Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Hagg Lake 50K - 7/232, 4:04:38

As we spilled onto the steep, muddy downhill just after the climb out of Scoggins Creek, I turned to Kevin Hutchins and said, “Let’s do this.” 

We were in eighth and ninth place, both running on fumes. Breathing hard and finding it increasingly difficult to stay upright in the shoe-sucking mud, I dug deep for the last two miles, finishing strong in 7th in 4:04:38, less than 20 minutes back from winner and Olympic trials qualifier Ryan Bak.

Last year I finished 42nd in just over five hours, well behind the lead pack. My performance this year surprised even me, because I often felt that I was balancing on the edge of a razor, one step away from burning out. At the same time, I was so focused that nothing fazed me – not the wild swings between sunshine and rain nor the multiple falls on slick footbridges...

Lining up at the start, I told myself that I wasn’t going to hold back. The clouds and drizzle rolled in just as the pack took off on the out-and-back gravel road, and I settled into 20th place on the way up the hill. I really opened it up on the way down, managing to work my way into ninth just before the start of the first lap around the lake.

 Sliding down Mac Forest Hill. © 2012 Glenn Tachiyama.

After taking a hard fall on the first footbridge, I slowed it down a bit to get focused. I got into a groove early on, working my way through the twisting forest trail and skating down the slick hills in a solid pack that was chasing the front-runners. I knocked back a gel just before the dam aid station and grabbed some fig Newtons to go.

By Tanner Creek I was still feeling solid, albeit with some occasional rumbles in my stomach, but had slid back to eleventh. I figured a salt cap would settle everything down, and I spent the next several miles reeling in the two runners that had passed me shortly after the dam. This is easily the worst part of the course, with deep, shoe-sucking mud and stretches of trail inundated with water – the perfect time to surge ahead. As we emerged from the trail leading into the main parking lot at Sain Creek, I made my way back into seventh and finished the first lap in 2:03. I did a quick exchange with my crew and began the “real” race.

 On the way to the damn.

 Hey mom!

Real for two reasons: (1) after a light rain and the feet of 250+ runners, the mud was churned and the trail was an absolute mess, and (2), now was when those little annoyances would blow up into big problems. The rumblings in my stomach were getting more intense, but I kept up the pace into the dam aid station. Soon after leaving, things started to slide downhill. I was getting cramps in my stomach, and by the time I hit the grass fields on the north side of the lake, I started to feel that faint, bitter taste in the back of my throat that can only mean one thing. I finally had to stop on the trail, grab my knees, and hurl. 

Just then, Dan Olmstead and another runner crested the hill behind me and asked if I needed anything. “A salt cap…” I’m sure the last thing Dan wanted to do during this race was stop and help me out, but he really saved me out there. I broke open the pill, dumped salt on my tongue, and jumped right back into it, chasing Dan’s heels for the next mile. I was finally able to sip water again.

 Just after hurling... © 2012 Glenn Tachiyama.

 ...but feeling great! Hang loose Glenn! © 2012 Glenn Tachiyama.

This little episode barely cost me any time, but in hindsight, I’m amazed at how little it affected me psychologically. Like I said, nothing was fazing me out there, and the only thing I could think about was pushing the pace. 

I had to take a minute at Tanner Creek to collect myself, snacking on a few pretzels and chips to try to settle my stomach before the final push to the finish. Just as I was leaving, Kevin rolled into the aid station and would soon catch up to me just before Scoggins Creek. We both stumbled through the morass in the miles after Tanner – tufts of field grass and mounds of thick clay swamped with water from the previous week’s torrential rains. At this point, with tired legs and a trail torn up after the first lap, we started slipping backward down a few of the hills. 

As we hit the short road section leading up to the Scoggins Creek bridge I pulled up alongside of him. Both of us ran into salt and hydration issues on the second lap and were feeling the burn in our legs, the wind and rain was starting to pick up, and we still had two tough miles to go. As we cleared the bridge and prepared to turn onto the trail, Kevin gave me the signal to take the lead.

My stomach was still unsettled and my mind was drifting a bit, but my legs were feeling strong – and that’s all I needed to know. I pushed hard down the last few rolling hills and switchbacks, putting some distance between us and getting within sight of the seventh-place runner. I picked up the pace and told myself it was time to rip this up.

I bounded through the muck, whipping my feet out of the mud before they had a chance to sink in, and worked my way into seventh just before scrambling up the hill into the parking lot. Within a few strides, I had shed the mud from my shoes and caught glimpses of the finish. My calves and quads were on fire, but I picked up the pace again – I knew I had enough in me to redline it for another quarter mile.

Hitting that last twisting section of trail gave me a final rush of adrenaline. My mind cleared but my vision narrowed, and it was as if everything was happening in my mind like a dream – a totally surreal experience. Suddenly I was floating, bounding over roots, flying over the finish line, and then landing in the gazebo wrapped in a space blanket. I collapsed onto a bench to catch my breath and ease my tired lungs, and I could feel my calves and ankles seizing up, rewards from just barely holding on for the past two hours.

Reality is...

...about to...

...hit. Is this the real life?

Kevin and I recounting our exploits over the past few miles.

I have never raced that hard before. Hagg Lake is an exceptionally difficult race – the mud, especially on the second lap, is totally demoralizing, and this year the competition was fierce with some big names in the field. 

Fatigue can drain and consume you in an ultra, but I realize now that it's only if you let it happen. I’m not sure if it was confidence, or focus, or what, but I took that fatigue and turned it around. When I was feeling tired, I pushed harder and never thought twice. 

There was a point in the race where I was running alone - I didn't see another runner in front of or behind me between mile 17 and mile 25. I took a few seconds every now and then to pan around at the scenery and take in the lake, the lush underbrush, and the towering pines. It kept me in the moment.

There's an involuntary effect in these races where you don't think about the past or the present - you only know the now. You lose your sense of self, and you don't even realize it at the time. It's the best kept secret of the ultrarunning community.

You race to become no one; it's then that you're freed to truly run.

© 2012 The LongRun Picture Company

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