My second time running the longest event I've ever run went much better than my first crack. Better preparation, better strategy both worked. It was a wonderful day in the Michigan woods at a very well-planned and executed ultramarathon.
The KalHaven Trail Run has become a very popular event on the spring running calendar in Michigan. Its appeal rests both in its solid organization and wonderful course on the eponymous Kal Haven trail, a rail trail connecting Kalmazoo with the Lake Michigan resort town of South Haven. The surface is nearly perfect for running. As wide as a railroad bed, the surface is smooth, well-packed gravel which is firm but not hard. No roots, hardly any inclines up or down; as one veteran runner remarked to me "This is a very kind course." Thus, it makes a perfect introduction to ultras, adding to the race's appeal. The grade and gravel sheds water marvelously, as proven this year. The area was deluged with heavy rains Friday afternoon and evening. Saturday morning there was no standing water, no mud, no impediments of any kind. Amazing.
But how do I explain this race to you?? I think it is best to try to contrast it to last year's effort . (BTW, the photos are better on that report, if you want to see the trail). I did two fundamentally different things going into the 2012 event.
First, I improved my training base. Since early January, I've averaged much closer to 40 miles per week than the 25-27 I averaged last year. To be sure, I would have been better off to have started this the middle of the fall. But I did log quite a few long weeks with back to back long runs on Saturday and Sunday.
Secondly, I modified my race-day plan. Last year, I did a 4/1 run/walk ratio from the start. I was good early and then I fried at the end, making the last three miles truly unenjoyable and discouraging. This year, I started with a slower 3/1 ratio, wanting to see just how long I could hold that pace. I told myself I would be happy with mile splits anywhere in the 11-12 minute range, understanding I would hold back early and save some gas for the end.
I drove up Friday afternoon and took the early start at 7am, about a half hour before any pre-dawn light emerged through the overcast skies. 18 of us took off for our long jaunt; a dozen or so of them were pals, running together. The chatter was steady, loud, nervous and typical of folks on an adventure they didn't entirely understand. It was kind of fun to be around.
The early-start pack moved ahead of me though and by mile 2 I was pretty much by myself. I found my 3/1 groove, the sky was lightening, the temps were in the upper 50s and I was feeling pretty good. And so it continued for the next 5+ hours. My mile spits from the start through mile 27 were ALL in the 11s, ranging randomly from 11:03 to 11:53...remarkably consistent...I was pleased. Between miles 10 and 12, I reeled in the other early starters and was actually the first person on the course until mile 15 when the race winners blew past me. My main focus was not racing. I tried to simply stay hydrated, downing plenty of my homemade energy gel , keeping my posture straight and not hunched and, generally, running in a relaxed manner. I had stashed a banana, a reload of gel and some trail mix near mile 17; finding it intact under a pile of leaves behind a log was an encouragement.
Physically, I felt pretty good. Around mile 8, I noticed a tightness in my right upper calf. Where did that come from? The right Achilles which had bugged me recently was fine and remained fine. The calf just got a bit stiff, stayed stiff but never got worse. I stretched it once which neither helped nor hurt, so I just took it as a calling card that goes with ultras.
I was interested in how I would pass the 26.2 mile mark. GPS accuracy being what it is, I remembered the stretch of trail I had seen it last year and, sure enough, within 20m of the spot from last year I completed Phippide's distance. The time this year was 5:06. Last year, the same spot was 5:02. So, even though I had modified my pace to be slower, I only lost 4 minutes over the course of a marathon. That predicted a lot about the rest of the race.
As I said, the steady pace continued through the 28 mile mark. At that point, the discomfort in my left IT Band was becoming more noticable and I felt I needed to make a switch. I had noticed the most pain came when I switched from a walk to a run. So, I flipped my timer from a 3/1 ratio to a 2/2 ratio...still on a 4 minute cycle time but half run half walk. How long could I hold this, I wondered...a year ago, I was reduced to a slow walk by mile 30.
Remarkably, the adjustment worked. It brought a smile to my face to run past the landmarks (read "smelly hog farm") which last year had me slowing down. And so it continued to the end. This year, my pace between mile 28 and 33.5 ranged between 12:28 and 13:55 (at mile 32). The same stretch in 2011 had miles at 20 minutes and painful those were. My very last mile was at a 12:30 pace, with a peak pace in that mile of 9:10. Paradoxically (to non-runners anyway, probably not so to other ultrarunners), my ITB hurt far less when I ran than when I walked, so I started running more and more, including the entire final half mile.
From the marathon mark to the end took me 1:42 this year; the same distance a year ago was 2:06, with much more pain. This validated the approach.
The last half mile was fun. Part of the fun was knowing I'd soon be done, to be sure. But it was satisfying to see the work had paid off...the goal in this race was to run across the finish line, something I did not do last year. But another funny surprise happened at the end as well. With a mere 100m to go, I could see the final turn, I could see the "Finish" sign, I could hear the people, the cowbells, the music. And then I heard runners over my left shoulder. I looked and, lo and behold, it was two young women from our initial starting group of 18. Overtaking me at the end to "win" the early starters' sweepstakes. This old guy had no response and I saluted them as they barreled by. It was fun.
Post-race was truly enjoyable. All of us solo runners were presented with our finisher T shirts. (I wore my finisher shirt from 2011...the 2012 finisher shirt is on the table in front of me...orange you glad to know that?) The atmosphere was relaxed, friendly and most enjoyable.
The Race Directors, Julie and Terry, below, were wonderfully organized. They both spent time with me before and after the race, chatting about my role this coming week as Race Director for our own club's marathon. They offered a lot of input and encouragement. A class operation!
I then completed a conversation I had had along the course with a lady who had offered me a ham sandwich at mile 29. After the race, she saw me and offered me "the same ham sandwich". It takes too long to explain, but that phrase is the punch line of a running gag my wife and I have enjoyed since the summer of 1972, two years before we ever started dating. I include it here as photographic proof "the same ham sandwich" is alive and well, reminding me a hilarious event we have enjoyed for years...rekindled, afresh, in a parking lot in South Haven, Michigan in 2012.
So what did I learn from this race? Some overarching insight? Deep philosophical principle, found anew?
I'm getting there. Kind of profound for me. But it'll take longer to explain than you want to take here. Stay tuned.
So, for now, persevere. And thanks for listening.