2012/08/05: ET 51k (race report)

The event started out awkwardly after I mis-read the packet pickup time.  When I noticed my error before I left my house, it was already too late for me to make it to the host hotel to pick it up.  There would be packet pickup at the start line too, so no big deal, right?  Hehe… Since the race took place about 2 hours from Las Vegas, shuttles were provided for runners at an additional cost (well worth it!).  The problem was that entry onto the buses required a bib.  Out of the hundreds of people who were there, I was the *only* one to not get to packet pickup on time.  I felt ridiculously foolish.  Luckily, the race director who is super involved and meticulous got me onto a bus once all of the “definitely confirmed” (meaning with a bib) runners had boarded.

The race began at midnight, so the drive to the start line was dark.  It was also ominous due to the desolate route, driving on “extraterrestrial highway” (near Area 51), and the lightning ahead that we seemed to be driving right toward.  Luckily, the lightning stopped by the time we were dropped off.  The start area was in the middle of nowhere and the route was a straight route on the highway to the finish in Rachel; the 51k route actually passed Rachel at mile 20, went down another 6ish miles to a turnaround, and then back.

From glancing at the elevation chart prior to the race, I seemed to recall a gradual uphill for 13 miles, gradual downhill for 13 miles, and flat for the rest.  This wasn’t entirely accurate; it was a gradual uphill for 13 miles, but then it was only downhill for 8 miles, and then it wasn’t exactly flat for the rest of it even though there weren’t any significant elevation changes.  Aid stations were every 3.5 or so miles.  The elevation was higher than Las Vegas where I live (which is 2,200 feet) ranging from 4,500 to 5,700 feet.

Going into the race, my expectations for my performance were pretty low.  I’d never done a 51k, but  I had run a 50k (three different times, actually), and since I am in better shape now, I really just hoped to at least run the 51k faster than my fastest 50k, which was 6:56.  I wanted to treat this race as a supported training for as I prepare for North Coast 24 next month.

I also wasn’t sure what to expect due to some asthma issues recently.  I finally got diagnosed with exercise-induced asthma, but one of the tests they administered to me almost a month ago “messed me up” (according to my doctor) and I had a 3-week long asthma exacerbation that a different doctor had not taken seriously when I went on right after I started having issues breathing.  I had been put on some meds a few days prior to the race and was unsure how this would affect me, positively or negatively.

Prior to the race, I met up with Karla, the lady I crewed at Badwater as she was doing the same 51k race (there were also 10k, HM, and marathon distances available).  Since she’s a faster runner, I did not even attempt to run with her.  I figured I’d meet up with other random people along the course to run with as I’d done during every other ultra I’ve run.  This was actually my 10th ultra (and 16th marathon-or-greater distance race).

The atmosphere was neat and sort of surreal with everyone wearing glow sticks and reflective stuff and carrying/wearing lights; there was also a handful of people wearing Area 51-inspired costumes.

I decided I was just going to run at an easy pace and didn’t strategize much beyond that.  Immediately after the first mile, I realized I had once again not gotten rid of some older runs in my Garmin because I was getting a “database almost full” message.  This happened during my 50-miler in April and caused a big problem when it got full because the pop-up message kept getting in the way of me trying to delete older runs (and it was in the middle of a race).  After two more miles, I decided to bite the bullet and walk a bit while I erased some older runs; after deleting three runs totaling 31 miles, I knew I’d be fine for the rest of the race, but I was annoyed I had not checked this prior to the race.  Nutritionally, I was taking a tiny sip of water every half mile and taking a gel every 45 minutes; I admit I probably take more gels than I need, but in ultras in particular, I try to get in more calories earlier in the event I can’t take in calories later.

Even though the long uphill section was very gradual, my calf muscles were starting to feel it after about an hour.  It was sort of annoying to realize the uphill section was going to continue for about another hour and a half.  In longer races, or any runs for that matter, I try to break up the run into smaller pieces, typically based on landmarks at certain distances.  In this race, I knew the first thing to look forward to was the beginning of the downhill section, but that wasn’t until 13 miles into the race.  I was ticking off 11:xx-minute miles (one 12:01), and I was okay with that.  I thought it’d be nice to try to keep below an 11:27 average pace, which equates to a 5-hour marathon, but that plan was out the window by mile 7.  It wasn’t a concrete goal, but since it didn’t look doable, I put it to the side and decided to just roll with what was going on.

At a bit over 10 miles into the race, my breathing seemed more labored than normal, so I decided to take a walk break and take a couple puffs of Albuterol to see if it helped.  About five minutes later, I got a headache and I was also all jittery.  This was unpleasant.  I took one pain pill for my headache and vowed to only take that one regardless of whether or not it worked (luckily it did, after a while).  My headache persisted for a bit and I just wasn’t feeling like I wanted to run.  At that point, I wasn’t even a third of the way done.  I walked some more, which resulted in miles 11-13 being at just over a 13-minute average pace.  Even though my average pace was slowing, I was feeling better, so I figured it was worth it.  Even at this point, I was passing quite a few people who were walking although I wasn’t sure why there were so many walking at that point.

Just before mile 13, I caught up to Karla (?!) and we both remarked that all of the flashing lights along the road ahead was reminiscent of how the Badwater course looked at night.  She said she’d walked the entire “hill” (meaning the previous 2.5ish miles); honestly, to that point, I hadn’t realized the incline had gotten quite a bit steeper (relatively).  I’m terrible at judging whether or not a road is uphill/downhill/flat at night, let alone the grade.  But it suddenly made sense: My breathing got labored when I got to the steeper part of the hill, but I hadn’t “realized” it was steep, so I didn’t intentionally slow down at all.  And I was passing so many people because they were walking the hill.  I felt silly for not “noticing” the hill, but was happy that I’d reached the gradual downhill portion of the course.  I fully expected that Karla would catch up to me during the downhill section,..

I love running downhill, and this section was a lot of fun; it was gradual, but it felt great compared to the long uphill section I’d just done.  Of note is that when I got to 13 miles, my average pace to that point was 11:51, which was slower than I would have wanted, but I reminded myself this was just a training run and that I didn’t even taper for this race.  On the downhill section, I hit my first sub-11 miles of the race with some sub-10s thrown in too.  Since I was moving at a decent pace, I started counting the number of people I passed, although I stopped when I realized there were a bunch of half marathoners in the mix who had started 30 minutes later and 7 miles ahead of us, so passing them was sort of a moot point.

I hit 16 miles, which was the approximate halfway point (since I knew the total distance would be just under 32 miles) in 3:04.  However, I thought it was odd that the mile markers seemed to be a little off (shorter distance than my Garmin was registering by about .2 miles); I got the impression the start should have been just a little bit back since the mile markers were evenly spaced.  Anyway, getting to 16 miles signified that I was halfway done.  I was unsure whether or not I could match that split for the second half (I didn’t think so), but I realized I still had some leeway to beat my 6:56 50k PR time.  Mile 16 was also my first sub-10-minute mile of the race, which was a boost to my confidence.  I was running almost the entire time and was only walking through aid stations.  One thing I loved about the aid stations is that at every single one of them, there was a volunteer with a pitcher of water and a pitcher of Heed in hand ready to quickly refill runners’ water bottles; it was very efficient.  I’d made the decision to only subsist of the gels I brought and water/Heed I put in my bottle and to not waste time looking at all of the “ultra” foods that were available at the aid stations.

Early in the second half of the race, I recalled something else, besides my nearly full Garmin database, that I had meant to “fix” before the race.  When I was creating my iPod playlist the day before, I was modifying one of my shorter ones.  I remembered I’d gotten up to 5.9 hours of music before getting distracted and never adding more.  This meant I was going to run out of music before the end of the race.  Sure, it’s not too difficult to navigate to a new playlist or restart the current one, but I hate having to take any time to do this during a race because it takes time and effort.  Oh well, I figured I’d deal with it later since I still had quite a while before it’d be an issue.

I knocked off a few more sub-10-minute miles and was happy to note that my average pace continued to get faster; by the end of mile 20, it was at an average of 11:22, which meant I’d brought my 11:51 average all of the way down to 11:22 in the matter of 7 miles.  This was promising.  When I passed the turn-off for the half marathon finish (my mile 20), the guy directing people made the comment, “You’ve got a great pace, gal!” which was encouraging.  I was still feeling very strong and thought I might have a chance of hitting 26.2 miles in under 5 hours.  While I’ve run one sub-5-hour marathon (2 months ago), the 5-hour barrier has always been a mystical sort of thing to me.  I was still picking off people one or two at a time.  From the time I started paying attention at mile 13, NO one had passed me, which was very weird.  It actually made me a little bit sad to notice a unique light pattern in the future and focus on it for miles (sometimes hours) and then eventually catch up to and pass the person (i.e. “blue blinky headband guy” and “red flashy dinosaur guy” as the pattern of lights on his back reminded me of a dinosaur??) and not have that to focus on anymore.  Since it was dark, there weren’t really many things in the distance to focus on besides the lights from other people, and “unique” ones stood out.  One of the neat things out there was how visible the stars were.  I also saw quite a few shooting stars, which I loved.

When I passed by the marathon turn-around point, the volunteer there asked, “Marathon or 51?” and when I responded with 51, he responded with an ominous, “Okay, have fun…”  I shouted back, “I’ll see you in about an hour!”  Running past that turn-around and looking ahead, there were very few lights ahead of me, which evidently indicated the number of “crazy” people wasn’t too high. 😉  I’m terrible at judging the distance of lights, so I arrived at the 51k turn-around sooner than I thought I would.  I could see it ahead, but I was suddenly there standing in front of the table confirming that I had indeed gotten to the turnaround.  As I approached the table, I recognized Karla’s son, who was volunteering.  I shouted out, “Hi Jakob!”  He looked at me a little puzzled and said, “You’re here… quick.”  He asked what I needed and refilled my water bottle, but I told him I didn’t need anything else and took off back to the finish line.  Only having about six miles left at that point was encouraging because I knew I had roughly an hour, maybe a little more left.  It was also somewhere around this time I considered the possibility of breaking 6 hours.  It still seemed outlandish, but it seemed at least possible.

I was pleasantly surprised when I got to 26.2 miles, according to my Garmin, in 4:49:xx.  Yeah, sub-5 (not that it counted for anything).  Around this time I realized I had just over 2 hours to run about 5.5 miles in order to break my old 50k PR.  I felt mostly like it was “in the bag,” but I couldn’t be certain.  I’d wondered where Karla was and got my answer when we crossed paths when I was around 27 miles; I was surprised she was that far behind me (over 2 miles at that point).  I made an effort to tell everyone I saw coming toward me and who I passed “good job.”  I felt almost guilty because everyone else seemed so much worse off than me.

By this point, it was barely starting to get light outside and I realized that the runners around me had been transformed into the walking dead.  I didn’t know how/when this had happened, but I hoped it wasn’t contagious.  It was crazy to me that there were still a lot of people heading out to the turn-around point, that I had somehow gotten that many miles ahead of other people.  I was continuing to pass people, which was fun because I was picking them off one at a time.  I felt great and I literally felt like I was flying by them.  It was quite strange.  I couldn’t explain how I felt so good.  The only times I’d walked since mile 13 had been for a few seconds at aid stations, and I hadn’t been passed by a single person (well, anyone that had stayed ahead of me).

After the final aid station, I pushed the pace a bit more.  I knew that unless something ridiculous happened that I could break 6 hours and maybe even cut a whole hour off of my old 50k time.  I ran past one guy who was taking photos of the sunrise; I don’t know if he was doing the marathon of 51k, but he looked fit and not overly tired like everyone else.  As luck would have it, right after I ran past him, he resumed running and easily sped past me.  Being so close to the finish and not having been passed by anyone since mile 13, this was not cool, haha.  So I sped up a bit, passed him, and never saw him again.  I continued to be amazed that there were people still heading out toward the turnarounds; I couldn’t figure out how I had somehow covered 10+ miles more than them at that point.

In the final quarter mile or so, out of nowhere, a guy came up from behind me and started to pass me.  I hadn’t seen him before.  I love racing to a finish line, so I was excited to have that opportunity.  We ran stride for stride up the last little incline before I barely pulled ahead by the time we got to the timing mat.  I crossed the finish line in 5:43:38 according to my Garmin (5:44:03 officially).  My average pace was under 11 minutes/mile, and I had shattered my 50k PR time.  I’d run a kilometer more but I’d somehow cut over 72 MINUTES off of my time.  And I felt okay!  And my playlist lasted the whole race, with about 2 songs to spare, haha!

I waited at the finish line for Karla, and she came in about 45 minutes later.  She said that for some reason this race, which she’d thought would be really easy (relatively) but it had seemed a lot harder.  (I also suspect she may not be entirely recovered from Badwater which was only 2.5 weeks ago.)  She mentioned we should have run together, and in retrospect, we probably should have.  However, I assumed she’d be way faster and didn’t want to hold her back.
Anyway, the race was fun!  And one thing that set this race apart from other ultras I’ve done is that I ran the entire race alone.  I normally meet up with random people along the way and run/walk with them for a while but that didn’t happen.  I sort of missed having the company of other people, as human interactions are an integral part of ultra events for me, but it also built my confidence.  I didn’t need someone else to get me through the race; I was fully capable of doing it myself.  There was something empowering about this, and I think this knowledge will come in handy during future ultras (or even shorter races).

And with the exception of the minor breathing issue/headache around mile 10, I had really enjoyed the whole race.  It was actually a good time, literally fun (not just in retrospect but in the moment).  I think it was also enjoyable because there was no pressure so I just ran how I felt.  I also didn’t hit any low points and I never bonked.  Honestly, I never bonk during ultras, but I also typically slow down so much toward the middle/end that I’m not sure if I would even know if I did bonk.  But during this race, I ran negative splits and I felt fine!

My mile splits were: 11:06, 11:10, 11:34, 11:17, 11:33, 12:01, 11:37, 11:10, 11:26, 11:54, 12:16, 13:54, 13:11, 10:14, 10:03, 9:40, 9:50, 11:06, 11:10, 11:06, 10:19, 10:27, 10:37, 10:27, 10:56, 11:11, 10:22, 10:32, 10:27, 9:59, 9:39, and 4:53 for .53 miles (9:10 pace).

Another thing I learned during this race is the power that the mind holds.  As I mentioned earlier, I sometimes have a difficult time judging inclines or declines at night.  As a result of this, there were times where, if I had known I wasn’t running downhill that I may have slowed from my “downhill pace.”  In my mind, I thought the whole second 13 miles were downhill, but really only the first 8 were downhill and then it was flat and very gradual elevation changes; I ran them like they were downhill and didn’t know any different.  I perceived the distance to and from the turn-around point as totally flat, which was also not the case, but again, I didn’t know any better.  And going up to the finish area, the last mile or so is uphill, but I didn’t comprehend this, so it turned out to be my fastest pace on the course.  Of course if the elevation changes would have been extreme, I would have noticed, and even as it was, my pace was *slightly* affected by the elevation changes at times, but it was a few seconds per mile, not half a minute or more which I would have resorted to if I had noticed and acknowledged, “hey, I’m running up a slight incline, so I should slow down from the pace I was maintaining while I was running downhill.” 😉

In looking at the results today, I discovered I was #2/7 in my age group, #13/44 for females, and #23/83 overall.  Considering I did this race just as a “fun run” and didn’t even taper for it, I was pleased with the results.

And now, after such a climactic race, I’m supposed to not run for an entire week.  When I was seen a few days ago for my asthma exacerbation, my doctor recommended that I take a week off from running completely and asked if I could do that.  I told him I could… if the week didn’t start until after the race.  He said that would work.  I didn’t exactly tell him how long the race was going to be, but he was okay with me doing the race and then taking some time off.  I guess it’s for the best, though. 😉

I didn’t bring my camera with me to the race, but here is the official photo plus the elevation chart.

Official finish photo:
51k finish

Elevation chart:
51k profile

Katrina

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