(Photo courtesy of The Manimal: running through one of the less muddy sections, believe it or not)
It's been three years since I ran the inaugural Icy 8 hour run in 2009. That year I was able to cover 50.3 miles on a day that saw quick running early due to a frozen ground, but fairly muddy conditions later.
Feb 4, 2012 was now the fourth running of Athletic Equation's popular winter event. For starters, I wasn't actually sure I was going to be running. The race was sold out and RD Alex Papadopoulos suggested I drive out to the race early and if someone didn't show, I could have dibs on the first slot. So, at 3:45am I drove two hours down to Lake Anna and was pleasantly surprised to hear I was going to be running. The talent that came out to this year's run was greater than any of the previous years. On hand were the 24 hour ATR winner Steve Speirs (2:45 marathoner), Thad Meyer (2:59 marathon), Scott Buttz (3:00 marathon), Iain Banks (2:40 marathon), Mike Welch, and ultra stud Olivier Leblond (2:48 marathon). And then there was me with my modest 3:33 marathon PR. Talk about feeling like an under dog about to get his butt handed to him. It truly looked like it could anyone's race, and the type of deep field that would force everyone to max out their 8 hours on the trail.
My goal prior to the race was to run eleven 4.7 mile loops (51.7 miles). This race does offer the option to mix and match either an 8, or 4.7 mile loop. This would be a new course record and personal best, though I believed many of the other talented runners were equally, if not better, suited to raise the bar higher.
A little after 7:30am the run starts and the 100 runners make their way into the first loop. Almost imediately I knew that the course conditions were far too muddy for me to set a PR. I felt like the first loop had been run at a pace I was slightly uncomfortable at, and was even more startled to see it still took 41:30 to complete. To compare, on the dryer 2009 course we came through loop one in under 41 minutes at an effort that felt much more relaxed. The perception was that the mud was slowing things down as much as 15-20 seconds per mile, and perhaps even more as the day progressed and conditions only worsened. Doing the math, if each loop was taking 1.5-2 minutes longer, I would lose roughly 20 minutes by the end of the day. Time to redo the strategy.
I opted to throw in an eight mile loop in hopes that I could at least match the 50.3 I had run in '09. However, even by mile 18 my day was not looking so good. I could feel my muscles really starting to feel worked, and the fatigue levels were a good bit more than what I was used to only 18.8 miles into a run. The eight mile loop is where I hit my first major crux of the day. I thought there was a satellite aid station at the midway point of the long loop, so I neglected to refill my water bottle, or grab any food to take on the go. As I completed the 3.3 mile extension of the long loop I realized I had made a terrible error and there was no aid. Needless to say, I bonked hard, ran out of water, and dragged myself to the start/finish on fumes.
Although I had completed 26.8 miles in 4:08, I felt horrible. My body was aching, my energy non existent, and I was 12 minutes slower than my '09 splits. I was honestly contemplating walking one more 4.7 mile loop and just calling it a day at 31.5 miles. I would have still run a 50k, which would have been enough to collect a nifty beer glass award. Respectable, right? So, I sat around for a few minutes, took in a heaping load of calories and tried to get my head back in the game. Leaving on lap six I reminded myself that I have done well here before, and this was not the kind of showing I knew I was capable of. There were 3 hours and 50 minutes to turn things around, and I knew well enough that these eight hour runs don't really become competitive until after the five hour mark. I thought back to the wise words of MC Hammer and was determined to be too legit to quit. So I put my head down, sucked it up, and trudged on. I reached the 50k mark in 4:54 and started building back some momentum.
But, at mile 36.2 I had some decisions to make. I could either attempt three 4.7 mile loops and likely risk not completing the third loop, which would bring my total to 45.6 miles. Normally this could get me in the top 3, but with the deep field, I just felt like it was going to take more than that to do it. I went ahead with the decision to attempt another 8 mile loop, and then finish with a 4.7 mile loop. It was a fairly big roll of the dice, because if I bonked hard again, there would not be enough time to complete the last loop and I would be stuck with 44.2 miles (even less than the 45.6 with the other strategy). I had 2 hours and 10 minutes to cover 12.7 more muddy miles. Gut check time.
The eight mile loop was tough, but felt easier the second time around. The short steep power line climbs came as a nice excuse to walk, albeit a few moments. I will say it was tough to figure out how much effort I wanted to put into this loop. I wanted to give myself a reasonable time cushion to complete the last 4.7 mile loop, yet I did not want to blow up with an hour left on the clock. I completed the 8 mile loop strong, which brought me to 44.2 miles in 7:07:30. That gave me a nice buffer of 52:30 to run the final 4.7 miles. Though I was confident I could cover the loop in time, there was always a slight fear that any given low point could cost me. Afterall, only completed loops within the eight hours count. While it wasn't blazing fast, I finished the last loop in 47 minutes, thus ending a tough day with 48.9 miles in 7:55. It's interesting to look at the splits and see that I averaged a 9:15 pace for the first 4 hours and a 10:15 for the second four. Of course this icludes the additional time I spent changing gear, and fueling up in the later miles, so it's somewhat tough to tell what the true atttrition rate was.
I am very happy with this run for two big reasons. First, I believe in dryer conditions, this effort could have netted that 51.7 mile goal I was aiming for. I will say, as history has shown, the Lake Anna course may just always be a very muddy course. Secondly, it has been a while since I have struggled so early in a run, recovered, and was able to bounce back for a strong finish. When you don't feel good 18 miles into an event, it is almost impossible to talk yourself into wanting to go for another 31 miles. I haven't been that exausted at a finish line in quite some time, but with so many strong looking runners all day, there was never room to ease up. My advice for people who want to be competitive at timed events like this is to have a flexible game plan and use as much time as possible. Sounds rather obvious, but it can be risky trying to max out the mileage, though smart planning can allow mediocre "speed" runners like myself do well. I'm sure some of the faster runners actually hit quicker cumulative mile splits, but perhaps left 20-45 minutes on the clock. In the two years I have run the event I have used all but 5 and 3 minutes. My two combined Icy 8 hour finishes total 99.2 miles in 15 hours and 52 minutes of running (just under an 8 hour 50 mile pace). This proves good clock management can, to some degree, compensate for lack of speed.
Congrats to all the finishers. There were a remarkable number of runners who eclipsed the 40 mile mark, including 68 year old Gary Knipling's 41.4 miles. The results spoke for themselves on what a strong field ran. Six runners broke 45 miles, and Olivier Leblond's course record of 54.1 miles should be safe until he decides to run again. Three women ran 40 miles, or more, and quite a few people completed their first ultra, or set a personal distance record. Thanks to Athletic Equation and all the fine volunteers to braving the chilly conditions to help us out.