Sunday, April 29, 2018

No Wimps - Pinckney 50K Ultra & Trail Half

Over the last few years, as I have continued to run and run and run some more, I continue to grow more attuned to what gives me the most enjoyment while out on the trails.  While I have, at least according to the basic numbers, been more successful in shorter races, my growing passion has been to see if I can continue to run farther and farther.  What started with a road marathon like the Chicago marathon grew into a trail marathon on the North Country Trail which then grew into the big challenge of the Pikes Peak Marathon.  It felt like a great progression over a handful of years and I believed that progression would continue in 2017 when I tackled the Two Hearted Trail Run (marathon) in the U.P. of Michigan.  That didn't go so well.  After having gained such confidence on Pikes in 2016 I thought I'd really nail this more basic trail marathon in the flatter expanses of the U.P. and I ended up having a bad race.  Did this mean I had already peaked?  Had I found my limit?  Was my niche in the running world to stick to trail halfs and the annual attempt at a full marathon.  I say no.  I decided I wasn't going to allow myself to settle.

After a few months to take all things into consideration I decided life is always about the next big challenge.  In November 2017 I looked over my calendar for 2018 and I realized it seemed all the stars were in alignment for me to go big on Trail Weekend in Pinckney, Michigan and do the No Wimps Challenge. I have for years now been in love with the Trail Half and had aspirations of attempting the full.  Then I made the decision to go for it. And to go for it meant not just to try the full but to attempt the 50K Ultra ... and the Half.  So I signed up for the whole deal.

I spent the early part of winter starting my research and planning on how to prepare for my first ultramarathon and how to put together an appropriate training regimen.  With this I put together a mental game plan on trying to buy all in on this in every aspect of life that I could.  I would need to do not just the running training but strength workouts, mental focus, better home nutrition and all.  With races set for the weekend of April 29 I set the first week of January as my kickoff and from that moment on I was geared towards this singular focus of Trail Weekend.
Sunset view from Crooked Lake Campground on Friday night

I read a few books on ultras to get an understanding of how this would differ from my training for trail full marathons.  The one big change I looked to adapt in my running training was to focus on getting in as many 18+ mile training runs as possible.  To do this I would also need to focus on recovery better than I ever had before so I wouldn't break down 3+ months into training.  Over my 17 weeks of training I made 7 runs of 18+ miles, 2 of which were 22 miles, and one in which I hit 26.2 miles (I had planned 24 for the day, but felt so good I did the full).  I had great success on all of them except for one. My third 18+ mile attempt which was supposed to be a 20-miler but ended up at 18.  It was a bad day on trails which I blame on the cold and a poor nutrition plan for the day.

The winter as a whole made for challenging training.  In late January and February we had days of ice and snow (as to be expected) but with brutal cold temperatures as well.  I ran a 10-miler in -3 degree temps with -15 wind chill.  I had to grow accustomed to bundling up for just about every run.  What added to the challenge was that there was never a reprieve before race day.  What should have been spring temps in April turned into one of the coldest April's on record.  I was still running in sub-freezing temps in the mornings up until the week of the race.  I think I'd almost forgotten what it feels like to run without gloves, hat, and double layers.

From the docks at the Crooked Lake camp

At week 13 I had my big trial run for race weekend.  It was a week earlier than I would have desired but family travel plans necessitated it.  On a Friday I ran 13 miles and then turned around and did the 26.2 miles (planned 24) on the second day and it went spectacularly.  I had such good legs the second day and a near perfect nutrition plan that I would end up implementing on race day.  This was a momentous occasion that built such confidence to have run another marathon, self-supported, and to have done so without any major physical or mental struggles. My recovery also went wonderfully and I felt good again within a day or two.  I knew at that point the 50K Ultra was within reach if I could make it to race day and just execute.

Sunday morning - great day for a trail run

The week after my big trial run was family vacation out in Colorado where we skiied and hiked for a few days.  I did pick up 20 miles of running in a few places that week but it was a major recovery week as well as the beginning of my tapering.  When we returned home I threw in my last and final big run of 18 miles on a Saturday exactly two weeks out from race day, and then tapered down from a peak week of 55 miles to 45 and then 33 mile weeks.  I still feel like I'm struggling to get a feel for tapering and not doing too little (or too much!) during those last weeks.

When April 28 and 29 arrived I felt ready both physically and mentally and was hoping and praying that all my 4 months of preparation would finally pay of.


My plan for the weekend involved camping at Crooked Lake campground on Friday and Saturday nights to make each of the morning's easier, but also to just enjoy the whole environment of Trail Weekend and camping.  I rolled into camp around 6pm on Friday and just had a relaxing evening including a short hike.  My Saturday morning pre-race involved getting my gear together and driving over to the Silver Lake parking lots shortly after 7am to get a parking spot.  I checked in and got my bibs for both Saturday and Sunday.  I had some breakfast (banana, oatmeal square, applesauce cup).  

The Start/Finish Area. The grey tarp on the ground was the dropbag area
The tent before it was the aid station between laps.

My Sunday morning prep before the 50K Ultra started a bit earlier.  I had it in mind I wanted to make sure I had a parking spot as close to the course as possible in case I would use my car as an aid station for the second or third loops.  I was up at 5:45am and in 15 minutes had my camp torn down and thrown into the back seat of the car.  I got over to the Silver Lake Parking around 6:10a and was able to park pretty much exactly where I wanted.  I walked to the race start area and found they did have a tarp laid out on the ground and marked as a drop bag area for runners.  I decided to make use of it.  I had a bag along just for this possibility.  I put food and Tailwind refill in it as a supply for after lap 1 and into lap 2.  Given my parking location right on the parking lot route to begin lap 3 I kept the rest of my reserves in the car.  This all would work out just fine during the race.  Before the Ultra I tried to get more breakfast calories in and stayed in the car a lot as it was only 29 degrees outside and very chilly.


For the Saturday race I wore my blue Salomon running shorts with a long-sleeve tech shirt and one of my old Trail Half red running shirts over it.  I wore my Speedcross Vario shoes with gloves and my running headband for warmth.  This all worked out fairly well.  It was a cold 40 degrees pretty much the whole race with some wind.  I took headband and gloves off around Blind Lake.  Hands were warm for a little while but got cold again the last 4 miles or so. 
Pickerel Lake, during lap 3

For the Sunday Ultra I wore my black 2-in-1 shorts with a long-sleeve black tech shirt and my Salomon race shirt along with gloves and headband.  It was 29 degrees at start today but no wind and some sun so it felt fairly reasonable.  For the first 13-mile lap I kept all of that on.  As I neared the lap finish I got my long-sleeve shirt off and the headband and ditched both of them in my drop bag starting lap 2 with short-sleeves and the gloves.  The temp was possibly already nearing 50 degrees.  For Lap 2 I was quite comfy with the clothing setup and put the gloves in my Rev6 pack for the duration of the race.  The Speedcross Varios worked great the whole day today.  I had a slight sore spot in my feet during the Half and I felt it just a bit at the start of the Ultra but it went away and I was great the rest of the day.

Nutrition Strategy

For the Saturday half I kept to a simple strategy of 3 Gu's, targeting them roughly every 3 miles or so.  I was also drinking two scoops of Tailwind in just under a liter of water.  This seemed to work just fine for the half marathon.  After the race I pushed a very heavy focus on recovery as that would in part make or break my Sunday ultra.  I used two of the Tailwind Rebuild packets with milk each time with 20 oz. of milk.  Also ate a good Nature Valley protein bar and had two solid protein-filled meals the rest of Saturday.  

For the Sunday ultra I was really doing everything in my power to be as on top of the nutrition side as possible.  I had done my homework as much as I could to understand what was necessary and had come to settle on a basic strategy of 250-300 calories per hour which is pretty much the max of what the body can actually handle.  This would obviously be a fairly strenuous activity and so I wanted to make sure a lack of calories wouldn't doom me.  I am fairly certain my failed 20-mile training run back in February was due to low calories and I am increasingly suspecting my previous marathon challenges with cramping and fatigue may also be due in part to weak in-race nutrition.
Looking back to the foot bridge by Pickerel Lake, lap 3

My final few big runs in training I had worked on perfecting a roughly every 3 mile eating strategy which when combined with a 10-11 minute/mile pace would get me in the 250-300 an hour calorie range.  I was going to eat a mixture of Gu gel, fruit snacks, Clif Shot Bloks and possibly even some Nature Valley sweet-and-salty granola bars.  I would also have Tailwind in my hydration pack.  I had practiced with doing Tailwind-only earlier on in my training and if you drink it at a high enough concentration that may get you close to the number of calories desired, but I always felt like my stomach still craved something a bit more solid in it.  I think for a shorter race, perhaps even a Trail full, a combination of strong Tailwind and just a few solid snacks could work well.

In the early half of the race I felt like my nutrition strategy was working well and my energy level stayed fairly consistent.  It wasn't until I neared mile 20 that I hit my first snag of the day: I really had grown tired of the sugary taste of things.  This is not uncommon and I've had it myself before.  The thought of another Gu or even the Tailwind in the water become less and less appealing.  At the aid stations I would look for a couple of pringles to snag and some small pretzel sticks just to get some real salty food. As I neared lap 2 and the 26-mile mark I had stomached one last Gu just to keep the calories and energy flowing but I resolved when I hit the begin of lap 3 and my vehicle "Aid station" I would empty my hydration pack and go with water for the last 5 miles.  I also recalled I had a small package of wheat thin crackers in my car trunk and I went for those to get a more salty snack.  

The pure water gave me a great boost and was a hit for the last 5 miles.  I barely hung on otherwise with eating as my appetite was nearly gone.  I got in a few crackers but it grew increasingly difficult to build up the desire to chew and consume.  My energy did hold til the very last mile but I suspect if I had needed to go any further I would have gone into calorie depletion and would have bonked.  

It is going to be a fresh goal of mine for next time to find a good salty snack with a different texture to work into a long run like this.  Its something I've accomplished for hikes with great success.  When I did the Grand Canyon R3 and the Zion Traverse I had salty crackers along to mix in with the gels and the fruit snacks but while running that's so much harder to do.  I'll stay on the lookout for now for just the right snack.  And while I love Tailwind in my water I may also need to look at mixing in pure water more along the way to break things up.

Race Results - Saturday Half Marathon

The challenge of the Trail Half was to figure out what the right pace would be to run it in a respectable time, yet not expend too much energy.  I do always have a competitive bone in me which wants to excel, but I'm also conservative when it comes to risk. I had initially figured on a 2:30 Half time but on race weekend decided I could reasonably go faster. My PR is 1:48 which I set just last year, but that was obviously out of the question this time. On race morning I looked at 2:15 as a target time with a target of running 10 min/miles.  I started out in the thick of the pack in the Losee Lake section and even got out in my first mile slower than desired, but I figured that wasn't a bad thing.  I picked up some of that time in the southern bends of the Poto.  I took it easy on all the hills heading into Blind Lake and I was right on schedule around 1:08 when I hit that halfway aid station.  I had a handful of miles under 10 after Blind Lake in those easier sections and in parts made sure I wasn't working too hard.  The name of the game was to keep the heart rate down and make the run feel relatively easy.  

I came into the final couple miles feeling pretty good and was happy that the legs didn't feel overly stressed and my heart rate never felt as though I had worked too hard.  I came into the finish right at 2:15 having timed it all just perfectly.  I made my way to my vehicle and immediately began the recovery process.  Overall based on my own feel I was pleased with how the Trail Half had gone for me.  The only quibble I would wonder about in hindsight is when I compared my time to others who had done the No Wimps 50K.  Those who ran the 50K in a similar time to me mostly ran the Half faster.  While its always a dangerous game comparing too much to others, it did make me wonder if I should have shaved another 5-10 minutes off my Half time and whether that would have affected me in the Ultra the next day.  

Race Results - Sunday 50K Ultra

I began my first Ultramarathon attempt at the very back of the pack.  With 31 miles to go I figured best not to be in any hurry at the start.  My first mile was in 11:50 and that was partly due to an intentionally easy start, and partly due to the traffic on the single track that prevented much speed.  I set out today with a goal of going sub six hours for this 50K.  This was based in part on where finishers in past years were finishing and where I thought I fit into things.  It was in part due to my training runs and what I felt would be a reasonable time based on those runs.  It was also extrapolated from past trail marathon finishes and how an extra 5 miles would factor in.  And finally it was based on my conversative idea of not pushing too aggressive a goal, particularly on a first attempt.  To get in the six hour range I targeted a goal of roughly 11 min/miles which could vary depending on the terrain.  On the Poto there are a number of miles with extra hilliness and three big hills to deal with in particular.  There are also a couple of flatter and easier miles which could be done faster. 

My first 7 miles through the southern half of the Poto clicked by well and I was consistently coming in just under my 11 min/mile goal.  I hit the Blind Lake aid station at 1:12 during my first lap which was just a few minutes ahead of schedule.  I was feeling great.  I moved right along into the northern half of the Poto into easier miles and continued to click off miles around 10:30.  I made it up the big hill at mile 11.5 and was well on my way to completing the first 13.1 mile lap.  It was warming up enough nearing the end of lap one that I began to take off my long sleeve shirt as I neared the start/finish aid station and also planned to drop my headband.  In my dropbag I also had my food for lap 2 and a drink refill.  It was 2:24 when finished the first lap.  That seemed about perfect for my goals.  I was also feeling good which was an added bonus.  I spent about 3 minutes at the dropbag taking care of everything and tried not to waste much time.  

As I made my way into lap 2 I felt rejuvenated from those few minutes of stoppage and again began to tackle the southern half of the Poto for the 3rd time in the last two days and I moved well.  My plan of walking nearly all of the uphills seemed to work to perfection. I continued to feel that power-hiking the hills with strong arm swings used about half the energy and only came about slightly slower than a slow run.  Up to this point in the race I had been mostly passing people and had only had 2 or 3 runners overtake me.  Having started at the back this would be expected for the most part, but it was also encouraging to think I was keeping pace well with most and even moving strong enough to overtake quite a few.
Pickerel Lake during Lap 3

Throughout the Ultra I used the aid stations minimally.  I would drop my trash at them where I could.  I didn't take any drinks as I carried what I wanted.  I did in the latter half of the race begin to grab just some salty snacks as I mentioned in the section above.  

As I neared the Blind Lake aid station for a second time I was still feeling great. I was just shy of 20 miles now and my legs could tell they'd been going awhile but no real tightness or soreness was coming in.  Best of all, no signs of any cramping.  All of my previous marathons (Pikes as an exception) experienced cramping at around 18 miles.  It was 3:39 in race time when I hit Blind Lake.  This made for lap splits of 1:12, 1:12, (0:03 between laps) and again 1:12.  That's pretty remarkable consistency and purely by the grace of God.  

I hat a mindset at the start that when I made it to mile 20, if I was feeling good I would then open up on my pacing and just push whatever felt right.  This was my way of thinking that if my pacing up to that point wasn't utilizing my training in full that I could push harder without worrying about a burnout.  I did feel good into miles 21-23 and I wasn't pushing a faster pace, but I was still keeping my near 11 minute with a few 10 minute miles as well.  When I passed the Glenbrook aid station at roughly mile 23 I knew I at least had the marathon in the bag.  The big hill, which would now be the 3rd time in 2 days I hit it, was really taxing and I most definitely walked all of it.  After the hill it was mostly smooth sailing into the end of lap 2 and marathon distance.  I was still pleased how the legs felt and while I could sense some of the fatigue coming in I didn't have any cramping or debilitating soreness.  The only real problem I had was aforementioned in the nutrition section: the aversion to sweets and the need to find calories elsewhere.

I hit the end of lap 2 at 4:52:45 making the 26.2 mile split a personal trail marathon best by about 3 minutes over my time at the 2015 North Country Run.  That also made my split from blind lake to be 1:13 which meant I was holding pace through the first 26 miles.  I lost another 3 or 4 minutes between laps here as I grabbed my drop bag and then walked most of the tenth of a mile to my car while trying to shuffle through my gear. As aforementioned I switched to water only and grabbed what salty snacks I could find and then worked through the parking lot to the campground road for the start of the 5-mile lap to finish the Ultra.

On the short section of road I moved just fine and then made the left turn back onto the trails where a steep and narrow hill hit like a brick. It was the first hill all day where I was huffing and puffing while walking the hill.  This had me wondering what the remaining miles would be like.  I drank up a number of good sips of water at the top and slowly eased into a running pace on the downhill and within a few minutes I was suddenly feeling fantastic.  Perhaps it was a few moments of euphoria. I moved well in the mile over to the north side of Pickerel Lake and felt so good I pulled my phone out to snap the only during race photos of the whole weekend.  I pulled off miles of 11:11 and 10:55 in here which meant I still was holding pace.  

As the trail went north from Pickerel Lake through the straight and sandy sections I finally had my first moment of the day where I could feel a bonk coming on. I realized I hadn't taken in any calories since the beginning of the lap (and had very few to end the second lap) and I needed to do something.  I had only downed a few of the wheat thins I had taken from the car and I just couldn't get any more in. I pulled out my last remaining pack of fruit snacks and forced them in.  The sugary sweetness of them was unpleasant but it seemed my stomach was begrudgingly going to accept them.  In the minutes that followed I could feel enough of an energy boost that I worked through that momentary bonk and kept moving.  

North side of Pickerel Lake during Lap 3
When I rejoined the Poto for the last 2+ miles I had the building sense of fulfillment in me that I was going to make the Ultra finish.  And better yet, I was going to make it without breaking down or having any extended walks (hill climbs aside).  The fourth time in the last two days up the big hill, now at mile 29.5, was again a terrible grunt, but I made it and continued to gulp my water and I cruised onward.  I could sense growing fatigue in the legs and though I didn't break into a walk my pacing was bleeding a bit.  That final full mile ended up at 11:27 which meant the time bleed was very minor.

I kept my run through the finish line and the elation hit.  I was curious just how elative it would be and what the excitement and fulfillment would be like.  Admittedly, it wasn't quite what I felt after the Pikes Peak finish in 2016 where I had gone through so much doubt the week prior.  I almost felt like this finish was simply the icing on the cake from 4 of my best months of training ever and there wasn't much doubt or emotion to have dealt with.  I all but knew I could do this 50K and I went out and I did it.  My finish was at 5:49 and so 11 minutes ahead of my goal which was indeed awesome.  Only Pikes in 2016 and now the Trail 50K have I been able to beat my goal pace.  To do so in my first Ultra was even more of an accomplished feeling.  The hard work, the discipline in getting my whole body and mind ready, and even the survival sense of weathering through ice, snow, and cold temps up until race week all had paid off wonderfully.

While I had gone through a number of thoughts in the days leading up to the race about what the next step in my progression could be, I found that during and after the race I felt most comfortable in leaving that question for weeks and months down the road.  I've surely given thought to looking at 50 mile Ultras and have even toyed with the idea of calling the Hardrock 100 a bucket list goal.  That is surely many leap years away from me at this moment, but then again, in 2011 I had undoubtedly said the same about ever running a marathon, or in particular, one like the Pikes Peak Marathon.  I'm now two years removed from that and have completed my first ultramarathon and did so in a less than defeated fashion.  For now I'm so thankful for what I've been able to do and the hard work that has led me to it.  I think I'll enjoy some easy, non-training trail runs for the foreseeable future.


I have a track and waypoints from Sunday's 50K Ultra all contained in a KML file that you are welcome to download and use (at your own risk).  

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