Masochistic race report

I usually like to keep my race reports brief (like this) and non-race report-ish mostly because I’m too lazy to read long blog posts myself but I’ll give it a shot for this race. There’s a lot that happens during an ultra so it might be helpful for myself to use it as a thorough reflection exercise and for others to catch a glimpse of what goes on over the course of 50+ miles.

[2009 pre-race start with Dr. Horton (left); 2010 pre-race start (right)]

50+ miles??? Well, yes, Mountain Masochist is the 27 year old creation of Dr. David Horton. If you’ve run ultras or done any extensive hiking on any of the country’s epic trails like the Appalachian Trail or the Pacific Crest Trail, then you know exactly who this legendary ultra-running superhuman is and that his idea of 1 mile is actually >1. While he still plays a major role at the race, the new race director as of last year is Dr. Clark Zealand who seems to be the nicest man alive (although, he obviously embodies the same masochistic tendencies as his forerunner). In any case, they continue to put on a premier ultra that attracts the nation’s top ultra runners, first timers and veterans alike. The first thing I noticed at the pre-race dinner last year was how many people there had run this race before: there were people with numbers in the double-digits on their name tags (for number of Masochist finishes)!  Either there’s something in the western Virginia tap water that makes people love to willingly inflict pain on themselves or this is something really special. Either way, as I walked around with a big fat “0” on my name tag, I dreamt of coming back one day with a “1”… and then a “2”… 

…so this year I was back, proudly wrote the #1 on my name tag and was eager to set foot on the course again and celebrate my 1 year anniversary of 50 milers! I remember the nervousness last year of not knowing what the distance would hold. This year, surprisingly, the nervousness and the challenge remained despite having run the course before and toeing the line with the experience of a few 50 milers under my belt now. Perhaps it’s knowing exactly what you’re about to get yourself into that tickles the nerves: knowing that within a few hours you’ll be suffering, fighting, facing new pains & emotions, and trying your damnedest to focus your mind and finish.

(3, 2, 1… GO!)

The course starts off on the Blue Ridge Mountains Parkway with a 1.5 mile out-and-back that brings you right back through the starting line at mile 3. This is pretty much the only flat section of the entire course and goes by surprisingly quickly (probably because it’s so dark you can’t see anything and so cold you can’t feel anything either). I don’t know exactly how long Masochist is but I’ve heard it’s anywhere from 52 to 54 miles so it kind of makes you wonder if that initial 1.5 out + 1.5 back is really necessary… but it is called “Masochist”, right?! ;-)

And speaking of masochism, here’s the course profile per the race website:

and here’s a fly-over of the course in case you want to virtually experience those peaks and valleys on the chart:

Mountian Masochist 50 Mile Trail Run

So if you like uphills (read: suffering, pain, exhaustion), then, clearly, this is the race for you. This race is also, quite conveniently, divided into two very distinctive halves: the hard one and then the harder one. 

The weather leading up to the race had forecasted temperatures in the low-20s to mid-30s and 60% chance of freezing precipitation. Thankfully, meteorologists are usually wrong, so the clouds cleared and a stunning blue sky shone brightly on us the whole day! The first half of the course (the hard half) was beautifully autumnal with gorgeous red & gold colors:

And then the second half of the course (the harder one) turned into a winter wonderland with barren trees and a consistent sprinkling of snow on the trails:

In addition to the difference in seasons and course difficulty from the first half to the second half, for me, there was also a huge difference in how I was feeling, my speed and my ability to do math in my head… 

These were my goals coming into the race:

A = 9:30
B = sub 9:51 (my time last year)
C = sub 10 hours
D = finish alive

Ryan had told me that the key to accomplishing my A goal was to focus on the last 12-14 miles: fight the mental & physical exhaustion and the temptation to give into to those final grueling switchback ascents. I knew that this would be a challenge as those are the hardest miles of any 50 miler and I knew very well that the highest and steepest (and solitary) part of the Masochist course comes right at that key point. I remembered how I felt in those miles last year and Ryan reminded me of how he faced his darkest moments then too. This would be the crux of the race for me.

(Dancing Creek aid station at mile 12-ish)

So back to my inability to do math in my head…. during the first half of the course I was trying to calculate my pace to see if I was on schedule for my “A” goal and some how came to the conclusion that I was running pitifully and would likely not even manage to break the 10 hour mark (goal C). At the Parkway Gate aid station Ryan told me that there were lots of women ahead of me. I figured that the fact that he didn’t even tell me my specific # place meant that I was probably too far back in the pack to even bother counting. In a way, it was partially true. Not the pitiful running part but the fact that there were many women ahead of me.

(climbing the hill to the Parkway Gate aid station at mile 17-ish)

In the next section, I caught up with a very nice man. We ran through a few stream crossings and squealed at the icy cold water on our feet. He was running his 7th Masochist and mentioned that his goal was to break 9:40 but that he was falling behind pace. A few minutes later he took off up the hill. If he was “falling behind pace” and had just vanished up ahead of me then I must be crawling!!! In hindsight, I see that he was factoring in the unlikeliness of running even (let alone negative) splits because we actually were on pace for a 9:40 finish at that point. 

(approaching the Reservoir aid station at mile 22-ish)

Still confused about my timing and unsure about what goal I should focus on, I saw two women ahead of me in the distance. I had a new immediate, clear and visible target on which to focus. Over the next few sections I began catching up to them, passing them, and sighting the next target – man or woman, at this point, it didn’t matter to me, I just needed something on which I could pull myself forward.

I looked at my watch as I left the half-way aid station (Long Mountain Wayside) and saw that it had taken me 4 hours 43 minutes to get there. I rounded it up to 4:45, multiplied by 2, and for the first time did the math correctly and realized that I wasn’t so far off my “A” goal. In fact, I was right on pace for a 9:30 finish! But, there were miles and miles still to go and plenty of time to either completely screw it up or get it back. The choice was mine. So I took off running up Buck Mountain (the longest, highest climb of the course). Game on. 

Of course I struggled on the cold, snowy, unending 2,500 foot ascent and when I made it to the start of “the loop” I told Ryan that these hills were kicking my a$$ but that that’s what they’re meant to do, so I was kicking them back by running them and passing people. He said he’d definitely noticed that I was moving on up. In fact, he said, I was probably the 6th woman now! That was like music to my ears! It was all I needed to hear as I darted off into the dreaded “loop”. Dreaded?! I stopped myself at that adjective. Who says it has to be dreaded? I like technical terrain, I survived the Bear Mt 50M which is crazy technical the whole time. I do not dread this 5 mile loop. Actually, I’m happy to be here. I’m at about the 50K mark which is my favorite distance, I’m moving along well and it’s a gorgeous day! I remembered that Dr. Horton said that the faster runners make it through the loop in 50 minutes while the average runners take 75+ minutes. I decided to see if I would be fast or average. 56.5 minutes later, I came out of the loop feeling stronger than I had felt going into it. I had switched gears in my mind and my legs were following orders. It was now time to focus on the final 12-14 miles ahead. This was the moment I had been waiting for and I knew exactly what I needed to do.

So I did it. I ran those hills with all the determination I could muster even though my hamstrings and quads screamed and my lungs burned. And when I couldn’t run, I did not allow myself to walk: I power-hiked as hard as I possibly could making sure I was still moving fast and efficiently. I repeated to myself: This is not meant to be easy. You didn’t come here for easy! You don’t do easy. Easy is for someone else. As I power hiked up the steep switchback section on Porters Ridge I overtook two men, one of whom very openly admitted to the fact that he was sorely embarrassed to be getting schooled by a girl. I took that as a compliment, switched back into a run before the top and promptly left him in my dust ;-)

I had set an intermediate goal to run the penultimate section in less than an hour. So I was thrilled to see the last aid station within 55 minutes!  I asked the aid station volunteer if he was talking about real miles or “Horton miles” when he said “only 3 miles to the finish!”. He laughed and said it was more like 3.8 miles. I looked at my watch: 8 hours 45 minutes! I had 45 minutes to run about 4 miles and make my A goal which meant that all I had to do was stay upright and keep on running! I ran as fast as my unbelievably tired legs would take me and as I hit the final quarter mile on the pavement (which felt a million miles long) I looked at my watch again and saw that not only was I going to make my “A” goal, but I was going to smash it to pieces! 

I crossed the finish line in 9:21:20 !!! Here’s a video with some short little clips from a few aid stations in the 2nd half:

Once I was back home I dug out my times from last year. Here’s a quick comparison between 2009 & 2010:
  • First half of the course (start to Long Mtn Wayside)
    • 2009 = 4:47
    • 2010 = 4:43
  • Second half of the course (Long Mtn Wayside to Finish)
    • 2009 = 5:02
    • 2010 = 4:37
So in a nutshell, I ran the 1st half of the course 4 minutes faster and the 2nd half 25 minutes faster this year than last year AND I also negative splitted the course by 6 minutes this year!!! WOO-HOOO!

I probably would have been better off having looked up my 2009 splits before the race this weekend so I would have known how I was doing compared to my B goal instead of miscalculating things in my head, but I think I just wanted to simplify the run for myself and not become obsessed with numbers.  For this reason I decided to run with my broken Timex Ironman watch tucked away in my sports bra (no, I haven’t gotten around to getting a new watch yet… since August…) instead of using Ryan’s Garmin 405 which wouldn’t have survived for that amount of time anyways. While mis-calculating my pace in my head during the first half tortured the hell out of my mind, it motivated me to push forward in the second half and regain what I thought I had lost.

Ryan & I had planned on driving straight to Richmond (2.5 hours away) after the race but decided to head back to Lynchburg first for the Top 10 Women awards since I came in 6th :-) I was so honored to get to stand in the front of the room next to these AMAZING women (the top 2 men & women won a spot at Western States 100M!!!):

[1st Alison Bryant; 2nd Jill Perry; 3rd Alyssa Wildeboer; 4th (not pictured) Heather Fisher; 5th Sandi Nypaver; 6th ME!; 7th Meredith Terranova; 8th (not pictured) Sophie Speidel; 9th Donna Utakis;10th (not pictured) Julie Treder]

And now, I’ll finish off this 50 mile long race report with a quick note about my favorite race items which contributed to my successful (and happy) finish:
  • Icebreaker GT 200 : I bought this long sleeve shirt at the Icebreaker booth at the marathon expo on Thursday. I know you’re not supposed to try anything new on race day but I knew Icebreaker would be nothing short of AMAZING! I think that I love it even more than the short sleeve version that I’ve worn at various other ultras (and I am OBSESSED with that shirt)! I was perfectly comfortable during the entire race in the sub-freezing temperatures and even when the sun shone down on us at midday. I didn’t overheat or get clammy and cold after sweating up the hills AND the shirt did not stink at the end (I sure did but my shirt didn’t!!!). I also never took off the Icebreaker gloves which were perfect and kept my fingers nice & comfortably toasty even when I would spill water from my water bottle on my hands. Merino wool is a runner’s best friend.
  • Inov8 Roclite 268: Unbelievably awesome. I didn’t have any issues with my feet and any ultra runner will attest to the fact that happy feet = happy runner.
  • Golite HydroSprint : This hydration belt accompanies me on every long run & ultra and is basically a part of me. 

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