Saturday, September 28, 2013

Virgil Crest 50 Mile Ultramarathon

Race: Virgil Crest 50
Goal: Survival
Actual Time: 10:39
Place: 21 of 154

I first learned about Virgil Crest back in the winter of 2011 while training for my first 50K.  I figured at that point in my ultra running career, what better way to learn more about training for and racing ultra's then by reading about others experience, so I ordered the book, "Running Through the Wall: Personal Encounters With the Ultramarathon" and set forth. 

Skip ahead to February 2013; After completing the Black Mountain Marathon I began to seriously look for my first 50 mile race.  Soon I narrowed it down to two races: the VT 50 and Virgil Crest.  Looking through the course descriptions, past results, and some race reports, I determined that Virgil would be a little more difficult, but it was out near Ithaca, where Amy has some cousins (who had not yet met Neil), so we employed our race-cation strategy that has worked for us so many times before.  It was also the same weekend as Cornell homecoming, which worked perfectly for Jen and Keith, so I was able to convince Keith to sign up and run it with me. 

After many months of training and many miles ran, the weekend of the race finally arrived.  Amy, Neil, and I decided to make a 4 day trip out of it and headed out Friday morning.  We made our first pit stop at the Howe Cavern's where we had lunch, let Neil mine for gold and gems, and stretch those little legs.

We got to Virgil around 4pm for packet pickup and sat down for a little while as Neil ran all around the fire station. The poor little dude spent about 6 hours in the car that day.

After picking up my bib, long sleeve tech shirt, and hooded sweatshirt, and taking a quick look at them, I saw the logo on the back; a comparison of elevation gain from Mt Everest base to summit with the total climbing in this race.  Under it was there slogan, "Ain't for sissies"  All I could do was laugh, barely knowing what I was in for.

We arrived at Amy's cousins, our hosts the first two nights of our trip, around 5pm.  After a wonderful dinner of Salmon and stir fried vegetables, Amy and her cousins headed out for the fireworks and I put Neil to bed. 

0 dark thirty

Race day began early with my alarm going off at 4:35 AM.  Keith arrived a few minutes later and we headed out to the race start at the Hope Lake Lodge in Cortland, ~ 30 minute drive away.

This is when the definition of 0 dark thirty really started to become clear to me.  "Military time designating an unspecified time after midnight but before sunrise. Normally used in reference to either the time one goes to sleep, wakes up, or has to be on-the-job. Usually quite a while before sunrise" -- Urban Dictionary

The Race

The race was a simple 25 mile out and back held primarily on Iroquois Indian trails. In addition to the trails it included with a couple of paved and dirt road segments, and a bunch (technical term) of sustained climbs.

Section 1: Hope Lake to Gravel Pit - 4.4 Miles - 990 foot gain, 575 foot loss
40 minutes - 9:05 / Mile

Around 6am the race kicked off.  It was still very dark and every runner either had a head lamp, a flash light, or both.  Keith and I opted for the flash light approach.  The first 3/4 of a mile was on a paved path as we ran around a pond before entering the woods.  Right before we left the path, I looked back and enjoyed the flow of head lamps that had encircled the lake.

The first section was kind of a blur as most of our efforts were spent trying to keep an eye on where we were going.  It is kind of weird running in a group that are all massively holding back from their usual pace.  You could really sense the anticipation.  About 30 minutes into the race, I turned off my flash light and it put it away as the pace naturally picked up.

Section 2: Gravel Pit to Lift House - 5.3 Miles - 730 foot gain, 1320 foot loss
51 minutes - 9:37 / Mile (section) - 9:22 / Mile (overall)

Felling pretty good and still having a mostly full camel pack, we ran straight through the first aid station.  The next section began with a nice long descent that we ran at a pretty good clip followed by a good climb around the 8th mile.  We were still feeling really good and I had to keep reminding Keith it was going to be a long day and to take it easy.

We descended the final mile of the second segment (which also happened to be our fastest mile of the day) on the only road section of the course.  While we enjoyed the sustained decline, in the back of our minds we knew we were not going to enjoy our return trip. 

Section 3: Alpine Loop - 4.2 Miles - 1450 foot gain, 1450 foot loss
54 minutes - 12:51 / Mile (section) - 10:25 / Mile (overall) 

As soon as we left the lift house aid station (literally the aid station was next to a chair lift) is when the race really began.  This was the section that I had read about,  "When there are chairlifts on your trail, you know it is a hard course"  The next mile, took roughly 17 minutes as we walked up the ski slope.

All I could think is what type of sadistic person puts a ski area in their race.  The next section involved a quick down hill before one more really steep ascent (in the 40% grade territory -- now I see why some people had trekking poles with them).  We finished off the section with a nice run down a fire road (green circle on the ski area trail map) with a descent in the 900' over 1.25 mile range.  We knew we were in for some pain when we would revisit this section in reverse 22 miles later.

Section 4: Lift House to Rock Pile - 6.1 Miles - 1570 foot gain, 1120 foot loss
1 hour, 19 minutes - 12:57 / Mile (section) - 11:12 / Mile (overall)

The myth that we were out of the woods was quickly dispelled as we climbed another 800+' over the next mile.  Luckily from there, we had some decently runnable sections and were able to get back into some type of groove.

If there was one piece of advice that I could have used before going into this race it was to practice jumping over logs that were down in the trail.  The race director firmly believes that they are part of the trail and to get used to it. In essence it was like running a race with a bunch of low hurdles. 

Between the logs and many small creek crossings, we were doing a little more leaping then we had planned and it was taking a bit of a toll on our legs. 

Section 5: Rock Pile to Daisy Hollow - 5.1 Miles - 1250 foot gain, 1250 foot loss
1 Hour - 11:45 / Mile (section) - 11:14 / Mile (overall)

During the final outbound section, I thought I might lose Keith.  Generally Keith is a much stronger runner than I am, but on occasion we find that he is not invincible.  He told me all he wanted to do was take a nap.  I responded with, "My body refuses to admit it is tired with still so far to go"

After one more sharp ascent and descent we arrived at Daisy Hollow, the half way point. 

Half Way

We stuck around for about 8 minutes or so and got something to eat before heading back out.  I had a drop bag and gave Keith my long sleeve shirt which he wrapped around his head.    

I knew from here on out the day was going to get significantly tougher.  I just repeated the following phrase to myself, "Tis a Gift to be Simple, ‘Tis a Gift to be Free" and thought about my neighbor Dan.  I needed to remember that I was out here because I wanted to be, not because I had to be or had anything to prove.  That I was in control.  I smiled, took a deep breath, and headed back onto the course. 

Section 6: Daisy Hollow to Rock Pile - 5.1 Miles - 1250 foot gain, 1250 foot loss
1 Hour, 6 Minutes - 12:56 / Mile (section) - 11:33 / Mile (overall)

We began to slow down some on this section, due to both the technicality of the course and inability to run up hill.  About 3 miles in, I got stung by a bee in the back of the head and Keith got stung in the back of his thigh.  I yelled, "Ready to blitz", Keith responded with "Yes" and we took off and flew through the next mile.  Who could have guessed a bee sting, could provide such an adrenaline boost?

Section 7: Rock Pile to Lift House - 6.1 Miles - 1120 foot gain, 1570 foot loss
1 Hour, 23 Minutes - 13:36 / Mile (section) - 11:55 / Mile (overall)

The main benefit of running an out and back course is that you get to see all of the other runners.  The simple words of encouragement exchanged from runner to runner help more then anything else with the fluctuating emotions that you endure during races of these distances.  A simple smile along with the words "Nice Job" or "Keep it up" make all the difference.

This section, like so many others, began with a long climb and ended with a steep descent.  We ran when we could and walked when we couldn't.  There were a couple sections along the course so steep and technical that ropes were tied to trees to help you get up them. We just kept muttering, "Ridiculous, ridiculous."

Section 8: Alpine Loop - 4.2 Miles - 1450 foot gain, 1450 foot loss
1 Hour, 18 Minutes - 18:34 / Mile (section) - 12:37 / Mile (overall)

The only time that I wanted to cry during the race is when we arrived back at the lift house at mile 36.3.  At this point I was now roughly 3 miles farther than I had ever run in my life and had climbed about 1500' more then any other day of my life.  14 miles and 3450' to go.

Looking at the race results afterwards, if you were going to pull out of the race, this was the location you did it at.  Just staring up the slope was daunting enough.  

The section began with what would be my slowest mile of the day, a 23 minute hike up the fire road trail that I so enjoyed descending earlier. Just before we headed back into the woods we saw a runner who had gone off course and quickly yelled to him that he missed the trail entrance.  He quickly thanked us as no one wants to deal with the displeasures of getting lost and making the day longer.  

One of the most important things in taking on any endurance event is the ability to pull from previous events that you have completed.  In this case, I thought back to my marathon at Black Mountain in North Carolina the previous February and how distraught I felt after three 400' plus climbing miles.  I just repeated to myself, "You have done this before, you can do it again"

After we finished the initial climb on the ski slope we traversed across the top, descended a little, climbed back up, descended again, climbed some more, and then finally ran straight down the ski slope.  Happy to be moving again, I ran the best I could muttering "ah ah ah ah" while looking up at the chair lift and shaking my head. 

Section 9: Lift House to Gravel Pit - 5.3 Miles - 1320 foot gain, 730 foot loss
1 Hour, 19 Minutes - 14:54 / Miles (section) - 12:52 / Mile (overall)

A sense of relief ensued once got back to the lift house.  The idea of being able to finish the race was becoming more of a reality and with the help of a couple of Twizzlers for me and slice of ham for Keith (who knows), we set forth to take on the final two segments. 

The feeling of despair soon returned as we trudged along for the next 1.25 mile segment, entirely up hill on the only road portion of the course.  Keith walks a little faster then I do and ended up about 20 or so yards ahead of me, which was fine as we both needed a little bit of a break and some silence.

A weird feeling set in at this point and it seemed almost like the world had stopped moving.  There were no cars on this road and almost no noise.  I closed my eyes and took a few deep breathes and began to fall asleep.  I was imagining myself standing on a hill, not just any hill, but a hill tall enough to see the entire course.  I could see all the runners.  I could see the finish.  I could see who was struggling and who was not and no longer felt alone.  I was no longer tired and my legs no longer hurt.  For the first time in the race I was looking at it from a different view, not that 9 more miles of suffering before I could quit, but that 9 more mile to enjoy before I must stop.  I have run 9 or more miles countless times this year as part of training runs or races with no problems. 

As another runner came up behind me and woke me back up, I smiled and knew it was time to run.  To run free. 

We regrouped at the top and blew through the next descent. 

Section 10: Gravel Pit to Hop Lake - 4.4 Miles - 575 foot gain, 990 foot loss - 
49 Minutes - 11:08 / Mile (section) - 12:43 / Mile (overall) 

As we left the final aid station, we had a knew found goal of reaching the finish in under 11 hours.  It was now 3:50pm and we had been on the course for just under 10 hours.  One would think a goal of knocking out the final 4.4 miles in 1 hour and 10 minutes might not seem to daunting, but we didn't want to set something that we were not sure that we could achieve.  We were now pretty sure that the money was in the bank.  

With about 2 miles to go, the sky finally opened up and the rain began to come down (I want to give a special shout out to Mother Nature on this day. I am not sure we would have made it very far if it began raining earlier in the day).  The tree cover protected us pretty well until we popped out of the woods with 3/4 of a mile to go. The finish line was now in sight.  

We jogged in enjoying the rain hitting our faces without a care in the world that we were getting wet. 


Keith and I each completed our first 50 mile race in a time of 10:39, 12:43 / mile, tied for 21st place overall.  

My final thoughts once again went back to my neighbor Dan and the closing comments about his first 50 miler.  "Tis a Gift to be Simple, ‘Tis a Gift to be Free"  Running in the woods for 10.5 hours really does make one feel free. 

What's Next

Who ever came up with the saying, "Pain is temporary, pride is forever" really did get something right.  Even though my muscles were quite sore for the next few day, most of the pain had left and I was happy with my accomplishment.  I was ready to ask my self "What's next?"

One of my long term goals, ever since reading the book "Born to Run" and seeing the movie "The Race Across the Sky", has been to do a race in Leadville, CO.  If the 50 mile race is held the same weekend as it was this year, it might work perfectly. We could go to Leadville and on to CA for Amy's Uncle wedding the following weekend. The mountain bike is the day before the run so it may also be time to make good on a deal with my buddy Rich to meet in Leadville to see who can cover 50 miles faster -- Rich on the bike, or me on foot. 

An under 11 hour Virgil Crest is also a qualifier for the Western States 100. I do want to do Western States some day and the Western States functions on a lottery system, so should I be putting my name into the lottery now? I am not quite ready to answer that question. Amy is also not quite ready to let me make that commitment. 

But first and foremost, after some recovery, it is time get my speed back up for some late fall and winter 5K's.  The Dan Scharfman Memorial Run is on November 17th and begins and ends at the bottom of my street. I look forward to particpating. 

Special Thanks
- To Amy for putting up with me while I trained for this adventure
- To Neil for being such great race support and a motivator
- To Keith for being my partner in crime and Jen for putting up with the both of us
- To the phenomenal volunteers and race director
- To Rob and Michelle and Joan and Tim for being our gracious hosts along the trip.  

Additional Stuff:
- My favorite comments on my finishing time post: "Respect" and "Would love to hear about the race, hope Neil lets you get some sleep"
- Fastest Mile 7:37, Slowest 23:05
- The run covered 17 miles and 4000' of climbing more then anything else I had done to date
- I consumed 4 PB&J sandwiches, 5 Banana's, 5 full camel packs, and countless power bar blasts, Twizzlers, pretzels, and cups of GU Brew
- This run slowed my overall average pace for the year from 7:41 to 7:53
- This was 5th consecutive race of marathon or longer since Neil has been around that it rained

Photos of Visiting Family along our Trip

Neil with Rob, Michelle, and Nina at their house in Ithaca.  Our hosts for the first two nights of our trip. 

Neil with Tim, Joan, Ashley, and Megan in Elmira.  Our hosts for the third night of our trip. 

Neil with Beacon during our stop to visit Amy's Aunt Martha, and Uncle Paul on our drive home. 

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