I am rarely, if ever, completely satisfied by a race result–or training session. Even for the races that seem to go pretty well, it usually only takes me a good night’s sleep to start picking apart what I need to do better, how I can improve, and what I did “wrong.”
The Labor Pain 12 Hour Endurance Trail Run was no different than any other race in this regard.
I selected this race as my primary prep race for the Javelina Jundred, which will be my first 100 mile race on October 31, 2015. G.U.L.P.
My plan was to approach this race as a test of my Javelina-specific strategy, including the nutrition plan, gear, and pacing. In each of these ways, I learned some VERY important lessons (mostly in the form of what-not-to-do for my first journey of 100 miles.)
Beyond testing my strategy, I had some goals for this race. My basic goal was to get to 50 miles. In my mind, if I ran 50 miles, I’d feel mentally prepared for the 100 mile race.
But, I didn’t stop at my basic goal, as I also had a more aggressive goal: run 55 miles. Then, I had my super secret goal. You know, the one you really really really want, but it will be a definite stretch? Yup. That one.
My training for Javelina has included some of the most aggressive strength-based training I’ve done since I rowed crew in high school. I lifted weights. I abused my core. I dragged tires around my home town (which always brings with it some of the funniest reactions from the passerby). I repeated bridges. I summited mountains. I bounded hills. I repeated all of these, week after week after week throughout the late spring and summer months.
I threw pretty much everything I could at my legs to make them harder, stronger, better – but maybe not faster. That additional muscular strength has come with a bit of a price for my overall road-speed – at least for now. But, that’s a trade off that’s worth it. Labor Pain served as a good test of the value of this strength work.
The race course is a 5 mile loop through trails in Reading, PA. (For those of you looking for details on the course itself, you’ll find them after this narrative under the header “Course Notes”.)
Now, I know what some of you might be thinking: loops? Over and Over? It’s not so bad – truly.
I enjoy the rhythm of a loop course. Five miles is plenty long enough, and the route itself was varied enough, so I never felt bored. A key value of a loop course is that it gives you a chance to come by your crew (in my case John) very frequently throughout the day. It’s easy to stock up on hydration, fuel and other supplies across relatively short intervals.
I came through the first 4 laps of the course (20 miles) feeling excellent–especially leg-wise. I didn’t have any fatigue in my legs, and they were handling the terrain really well.
John asked: “How do you feel?”
“I feel so good. If I felt any better, I’d have to bottle it.” And, as far as my legs were concerned this was 100% true. They were like strong-like-midget-tank.
What I wasn’t telling him was a little secret: my heart rate was much too high for a 12 hour run. I was having trouble getting it under control pretty much from the second the race started. For the first loop or two, I wasn’t that concerned. In previous races, I’ve had an elevated HR but then it’s settled.
I kept telling myself, Don’t worry. It will settle.
So, in those early miles, I checked in with my rating of perceived exertion, I didn’t feel like I was efforting. So, I kept on the pace. I was running well for this course, and I was on track for my super secret goal. I was salivating for it.
My mantra at this point: Easy effort. Easy effort.
And, while it felt easy on my legs, my heart was fighting a battle.
By the time I was 25 miles into the race, I had to face the facts: there would be no settle without slowing down. My heart was trying to tell me something (which I mostly didn’t want to hear) about how my body was handling this day. If I didn’t adjust for this reality, I was not going to make it to even 50 miles–let alone my super secret goal.
I begrudgingly accepted that I needed to slow down. *Insert sad droopy face here*
How high was my heart rate? Well, in terms of average, it was about where I’d see it for a marathon–somewhere in the neighborhood of 85% of my lactate threshold. However, I spent some sizeable chunks with my heart rate hovering about where I’d see it for a half marathon, or about 90%+ of my lactate threshold. Where should my HR have been? Um, about 70% of my LTHR.
In absolute numbers, this means I was averaging a heart rate that was about 20 beats higher than what I had planned for this day.
As I began the sixth loop, I slowed. My heart came down a bit, but not the way I hoped it would. I pushed concerns that maybe I had overdone it out of my head. The good news is that my legs felt great. I told myself that I can manage a high HR. Sure. Sure, I can.
My mantra at this point: Keep it steady.
Toward the end of the 7th loop, as I closed in on mile 35, I felt a rumble in my belly, a warning if you will. Up until this point, I was practicing a nutrition strategy that relied mostly on more solid foods, supplemented with some gels and clif shot bloks, which is what I had been doing in training. Now, in training, my HR had been significantly lower for my long runs.
Simply put: I was working too hard from a cardiovascular standpoint, coupled with the fact that it was a hot day. I was heading down the path of gastric overload, and that rumble was the sign of things to come.
As is the case when things take a down turn in racing (because there are ALWAYS low points in racing), I began to assess my systems:
- What is happening? Be objective.
- Why is it happening? Assess systems.
- What do I have to fix it? Take stock of what’s in my pockets.
- What do I need to get next time past my crew station? Mental flip through of what we brought with us.
I had a baggie of Tums with me (Inside tip: I ALWAYS race with a bag of tums stashed somewhere on my body), so I took two and washed them down with some fluid. Within 15 minutes the nausea went away.
Despite the passing of the nausea, I recognized the gut bomb growing inside my belly. Bloating. Ugh. I figured this was a sign that my stomach was not fully processing the calories I had been throwing down there–likely because my body was fueling my limbs instead of my digestive tract.
Physiology 101: the harder you work, the less blood flows to your gut. I would never eat solid calories during the run of an iron-distance or half-Iron distance race. Yet, there I was with a HR indicative of those types of efforts, and eating solid food going on 6.5 hours of running.
Yeah, I was standing on the tracks of a digestive train wreck, and I could hear the engineer blowing the warning whistle.
The gut bomb exploded at some point during the 9th lap. First, there was the puke, which brought relief. Then, there was the gas. I’d rather have an empty house, than a bad tenant, so I pushed to allow the gas to pass.
Trouble was, gas wasn’t the only thing that came out. Yup. I sharted.
Suffice to say: I was a hot digestive mess at this point. The good news is my legs still felt strong. The bad news: I was covered in puke, I pooped my pants, and I was slowing down to the point that my super secret goal wasn’t going to happen.
And, to make matters worse, I broke my cardinal rule (which my athletes know very well): don’t stop eating and drinking. Before I puked, eating was a tricky proposition. But, after I puked, things did clear, and at that point, I should have tried to take in small amounts of calories every 15-20 minutes. I didn’t. Big mistake. I believe that cost me precious energy on the 10th and 11th laps.
I came into the 55 mile mark at 11 hours and 3 minutes. My last two laps were over an hour each, but earlier in the day, I had been running consistently sub-one-hour for each lap. Of course that was before the gut bomb exploded in an every-orifice-blowout. I quite unwillingly accepted that I wasn’t going to get 60 miles in 12 hours. But, it wasn’t without at least a minute or two discussion between John and I to work out the possibilities.
With the space of time (and cleaning my pants), I wish I had started on that final lap. Even if I hadn’t made it in 12 hours, I’d have the 60 miles. But, in that moment when I finished the 11th lap, I knew in my gut (pun intended) that my body had had enough.
But, mentally, I was not (and I still am not) satisfied. I keep thinking: What if… I should have… If only…
My insatiability is a teacher, however, and I’m taking the lessons I’ve learned from Labor Pain and applying them to my final preparations for Javelina.
The main lessons:
I’m going back to using concentrated liquid as the primary source of my calories. Then, I’ll supplement with solids throughout the day. (For example, when I paced John for the last 30 miles of the VT100, I really enjoyed a quarter of a grilled cheese sandwich at some of the aid stations – DE-LISH-US!). I’ve used the concentrated liquid with solid supplementation in the past and it works. Switching the focus isn’t the right tack for me.
- The strength work I’ve been doing absolutely works. I’ll keep hitting the gym, pulling tires, and repeating bridges – with slight variations to each workout to keep my muscles guessing and strengthening.
- Listen to my heart rate. It’s telling me important things.
- The strength I gained from the Rim to Rim to Rim adventure and summiting various peaks in the Adirondacks throughout the summer was absolutely key as well.
- I need to start slower than what I think “slow” is. And, then just a bit slower still. 100 miles is such a long way to run.
- Never trust a fart.
Thanks to these lessons, I’ve established new goals for Javelina. There are only three:
- Execute my strategy perfectly by focusing on process – not outcome.
- Finish the race.
- Don’t poop my pants.
If I do that, I’ll be satisfied – at least for a few hours.
Course Notes for Labor Pain 12 Hour Endurance Trail Run
(primarily for those planning to do this race in the future):
The course consists of a 5 mile loop through mostly single track (and annoyingly rocky) trail in Reading, PA. There are some mild elevation changes, most of which are runnable. The loop ends with a wickedly steep, but quite short, climb that requires you to scrabble up dirt and rocks right before you come out to the area where the crews and main headquarters are located. The first few times, this scrabbling is no bid deal. By the end of the day, it seems you are scaling a mountain.
Overall, the first 3ish miles are a net uphill gained from mostly gradually climbing – at times imperceptible, while the last 2 miles are a net downhill. My Garmin puts the 5 mile loop at just shy of 600 feet of gain.
Most people will balk at the idea of a loop course: how could you run the same loop over and over and over? Well, first, I find loop courses for ultra races quite comforting and manageable. After a while, when your brain starts turning to mush, you can turn off the part of your brain that needs to worry about navigating. That’s a benefit of loop courses.
In the case of this specific race, the loop is varied enough, traversing through some fun single track areas such that you don’t feel bored or unchallenged at any time. For much of the day, I felt like a kid playing in the woods.
If you are planning on doing this race, then prepare for a somewhat rocky surface. The rocks are not huge, but they are moderately sized and pointy – which after several loops, starts to play a bit with the bottoms of your feet. I had moderately cushioned shoes, and I still felt bruising at the end of the race.
Additionally, not all of the rocks are firmly planted into the dirt, so you have to be mindful of footing. Let’s just say your proprioception is going to get a workout. Doing some balance strength work would be a good call for this course.
The day we raced, it was about 88-90 degrees and sunny. However, if you were do this race on a day with rain, I’d be prepared for a mudfest.
Overall, the race support is fantastic. Even if I didn’t have any crew, it would have been easy enough to do this race, as there was support at the headquarters area, and then another aid station a little over halfway through the loop.
The race director (Pretzel City Sports) is one of the best of any of the races I’ve done. The race is organized, aid is ample, the schwag is generous, and the vibe is super friendly–all for an extremely reasonable cost. I highly recommend this race.