Who says you can't teach an old dog new tricks? Well, it certainly is true that some old habits die a really slow, painful death (if they die at all) and, for me, as a runner, during the course of 12 years on the trails, reaching into my bag of racing tricks has consistently left me on the receiving end of a second half bonk. The lame excuse for taking it out too hard off the gun usually involves some variation on the "well, I was feeling really good" theme. Of course you felt good dumbass. It was the start of the race, responds the mental coach sometime post-death march.
It is an unassailable distance-running fact that all great performances (and it makes no difference whether you are referring to a world record at the international level or a personal best at the plodder level) are executed only after paying the hefty psychological dues at the alter of consistency. Even pacing. Even splits; negative splits even. It is incredibly challenging mentally to hold back when you are feeling invincible, when you know you could be running faster; but the reality is that those 30 seconds or so per mile you save in the early going can quickly become many minutes per mile given back to the clock when the wheels come off. If you are reduced to a walk, those minutes can transform into hours. I know. I have "bonked," "had the wheels come off," "been part of the carnage," and, generally speaking, felt more misery in the second half of more races than I care to recall.
After adding the Way Too Cool 50K to that illustrious list in mid-March I was determined to redeem myself at American River on April 4. The gun went off and the top 20 or so quickly vanished into the ghostly light of daybreak. A few miles down the bike path I tucked in behind the three lead women running in a pack. Although this was completely unplanned I knew it was a fortunate circumstance as women tend to be much smarter when it comes to race strategy than dudes. It took a few miles however and a round of introductions before the self-conscious feeling of being a male interloper in this evenly-paced estrogen club finally dissipated. The plan quickly became to stay with the lead woman through the first half and take it from there. This plan quickly unraveled as my ass decided to take center stage giving enhanced meaning to the Swedish interval running term: "fartleks" or "speed play." My version was anything but playful or enjoyable and I became fixated on my poor decision to join friends on Thursday evening for a Mexican food extravaganza for the ensuing 15 miles. On five separate occasions I found myself practically diving into the bushes alongside the bike path, completely indifferent to the abundance of poison oak, only to emerge a few minutes later and take off at an unreasonable pace until I made visual contact with the female trio again. At some point during this madness the lead female group splintered for good and I settled into my own comfort zone, thankful to have emerged intact on the other side of intestinal distress.
In spite of the lost time in the bushes and, in some ways worse, constantly losing my focus and rhythm I managed to come through 50K in 3:56, only 5 minutes off my 50K PR and feeling reasonably well. Following the customary mid-race "bad patch" that hit me this time between miles 29 and 33 things really began clicking and as the race course left the asphalt bike path and dirt roads permanently for progressively more rolling and technical single-track I became the hunter on the prowl for late-race carnage. Every time I caught someone I would get a surge of adrenaline. It felt sooooo good to be blowing by people, not because I relished their misfortune but because I knew how they felt and had completely forgotten what it was to be on the other side of the predator-prey race dynamic. By the time I crossed the finish line in 6:51.43 with a 15 minute 50M PR I had picked off 11 and only been re-passed by 1 on the final 3 mile climb to the finish. Coming in 18th I was nowhere near the fun up front but on this day it did not matter. What did was even pacing and keeping my cool. Now only one question remains: can I prove that this was not a fluke? As we all know, old habits die harder than bad action movies.