[Ellie Greenwood of the Montrail Running Team shares her thoughts on her second place performance at the 2011 The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile Championships.]
Mental preparation can be almost as important as the physical preparation for an ultra, especially when you know you will truly be attempting to push the limits of your physical ability at a competitive race. I feel I have made the mistake at a couple of races in the past in not ‘thinking out’ my race enough in the week or so leading up. It’s not that I always need to spend a long time thinking about my mental approach to a race, but before TNF 50 in San Fran this past weekend I definitely tried to think how I would approach what was surely going to be one of the most competitive races of the year when I had already raced decent mileage in the 11 months prior.
A few thoughts came to me, mostly by fate in the days prior which stuck in my mind and I brought them to the race start with me. Firstly, I had had an awesome session with my physio, not just for the work he did on my SI and glutes, but more because we got into a conversation about doing the best you can do at any given moment in time. I had doubts in the lead up to the race really how well my training had gone; the cold and snowy weather had made long runs challenging, work had been busy leaving me tired to train and a few niggling pains had flared up that I knew would likely present challenges on race day. Well, no point in dwelling on that – training was done to the best of my current ability and I would simply race the best I could on the day.
Secondly, a friend had referred to me in an email as a ‘ray of sunshine’. This struck me as often when I am racing I am in serious ‘race face’ mode – focused and serious. But I thought back to the TNF 50 miler I had run in Chile in October where I went in with a ‘no pressure, have fun’ approach and wow – did I have a blast! Ok, decision made – the race would almost certainly get tough at times but I would remain positive and sunny in my outlook as that could only help relieve any physical pain.
And finally, Bryon of iRunFar even got involved in my mental approach! In the busy week leading up to the race we’d been unable to coordinate a time to do a pre-race interview, so I jokingly replied in an email to Bryon that I would simply have to earn a post-race interview. And with that final thought my mental approach to the race was set….. Little Miss Sunshine was going to run as hard as she could on the day with the aim of earning a post-race iRunFar interview!
As ever, I started out slow. Kami and I hit a stride together and chatted a little, we were also accompanied by Ashley Arnold. I noted that there must have been well over 50 racers ahead of us despite the fact that we were running at a little over 40 minutes per 10km pace. As ever, I felt reassured with Kami next to me – we both tend to go out slow and then pick our way up the pack. But even the dark hills early on in the race got me powerhiking. This was my first taste of the Marin Headlands trails and instantly I knew I was going to suffer on these hills, which, in theory, are so runnable, yet my legs felt heavy and lacking bounce. Very early on I resolved that I would simply have to hammer the downs from the start in an attempt to make up ground I was losing on the climbs. The quads would simply have to suck it up.
At Tennessee valley as I ditched my headlamp I learned I was in third place. I was happy with this as I’d known that Lizzy (Hawker) and Anna (Frost) had gone out ahead, but I had been unsure in the darkness if any other women were ahead of me, too. I was not concerned at all about being in third; it was early days and time to simply not slip back too far of the leaders.
As the switchbacks curled upwards I was amazed how much I was loving them – so gradual that even I could run them, which was a mental boost, and I could see Anna zig-zagging her way up above me. I almost wanted to slow – I didn’t want to pass her this early on in the race and preferred to bide my time. I needn’t have worried, keeping at my steady pace as up we went I seemed to maintain the same gap on Anna.
As I approached the turn around at McKenna Gulch, the lead men zipped past, heading back down on the narrow singletrack trail perched above the ocean. If that didn’t put a buzz in my step nothing would – it was a closely packed train of the who’s who of ultra trail running cruising along. It was just amazing to see so many in the lead group when we were now approaching almost half way in the race, the race was still wide open. The turn around also afforded me the chance to see that Lizzy was still in the lead, then Anna and then myself – we were all within less than 2 minutes of one another and despite the legs beginning to flare up a little (the ever dodgy hamstrings, in particular) I felt confident. Kami, Joelle and Krissy tailed us, a few minutes back and having Kami behind me was definitely the most concerning as I knew she would push hard til the end and usually had a strong second half to races.
As I rolled along the singletrack – bam!! Ouch! One seriously stubbed toe. Actually, it felt more like three. I yelled out, breathed deeply and on I carried; after all, it wasn’t going to do any good to stop and any pain in the toes seemed less than the increasing pain in my legs and SI. But I remained sunny and positive and was doing great at just maintaining my focus on pushing myself to stay in the race and enjoy the atmosphere of the day. I soon passed Lizzy, a little confidence boost that I was keeping a good pace and might be gaining on Anna who was now in the lead about a minute ahead of me. The race was definitely on!
Up until about the 60km mark, even although I was losing ground on Anna, I remained focused that I could still win this thing by pulling out a finishing kick. I didn’t want to push too hard, too soon on my painful legs, but thought I could bide a little time. But by the time I got to about 60km I was losing more and more ground on Anna each time I would get an update from someone of the course. One minute back. 2 minutes back. 4 minutes back. …. And so it would go on. I was now glad that I had bided my time, not because it would allow me to have a finishing kick, but because I only dared imagine how much worse my legs would be feeling had I gone harder earlier on.
I ran/ shuffled the uphills and was pleased I was going a good job at pushing myself as hard as I could on the day even if it wasn’t hard enough. I’d been asked before why I didn’t take the opportunity to have a pacer but, to be honest, I knew I could push myself as hard as anyone else would have pushed me in a 50 miler and I also wanted the achievement of the race (whatever time or position) to be all mine.
I was cheered along by Kim Gaylord at the approach to the final climb. Even though she ran with me for at the most 15 seconds, I welcomed the company and support. She didn’t indicate that I was getting caught at all. It was now a matter of just getting it done and unless I seriously tanked I’d take second. No finishing kick would catch Anna now, so I was just pushing to get the best finishing time I could and do myself justice.
I can honestly say, I was so relieved to get to that finishing line. My hamstrings, glutes and SI were aching in pain, I felt like I’d been hit by a truck and I’ll be honest, I just plain wanted to stop running. But as I came over the finish line I made sure I enjoyed the final few hundred metres – after all, Little Miss Sunshine might not have won but she had remained sunny at all times, ran as hard as she could on the day, and even later learned, that she had earned a post-race iRunFar interview with the illustrious Bryon Powell.