Monday, May 21, 2012

My first Trail Ultra race

It was inevitable.  Despite all the road, and track racing that keeps me off the trails, one way or another I was going to try stepping into this weirdly low-key world of Ultra-distance trail racing sooner or later.  (For the kids who don't know what "Ultra-distance" is, this is a distance longer than 26.2miles).  The Dirty German endurance festival was in the calendar at the right time, so I said, "Sure, why not?"

Pre-race prep with Dixon and Kate Ayzenberg, photo by Shannon Weldy
Many of my runner friends(lets be fair, I have friends who don't run...yet!), have left the roads to answer the call of wild.  I've always loved running trails since the first time I ran on the D&R canal path when I was a JR in HS.  My friend and long time teammate/training partner, Mike Dixon, has been rather dominant on the trail circuit.  His upcoming attempt at the Western States 100mile race, has pulled me into the fray.  Somewhere along the way, I'll be pacing him for a solid portion of the race. So in preparation of that, I knew I needed to prove my ability on the trails.  Mind you, several times I've run the Half-Wit Half Marathon, a very hilly course in Central PA.  And I placed rather well each time, 5th on two occasions!  But that's 13.1 miles, you can fake it for 13.1miles.  To prove you've got trail legs, you've got to go super long.  He suggested the Dirty German 50k, part of the Dirty German Endurance Fest.

This was a fully "runnable" course, although I was a bit disappointed to find that roughly 4miles of this course was run on paved park path, but it had numerous creek crossings, and log obstacles, so it was still a good challenge.  The scene at a trail race is as aforementioned, low-key.  People don't do extensive warmups with intricate dynamic warmups exercises.  Mostly, they're prepping their water bottles/packs, energy gels, etc.  There was something resembling a starting line, but no start mats.  It is also somewhat difficult to tell who the fastest/toughest runners are, some old guys are really good at this endurance stuff!
  Moments before the start, I was adjusting my shoe laces one last time, and performing a stretch for my lower back, when Dixon walks over to me, and asks "You ready?"  I look up and say, "yeah", and as I'm speaking, one knee on the ground, everyone starts running!  I didn't hear a sound, not a word signaling a start.  Later, I'll have to figure out how I missed that.
Start/finish area of the Dirty German Endurance Fest
 I went into this with full intention of a conservative start, warming up within the first 20mins, and as I'm letting that happen, I see about 20-30runners getting ahead of me, granted they all had about a 5seconds jump on me while I wasn't quite ready at the "start". My racing instincts tell me, I'm going to get pushed back by those who are less agile.  So, I work my way up into some open space, and through the first 30mins of the race I start to pass runners, all except one are in for the 25k(of course knowing Dixon was out there way ahead).
This crossing was knee deep, which was a relief for my swollen big toe
 Trail events like this are fun, because you can always get an honest answer from people about the distance they're going, and often you'll get some friendly conversation out of the deal too.  I met Ryan Jones, 34, from somewhere near Philly as I recall, we ran together, chatting about our running history and recent racing, until we hit one of the aid station.  I stopped briefly to refill my 10oz handheld bottle, and left him behind, catching up to a few of the faster 25k runners.  I exchanged places with Ryan several times, having had to jump into the bush for a #2.  At about mile 14, I caught my left foot on a root or rock, bashing the big toe, fell, hitting my elbow and left knee.  A 25k runner who was right behind me, asked if I was alright(as I had about 15mins earlier when he fell), as I assured him I was fine, but encouraged him to pass me as I was running with a limp and my foot was hurting more and more, pain radiating into all areas of the foot besides where I hit it.
After a cautious 2min stop at the 4th aid station/halfway point, the next hour of running was very trying, as my foot throbbed more and more, my normal gait was thrown off badly.  I did contemplate dropping out, or crossing the 25k finish line, I thought, 'No, I came to run an Ultra, #$@& that! Pain is temporary, this will fade.'
Pulling out of the start/finish/aid area, I saw Ryan behind me, and he caught me about a mile later.  As he passed, I said, "There you are!  I stubbed my foot a little ways back, this sucks, I'm hurtin'."  He offered some empathy, and then proceeded to easily run away from me.  I encouraged him with some words, as he was running well. So, I battled the rest of the race, despite needing to stop once more at a porto-john, once to tie a shoe(loosened from multiple stream crossings), and taking a moment to think if I should drink an extra cup of something at the last aid station before the finish.
Pennypack Creek
  In ironic fashion, and with sorrowful disbelief, I had my second fall at nearly the same place along the course during the 2nd loop. With tired legs, you start to struggle to lift your knee high enough, and that's all it takes to catch your foot on a rock or root.  The 2nd hit was a shock of pain like I've never felt before, the toe, already swollen, felt like someone had just been crushed it in a vice.  I completely lost my balance and fell forward hitting both knees this time.  My left hamstring started to ball up in a cramp.  This added to the struggle, keeping my leg straight, wanting to grab my foot, and wanting to get back up and run.  Don't forget, I still had it in my mind to catch Ryan!  From the place where I struggled to get back up, I could hear the German accordion player's music.  I knew I was about 1.5miles from the finish, and strangely, despite the refreshed pain, it faded faster this time.  I guess my toe was already as swollen as it could get, so it wasn't as hard to keep going this time.  The next minute between heavy breaths, I was on the verge of tears, no lie, I was half crying or something of that pathetic sort. I wasn't feeling so bad for myself, just scared that I'd injured the toe(we'll see how that turns out I guess).
I never did see Ryan during the entire 2nd loop after he ran out of sight, but I talked to him after the finish.  He was only 1:10 ahead of me!  Oddly, he mentioned he saw me chasing him in places where there were switchbacks, but again, I never saw him.  He said he was thinking to himself, "Man, this guy isn't going to let me go, I can't just cruise it in!"  So, I can pat myself on the back for that, I fought hard the whole way through some serious pain and discomfort.  If you can have someone running for their life in a 50k, while you've got a busted foot, I think you get bonus tough guy points for that!  And believe me, running with a swollen big toe, really sucks!
My Big Toe in an early stage of bruising, it hurts worse than it looks
 So, as I came into the clearing where the finish was, I mustered what was left in the tank, and "sprinted" the last 150m, I knew Ryan had already finished, but if you've got some fight left in you,why not stretch it out and run hard to the end?
Today, I'm limping, both knees hurt, my lower back hurts, my toe hurts like hell. But I ran 31.075 miles of trails, and hung tough.  I finished 3rd behind Dixon(3:29:xx) who broke the CR, Ryan Jones(3:51:00), and I was 3:52:09.  The Volunteers were great(informing me of my position and estimated gap behind the next runner during the race), the cheer I received at the finish was respectful. And I got a cool little German-style Cuckoo-esque Clock(3rd overall prize), pint glass, mesh cap, and tech tee for my efforts, some nice keepsakes for my first Ultra race.

PS congrats to Shannon Weldy on finishing her first 50k trail race, sub6hrs! And to Dixon, for winning and breaking the CR!

How was your first Ultra? Comment, share!


  1. Hope your toe can heal up soon enough for you to pace your friend at western states in a month.