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Lean Horse 50K: An almost triumphant ultra debut

Posted Jun 13 2009 12:05am
Have you ever leaped head first into something without really thinking about it? That pretty much describes my decision to run the Lean Horse 50K this year. I first learned of the race last summer and logged it away as something I might like to do someday with the expectation that “someday” would be a few years away. Flash forward to June of 2007 and I’ve just PRed at the Fargo Marathon and am considering how to go about knocking another 8 minutes off my Fargo time to get myself a ticket to Boston. Honestly, after Fargo, I had absolutely no motivation to run another marathon right away, or even to take a BQ shot in the fall, which I had considered doing at the Roughrider Marathon in Bismarck, ND in September. In fact, I canceled plans to run the Governor’s Cup Marathon two weeks after Fargo, something totally out of character for me. I’ll admit that I was resting on my laurels just a little bit. I did run the Missoula Marathon on July 15, with not great results but also without any real expectation of bettering my Fargo time. One good thing that came of Missoula is that my lackluster performance rekindled my desire to really challenge myself again.

An acquaintance in South Dakota had mentioned that he was considering running the Lean Horse 50K this year. He eventually came to his sense and decided not to…the son of a…. So, the seed had been festering in my head for a couple of months by the time of my Missoula meltdown. Another factor that played a big role in choosing to run Lean Horse was the Western States 100, which my X-Squad teammates Mr. and Mrs. Runamaniac conquered this year. I was very intrigued by the whole ultra scene and started wondering if it was something I would enjoy. Only one way to find the answer to that question. But, I wasn’t about to jump into it whole hog and try a 100, or even 50, miler right off the bat. The 50K distance, only 5 miles further than a marathon, fit the bill quite nicely. So, having already resigned myself to pushing the BQ attempt back to spring of 2008 and with the disappointment of Missoula fresh in my mind, I started making plans to run my first ultra.

I will also admit right now that I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. I came to discover rather quickly that 50K plans aren’t all that plentiful, even in the vast expanses of the internet. And, 6 week long 50K plans are pretty well nonexistent because, well, that’s just stupid. I eventually ventured to Hal Higdon’s webpage and bastardized his 24 week plan for the Comrades Marathon (54 miles) to come up with a 6 week plan for a 50K. Sorry, Hal. Yes, it did occur to me, several times, that this was ridiculous, but so is running an ultra, or even a regular, marathon in the first place. My 6 week mini-plan basically just borrowed Hal’s structure with easy runs on Monday and Wednesday, a tempo run on Tuesday and back to back long or medium-long runs on Friday and Saturday, with a rest day on each side of the back to backs. Got it? Of course, my plan was immediately derailed by the Spearfish Canyon Half-marathon (a three minute PR) at the end of the second week, so I really only got in two decent back to back long runs due to recovery from Missoula and tapering for Lean Horse. I did complete 12/18 and 14/20 back to backs four and three weeks out, respectively. For the most part, I just put in some miles, no real speedwork, and hoped that my marathon fitness would carry me through. Needless to say, I wasn’t all that confident in my level of preparation, but with my primary goal being simply to finish upright, I figured it was good enough for government work.

The Lean Horse Ultra features three races: the 50K, a 50 miler and a 100 miler. This was the third year of the race and the first year on a slightly different course. Well, actually the course was slightly different for the 50 and 100 milers, but totally revamped for the 50K. The entire course had previously followed the Mickelson Trail (a rails to trails project), which meant that runners had to be bussed from race HQ in Hot Springs, SD, to the trailhead. Also, the races the first two years had ended somewhere along the trail (not sure where, but not in Hot Springs). This year, the race director (Jerry Dunn, also the director of the Deadwood-Mickelson Trail Marathon held in June) decided to ease logistics by starting and finishing all three races in Hot Springs. So, the new course started at the Mueller Civic Center in Hot Springs, followed a bike path and some city streets out of town and then jumped onto a dirt road before hitting the Mickelson Trail at about mile 16.5. This meant that the 50K turnaround was about 1 mile before hitting the Mickelson. The general nature of the new 50K course was quite different from the old Mickelson route, which is a gradual uphill. The new course featured a pretty good climb from miles 5 to 7.5 and rolling hills throughout. In total, the course gains about 1300 feet on the out stretch and then, obviously, a net downhill back into Hot Springs. This is far from a technical ultra course like you would find at, say Western States or Hardrock. For the majority, it’s wide crushed gravel paths and dirt roads. So, in other words, this course is about as easy as an ultra in the mountains (yes, South Dakota has mountains) is gonna get.

I, my wife and our two kids made the two hour drive down to Hot Springs on Friday, the day before the race. I was really supposed to be there by 3:00 for the pre-race meeting and packet pick-up but when I knew I would be unable to make it by then due to work Jerry agreed to leave my race packet at my hotel room. We arrived in Hot Springs, checked into our hotel quickly so I could get our meal tickets and then headed to the pre-race meal to eat and meet some fellow competitors. I especially wanted to meet Akos Konya, who has finished 2nd the last two years at Badwater and was running the 100 miler at Lean Horse but found this to be more difficult than I had for some reason thought it would be. For some damn reason he wasn’t wearing a large sign that said “I am Akos Konya” and I didn’t know if it would be appropriate to stand up in the middle of dinner and yell “Akos! Akos!” at the top of my lungs. So, I resigned myself to trying to meet him in the morning before the race started. After dinner, it was back to the hotel for a quick dip in the pool (my kids are attracted to water almost as strongly as our two Labrador retrievers) and then off to bed.

I slept like hell. I woke up at least three times, convinced that it was time to get ready (the first time it wasn’t even midnight yet). My overactive mind wasn’t helping matters. I had one dream where I was late to the start and everyone had already left. I took off after them, but then got lost on the course before I even got out of Hot Springs. I had another dream where I realized that the 50K didn’t actually start until night, which meant that I would have to run in the dark and I hadn’t packed a headlamp. I was finally up for good at 3:45. Jerry had made arrangements with the host hotel (the Best Western) to open their breakfast bar an hour early to accommodate the runners, so I headed down there for some oatmeal and coffee bread then milled around with nervous energy until it was time to go expend it.

The race started behind the Mueller Civic Center, right next to the Best Western. I stepped out of the hotel and for the first time in several months was actually cold. The overnight temps dipped into the upper 40s and a heavy fog had settled in….near perfect running conditions (for me anyhow and, frankly, that’s all I care about come time to race). The Mueller Center was open for us to stay out of the cold until race time. I checked in with the lady with the clipboard and set about finding Akos again and was, again, unsuccessful. Not only is he fast, he’s elusive. At about ten minutes to six, all 200 or so of us herded out to the start line and waited for the misery to begin. I found myself standing very near the front of this crazy herd, then realized that, being a 50ker, I was to the 50 and 100 milers what a half-marathoner is normally to me….someone who’s going to go out too fast for their liking. Promptly at 6:00 the “gun” (Jerry yelling “GO!) sounded and we were off like a herd of turtles.

Little detour here cause I don’t know where else to put this….My nutrition strategy for the race wasn’t really all that different than what I have been doing for marathons (which has had good results….if I actually stick to it). I had six packets of Sport Beans stowed away in the various pockets of my race shorts and planned on taking one at miles 5, 10, 15, 20, 25, and 28. The big difference was that I was carrying a handheld water bottle with me, which was filled 50/50 with water and Gatorade. I have never carried fluid with me during a marathon and just recently started drinking Gatorade on my long runs. The goal here was to stay plenty hydrated and keep my electrolytes up to avoid the cramping issues I had near the end of the Missoula Marathon. The aid stations were spaced roughly 4 miles apart and my plan was to drink one 22 oz. bottle between each station and refill when I got there. I also knew that the stations would be stocked with a variety of food if I wanted something besides beans, but I was hesitant to try something new right in the middle of the race unless I was really desperate. Back to the race….

So, we were off and I found myself near the front. A few guys took off ahead of me and I don’t know that I ever saw them again. I fell into a pretty good rhythm fairly quickly but with no markers every mile I really had no idea if I was going too fast or too slow. My initial goal had been to run a 4:30, which comes out to 8:40 miles. But, being my first ultra, I wasn’t really too worried about it as long as I got back to Hot Springs under my own power. I fell in with a 50 miler and a couple of 100 milers and basically tried to copy them (keeping the pace easy, walking the uphills even early on, etc.). The biggest climb started at mile 5 and near the top I passed another 50Ker (our bibs had pink stickers, 50 milers had green, 100 milers had none). I wasn’t sure if that put me in first place or not, but suspected that someone was ahead of me still. My nutrition strategy went slightly awry as I ran through the first aid station at mile 4 because, like I said, I was copying the veterans. I stuck with it for the remainder of the race, though, except that I didn’t eat my last bean pack because I just didn’t damn well feel like it by that time.

By walking the uphills and running the flats and downhills, I felt great for all of the first half of the race. As we neared the turnaround I kept expecting to see someone running back at me any second, but that person never materialized. I hit the turnaround (which was unmanned, just a painted line on the road which seemed odd to me) in first place and hit the split button on my watch so that I could determine how big (or small) of a lead I had. The first pink sticker I saw was a guy in a red shirt and he was 2 minutes back. I was hoping for more of a cushion, but thought maybe I could hold on to it.

On the return trip we were going mostly downhill, as I mentioned, but there were still some significant climbs, which I continued to walk. I felt great as I began the return trip, due in no small part to the cheers of encouragement from the other runners I was now passing as they were still heading out. But, by the time I reached the aid station 12.4 miles from the finish, the red shirt guy was right on my tail. Just before the 20 mile marker, he caught me. I looked at him and said “Wow, you closed that gap fast.” He said that he was just putting in a good training run in preparation for a 100 miler in 3 weeks. I saw my visions of grandeur fading quickly. After a minute or so, we parted ways and he took off. I saw him a few times in the distance after that, but it was basically a race with myself for the last 11 miles. After red shirt guy blew by me, I tried to just relax and run within myself the rest of the way. At the 8.4 mile to go aid station, I was definitely starting to feel the fatigue setting in and was actually looking forward to uphills so that I could have an excuse to walk for a little while. Running down the biggest hill to the mile 25 marker felt pretty good, but when the course flattened out for a stretch after that, I was definitely feeling it. It didn’t help that the nice, cool fog was long burnt off by that point and I was running directly into the sun. The heat didn’t get to me as bad as in Missoula, and I never had cramping issues, but it surely didn’t make the experience any more pleasurable.

With about 3 miles to go I reentered Hot Springs and started trying to do some math in my head, a very sketchy proposition under normal circumstances much less after 28 miles of running. I knew that 4:30 was out the window, but finally decided that 4:45 was within reach. By this point, though, I was taking a walk break every now and then, hill or not. I found that the pain in my ankles and calves would grow progressively worse and extend up my legs as I ran and that if I walked for a little bit it would subside and I could then run fairly comfortably again. Again, because there were no markers every single mile, I didn’t really know how far I had to go and tried to use building as landmarks, which was a pretty shaky endeavor since it was so foggy in the morning and I hadn’t really been paying attention. Just as I was thinking that I was going to have to walk for another spell I saw the magical Dairy Queen sign ahead. I knew that DQ was right next to the Best Western, which was right next to the finish. So, instead of walking I gave it a little finishing “kick”, which was really pretty pathetic and surged toward the finish line. I will point out that, besides other runners and aid station volunteers, there were absolutely zero spectators for the entire course. Finally, as I neared the finish line I saw one lady cheering and then Jerry’s wife, Elaine, pointing me toward home. As I crested the final small hill (no walking that one) I saw the very low key finish line (a banner strung between two poles about a foot off the ground) and my wife taking pictures. With my son yelling, “Go, Daddy, GO, GO, GO!” I ran past the lady with the timing device next to the banner and, unsure of where the finish line really was because it wasn’t really clearly marked, just stopped when it she seemed satisfied. First ultra down!!!

So, the stats: I finished 2nd overall in the 50K, 1st in my AG with a time of 4:46:22 (9:13 avg. pace). My first half split was 2:22:13; second half split was 2:24:09. Red shirt guy beat me fairly handily, and seemingly barely broke a sweat in the process. The 3rd overall finisher, and first female, finished about 5 minutes behind me.

The aftermath: I actually don’t feel THAT bad as I write this about seven hours later, but we’ll see what the next couple of days hold. I will say that I’ve felt worse after a couple of marathons. Will I run a 50K again? Not out of the question. Will I ever run a 50 or 100 miler? Can’t honestly say right now, but I think it’s still within the realm of possibility (which makes me worry for my mental health). In any case, I think that any further ultra ambitions will be pushed aside until I’ve taken care of a little Boston qualifying business.

Overall, it was a fun experience…extremely sick and twisted, but in a fun, wholesome way. The event itself was very low key but then again, maybe that’s how ultras are in general. I obviously haven’t run enough to know. Maybe I’ll find out someday….
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