I spend 5 to 9 hours a week training. Whether I'm running, spinning, or doing other conditioning, I have this solitary time alone to think, and I use these hours to prepare myself mentally for racing. I enter some races just for the training opportunity - mostly shorter distances, but for longer events - marathon and above, the plan is to try to win. I have yet to take 1st place in any race, but I have quite a few 2nd and 3rd place finishes. I have been trying to decide for the past few months whether it is more stressful to be pursued by runners from behind or to be in the agonizing position of trying to catch the girls ahead of me.
Last week I took 3rd place in the Sean O'Brien 50k in Malibu Creek State Park. This is a more competitive race than I have ever been part of, the course has a lot of elevation gain and is more technical than anything I had ever run. I was confident that I could finish the race, but I wanted to know if I could compete on a higher level. Going into it I decided that I was going to place top 5 - winning was ideal but not likely since I had no experience with the course and was coming off of an injury.
I spend a lot of time running alone in long races. The runners fan out and I can really dig in and do my own thing. When I hear foot steps on my tail I am always relieved to see a guy. In competitive running, the boys race the boys and the girls race the girls. That means that men are my friendly, supportive allies. In all of the ultra marathons I have raced, male runners have helped me stay focused and kept me company. In a 50k last July, once I knew I was in second place, I asked for help from a group of dudes to keep me going strong. Two ran ahead of me and three ran behind to keep my pace faster than I would have done alone. At Sean O'Brien, one of my racing fellows even cued me into how close the girls were behind me.
The Sean O'Brien 50k course is an out and back - we ran 15.5 miles and turned around and ran back to the start/finish line. This means that the entire first half of the race was a reconnaissance mission for the second half, when the race really started. From a strategic point of view this was great. I could see which parts of the course would challenge me and plan accordingly. It also put me face to face with my competition. I counted how many girls were ahead of me (2) and saw how close the girls were behind me, and if they looked like they were hurting or not. But it was soul crushing to fly down big descents only to know that I would be climbing those same hills on my way out.
Going into the race, I had no idea how my legs would hold up to the elevation gain - with 6200 feet of gain and loss, my quads and hamstrings would work harder than they ever had. Two miles into the course, I knew there was a hill that would take me all the way up the mountain - about 1500 feet in 3 miles. Climbing is not a strength of mine, so I planned to speed hike a lot of this. I had my new Ultimate Direction running pack so I would carve off time at aid stations - all I did at each of the six stops was eat a few potato chips, drink mountain dew/coke, restock water, and get the hell out of there. The week before the race I outlined a strategy and mostly stuck to it:
- Run my own race until I get to the first aid station on the top of the big climb (mile 6.8) - prioritize efficiency over speed getting up the hill. Keep my head down and don't worry about anyone ahead of me.
- Once I pass the first aid station, move fast to establish myself as a leader.
- Get to the turn around at mile 15.5 in 2hrs and 40min or less (if I ran even splits, this would bring me across the finish at the same time as the 2014 winner).
- After the mile 20 aid station, focus on catching girls ahead of me - if possible.
- Save some energy in case of an emergency.
- Finish in the top 5 girls.
- Complete the above without needing medical attention.
I followed through with almost all of my plans. I ran and hiked that first big climb several girls back from the front, but I put myself in third place at the first aid station. I stayed in 3rd for the rest of the race - I wasn't able to catch anyone ahead of me, but holding onto 3rd felt like enough of a challenge. The oppressive fear of the pack of girls coming up from behind me felt stronger than the hunger for chasing down the competition ahead of me. I made it to the turn around point in 2 hours and 32 minutes but my splits were not even. This was a good pacing guideline though because it helped me get a good lead. I planned on bombing down the big descent at the end of the race but my quads were gone, my left hamstring was cramping, and my right leg wasn't lifting off the ground very well. I went down at a humble 9 minute mile pace. While I was polishing off the final up-hill switch backs with two miles left in the race, I spotted a girl a few hundred feet back. I could feel my blood pressure rise and goose bumps covered my skin - I ran for the finish faster than my half marathon pace - right around 7 minute miles.
Racing makes me feel alive like an animal in nature. Although I am not running for my life, I feel a primal drive to evade my competition and a deep longing to run down those who are faster than me. Once we come across the finish line, we are friendly and compare stories from the course, but within the parameters of the race I am a hunter and I am prey.