At precisely 8:05.55 on the morning of Saturday, March 14th I had a moment of clarity. I had just run the 1st mile of the Way Too Cool 50K in under 6 minutes and I was somewhere between 15th and 20th place. After 2 miles in 12:10 my place hadn't changed much but my 20/20 vision (with contacts of course!) was no longer good enough to make out the lead pack clearly and I had forgotten to bring along my binoculars. I laughed out loud at the notion of a top 3 placing, an idea that the past 3 months of speedwork had planted inside my head, along with other delusions of grandeur.
In my 12 years as an ultra-distance runner I had thought about it often but never managed to bring myself to actually revisit the interval training of my high school/college days. I couldn't stand the thought of sacrificing mountain trail time for mile repeats on the road or track. The cold hard fact that I was not going to improve significantly at this point in my running career finally lit a fire under my ass last November and into the anaerobic world I returned. At first it was a supremely painful, lung searing proposition but "muscle memory" is a very real physiological concept and my body began to adapt quickly, better than I had anticipated actually and my mile repeat times improved dramatically over the winter. For the first time since entering the ultra world I actually felt like a runner, the way I did in high school, and not simply someone who went long and slow all day in the mountains, hiking as much as running but calling it a "run." All of this had me fired up as I drove north to Cool. It was amazing how quickly reality came crashing through my glass house of dreams. I have a looooong way to go.
Back in the throes of the race I managed to go through 10 miles in 1:16 and 20 miles in 2:23. Somewhere around mile 21 or 22 I was running behind Rod Bien whom I had been near all day and I looked down at my GPS watch: we were still managing 6:30 pace on the faster rolling single-track sections of the course. This would have been exciting except for the fact that I was hearing "passing on the left" at regular intervals and, more importantly, I was beginning to get that funny feeling in my legs that usually precedes a dramatic slowdown in pace. Sure enough there it was: 8:30 pace now felt like 6:30 and then came the infamous steepest climb of the course, Goat Hill. I "ran" the first 20 yards of it then went into walking mode. Brian Purcell (of 80's Western States 100 fame) called out "They don't call it Goat Hill for nothin'!" No doubt. At the top I had about a thousand forks in me, I was that done. Running uphill was no longer an option and I struggled in the final 4 miles. To put it in perspective my friend Rod finished in 4 flat to my 4:15 and we were together at 23 miles.
The top 2 places were taken by road runners with 2:21 and 2:26 marathon credentials. When that kind of speed shows up on the trails what are ya gonna do? Sacrifice a bit more mountain plodding time and keep on dreamin', that's what.