Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Promise Land 50K

Promise Land 50K. My favorite race! I look forward to this race every year. It's the only one I've done every year since I started running in 2012. That was the year of freezing rain/hail/lightning and something about the craziness of that year got me hooked on ultrarunning, so this race holds a special place in my heart. Plus, it's one of Dr. Horton's races, which are always good. The course is my absolute favorite-it's so beautiful and has lots of variety. I really love this race!

Training this year had been less than ideal, due to illness, travel, kids' schedules, and other life craziness. I'd only managed one training run longer than 20 miles (well, unless you count Holiday Lake or Terrapin 50K) and I'd missed more gym days than any other year. I knew I wasn't in my best shape, but I love this race and had every intention of doing it anyway. When the weather forecast said a high of 90, it just confirmed to me that this wasn't a PR year, and that's okay. This was a year to make enjoying the race the main goal.

The last time I ran a race that was significantly hotter than training conditions was Hellgate, and at that race I started off okay but then lost it after 55 miles, and finished the race in death march mode. I didn't want that to happen this time. So I did everything I could to prepare for these challenging race conditions-I made an ice bandana (thanks Helen for the suggestion!), I wore a buff that I could soak in every creek, I slathered my feet with aquaphor anticipating very wet trail conditions, and I packed two more small water bottles in addition to my handheld.  I packed way more salt pills than I ever thought I would need (although I actually used or gave away all of them) and set an alarm on my watch for every 30 minutes to remind me to take them. And I even remembered to pack sunscreen. I felt as well-prepared as I could be when I headed out to the camp on Friday night.

Friday was crazy trying to get our four family members fed and off to three different places with all the appropriate overnight gear, so by the time I arrived at camp I was a little frazzled. I'm so glad we can camp before this race because I really needed that time to get into race mindset. I arrived early enough to get a good parking spot with a level patch of ground to set up my tent, and had it all set up while it was still light out. First goal accomplished. :)

Now I got to go to the prerace briefing and chat wth the other runners. Dr. Horton always seems like a kid on Christmas Eve at these prerace meetings. He is so genuinely excited to see all these people about to run this crazy race, and he loves giving his shoutouts to the various ultrarunning legends and incredible athletes who are always in attendance. It's so inspiring to see people still able to complete this race in their 70s!! Major life goals right there.

After the briefing I visited with lots of different running friends who were there to run or work aid stations. I love seeing so many familiar faces, and all the nervous/excited chatter about what to wear, how many water bottles to pack, race strategy, course discussion, goals, and so on. It's just so much fun! I made my final wardrobe decisions, got as much prepared for the morning as I could, and then Mary and I settled into the tent for a few hours of sleep.

At 3:45 I started to hear other runners moving around and chatting, and I was awake for the day. I got dressed and had my breakfast (chicken, eggs, and rice, plus almond butter on a banana), and checked in for the race. I had woken up with calf cramps which worried me, so I hoped the banana would help. I'm always amazed at how quickly the 45 minutes before race start zooms by. Before I knew it, we were singing the national anthem (with brass players this year! very nice!) and then taking off up the road.

It was a beautiful night for camping, but even as early as a mile up the road I could tell it was going to be hot. Usually at this point in the run I'm still fairly cold, second-guessing myself for not bringing gloves. Not today. I was already feeling quite warm in my tank top and shorts and the sun wasn't even up yet. Plenty of chatter about the weather, the course, how many times people have run, etc. made the miles go by quickly and soon we were turning off the road onto the single track.

I felt good about my place in the pack at this point. I passed a few people, but mostly was content to walk/run with the people around me. I probably could have run a bit faster but I like feeling like I'm holding something back for the first part of the race. I knew once we hit the grassy road we'd be able to sort ourselves out much more. And before long we were there. I was feeling great at this point-I always love this section, because the sun is up and your legs are warmed up but not tired, and it's the first point in the race where you can run long enough to get into a good rhythm. It was a gorgeous morning up there. Everything was so green! The wildflowers were blooming, and there were little creeks and streams all over the course. I had sort of mentally picked out sections of the race to push hard, and this was one of them, and I did push myself to run pretty well here. I passed quite a few people (strange for me in a race) and before I knew it, we were coming up to the next aid station.

I settled in to hike up to the parkway, since this was a section I'd planned for recovering. I still felt good though-all the right muscles were sore, and my preemptive salt pills seemed to be doing the trick since I had no cramps or swollen fingers. And while it was warm out, I didn't feel uncomfortably hot. So I pushed a little more on this section than I had planned, and enjoyed the beautiful flowers on the way up.

Shortly before the parkway there's a fork in the trail, and taking a right will lead back down the loop towards Camping Gap (which is the Terrapin course), and taking a left heads up to the Parkway. It seems like you can triple your time at this point and have a good estimate of when you will finish. I passed that spot at 2:40, which is right on the nose for an 8 hour finish. I was honestly pretty surprised, because 3 of my 5 finishes have been over 8 hours in this race.

Crossing the Parkway is always a highlight, because it means that you get to run downhill for a whole bunch of miles now. I ran decently hard on the road down to Sunset Fields, and saw a lot of familiar faces when I got there. The aid station crews were fabulous today and this one was no exception. After some cold drinks I headed off down Apple Orchard Falls trail. I didn't even make it an eighth of a mile from the aid station before taking a pretty good tumble, a bust your knee and elbow on the rocks then do a sideways somersault and knock the wind out of yourself by hitting your chest on a rock kind of tumble. Three people stopped to ask if I was REALLY okay, and I was, once I caught my breath. I now had an entry in the Best Blood competition at this race, which is really the only award I had a shot at going in, albeit one I didn't really want to win.

I slowed down quite a bit after that, and took the rest of the technical downhill much more conservatively. A lot of people passed me in this section but that was okay. I was just grateful that it was a lot of scrapes and bruises, but no twisted ankles or pulled muscles that would keep me from finishing the race. At the bottom of this section are the largest creek crossings, and never have they been so refreshing to come across. It must have been at least 80 degrees by this point in the day. Every time I crossed a stream with more water than mud, I used my buff to wipe my face with cold water and wring out cold water on my head and neck. And when I crossed the large creeks, I got as wet as I could. That helped a lot to cool off and I stayed pretty comfortable in this section.

We came through Cornelius Creek Aid Station for the first time, and that crew was ready for the heat. They had popsicles, ice, cold soda, and pickles-exactly what I needed. I filled my ice bandana for the first time and tied it so the ice was on the back of my neck, and also enjoyed a popsicle. Between that and the cold drinks, I felt very refreshed and headed off down the road. This section is a bit of a drag, but I pushed myself to run it solidly and not walk until the deer trail down at the bottom. It's mentally tough but the miles ticked by easily and the trail came before I expected. I think it was at this point that I realized I really was having a good day.  I'd been bracing for the part where it got crazy hot/miserable/tiring, and so far I felt really good. I hadn't once been counting down miles to a landmark or aid station. It was constantly, "Oh, I'm already here!" My last race at Terrapin was a mentally hard day, and it was so refreshing to have a day when I was genuinely enjoying every mile, every conversation with fellow runners, and every beautiful view.

I came into the Colon Hollow aid station at around 4 hours, still on an 8 hour pace and still feeling surprisingly good. Another great aid station crew with popsicles, smiles, and encouraging words for us. My main goal in this back section was to run where it was runnable, and hike with purpose the rest of the time. Secondary goal was to stop at every creek I could and douse myself with cold water. I still had some ice in my ice bandana here, and with the cold water and extra shade thanks to an early spring, it was still mostly comfortable. I was able to run quite a bit and passed several people who weren't having as easy a day. I tried to encourage them as best I could. In this section Helen and I ran together for awhile. She was also having a great day-not a PR day but a fabulous day in the mountains, and it was nice to have company for several miles. This section usually feels very long to me, and there has been more than one year that I walked the majority of it. But this year the miles were still sailing by easily, and I just continued to enjoy the scenery, the conversation, and the joy of running.

Just before we get back to Cornelius Creek there's a large creek crossing with a broken down bridge. Many runners were using it like a hot tub, only it was just the opposite, a cold tub. I splashed my way through, and dunked my head again before making my way to the aid station. Much to my surprise, we still weren't even at 6 hours on the race clock.

I have run many races and been through many aid stations, but this one was a cut above today. They had so much ice, and a giant bucket of ice water where Don used a sponge to wring the cold water over your head, and there were plenty of popsicles and ice cold drinks...aid stations are always an emotional and physical boost to your day, but this one was more than ever. Fresh ice in my bandana on my neck, popsicles in hand, dripping with ice cold water, I headed out feeling cool for the first time all day, ready to climb the falls.

I headed up the falls rejuvenated. There was no plan to rush, just to hike with purpose. I knew from previous years that leaving Cornelius Creek before 6 hours put me right on 8 hour pace. Obviously I knew the climb up the falls would be tough, and it was getting hot, and I didn't set out with any particular time goals in place, but there's something about finishing before that next hour turns over that is always kind of nice. I still felt good, way better than I had at this point in the race last year, and this was when I decided I would try to make that 8 hour mark. Climbing the falls went as well as it ever has. Honestly, it was better than a few training runs I've had out there this year. I still stopped at every creek crossing (and there were plenty!) which helped me stay cool. 

The trail was very wet in places, even water running down the boulders we had to climb. It was beautiful and fun!

Pretty soon I had reached the largest part of Apple Orchard Falls. It's always pretty, but today, the water was high and the falls were full and it was breathtaking. Absolutely gorgeous!        

After the falls everything in the valley was so green and beautiful. It was amazing!

Next come the infamous stairs...of course these are never easy, especially on a hot day. But one step at a time (literally), I made my way up, greeting fellow runners and day hikers and dogs on the way up.

After another dunk in a waterfall, I made my way up the last mile back to Sunset Fields. I love crossing that road with the 0.9miles sign, because that's when I know I really am going to make it! Back at the top, another top notch aid station crew was there with cold drinks. Those aid stations really made the difference in the race today, I was so grateful for them!

I headed out for the last five miles to the finish. It took a few hundred yards before I could really get my legs back into running mode after all the hiking. Still playing it safe on the downhill rocks, so a decent pace but not my fastest on this section. Soon we came to the road and knew it was 2.7 miles to the finish. My goal had been to get there by 7:30 and I made it with 8 seconds to spare! My legs still felt pretty good so I ran almost the whole road down. This was the first time I really started to feel hot-my bandana & buff had dried since I went through the last creek, and parts of the road were sunny and warm. But since it was the last few miles, I was able to push through. I ran part of this with Wade, who has been trying for years to get a sub 8 hour finish. It was great to see that he was going to make his goal!

I crossed the finish line in 7:55, enough for my second best time in six years at Promise Land. Honestly, I think it was my best performance, since the one time I did better by seven minutes, I was training much more heavily (for a 100 miler) and had far better racing weather.  I was absolutely thrilled with the day. This was my most enjoyable Promise Land ever, and my most enjoyable run in a long time. After my earlier races this spring I was feeling kind of meh about running, and not sure I'd sign up for anything in the fall...but I had such a great day out there it rekindled my love of running. It was like the first year I was running, when I was just out there having fun because I didn't know what I was doing well enough to make it a job about pace or training or nutrition. In some ways I'm grateful I've never been fast, and probably never will be. It really frees me up to enjoy the day in a different way. My fast friends inspire me and I do wonder what it would be like to fly through the mountains the way they do. But I get to enjoy many more hours out on the course, and it's okay if my goal is just to enjoy the day.

Many people suffered a lot more than I did in this race, and I don't want to make it sound like I have it all figured out. I just had a really great day out there. Yes, my preparations and attitude helped-but a lot of things just went right for me. It was one of those rare races where nothing really goes terribly wrong. The salt pills and Tailwind all day worked for me, and I didn't have to fight cramps or stomach issues. I braced for an awful day and was delightfully surprised to have one of my best running experiences of all. I'm so grateful for all the encouraging faces out there, both at aid stations and on the trail, for all the preparation that went into this race, for Dr. Horton directing it, and for the chance to see so many people finish a hard race under really tough conditions. It's always inspiring to see other people accomplish their goals! I'm so grateful I get to be a part of such an amazing running community!

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