Monday, July 26, 2010

The Big Five Zero: My 50th Ultramarathon!

(Bill Gentry on his way to a well earned 100th ultramarathon finish! Photo by Bobby Gill)

My great journey into the ultramarathon world began at 7am on November 20th, 2004

I just turned 29 last month, and if you asked me six years ago whether or not I would be able to finish a marathon by age thirty, I might have said no. This past winter I started compiling a list of my ultramarathons, and road marathons, and realized I had been cranking out an impressive number of runs. As it turned out, barring major injury, ultra number 50 was going to happen at some point in 2010. The number 50 caught me off guard, as it seemed it only took less than six years to reach this rather big milestone. The most staggering statistic in all this is that between 2004 and 2007 I ran less than a dozen races. This means I ran about 33 ultra events in 2008 and 2009 combined, which was aided by the fact that I literally ran 3-4 ultra events a MONTH at times during those years.

For the record, there may be events included in my overall tally that people may not count as a true ultramarathon. I have completed quite a few "Fat Asses", which are simply non-competitive runs of ultra distance put on by running clubs. I only included one 31 mile training run, and one 34 mile pacing effort, which I only "counted" as ultras because of their 7-9 hour duration and terrain.

This all brings me to this past weekend. On July 24th, 2010 I completed the Catherine's Furnace 50k. Run organizer Jeff Reed had to make notable changes from last year's course due to road access issues. This new set of circumstances allowed for runners to choose from a myriad of distance options, all of which allowed runners to cut the run short. Given the fact the daytime high called for 101 degrees, and a heat index over 105, many runners found these shorter options especially welcome. Other runners would find these shorter options increasingly desirable as the day wore on and the thermometer climbed over triple digits.

(Scott Crabb and Greg Zaruba leading down the Pink Trail. Photo by Bobby Gill)

There's not a lot to write about the run itself. I used the run as a means of catching up with friends that I never get a chance to see during races. I was more than happy to let the fast guys gallop ahead without feeling any need to chase them down, or try to keep up. Instead, I decided to run with my buddy Bill Gentry who was running Catherines 50k in order to achieve his own milestone, his 100th ultramarathon finish, an odyssey he began in 1991. The trio of Bill, myself, and Amy "Flame" Brown stayed together for almost the entire run and were often in the company of other runners. The climbs were good, the stream crossing fabulous, and the volunteers wonderful. It's been a very long time since I ran an ultra from start to finish with the same person,and in fact it had been over four years since I had done so.

The run was indeed very hot and humid, yet always seemed to be on the comfortable side of things due to the shaded trails and occasional breeze. Every now and then the trail would be exposed on an uphill climb, and it was hard not to notice the sun beating down on your shoulders. Despite the scorching temps, Bill and I had no doubt that we were going to finish the true ultra length option for the run, although we were given plenty of offers to cut the route short by 4-5 miles. On the way back to the finish, our companion of 27 miles Amy Brown trotted ahead, and I stuck with Bill. Bill had encouraged me not wait on him, but I insisted that I was going to be his wing man and guide him into his 100th finish. So, me and Bill chatted it up for the remaining miles and coasted it in for my 50th ultra finish, but more amazingly Bill's 100th.

I wonder how many 29 year olds have finished 50, or more ultras? There can't be many, but I'm sure in the coming years more and more runners will reach that mark as ultrarunners tend to be getting younger and racing more often. If things stay on track, I'm due for 100 ultras by the time I'm 35. That being said, I'm in no rush to see how fast my 100th will come. If you combine the mileage of the 50 marathon and longer running events I've run, then I've already surpassed 2,000 miles of total distance. In fact, the distance covered is now more than running across the USA at it's shortest route (Jacksonville, FL to San Diego, CA is 2096 miles).

Here's to the next 50!

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Skyline Challenge 50k

July 10th, 2010
Start time: 6:00am

The Skyline Challenge 50k is a 31.4 mile trail race held in Gore, VA. It's located very close to the Virginia/West Virginia border near Winchester, VA. This was the second running of the event, but in a different location than it's innaugural run.

Recap: I drove up to Gore, VA with my fellow Harrisonburg friend Natalie Kennedy the night before the race. We drove 2 hours through pouring rain, fog, and more pouring rain. It became clear that tommorow's race was going to be wet and muddy, but perhaps a bit cooler than the 100 degree temps we had the previous week.

After arriving at the Cove Campground in Gore we had the park attendants pull up the doppler radar, which showed a massive green blob of rain hovering over the area until morning. Being the tough, rugged, athletes we are, Natalie and I opted to book a room at the local Marriott instead. A few Marriott mess ups later, we found ourselves in a large luxury suite complete with flat screen HD tv's and two private rooms for just $80. Yeah, we were roughing it.

After perhaps the best pre-50k night's sleep ever, I woke up at 4am to a dark rainy morning. At 5:15am I grabbed my #5 bib and waited around for the start.

The Numbers: I have an uncanny way of finishing races very close to my bib number. This is all coincidence since my bib number, which is usually low, is based purely on an alphabetical system. Thus my last name Bailey usually ends up with a low bib. A guy like Sean Andrish, however, would have a low bib either way due to having a low seeding, and a last name that starts with A.

Anyway, with bib #5, I made my impromptu goal a top five finish. Was this a bit too optimistic just 5 weeks "recovered" from a 100 mile race? Read on to find out.

After a quick prayer the race started promptly at 6:02am and all 127 runners were off. With overcast skies, rain, and fog, it was still considerably dark out for a 6am start. I started off fairly conservative and felt no need to chase down the 10 or so runners ahead of me. However, about a half mile down the first road I caught up with the lead runners who were all surprisingly just standing around in bewilderment. Apparently, the frontrunners had missed a turn? A few moments later the remaining 120+ runners joined up with us, thus creating a mass of runners once again clumped together. As runners began to figure out the course markings, all the of lead runners found themselves behind the back of the pack runners. I went from being in the top 10 to virtually last place in a matter of seconds. Yowza! This was the most bizarre start to a race I have ever run.

For the next few minutes I picked my way past the back of the pack, the middle of the pack, and then closer to the front. I honestly tried to pass people as carefully as possible, and admittedly knew it must have looked weird for the last place runner to come frantically blasting through the field. Soon enough the craziness of the first mile passed, and I found myself with the obstacle of climbing several miles of steep, 18% grade, muddy trails. The footing was so slick that I literally had to grab branches and small shrubs to keep myself from sliding back down the mountain. I can't imagine what these climbs must have been like for the last place runners after hundreds of feet had already mushed up the surface.

After the mud there was some more climbing, less steep, much more runnable, and traction friendly. Once we hit the Tuscarora Trail is was go time! The trail was rocky, but not nearly like the debris fields that are the Massanutten trails. I made good time here and passed a few folks, ran by the fog blockaded overlooks, and made my way to the steep half mile powerline aid station (mile 9ish). This short out and back spur gave me the first view of the runners about 5 minutes ahead of me and the runners 5 minutes behind. I counted about six runners ahead, including elite female Eva Pastalkova, and ultra legend Courtney Campbell. Unfortunately, I didn't know if there were others even furthur ahead that had already gone through. At this point, I presumed I might have been somwhere between 10-15th place. I had no idea, and just decided to run my own pace and not worry about my placement. On my way out of aid station I saw my friend and local speedster Andrew Jenner just a minute or two back, and buddies Tom Syre and Joe Parker about 4 minutes back and gave them a quick shout out.

Once I got back to the main trail I was again back to some quick ridgeline running. Andrew Jenner caught up to me and followed me down some steep and slippery switchbacks down the mountain. There were about a half dozen blow downs that broke up any fast running and were a little tricky to navigate around. However, after the switchbacks ended it was a few miles a fast downhill followed by 8 miles of rolling roads. On the road section my buddy Andrew passed me and it seemed like he was really hitting a groove. I still managed to catch up to Eva Pastalkova and enjoyed sharing some good conversation with her until the course turn around at mile 17. Eva recently moved to Virginia, and has taken the east coast ultra community by storm. Knowing how strong of a runner she was, I was pretty content to just follow her lead and maintain the pace.

Just before the turn around, race director Brad Hinton, drove by and said me and Eva were the 5th and 6th place runners. Surely that wasn't correct? As we neared the turn around we still hadn't seen any other runners. I had expected to see the first runners well before then, but low and behold they were just minutes from the aid station when they passed us. This is the moment my competitive juices clicked and I shifted into a second gear. I pulled away from Eva at the turn around and pursued the leaders. The long road section, much of which was downhill before, was now going to be uphill on the way back. I resolved to just put my head down and keep moving forward.

Retracing the course wasn't really fun, but I got to see every other runner in the race, and gave shouts of encouragement whenever I could. The energy from seeing the other runners was enough to get me running all of the uphill back to those notoriously steep switchbacks that we came down 10 miles ago. On the way up the big climb back to the ridgeline I caught up with Courtney Campbell(which is a guy). Courtney was one of the most dominant utlrarunners in the country from 1995-2004, and it was really an honor to get a chance to chat with him for a bit as we headed up the switchbacks. Courtney semi-jokingly said he was "a shell of his former self", to which I replied "the shell of your former self is still ahead of me!". He's not as fast as he was in his prime, but at age 45 the guy can still fly. Once we hit the top of the climb and were back on ridgeline Courtney took off, and I was sure I wouldn't see him again. Still, I regrouped and pushed the pace, eventually catching up to and passing my friend Andrew who was going through a bit of a rough patch.

I kept the good tempo going and made my way back to the powerline section which was now fully visable without the fog. Man it looked way steeper than in the morning when you couln't see ALL the way to the aid station. Surprisingly, I had caught up to Courtney and when we left the final aid station together there was nobody in sight. Just before reaching the Tuscarora one last time we saw John Hayward moving quick, and he was only a few minutes behind us. This was enough motivation for me and Courtney to run some sub 7 minute miles in the last 4 downhill miles of the race and ensure our position, and his Master's win. As we neared the finish I asked if Courtney was ok with finishing together and he politely obliged. I will admit that I got a little worried that he was going to drop me near the end since he is such a fast downhill runner, and I'm still working on it.

That being said, we hit the last mile of flat road to the finish and casually jogged it in holding hands as we crossed the finish in a time of 5:16. It was very classy of Courtney to share a 3rd place overall finish with a much younger runner like myself, and he still won the Master's division. To be fair, in his prime, Courtney would have finished thirty to forty minutes ahead of me. John Hayward, who chased us most of the day had a terrific run and finished just six minutes behind us despite starting a few minutes late. First place had a time of 4:55, and second place was Brian Greeley in 5:08.

The Skyline Challenge 50k is a very good run. It is well organized and the post race atmosphere/food was terrific. There is a big lake you can swim in after the run, and plenty of space to camp. The course is tougher than it looks on paper, containing about 6,000 feet of vertical, technical trail, steep climbs, but also some quick road sections. The "thrify fifty" option costs only $20, and is well worth it to run this beautiful course. Thanks to James and Brad Hinton, Athletic Equation, and all the volunteers on a great event. I hope to be back soon!

Great job local runners and friends!

Andrew Jenner 5:33 6th overall
Joe Parker 5:44 11th overall
Tom Syre 6:29 top 25
Natalie Kennedy 8:13