I could hear the music and the occasional roar of the crowd. I was close. So close. Looking at my watch in disbelief it was evident that a PR was within my grasp. I crossed the finish line of the 2013 Rocky Raccoon in 19 hours and 37 minutes. Not blazing fast in the big scheme of things but still much faster than I had run it the previous two years. Simple changes had brought me to this goal. The biggest and simplest change was working with Jeff Kline, founder and head coach of PRS Fit, who was waiting for me at the finish line. He had transformed me from a "no plan having, run fast all the time, get injured, rest, repeat" type of runner that laughed at HR training and training plans into a "go slow, have a plan, heart rate training, don't get injured" believer that had just run the best, and easiest, 100 miler of my life. I quickly, and maybe got a little carried away, set the goal of running sub 19 at the 2014 Rocky Raccoon. But first... I was going to crush a 50 miler in a few short months.
Of course, as things tend to go with me, I failed to remember that the key to ultra running, or running in general, is rest. Sometimes I want to do it all and think that I am Superman's long lost cousin. By the time the Ouachita 50 miler rolled around in April, I was completely burnt out. Mentally, more than physically, this race that I loved so much and had pretty decent success in, was very hard. I struggled to carry the Honor Scroll across the rugged terrain and felt very lucky to finish. I was disappointed by the result but was also completely aware of why I had such a tough day. It's always simple for me to place the blame squarely on my own shoulders when I screw up because, in the end, I am responsible for my own decisions. That and Coach Jeff had warned and advised me about the perils of over training but, as a friend, he knew just how important the Honor Scroll run was for me and didn't call me too many bad names.
Naturally, I thought I could handle back to back "A" races when, in fact, I really couldn't. The "crash" at Ouachita really got me thinking about things I done in the past. A few years ago, for example, I ran a very fast 50k followed by back to back sub 3 marathons. All were PR's and I thought I had it figured out. Really didn't buy into the idea that I was over racing. Of course, I came out injured but I had some shiny new PR's. Was it worth it? Maybe... still not sure. There is a lot of questions in my head about how much better I could have done if it had only been one race instead of three. I do know that it is relatively easy to run events every weekend but it is much tougher to run a race every weekend. Maybe I will revisit the marathon distance with a clear focus one day just to find out what I can do. Maybe.
It's amazing just how much about running comes down to trial and error, learning from mistakes and figuring out exactly what we want from this dumb little hobby. After the blow up at Ouachita I decided that what I really want from running at this point in the evolution is to run 100's. Not just run 100's but to run 100's up to my maximum potential. It was almost like the fog lifted and things became very clear. My training needed to be more focused and goal oriented. Veering from the path, chasing shiny objects, as I had done so many times in the past, had to be eliminated. Previous goals, thoughts and plans for the fall racing season would have to change.
Dogwood Canyon is a very difficult 50k. I love it more every year. It is also a really fun fundraising experience. Nothing better than running 31 miles over the steepest trails around in a pink tutu. My original plan was to shoot for the podium. Big stretch but I had some success in the past at this event so it wasn't completely a stupid goal. About a month before the race I had a thought.... What if I ran it completely by heart rate and didn't worry about pace? How much would the outcome change if I kept it under control and never left an easy training zone? Would I come in last place? Would I avoid the bonk that always comes on this ridiculous course? Would my recovery be any faster?
I had been training by HR for over a year but had never truly tested it during an event like this. I wanted to know if what I thought I understood was actually true and answer a few lingering questions. Was my endurance base big enough to run a 50k at 70-75% effort without bonking? How would my overall time compare to my past "all out" times on this same course? Would I struggle with keeping my heart rate low enough on the uphill portions? What about recovery? Seemed silly that, while I have read many articles and books on the subject, I had never actually put it to a strict test. So it was set. Run the 50k, with crazy steep hills, entirely in my "Zone 2" heart rate. No straying on the downhills, no "going for it" on the flats, walking the hills if it began to creep up and not looking at the overall pace until after the race. This was going to be as much a mental test as it was physical because, like most runners, I tend to be a little competitive....
The results of the Dogwood Canyon 50k were very pleasing and hard for me to comprehend. I kept the HR in check by running slower than I wanted, walking at times when I did not want to and by reminding myself repeatedly that I was NOT racing. In the end, I crossed the finish line with a time that was less than 20 minutes slower than I had originally set as my goal "race time" and felt much better than I ever had at the end of this brutal course. I didn't make the podium but it was a top 10 finish. Not horrible considering.....
I tested this again two weeks later at the Bass Pro Marathon and finished in 3 hours 20 minutes. Just over 20 minutes slower than my PR at this event. The course was slightly different for my PR so it's hard to completely compare results but I do know this... I felt like I could run the course again and I have never felt like that after a marathon. What now... Two weeks later I paced a friend at the White River Marathon. He was looking for a PR of around 3:30. Once again, I ran strictly by HR and kept it in my "Zone 1" for the entire distance. We finished in 3:31, he claimed a shiny new PR and I had answered all questions about whether HR training works. It does. I had always struggled in the late stages of any long distance event regardless of how hard or easy the effort. Recovery time was never fast, no matter what I claimed on twitter or facebook, and injuries generally followed. Not this time. No bonking. Recovery time? None. It was just "normal" training at this point.
I finished 2013 with 2,624 miles, one giant PR, zero injuries, a new understanding of what I want out of running and a map of how to get there. The Idiots Running Club has grown to ridiculous numbers and even managed to get a little ink in the December issue of Runner's World magazine. I love that dumb little club a little more each day. I was also fortunate enough to be selected as a new coach for the PRS Fit team. I was very honored that Coach Jeff extended this opportunity and it makes me proud that he believes in my ability to take on the job. Watching others achieve their goals has always been my favorite part of this dumb sport and I am very excited to have the opportunity to help become a part of the process. Team PRS Fit and the Idiots Running Club have brought some amazing changes to my life and the future is filled with unlimited potential for 2014.
So... What now? Rocky Raccoon 100 is just a few weeks out and I still have dreams of cracking a sub 19 hour finish. It will be tough and may not happen but I feel like I am ready and the goal is completely realistic. Of course, 100 milers are tricky beasts and you can never really know what the day or course will bring. I do know that I am prepared. and there will be a bigger number of Idiots in Huntsville this year than ever before which is really cool. The PRS Fit Team will have 4 of us (all card carrying members of the IRC) running and have been generously sponsored by GenUCan and Altra Shoes. In my estimation, Altra Shoes are the best shoes on the planet and GenUCan works as advertised. I have been experimenting, testing and looking for flaws with this product over the past few months and can find none. Aid stations can be a killer during 100's. It is easy to waste valuable time trying to get a cup of soup or deciding "sure I have time to wait while you cook a grilled cheese" - I hope to eliminate some of this by using UCan products.
Rocky Raccoon will also be a fund raiser for the American Cancer Society as it has been the past few years. I will post information on how to donate (a mere dime per mile) and how you can join the Idiots Running Club Relay for Life Team (and get one of those cool IRC Relay Ribbon T-Shirts) soon. Any help you can give is appreciated more than you know. The money we raise each year grows, last year we raised $8,800 total, and I am extremely proud to be a part of something so much bigger than myself. The idea that we can and do make a difference in the fight against the beast that is cancer remains the biggest motivation and driving force behind any of this silly running stuff. To one day live in a world without cancer is the EYE ON THE PRIZE.
This is how it works-
I love to run but there are times when I would rather not. This is when the voices start. Chants, name calling, guilt and reverse psychology is how they get me up and out the door. I don't really mind the voices and have actually started looking forward to their daily calls. Together we have formed a running club that supports, encourages and competes with each other. I love these peeps. They are much more experienced, talented and tougher than I am. Pushing me out the door, through the hard miles and up the monster hills when I am feeling lazy or want to give up. Some people have "real" training partners, coaches and support crews. My team is ALWAYS with me and helps me to keep my eye on the prize and not veer off the track. Sounds crazy- Yeah, probably is.........