Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Last Chance 50K: You take what you get

My friend Joe, young, strong, fearless, said, “I like technical trails and long climbs.” We were standing at the start of the Last Chance 50K, a first-time race using a piece of the Palmetto Trail in the Francis Marion National Forest in southeastern South Carolina. The national forest extends through the coastal plain halfway between Myrtle Beach and Charleston. Technical trails, maybe, but certainly no long climbs.

With Joe after the race. 
          I’d looked at the topo maps, I’d read a little about the trail. “We’re not going to get that here, Joe,” I said. “You have to take what you get. We’re going to get flat and wide.”
Just saying it made it a little more real to me. I knew we were in for a flat run, “no clues about when to walk,” I’d been telling friends. Nothing around us told us any different as we sat near the junction of Alligator, Copperhead and Rattlesnake Roads, and a sandy access road disappeared into the distance away from the start area. I didn’t know what to expect from such a run.
The out-and-back race started with little fanfare, a small crowd of 50K and relay runners standing around fairly amorphously. A mess of folks went out ahead of me onto the wide single track, and the first mile was the usual jockeying and passing. The trail itself was uneven, lumpy, uncomfortable even so early in the race. I thought about how uncomfortable that could be on the way back in. At three or four miles, we hit a more even tread at the top of a dike between even lower lying swampy areas. 
Deep thick woods of cypress and pine bordered us, the trail a straight line with little variation. I hit the five mile mark--2 1/2 miles from the first (and third) aid station--in 45 minutes and some seconds. About what I figured, and though I had some nagging soreness in my right Achilles, I felt good so far. The first aid station came and went; I lingered there, saying I was running four times between aid stations today. The volunteers were in good moods, and because the aid stations were also relay exchanges, it was fairly packed. 
The second leg changed to include hardwoods, mostly beech I’d say. The trail wandered through the woods, with lots of turns but still no elevation changes. This was maybe technical, but without the difficulty of climbs and descents, I couldn’t tell. Ten miles passed in 1:34, right on the low-9-minute miles I had run so far. 
Through this part I ran with Vincent who had run a marathon or longer in all 50 states--twice. After the race he was heading to run the Jacksonville Marathon the next day, on his way to 100 races 26.2 miles or longer in the year. I was amazed at his consistency.
We crossed a few dirt roads, each section just a little different from the previous one. We ran through pine forests, down a long straight-away, through a long section with tall grasses and very few trees. At 2:26, I came to the second aid station and turn-around point. Again I lingered, longer than the first time, eating, joking with the volunteers and relay runners, making sure I drank enough water.
The way back was obviously more familiar. I was tiring, but I knew what the splits had been, and with such a flat course I knew if I hit the same splits I would finish right at 5 hours. But I was not in this one for a time. My quads were already pretty wiped out, but the flat miles just kept ticking by. At one point I saw we were approaching a small rise that I noticed on the way out as a decline. I wondered how it would feel with tired quads, but I didn’t even notice. I think this race had about zero feet of elevation gain and loss.
I was running alone now, as I had been since I left Vincent at about mile 11. I hit the last aid station with 7 1/2 miles to go in 3:46. I had spent enough time alone to know what my splits had been all along. If I stayed even and ran the last section in what I run it in at the start, I would finish in 4:55. I even left the aid station without lingering, and started off down the trail with another 50k runner. 
“Sub five, you think?” I said to her. “Yep,” she answered.
After a half mile or so I was still feeling good, and feeling like I was slowing down too much. I passed her, gradually pulling slightly ahead. We hit the straight sections, closing in on the five-miles-to-go mark. I was slowing, though, and feeling hungry and tired. 
We hit the mark right on, but I stopped to eat a gel. I started in again, and told myself I’d run ten minutes, then walk two, then run ten and so on until I finished. I knew I was giving up a sub-five-hour time. I made it in, and did indeed grumble about the last couple of miles of pitted, lumpy trail. I passed several runner, and kept up the 10-2 sequence again.                     
           Then, at eight minutes into the next cycle, I felt a cramp in my hamstring, the first of the race. I immediately slowed to walk, and decided I’d walk two minutes. I started running again, and soon finished, crossing the line in 5:01:36, so close to sub-five, but 44 minutes faster my previous PR for the distance.

Almost there. Just before this photo was taken,
I looked up to see my Gorgeous.
Not much beats that.

It’s true I can’t compare the two courses: Terrapin climbs 7500 feet in its course. And I was in much better shape for the two Terrapin races I’ve run. But what a neat experience to be able to run (almost) the whole way, keep things slow and even, a much different head game than a mountain run with lots of climbing. Because of the flat terrain, combined with the out-and-back course, I had lots of neat data to look at.
Here’s where I prove that Paul Ryan lied about his marathon time; he didn’t mis-remember, or whatever he said. Runners remember these kinds of things, and here’s the resulting data.

Start  00:00

5 miles 45:00

First Aid (7.5)
in 1:07

out 1:12
     10 miles 1:34

Second Aid (15.5)
in 2:26
out 2:32
21 miles 3:23

Third Aid (23.5)
in 3:46
out 3:48
26 miles 4:11

Finish 5:01:36

           Look at all it shows. The splits were almost exactly even: 1:14 for the second and third legs--the same miles run in both directions. I ran the first leg in 1:07, and back to the finish in 1:13. There are the six minutes from my 4:55 on-course figuring. It gets closer: the 2 1/2 miles stretch between the 5 mile mark and the aid station at 7.5 miles passed in 23 minutes. On the way back, I ran the same section in 23 minutes. The 2 1/2 miles from the first aid station to the 10 miles mark I ran in 22 minutes. I ran it in 22 minutes on the way back. The 6 1/2 miles from the ten-mile mark to the turn around I ran in 52 minutes; I ran it back in 51 minutes. I ran the last five mile section in 51 minutes, 6 minutes slower than on the way out. I’m pretty thrilled with that even pacing.
I also managed to say funny things at each aid station. At the first and third, the guy tracking us and I joked about my leading the bearded-guys-with-tattoos division. I sang “The Wheels on the Bus” both times. I arrived at the turn-around to a crowd. I hoped C would be there, so I pulled in and hollered, “Who wants to be my girlfriend?” hoping she would come out of the crowd to kiss me. It was still funny without her there, just not as dramatic.
So I too prefer technical trails with lots of climbing, but I took what I got, and had a great time. Chad Haffa and Eagle Endurance did a great job organizing the event. The course was very well marked, the volunteers were enthusiastic and helpful. Assuming we do indeed make it past December 21 (the reason it’s the Last Chance 50K), I’ll try to fit it into my schedule again next year. 

Front of the very cool medallion.
Back of the medallion.

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