Sunday, November 04, 2007

Race Report: Autumn Leaves 50-Mile Run
What's far? Once, when I was little, I pooped out on a bicycle ride with my dad. We had gone to a park about five miles from home. I made it there, but ran into trouble on the return leg. A nasty, kid-hating wind was blowing in our faces. I was pedaling with all my might, but barely going forward. My energy and my will were sapped. It was too far to go! I was saved when Dad found a wire and strung it from his seat post to my handlebar stem and towed me in.

I hadn't thought about that episode in years, but running 50 miles–which is what I set out to do yesterday–gives you plenty of time to dredge up old memories.

You could say it was a whim, this decision to do the Autumn Leaves 50-Mile Race at Champoeg State Park. I had run a 15K with the Oregon Road Runners Club a couple of weeks ago and, as always, enjoyed the scene, even on a cold, wet day. Hunting down my results on the ORRC website afterward, I noticed that Autumn Leaves was coming on November 3. There were 50 kilometer and 50 mile options. The metric 50 made more sense–it would be a sane step up from the marathon. But I got stuck on the idea of 50 miles. I wondered if I could do it and what it would feel like to try. It sounded far, and I liked that.

Champoeg is about 30 miles southwest of Portland. The 50K would run concurrent with the 50 mile, and there was a 10K set for sometime in the middle of the morning. The long-distance runners were given the option of starting at 6 or 8 a.m., but since the course would close at 4:30 p.m., all but the freakishly fast folks were at the line at 6.

I awoke at 4:06, three minutes after my alarm clock was supposed to have gone off but didn't (it was operator error, details not necessary). Still time to make a cup of coffee, down it with a Cliff bar and a tall glass of water, and use the facilities before heading out. After a lot of freeway and 5 or 10 minutes of country roads, I got to the park and an ORRC guy at the entrance said, "You look like a runner," my chief identifying "feature" being, I think, that I was driving into a state park at 5:20 on a Saturday morning. While I unpacked my stuff, other people arrived every minute or so, their car lights illuminating the patches of fog and the surrounding trees as they drove up. I dropped off my personal items–food, drinks, extra clothes–and joined a few others around a campfire burning near the start/finish line, warming up against the 35-degree chill.

A short while later, with little fanfare, Fritz, the race director, gathered us to start the thing. He explained that we would begin with a 1.2-mile out-and-back. Someone asked why. Fritz said it was to account for the fact that each of the 10 laps we would do was actually 4.92 miles. This didn't add up to me, not then, and not throughout the race as I periodically redid the calculations. But it was one of those things you just kind of had to say "whatever" to.

Most of us, including me, wore headlamps to light our way. Have you seen the headlamps available these days? I went out to buy one the day before the race and was amazed. They weigh just over a half-pound and put out a powerful LED beam. We were clumped together, too, in the early going so it was pretty easy to see our way, although a few patches of fog on the first loop, when the runners had spread out a bit, did bring a brief excursion off the prescribed route as well as require a bit of tricky stepping. At one point I stepped less carefully than necessary, with the familiar consequence of my nose ending up in the dirt. If anything was hurt, I couldn't feel it (perhaps for the adrenaline), nor could I see it (for the darkness).

The darkness: On the first lap all I could tell about the course was that it was mostly paved bike trail, there were a lot of leaves on the ground, and it wasn't a true loop. It was more like this: -O--, with a couple of turnarounds. During Lap 2, the sky began to lighten. Now I could begin to see the vague silhouettes of trees, sometimes shrouded in fog, sometimes not, and I noticed there were places where the terrain opened up. By Lap 3, it was finally clear to me that the backside of the loop took us right along the river, down below 20 or 30 feet off to the right. This is the same Willamette I had swum in two month earlier, I realized, in the City of Portland Triathlon.

I can't remember when I first saw the sun–quite some time after first light–or when I first felt it. But I do remember being amazed, somewhere in the first third of the race, to be running through a tunnel of sorts, a thick canopy of autumn foliage now lit soft from within, somehow, all golden and strangely bright. Though perhaps not so dramatic, the first half of the race featured many such revelations, the setting taking on new shape and texture as night became dawn, then morning, then afternoon. The second half of the race presented no such marvels to distract. There was really only running, much work and pain, for the body, for the mind.

I had arrived with an appropriately conservative plan. Never having gone more than 26.2 miles, and not having done a run longer than 13 miles since early March, I thought it best to run 10-minute stretches (at a 10-minute/mile pace, about 2 minutes slower than my marathon pace) followed by 2 minutes of walking. But on the first loop it just seemed ridiculous to walk. Plus, I was worried about falling behind and being left alone in the dark (see, above: "brief excursion off the prescribed route"). On the second loop, feeling more confident as the route began to become more clear, I tried it a couple of times but didn't like the feel of starting up after slowing down. So I decided I would just run slowly but continuously, pausing only long enough to eat and drink at two of the three aid stations on each loop.

Aerobically and nutritionally, this worked out great. I don't know what my heart rate was for most of the race, but I bet it was below 140. I was drinking water, Gatorade and Accelerade and eating salted potatoes, Wheat Thins, Fig Newtons and Mojo bars. That was all fine. But I hurt. From the waist down, all kinds of aches and pains were popping up. First it was just a little tightness in the right Achilles. No big deal. Then–and we're only talking about 15 miles into the race here–came a pretty sharp pain in the right quad. The left quad joined in on the fun not long afterward, less forcefully but enough to catch my attention.

During Lap 5, as I churned away at an 11-minute/mile pace, I decided I'd hit the ibuprofen at the end of the lap, the halfway point. I'd never taken any kind of painkiller during a race, but I'd never run 50 either. I needed something to help me through the next 25. I don't know if it was merely psychological or what, but a mile after popping that oblong orange pill I was feeling much better, easily skimming along at 10 minutes/mile or faster. I began to fantasize about a huge negative split – maybe I'd break 9 hours!

But 50 miles is a long way. And as soon as midway through Lap 6, those hopes began to fade. I still felt great aerobically and digestively. My head was clear. But my quads were probably under one-quarter on the gauge. Another lap and they'd be at one-eighth and after that comes E for empty. And running on empty, in addition to being a song by Jackson Browne played too often on classic rock stations, is, literally, fraught with risk.

I tried to keep Laps 6, 7 and 8 at 55 minutes. That was my goal: 11-minute miles. And I gave myself another minute for lollygagging at the aid stations each lap. If I could just stay under an hour, total, for each lap the rest of the way, I'd get in under 10 hours. I told myself I could do that, and I believed myself. I never had a doubt. All I had to do was keep going. I didn't have to go fast. I just needed to keep putting one foot in front of the other for a very, very long time. The pain I felt in my legs was unprecedented, but overall the experience was somehow less daunting than really pushing in a marathon or a half-iron tri. I could hold conversations during Autumn Leaves, even late in the race. And in fact I did, with Brandon from Tri-Cities, who wanted to beat 9 hours but wouldn't, and with a woman from Olympia who was doing the 50K instead of the 50 miles so she'd be strong for her A race, the Seattle Marathon, in a month or so. At the Napa Marathon last March when I PR'd with a 3:24, a dialog requiring more than two words from me–which is to say, any dialog–would have been impossible, especially three-quarters of the way into the race.

During Lap 8 I announced to Brandon, who seemed to be struggling, that this would be the hardest lap of the race and then it would get easier, an assessment based on my vast experience of zero 50-mile runs, but it made sense at the time. Lap 9 would the penultimate lap–we'd know the last lap was right around the corner, and buoyed by that knowledge how hard could it be? The answer: harder than Lap 8. And by the way, I thought about that word, penultimate, for a good long stretch of Lap 9, and remembered that I had learned it from Miss Dimicelli in sophomore English at Oak Grove High School, which reminded me of the report I wrote for her about the Kennedy assassination, which earned me an A in the class, redeeming me after Mr. Jennings had given me a C the year before in freshman English, the only C I ever got in high school, and that is how the mind works during a race that goes on for nearly 10 hours.

Maybe it was true earlier, but definitely by Lap 9 the slight changes in grade on the course didn't seem slight any more. Each step down, especially, was a trial for my ravaged quads. But at the finish of Lap 9, there was Olga the lap tracker to smile and deliver, in her Russian accent, the joyous news: "This is it Pete, your last one." By then I had fallen in love with Olga, who for the first four or five laps had to inquire as to my race number, because I had it on a belt and it was slid around onto my left hip, which could not easily be seen as I went counter-clockwise around the upturned plastic garbage can to finish and start each lap. Although she was invariably gentle in seeking out my number, I felt bad because I was making things hard on Olga and was proving to be something of a distraction (or so I imagined) and she seemed to be the center of conversation and activity among the volunteers and assorted other folks who were willing to hang around the start/finish for the whole of a beautiful fall day. (Which reminds me, did I say it was a beautiful day? Chilly to start, right, but by afternoon it was sunshine and blue skies with temps into the low 60s. Perfect.) Around Lap 7, I think it was, I realized I could turn my number around, to my front, to make it easier on Olga, but by then I don't think it mattered, since she knew I was the dork 48 whose number had been hard to see.

I had some coke, some Gatorade and some water. I grabbed a handful of chips. I shuffled away, feeding the chips into my mouth one at a time to distract myself from how difficult it was to begin running again. Five more miles. My Garmin was at 46.4 already, having consistently racked up 5-point-oh-something laps after the weird 1.2-mile extra out-and-back that we began the day with, so long ago, in the darkness, when everything–the course, the people, the experience–was mysterious.

I don't remember what my time was as I started the final lap, but I knew I had a nice cushion on 10 hours, assuming I could complete the loop in an hour. Being the penultimate lap didn't make 9 easier, but being La Ultima, as I referred to Lap 10 in my head several times, impressing myself with my bilingualism and my sterling Montalbanesque Spanish accent, definitely took some of the edge off 10. I'm going to do it, I told myself. Fifty miles. Wow. Now it was blindingly obvious why I wanted to do a 50-mile run. I wanted to be happy to finish. I was a little weary of completing races and being happy only if I'd PR'd, or met some time objective I'd decided beforehand would be "adequate" given my commitment and health in the weeks and months preceding the race. At Autumn Leaves, to finish would be to win.

So despite the now extremely painful Achilles and the completely and utterly zapped quads, and the little rockets going off in my left hip, and the tight calves, the aching backs of the knees … despite it all, I enjoyed the last lap. I had thought, beforehand, that I might run an 8:30, or a 9, or maybe a 9:30, but I really didn't know if I'd finish at all. And here I was, finishing. My time was 9:43. A medal was put around my neck. I was given an Autumn Leaves belt buckle. And Olga hugged me. I ate a couple of sandwiches and drank two half-liter bottles of water. I gathered my belongings, thanked the volunteers profusely for their dedication, and went home to a long hot shower and an evening on the couch watching football. Today I woke up very sore, almost immobile. I spent much of the day, in fact, applying ice to parts of my body. But I also found myself reading online about 100-milers. I'm afraid I might have a new idea of what far is.

PS: Other perspectives on the day, including pictures, can be found here, here and here .

4 comments:

Dan Brekke said...

Great writeup, bud. My knees ache in sympathy.

olga said...

Good job, man! You're right, after mid-point when you guys spread out and look more human (really, more human than at the start to my taste), I know you all by face. Way to go on 50!

Sarah said...

Nice job on your first 50! It was a beautiful day. Without knowing what you look like its difficult to picture you. : ) But I'm sure we passed at least a few times. : )

Pete said...

Hi, Sarah! Thanks for the comment. So many bloggers writing about Autumn Leaves -- I can't keep up.
I remember seeing you. This is me:
http://www.pbase.com/mtnrunr/image/88415473