"It (Independence Day) ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this day forward forevermore." - John Adams
I've always raced on the 4th of July. Last year, it meant racing the day before Afton; this year Afton conveniently fell on the 4th. If I were to have a great race this year, Afton would be my best shot at it - my shortest race (at 50K) with my longest recovery (4 weeks) between races and I'd even be able to sleep in my own bed the night before. I ran Trail Mix in 5 hours flat the week after a 100 miler, so there was a chance that I could run 5 at Afton, even though it's a much more difficult course. The back-up goal was to break my previous best time on the course of 5:29.
Between fireworks noise and mosquitos in the bedroom, I managed 5 hours sleep. I was up early enough to have breakfast before the race, a luxury 6:30 start times usually preclude. I headed out early, remembering having arrived late last year. A deer ran in front of the car and, instead of standing still or crossing the road, it ran in front of the car for half a mile. This was an interesting start to the day. As usual, I listened to the radio, searching superstitiously for lyrics that would describe the day: "Purple Rain," "Zombie"... "Ain't No Rest For the Wicked."
I got to the park too early, allowing me time to worry. John Maas parked next to me and we talked for what seemed forever and turned out to be minutes. I'd made two trips to the portable toilets and wondered if I'd make it through the race before I had to go again. It was warm, so I took off my hat, then my shirt; I had decided to do the race without a water bottle (or gels or electrolytes) as it was only a 50K, but I was starting to second guess myself.
I started well back in the pack, as I'd need a reasonably slow start. The race starts with a long open downhill, so I figured I'd be able to pick out who I wanted to run with ahead of me; this did not work at all. The first downhill is immediately followed with a tough uphill; I've always laughed at people who walked this hill on the first lap, but a check of my heart rate monitor told me I should slow down, so I walked. I could see I was gaining on Paul Holovnia, even though I was powerwalking; Paul was one of the runners I expected to run with, but not this early.
We entered the Africa loop (prairie shaped like Africa on a course map) and I started gaining on people as everyone makes the same tactical error. The path consists of two wheel ruts and runners always stick to one of them; by switching back and forth, I gained 100-150 yards. I was now up with Kurt and Sonya Decker and Helen Lavin. This was faster than planned - knowing Helen planned to run 4:45, I hoped to be with her at the start of the snowshoe loop, where she excels and I fail miserably and that would put me at the half-way mark on pace. I backed off a little and we went downhill to the first aid station. I could see Helen 50 yards ahead, skipping the aid. I had traded the added weight of a water bottle for having to pause at every aid station for fluids, but it was maybe 30 seconds at this point.
The Back 40 loop returns to that same aid station. People remember it as very hilly, but there are some flat runnable sections and I made the most of them. After the second aid stop, I realized that I'd forgotten to check my time at either stop and that was what I was counting on for figuring out my pace, so now I only knew I was out faster than planned, but not by how much. The next stop would be 10.1 kilometers and I was racking my brain trying to think of what time I wanted when I got there. After another tough hill, it was back to the Africa loop prairie and I felt remarkably good. Others would complain of the humidity, but I felt happy, free, unburdened. This just might be the day... just maybe; I'd have to run flawlessly.
I saw Helen ahead of me and I was gaining on her. I looked for any sign of weakness, but she appeared to be running effortlessly. Cage the Elephant's song ("Ain't No Rest...") came back to me. "I know I can't slow down. I can't hold back. Though you know, I wish I could." The lyrics kept repeating in my head and they could be taken two different ways: I mustn't slow down and I should slow down. I laughed. Both ways were true.
I caught Helen and told her I had a song stuck in my head. She did too. "Almost Lover." Wow, that's a bad one. At least I knew that she tends to dissociate during runs (associative running, where one notices every single thing, works well for me in short races, but dissociating is a must when a race has gone badly for hours). I'd run with Helen before, but we've never really had a conversation; we always seem to be on different wavelengths. My hair, already soaked, started flicking across my face and I scheduled a haircut in my head right then - short by Voyageur. I felt good on the downhill to the beach aid station, which Helen skipped again; I hadn't seen her drink yet, but she must've sometime. My soaked shorts were chafing already, so I lubed up.
The gravel road after the aid station is a long hill and after I caught Helen again, we caught up to Dan Kasper, who was walking. It appeared Dan and Helen had met (later I learned it was that morning) and we went uphill together. Helen asked if I was going to run the whole hill and I said I was playing it by ear; we were slow enough that I powerwalked a few strides a couple of times and kept up, but I couldn't maintain it. Dan's a smart, experienced racer and we sometimes run similar times; I thought about staying with him so that I wouldn't be out too far ahead of my goal, but the fact that he was walking and I felt really good kept me running with Helen.
Going down Nigel's hill to the river, I was skipping along, but trying intentionally to hold back, knowing I'd have a flat easy section next. I expected Helen to fly by, but she didn't. She hung just behind me along the river and then up the toughest hill of the course. I'd used that hill for training, but it seemed harder than it should this early and I said so - I was thinking out loud - but I thought Helen looked like it was harder for her than it was for me. As we went through the campgrounds, she was breathing harder than I was and I was still talking, feeling like it was just a training run. It occurred to me that some people had trained all year for this, that it was their goal race, and I was thinking it just #7 of 12; I hadn't thought of it as a serious race.
Going down the campground hill to the beach aid station, I was starting to pick my steps carefully. This was the first sign that everything wasn't perfect. Someone, I could hear, was coming down very fast behind me; the steps didn't sound like Helen's (and there was a slight "click" missing - like a race number tugging on a safety pin - I had noticed earlier). A guy passed me at lightning speed. When Helen caught me, we both said it was fun to watch him. After the aid station, there's a 2 mile flat section and I made a decision: time to make a move. The reasoning was "I'm going to slow on the Meatgrinder hill and I'm going to need the outhouse at the group camp (It's the Taj Mahal of outhouses). I want a lead long enough that that break won't mean I have no idea who's passed in the time I'm in there." I went by Downhill Dude and sped up as much as was reasonable. My hips started to hurt mysteriously. There's a part of the Meatgrinder where you can see part of the path by the riverflats behind you and I could see both Downhill Dude and Helen. I had gained no distance. They had stuck with me.
[added much later: "Downhill Dude" was Jordan Hanlon]
That was the moment when the race ended for me. Downhill Dude became Uphill Dude; he said "I can't run flats." I managed to stay with Helen for a bit and stayed cheerful and hopeful. I chose to skip the outhouse. My hips ached. They ached, but they didn't hurt and aches tend to go away.
I started slowing, but not much, until I hit the single track of the Snowshoe Loop and there I always slow way down. I desperately needed that outhouse right then. I made it to the half-way mark in 2:18:36, which is almost the same as the past two years - in other words, much too fast. I spent a few minutes using the facilities and would not know who passed me, but it meant less to me now. Now the plan was to score well in the Fab 5 series and try to hang on as long as possible.
In the second loop, my hips stopped hurting, but my right knee acted up. A lot. I'd mangled it early in the year, but it hurt on the outside, which would be the only ligament I had not damaged yet. I hoped it was just another ache that would go away - a getting old ache. It hurt most of the race. People started streaming by me, not many I knew well, but enough with grey hair to eliminate any last thought of an age class award. Worst of all, I developed dead quads, probably from babying the knee on the downhills and that slowed me even more. I now planned only to get through the Snowshoe Loop without falling and then speed into the finish.
After the snowshoe loop, one passes under a bridge and the terrain becomes much easier at that point. There's one more long hill, in two separate climbs and I planned to save energy for that if anyone challenged me at the end. At the top of the first climb, I could hear someone coming from behind, which meant he was going faster than I was. I hit the open prairie and glanced back to see how much of a lead I had. That spurred him on to run faster (most of us have been taught that anyone who looks back is dying). I pushed a bit harder, but the last climb was tougher than I wanted it to be. I glanced back and he was still there. I sped up again as I hit the final stretch. I had two more gears, if needed (there's a third, but not on uneven terrain). Someone shouted that he was right behind me, so I gave another burst of speed. I crossed the line in 5:28:29.
And forgot to shut off my watch.
People were congratulating me and commenting on my lack of dirt and blood (I stopped counting after 35 remarks and was getting annoyed). I hadn't run the race I planned, but I had a feeling it wasn't too bad. When the results got posted, I saw I outkicked Paul Hasse (winner of 2007 FANS and Badwater finisher), so I felt better. Then I noticed that I'd done very well in the Fab 5 runners, though John Gustafson was uncomfortably close. After I got home, I looked up my time from 2007 and found I had beaten it by 42 seconds, when I thought I'd missed it. Lastly, I did a little heart rate analysis; I managed a heart rate of 148 for 5.5 hours and that, by my standards, was slightly better than my win at the 2008 Trail Mix.
The cumulation of miles raced did me in. Voyageur's next and it'll be slow, not raced.