me during the first two loops and were paying the price on the third. I still had no idea where I was in the field, but figured I was somewhere in the top 20.
With plenty of water left in my bottle, I passed through the main aid station for the third time without slowing down and yelled out “how much longer to the finish?!”
When I heard there was less than a half-mile to go, I got my foot into the gas pedal for the final push. I was alone on the paved road, and off in the distance, the finish line looked pretty barren.
As the finish line clock came into focus, I could see that I still had a shot at a sub-5:10 finish, so I found that last gear and did a high-knees sprint up the hill to the line, with a handful of spectators cheering from under the picnic shelter.
I made a bee-line for the refreshment table and, as I sucked down a tall cup of Coke, a couple of fast kids who’d long since finished the race, Brad and Keith, congratulated me on my finish. I wasn’t sure why, until I had my wits about me enough to look around the finish line area.
There was hardly anyone there.
Two places makes all the difference in the world
After changing into fresh clothes and wolfing down a burger, I hung out at the finish line and had a couple of beers while I waited for Sara and Mike to finish. They crossed the line about an hour after I did, with my friend Rob coming in shortly thereafter for his first ultra finish since a back injury sidelined him more than a year ago.
We had a good time telling race stories for a while before I poured myself into my car to head home, not knowing where I’d finished in the field. I knew that I’d crushed my previous course best of 5:42 and had run a new 50K personal record, but I had no clue how many people had finished ahead of me.
A couple days later, initial results came out. I’d finished 12th in the field. That was awesome.
Then, a day or so after that, the race officials updated the results.
As it turned out, I’d finished 10th. My best finish at any race distance ever.
That still blows my mind a bit.
Rosaryville is a small, local race. A few of the fast kids turn out for it, but most save their powder for other events. Either the Catherine’s FA 50K where I’d volunteered at an aid station the day prior, or the Catoctin 50K the weekend after.
Still, a 10th place finish at any event is a huge validation of all the work that I’ve put into building both my speed and racing confidence in the past year.
It was entirely unexpected and thrilling to finish that far up in the field. But even better, I finished the race with the itch to keep going.