Thursday, October 10, 2013

2013: Green Monster Trail Challenge 50k (Race Report)

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It is two days before The Green Monster 50k. I have only raced once since Hyner (Race Report) in April, I am coming off the best summer of training in my life (long runs of 20, 20, 27, 26, 20, 20, and 20 miles in recent weeks), and there I sit with my right foot in a bucket of ice thinking not again.

If you’ve read my other reports you know the story. A previously inexistent ankle/foot issue developed during last year’s GM25K (Race Report), revisited this past spring at Hyner, dormant all summer, but mysteriously reappearing about a week ago. The result of overtraining? Seems unlikely, as I had already been tapering for a week before the first warning signs. But I have a theory. Running too slow. Yes, you read that right. I’m beginning to wonder if these occasional mechanical issues are the result of doing too many slow runs.

Everybody has a comfortable pace, and I have found that I am most likely to fall or turn an ankle when running slower (or faster) than I would alone. The local running club (VRC) really came to life in 2013, and as a result I’ve found myself guiding a lot of beginner friend group runs on the local trails.

This is something I enjoy immensely, and with my training being built around two “quality” workouts (long run + track workout) each week, these slower group runs, not only fit in perfectly as recovery days, but constitute the whole of my social life. I wouldn’t trade them, or the friends i've made, for anything. And yet, (combined with the relative ease of the taper - nothing but group runs) they might be to blame for the ankle that won’t stop rolling, and once again finding myself headed toward the starting line of a goal-race with a big question mark on my mind. 


PRE-RACE
Extreme races call for extreme measures, like a 3:45AM wake-up call on a Sunday morning to drive 65 miles west to beautiful Wellsboro Pa. for what, without a doubt, was the nastiest race I’ve ever taken part in. The Green Monster, now in its second year, for the first time added a 50k event in 2013. After having such a great experience at the inaugural 25k I knew without any doubt that I would be returning for round two, and like a blockbuster Hollywood sequel, The Green Monster Trail Challenge 50k promised to be bigger and better than its predecessor. But could the race organizers at Tyoga Running Club deliver? The answer to that question was about to be revealed.

I am a creature of habit. As before every long run this past summer, I started my morning with a hot shower, two white-chocolate macadamia nut Clif Bars, a glass of Chocolate Hammer Vegan Protein and a little bit of caffeine. Not completely sure about the science of pre-run nutrition, but this combination seems to work for me. I have a stomach like a steel trap, but I don’t like feeling too full. The protein does a pretty good job of staving off hunger pains without a lot of bulk.

My morning did break routine in one way. I am typically alone, but on this occasion I had a passenger. A few weeks earlier our running club was approached about the possibility of manning an aid station on the 50k loop. My good friend, and frequent running partner, Maria (who I’m fairly certain will run the 25k next year) was one of two VRC volunteers and would be riding with me.

We left Sayre at 4:45, and made only one brief stop to use the restrooms at Sheetz in Mansfield. It truly is a small world, as we ran into some fellow club members also making a pit stop. The entire trip was under cover of darkness.

We reached the race site on Straight Run Road, 8 miles outside of Wellsboro at 6:00. In 2012 the start/finish area was set up in the yard and parking area of the USGS property, but due to the ongoing partial federal government shutdown, the routine for the morning would be a little different than last year. With permits revoked at the last moment, race organizers were forced to scramble to make alternative arrangements. Parking was moved to a field (presumably privately owned) further down the road, and a trolley brought in to shuttle runners to the start line which had been pushed further up Straight Run to a small overgrown lot which had to be brush-hogged for the occasion. Arriving between trolleys, half a dozen of us hitched a lift in the back of someone’s pick up.   

Race headquarters was characteristically low-key; picnic tables, a few tents, fresh porta-potties, the race clock. I checked in, then took advantage of the bathrooms as the rest of the field slowly trickled in. In my limited experience, the start of any long trail race is almost anticlimactic. Months of training, a few days of fever-pitch anticipation right before the event, last minute nerves that make me feel as if I might puke - and then the gun goes off. Suddenly you are just out for another trail run with friends (new and old), doing what you love. All anxiety falls away and you remember racing is as much about being patient as it is about hurrying.

My gear for this race: New Balance MT110 NBX, no socks, Body GlideUltimate Direction Jurek Endure, Hammer Gel (1st 8 miles before switching to aid station fuels), Endurolytes Fizz

THE FIRST 25K
The sun came up, an unexpected light mist began to fall, and somewhere between 50 and 75 ultra runners (and would be ultra runners) toed the imaginary line (marked by pumpkins, of all things) on Straight Run Road.

7:30AM, the national anthem played, final instructions were given, and then at last the hurt-train began to roll. But neither the rain those few falling droplets threatened of, nor the ankle pain I’d been fearing for days, ever materialized. Cool but not cold, cloudy but not wet. You could not ask for a better day on which to attempt your first 50k finish.  

In a field so small, and with a one mile dirt road start, there is no cause to rush to beat the pack to the trails. In quality, the first 25k of The Green Monster is, in my opinion, every bit the equal of Hyner (Race Report), but without the mad crush of 1,200 runners heading for a bottleneck to dictate your early pace. I tried to pretend that I was out for a regular Sunday morning long run, and as the leaders glided away (my friends Adam, John and Jeff among them), fell comfortably into the top 15.




Those relaxed early miles, before really getting down to business, are good for talking. I’m notoriously bad at names. In races I don’t remember names, I remember shirts, shoes and race resumes. I remember talking to “blue shirt guy,” and “green shirt guy” or “New Balance 101 dude." I remember the runner who said this 50k was his third ultra in three weeks, and the guy who had done the Virgil Crest 100.

Interestingly (and surprisingly), a half dozen or so runners I’d never before met recognized my name or face from Trail Markers or Facebook (my profile). Several had read my race report from last year’s Green Monster 25k, and I even got a couple requests to write the report you are now reading, which I can't deny is a bit flattering. Whether anybody reads them or not, I like to record my thoughts after every tough race, but all the better if those thoughts can help promote a great event. But I digress...


Last year the first 25k of The Green Monster felt- monstrous. Whether because I had another year of hard training under my belt and lots or long runs, or because they were now merely just the first half of longer race, these same twenty-five kilometers with five climbs and punishing descents seemed some how less daunting (Course Description). The first half of my race flew by. I’d loaded my hydration belt with twenty ounces of water and four gels at the start, breezed through the Canada Run (Mile 5.0) aid station and did not make my first stop until Baldwin Run (Mile 8.5).

It wasn't until the final climb on the 25k loop - Birchstill Trail up to Broad Ridge (Mile 13.5) that the Green Monster reminded me I was in a race. On this ascent the beautiful single track seems innocent enough as it winds gradually up from the creek bed to the ridge above. Near the top, however, the grade kicks up fiercely, albeit briefly. Roots and rocks become as stairs, and suddenly my inner thigh muscles locked up like vice grips, just as they had here a year earlier in the 25k.

For the one and only time in the race I was reduced to an involuntary dead stop.


Although the temperature was still rather cool my immediate thought was to pump some electrolytes into my system. No sooner than I dropped an endurolyte fizz tablet into my remaining bottle and chugged it did a passing runner suggest that perhaps the diagnosis was too little water rather than too little sodium. Up until that point in the race I’d been subsisting on my normal routine of water and 2 or 3 gels per hour.

Although I was looking rather salty at the end of the race, in retrospect I think it may have been more an issue of plain old muscle fatigue from lack of sufficient uphill training than an issue with my fueling-hydrating strategy. Whatever the case, after hauling my ass the rest of the way up the hill, across Broad Ridge and down Frankenstein's Forhead to the 25k/50k split, I took the possibility that I was getting too little water and too much salt to heart ,and adjusted my strategy for the remainder of the race.




THE FINAL 25K+
One does not so much run down Frankenstein’s Forehead as initiate a series of controlled falls while cursing gravity and hanging on for dear life. Frankenstein’s Forehead is a rocky, 800ft straight line descent to the stream running through Straight Run. At the bottom 25k runners hang a left and make their way toward the finish. A far more severe fate awaits those foolish enough to have signed up for 50k.

I entered and departed Aid Station #4 alone, shimmied down Frankenstein's Forehead solo (feeling surprisingly well again), and made the right hand turn off into unknown territory completely isolated. With the field becoming increasingly spread out, this would be the story of much of my afternoon.

On one hand being alone allows you to focus on your own race, on the other hand it leaves you as your only source of motivation between the cowbells and applause as you enter each aid station.


From the 25k/50k split the course meanders up Wildcat Hallow, a section somewhat akin to Johnson Run at Hyner. For the most part not terribly steep, at this point in the run, it was none the less a bit of a demoralizing slog. Atop the ridge, however, the trail meanders through some really nice mountain bike trails. I’d stopped eating altogether, save for a few grapes and orange slices, but kept the water flowing, and as my legs began to loosen up I found myself making pretty good time. I had not seen a single runner since before the course split, but re-caught two at the unmanned aid station (Mile 17) who had overtaken me when I stopped earlier. Miles 13 through 19 were nonetheless rather lonely. It was a great relief to finally see a bit of civilization in the middle of the wilds at aid station #5.

VRC's own Maria S. at AS6
Aid station 6, “The Frying Pan,” at mile 24.6 was always going to be a highlight of my run. The great volunteers and enthusiasm at every aid station was great, but aid station #6 was being maintained by friends and fellow Valley Running Club members - Edwin and Maria. Feeling the best I had in nearly two hours, I caught two runners along the creek bed just outside the aid station, and rolled in to refill feeling like I had the race by the horns.

Just out of "The Frying Pan" the trail crosses shin-deep "Left Asaph Run," and begins a long grind up Left Frying Pan Trail to Goodall Road. What goes up must come down, and in this case that means a long, fun downhill cruise to the final aid station at Mile 27.5. I don’t know where my head was, but as I glanced down through the trees on my right and saw road below, I seriously envisioned reaching the final aid station and then having nothing more significant than some hard packed dirt roads and meandering creek side single track to contend with between there and the finish, similar to the 25k finish I rememberd from a year ago.

The next time I enter a mountain race I'll be sure to read the course description a little closer.

Nobody likes to see a grown man cry, and for that reason I’m grateful that I was alone for most of the long, grueling final climb up Scotch Pine Trail. Perhaps doable on fresh legs, in the abyss out beyond 28 miles, this seemingly endless ascent was spirit crushing. Seriously, what the fuck? The fact that my Garmin Forerunner 110 had died after 28.6 miles  only compounded that feeling. But this was what I’d paid and trained for - the opportunity test my limits. I’d likely taken in too few calories over the last fifteen miles, and I knew it, but even had I been eating, I was nearing the limits of my tolerance for pain. I did not lack for energy. I simply hurt. Legs, feet, ribs. Everywhere

Perhaps an old logging road at one time, Scotch Pine trail cuts a steep diagonal line through the trees across the side of a mountain. With no twists or turns, the trail ahead is visible for hundreds of feet, going on and on and on with no end in sight, as all the while the drop off through the trees on the left grows higher and the ridge side of an adjoining mountain grows nearer until finally colliding with the trail (sort of like an inverted ‘v')

 The climb does eventually end, but not before anyone with a lick of sense (and a dead battery) has not arrived at the conclusion that the course is longer than advertised (32.5M, 7,800ft of vertical). In retrospect, more miles at no extra cost, but at the time I was in too much prolonged agony to see it that way. I just wanted out.

Exiting woods just before finish

Every long uphill has a corresponding downhill. After the Scotch Pine Trail climb comes the descent of Darling Road Trail. A few hours ago this downhill would have been welcome and runnable, but now running downhill was even more painful than climbing.

And so I walked most of it in. It was no longer about running, but finishing. I didn't know it at the time, but the miles from 29 on had eaten up more than 45 minutes on the race clock. But finally, after 7 hours and 31 minutes , 54 seconds I popped out of the trees on to Straight Run Road, to the much appreciated cheers of several close friends (you know who you are), and managing a smile and a slow run crossed the line In 27th place.

POST-RACE
Rumor has it that there was a 25k race going on out on the same trails that day, though with a finish time like mine in the 50k you would hardly know it. For the most part, the 25k crowd had come and gone while I was out on the course. Many of my friends from VRC graciously hung around to see me finish, for which I am very grateful, however it was a bit disappointing that I did not get to cheer them on and see them finish. As excited as I was to complete my first 50k race, I think I may have been even more excited some of them finish their first Monster.

Shortly after crossing the line I cooled down at a picnic table beneath a small tent with a cup of Mac-Cheese and some pulled chicken BBQ, before catching a trolley ride back to my truck for a change of clothes. 

The day was growing late, and the crowed had thinned out, but with my travel companion still out at aid-station #6 I could not yet leave. This was more than okay, however, as after eight, nine or even ten hours on the course, runners (and friends) continued to trickle in. As impressive as the performances of the runners at the front of the field were, in many ways the perseverance of those further back in the pack is even more astounding. The pain of running long distances does not lessen because you move slower. If anything, with each passing hour it increases. A ten hour run is more difficult than a 5 hour run, no matter who you are. But regardless of when you finish, at Pennsylvania trail races the enthusiasm of the crowd always manages to make you feel like you’ve won the race.


One by one the aid stations closed, dusk drew nearer. Aid station #6, the VRC aid station closed, my travel companion made it back to the starting area and we left for home under cover of darkness, just as our day had begun.

RACE REVIEW
The Green Monster 25k/50k is a low-key race on a course destined to be a “big deal” just as soon as the word gets out.

Combined with the Pine Creek Challenge, the Wellsboro area is quickly becoming a destination for trail and ultra running events, and deservingly so. Taking a leaf blower to more than 30 miles of course is the epitome of going above and beyond the call of duty. To say nothing of arranging an alternative start/finish area, parking lots, and trolley service just days before an event due to an unfortunate government shut down.

The course itself is well marked, stunningly beautiful (especially in October), staggeringly difficult, and yet with the support of great volunteers (and other runners) surprisingly doable for veteran runners as well as relative beginners.

Failure to put The Green Monster on your schedule for next October would be a very big mistake.


VRC's 25k finishers: Mike, Louis, LeeAnn, Shawn, Tracy, Paul
Important Links
Race Website
Race Facebook
Tyoga Running Club

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