Race day. It was cool (mid 40's) but muggy and overcast. It looked like there might be some showers during the race, but no major downpours. The trail would be wet this year. I opted for my sturdy and extremely sticky Inov8 Roclite 295's that may be from 2009. I don't wear them much, but they are still very grippy, and my go to choice on wet rocks. I know I can trust them. Despite the cool temperature, I just wore a singlet and short shorts. I carried 7 Gu's (ate one on the bus ride to the start) in my new fancy fanny pack. It is super comfortable and has 4 small water bottles. No hat, gloves, or sunglasses. I stuck to myself and stayed focused on my plan. After the bus ride to the start (northern end - finish and parking at southern end) I ran some strides and scoped out the competition. Despite being ranked #1 on ultrasignup.com, I knew there are always surprises. That were a handful of other guys doing strides as well. I don't remember anyone doing them last year. There was a younger friendly guy who introduced himself and asked my name. He then exclaimed to another runner that he had found Mr. Hammett. His name was Ben (didn't remember a Ben on the registration list) and he was hoping to run 3:30 and stick with me. He reminded me of Boj.
The race began and I took the lead immediately. Once in the woods, I tried to not rush, but sure enough, Ben was right with me. The climbing soon starts (almost a 1000' climb) and he continued to stick to my heels. He said the pace was perfect. I slipped a couple of times on steep mud sections and he took the lead. He was moving really well, and I decided to not give chase. I needed to save my body for later. Who knows what this kid is capable of? This first climb is steep and technical. I felt like I was doing a good job with it (later confirmed on Strava that it was only 7 seconds slower than last year). No sign of Ben. I began the tricky descent. The wet rocks made things dicey, but I thought overall, it would help my race by taking it slower than last year. No sign of Ben - lots of 50 Milers coming in the opposite direction though. I then climbed South Pack. This climb is still long, but not nearly as hard. I ran every step which I did not do last year. I wasn't rushing and felt really strong. No sign of Ben. Time for the hardest descent of the day. So many wet boulders! I fell once. Eventually I could hear traffic on a road. I was getting close to the bottom. Then I heard cheering from the first aid station. Probably for Ben. I was anxious to get down, but missed a blaze and descended a bit before realizing my mistake. I backtracked back up and then found the blazes. It's hard to look up for blazes when your tiptoeing on wet rocks! This year I stopped at the aid station. I drank Coke and had one of my bottles filled with some more. I was told I was 45 seconds back, but it seemed to me it was more like 2-3 minutes. Whatever. I needed to run my own race. Looking at Strava, my South Pack climb was 23 seconds faster than last year, but my descent was 2 and half minutes slower. Crazy!
I crossed the road and began the third climb of the day, which is a rather long one, but up a service road. Good footing. I again didn't walk a step (I briefly did last year) - beat my time up by 12 seconds. Now I was on a fun part of the course. The trail runs along a treed ridge line, with some small ups and downs for a couple of miles. You can really crank here. I felt pretty smooth. No sign of Ben. Or humans really. Eventually, I reached the longer descent down to another road. Somewhere here I slipped and fell onto my hands and knees. I had a good puncture would in my left palm, and tore skin off my left pointer finger. There was a good amount of blood and swearing. I ran on. I reached the road, this year knowing which way to go (down the road!). No Ben. Felt pretty good though. I reached a long not-steep double track climb. I remember being confused by the lack of blazes last year, but this year hey were brightly painted. Thanks! I also was climbing really well. No walking breaks. I knew I was making up quite a bit of time in this section. The climbing does seem endless though. Finally I hit the descent and reached the 2nd aid station. I was at 2 hours which I thought was close to last year. The volunteer said I was like 5 minutes back. Come on! I grabbed some more Coke and water and headed back out.
I crossed another road and was now in the Windblown XC trail system. At first, it is very runnable and fun. Then you hit this ridiculously steep double track climb into the deep woods. This is where things turned ugly for me last year. I tried to have a better time of it, but it is terrible. I hiked up, purposely trying to get my breathing under control, and not rush things. I still was focused on being able to run the last few miles in. Things were not going as planned however. My running on the flats and downs was slowing down. On the next climb I felt the twinge of a calf cramp coming on. Oh no! I did my best to make positive movement, albeit slower, and not let my race fall apart. This section has many small climbs and descents. I kept thinking I was close to dropping back down for good and getting to the final aid station. Where is the photographer? Finally, I hit open ledges in the fog and there was the camera. My face shows how I was feeling here. Soon after passing by, the trail began descending. This is what I was waiting for, although the pain going down was awful. Then I tripped and fell on my side and back. As I fell my left calf locked up on me. I shouted in pain as I tried to free my stuck calf. I wondered if the cameraman could hear me. I stretched out both calves before commencing running again. It seemed to help. I reached the bottom and soon was on the double track to the final aid station. My spirits were up. Last year this was my lowest point. I wasn't hurting as bad this time. I stopped and the awesome volunteer refilled my bottles with water and Coke while I sat on the ground and stretched some more. I was ready to rock out the relatively easy double track up the backside of Mount Watatic. I left the station at the 3:04 mark. I believed I was 3 or 4 minutes behind last year, but I was going to make up the time. I was running!
The running went well for two miles or so. I felt like it was taking too long to reach the summit. Then I began to crash mentally and physically. I had to slowly walk the last 100' or so to the top. I thought I still was okay. I could still finish just a tad faster than last year. No shame in that. I tried to jog down the mountain - less than a mile to go I hoped. I couldn't do it. I was feeling out of it and my calves were screaming at me to not use them anymore. I hiked down and ate another Gu. I wasn't hungry, but I thought this would help me get down. I felt woozy. Was I going to make it to the finish line? I passed by a group of 3 hikers. They asked if I was running a race. I said I was, but I couldn't run anymore. They asked how long the race was and told me I was almost done. Just after passing by them I fell to the ground with a powerful calf cramp in my right leg. I couldn't get it to release the tension. I was screaming in pain, and afraid I might pass out. One of the hikers made her way down to me. She asked if it was okay if she touched my leg. She didn't massage it, just held her hands on it. She told me to breathe slowly. This grandma figure saved me! My calf felt better. I stood up, thanked her profusely, and marched on. After a minute or so, my energy came back. I had survived the bonk! I tried to jog, but my legs wouldn't have it. I made it to the finish line though. 3:46:36. 12 minutes slower than last year! I was happy to just have made it off Mount Watatic without medical assistance. According to the Strava segment for the Watatic descent of .5 miles, it took me about 18 minutes. That has to be a course worst! This was 7 minutes slower than my pathetic 11 minutes last year.
Limping to the finish. Photo by Jesse Veinotte.
Ben had a very good day. He was all smiles at the finish. He just set the course record by 3 minutes! We chatted for a while and then his friend came in (3rd place in 3:57). I ate some food, drank lots of water and Coke. I finally hobble to my car to change. My calves and quads now were cramping. This sucked. I did my best to loosen up and decided to just start driving home. It wasn't fun, but not terrible.
Post race chatting with Ben. Photo by Jesse Veinotte.
Some time has past since the race. I'm okay with it. This course is a known butt kicker. I climbed really well. I descended slowly - partly due to conditions, partly due to not being chased. My body fell apart again. I'm blaming lack of long runs in mountains. I felt good on long technical trail runs leading up to this race. I can't mimic the pounding of 5K of elevation gain and loss. Fueling and/or hydration played a role. Even though the weather was cool - never got higher than 48 degrees - it was very muggy. I'm a novice when it comes to this stuff. I rarely carry anything on my local long runs. Oh well. I now have two top 10 finishing times on this course.