Monday, March 5, 2012

Race Report: Green Jewel 50k

I tend to enter races at the last minute, and the Green Jewel 50k was no exception; there were 6 spots left when I registered. I knew that stepping from marathon to 50 mile was more like a giant leap, but 50k seemed a good compromise and I happened upon the event's website while browsing midwest ultras during one of my many nights of insomnia. I didn't know whether it was the wisest of last minute decisions, considering the state of my right knee: a ticking time bomb since October, apt to stop me dead in stride on occasion, and which I've been foolishly stubborn enough to refuse sufficient healing time since the onset of the injury. This race was to be one to test out the waters of that which lay beyond the marathon, something which appeared more to my liking-- particularly trail ultras which appealed to my craving for the woods, hills, adventure. And though GJ was on bike paths, it still boasted of a pretty good set of hills late in the race, and would also be good preparation for longer stretches between aid stations where I could start to work out a nutrition plan for some of my longer races. I only live about 70-80 minutes from the start, so I decided against spending the night in a hotel, and opted to wake up at 4am on race morning. Unfortunately, insomnia would strike hard the night before the race, and I didn't fall asleep until nearly 2:00, so I woke up tired.

Within a minute, literally, of stepping out of the car, I had a bad feeling about the potential outcome. I use the term "literally" because it only took a couple steps before The Knee started aching-- a first, actually, considering it normally takes at least an hour before the pain starts to kick in (unless I'm attempting something foolish like a 24 minute 5k on my treadmill). I successfully convinced myself that at least part of The Knee's effects on my performance were psychological and weren't anything I couldn't defeat-- or stave off for a couple hours, anyway. My rationale was that if I could make it 20 miles, the last 11 could be "toughed out" via a lot of fast walking and little running when I could. Pain is much easier rationalized, of course. Anyway, the first four to five miles were spent "finding my race legs", so to speak, which means, in Kimberly terms, that my mind was moving as fast as I was-- which was much faster than I should have gone. I wouldn't be telling the truth to say my legs felt good, but my knee wasn't hurting, and aside from having to pee (the inevitable in any race over 10k, regardless of how many times I go before the start), I was moving along rather well. My mind, on the other hand, was flooded with both optimism and dread. I remember thinking if this 8:30 pace felt reasonably good at this stage in the race, perhaps that sub-5 hour finish wasn't actually out of the question. As a side note, I should probably mention that I never focus on the number of miles remaining early in a race because, in retrospect, I realize that can lead to the "glass nearly empty" (read: the glass is filling with miles) type of thinking that can doom a person. In short, I focus on what I'm doing at the moment, what lies immediately ahead, and how I feel and what I need to do during that stretch. During the first five miles of the Green Jewel 50k, I was moving quicker than expected, and it wasn't tiring in the least. Positive thoughts there. Of course, I was also battling with thoughts to the contrary, considering I've flown through 10 pain free miles in training only to have the knee nearly buckle under me on the eleventh. I didn't think about mile 25 or even 11 then, but I was thinking about mile 6 and some of the ugly things that have happened to me during training runs. Then, there was the focus on my nathan pack, of course, that wouldn't stay put and kept shifting uncomfortably; and there was the focus on my shirt sleeves which kept unrolling. In hindsight, despite the cold and outrageous wind, I'd have only worn the purple shirt since it was the over-sized Towpath Marathon tech shirt that proved to be an incredible nuisance throughout the race. I also decided during those first few miles that I was going to switch to a handheld for Mohican.

Miles 5-10 were rather uneventful. I made a beeline for the restroom, finally, on the seventh mile which cost me a couple minutes, but I actually continued to maintain the sub-9 minute pace, reaching the 10 mile aid station in 1:28. I'd lost a few of the people with whom I'd been running during the first few miles, and tried for a mile or so to catch up which proved impossible without exerting myself to the point of exhaustion. I chalked them up as gone, and settled into a comfortable running pace that mirrored a lot of my training runs. I was feeling better than I had, and almost better than I would at any other point in the race, telling Ben that the knee was holding up and I was making good time. I'm not the type to linger long and chat, so I downed some Heed and a cookie, and was back on the course. The next few miles weren't filled with the same elation as I felt during the previous segment, in part because I realized I'd foolishly neglected to refill my water bottles and they were getting dangerously low, and also because my stomach was growling-- roaring, actually, reminding me of how stupid I'd been not to eat breakfast. This was probably the only segment during which I didn't run with anyone, and I reached the Wallace Lake aid station at mile 15 feeling hungry and thirsty, albeit still optimistic. I'd slowed down a bit-- a smart move, and cruised in around 2:18. 

If you asked me a hundred times, and I worked hard to come up with a logical (or at least plausible) explanation, I still don't think I could tell you why, but I failed to fill my water bottles again. I went back onto the course after having taken in half of a paper cup of Heed and another of those little chocolate chip cookies.

 I started, for the first time, to feel run down at some point between miles 15 and 19, but worked through it, stopping to walk once for a minute or two while I consumed a gel and finished the last of my water. My pace had slowed to about a 10 minute mile by then, but I wasn't really worried about it since my knee wasn't showing any immediate signs of surrender. I focused on running, on getting to the Chalet aid station where I could eat something solid, try to salvage my electrolyte levels, and finally fill the water bottles I'd neglected for entirely too long. I got there just past the 3 hour mark, and immediately asked Ben to fill up one of my bottles with Heed. I passed up the potato soup, noting that it looked awfully thick and appeared to have cheese as an ingredient, something I knew I'd sorely regret a couple miles down the road. (note: I wish I could have had a "to go" plate saved; I'd devour more than half the options offered at that aid station given the chance now.) Well into my 20th mile, the thought of eating anything that looked complex was nauseating, which ruled out several other options, and I finally opted for a pb&j square. As hungry as I was, once the food was laid out in front of me, good as it must have been, I didn't want to eat. I tried to spend as little time as possible at the aid station before moving back out onto the course again. It felt good to still be running, considering all I've been through with The Knee, and though I was probably moving slower than molasses, I was running. 

Between miles 21 and 23, I caught up and kept pace with Ivars Ragainis who, like me, was using GJ as a training run for a 100 this summer. Around mile 23, we stopped to walk for a few minutes and discussed our training and race plans (we both have the Mohican 50 mile on our summer agenda; he's training for Leadville while I'm working toward Burning River), after which I decided to start running again, knowing the first of the bigger hills was coming up soon. 
The hills, though they slowed me down considerably as I'd decided ahead of time to walk them, were an exhausting but masochistically pleasant change. I reached the 24.5 mile Ridge Rd. aid station at the top of the first hill in about 4:07, where one of the crew made the obviously-from-experience decision/judgement call that my sugar was low and I needed to eat (and I am ever thankful for her having done so; I'd have probably wandered back onto the course after a sip of heed and a cookie again). 

Unfortunately, what I took in amounted to what felt twenty minutes later like a toxic rush of sugar (m&m's, cookie, chocolate GU, coke), and almost immediately thereafter led to the dreaded stomach ache. I can't remember precisely when, but my knee finally gave up the ghost at some point between the 24rd and 26th miles, and I found myself walking a lot more than I'd wanted, having had it crash so late in the race. Prior to the start, I'd dreamt of The Knee lasting all 31 miles, more realistically hoped for 20 miles, but expected it to give out between 15 and 18. That I'd made it past the first and worst of the hills without it feeling like a wreck made it that much worse to have it finally wave the white flag. I over analyse by nature, and it tends to work to my advantage in situations that require strategy...and 6 miles with a bum knee required some strategy. I determined that even were I to require 15 minutes per mile, I'd still finish the race in 98 minutes, or roughly in 5:45. (As it turned out, I only finished 2 minutes faster than that, but we'll get to that later.) Anyway, I won't say the miles got ugly, but they certainly got slow and cold. I found myself walking about half the time, and the other half I was running slower than I did when I was 8 months pregnant. 

The only low point during the whole race-- truly low, in every possible sense of the word, was when a woman I convinced myself must have been evil/heartless barreled down the road in a minivan, clearly not paying attention to the road or she'd have seen the pathetic sight of me shuffling across the street long before she approached the intersection, and honked long and hard as though I were somehow at fault for not managing to clear the road fast enough. That incident, as chance would have it, was followed immediately by my discovery that I'd crossed onto a bike path that appeared to have been marked green once upon a time (before the rain and 83 other runners trampled it), but seemed to hold me for what felt like forever with absolutely nobody within shouting distance. After about 5 minutes of this, I became paranoid that this was one of those green marked paths that wasn't actually part of the course, and that I'd missed a turn somewhere even though I couldn't imagine where. I had to pee so bad it was making me nervous, and having glanced at my watch periodically, I knew I was falling further and further behind where I'd hoped to have finished as 5:30 turned into 5:35, and then 5:40. Looking over my shoulder, I still couldn't see anyone behind me. The orange flags that marked the beginning of the end  were as much a welcome as they were a disappointment: I was finally going to eat, finally going to get out of the cold, finally going to be able to say I've run 50k, but I was going to finish slower than I'd imagined at any point during the race: 5:43:03 (11:02/mi). Not long after I finished, I saw Dan DeRosha followed by Mike Kelly cross the finish line, and realized both of them were probably barely out of sight during those last couple miles. I didn't feel the same sense of accomplishment that I did after I finished my first half and full marathons, I think because I viewed this race from beginning to end as a training experience: a taste and test at completing a longer distance than I've previously raced, and the first big step toward Burning River this summer. I carried the mindset that this race wasn't about being able to just finish 31 miles, but reaching 31 miles with something left in the tank and with the experience now in the memory bank of what to do and not do in future (longer) ultras. Despite having finished slower than I'd have liked, this was a great event. The aid station staff were great (can't thank the folks at Ridge Rd. enough for rescuing me from that sugar low), and the event was well organized. I'll definitely be back next year.


  1. Next year, if the Chalet aid station is as good as it was this year, I'm going to eat more than pb&j...especially now that I know there was no cheese in that potato soup!

  2. Good report, I enjoyed reading it!