Ever since I started running 100 milers, most of which take place in the summer (or at least they did back when I started doing them), March has symbolized build-up time. And what better thing to do when you are building up than run a 50k race? As such, and I don’t think this is accidental, in recent years the race calendar has exploded with hyper-competitive 50k races providing runners with an opportunity to gauge their fitness, get out on the trail for 4-7 hours, and inspire folks to talk and think about the upcoming ultra racing season.
Just in the last three weeks in Utah, California, Virginia, Oregon, and Washington 50K races have been staged that have set the tone for the year and provided many with an opportunity to lay the foundation for the summer 100-mile season. My 50k race of choice, this year, was the Terrapin Mountain 50k outside Lynchburg, Virginia. This relatively new ultra is part of Clark Zealand’s “Beast Series” and follows hot on the heels of the incredible ultra series legendary ultra runner David Horton has built in this little corner of Virginia. Starting and finishing in a bucolic park and climbing just under 7,000 feet in 31 miles, Terrapin provides a nice early season test for anyone looking ahead to a deep, dark summer.
After a cool jog along paved and then dirt roads the Terrapin Course climbs steeply over 4 miles to the Camping Gap Aid Station before descending another five miles along a smooth dirt road. I was quite astonished to see that my mile splits on this downhill, after tipping the scales in the 13-minute per mile range on the initial climb, were hovering around 6:30 pace. This was, clearly, setting up to be a roller-coaster day (in more ways than one). I was also, in this context, determined to keep my heart rate pegged at 140 beats per minute or less as I have become accustomed to the early season approach of Phil Maffetone, which, while somewhat controversial in ultra circles, seems to work for me quite well until about the middle of May. So, I continued to let people pass me and rolled with what the course gave me.
At around Mile 22 we passed back through Camping Gap and Horton was there to give me a few more gels and tell me that the toughest, most technical stretch was just ahead. I was hovering around 27th place at the time and thought if I didn’t cheat on my heart rate and stayed true to my pre-race plan I might be able to squeeze into the top-20 given the potential for carnage over the last hour or so. I put my head down and rolled. After summitting Terrapin Mountain, navigating Fat Man’s Misery, and rolling through the Rock Garden I finally spilled onto the single track that would bring me back to the finish. This nice, 3-mile section that reminded me of the Western States course and the section going into Brown’s Bar. The trail was smooth, it wove in and out of a series of gullies, and it was undeniably runnable. I began, for the first time since Western States 2011, to feel honest-to-goodness competitive again.
Now, to be frank, I know I do not have the legs or the lungs to hang with the twenty-somethings anymore and I am really OK with that. But, at the same time, there is something wonderfully energizing about wanting to be in the arena. Something tantalizing about desiring to stare down Race Day one more time in the hope that I can exceed expectations, whether others or my own, and have a successful experience. These spring 50ks give me that hope. For me, where I am in my life and in my running I really only “race” one race a year, I better make it count!
In the end of this one, I cheated on my Maffetone method over the last 10 minutes or so. As I rolled onto the gravel road and then back onto the pavement I saw two fellow competitors up ahead of me. In that moment, I couldn’t help myself. My heart rate went above 140 and my pace per mile dropped to 6:20 and, I have to admit, it felt great! I was, after more than a year and a half, back in the game! And, as luck would have it, on this day, I ended up 20th.
AJW’s Beer of the Week
This week’s Beer of the Week in Williamsburg Alewerks Bitter Valentine Double IPA. Just the right amount of resin to turn your head, but not too much to turn it off. A great beer at a great price from a wonderfully historic place.
Call for Comments (from Bryon)
- What do you enjoy most about running a spring 50k?
- What’s your spring 50k of choice?