Calculated Risks – Terrapin 2015

Going into it, I really didn’t think Terrapin 2015 would warrant a blog post.

For starters,  I’d run it twice before.  I knew the course and didn’t expect any surprises.  My goal was simple:  a PR.  I thought if I ran smart and if I ran without fear, I had a great chance of beating my 5:47 time from two years ago.

And although it was my self-processed “goal race” for the Spring season, the winter weather and never-ending Stanley flu epidemic had seriously undermined my training.  No real speed work.  No Thursday trips to Jarman’s and get hill running practice.  Nada. Zip. Zilch.

So I was left with a lot of questions, but no fixed strategy.  What could I run on that course?  Would Crossfit help balance my lack of quality miles?  Had my downhill technical running skills improved??

Talking to Sophie the week before, we decided that the best plan was to start the race conservatively and pick up the pace around mile 16, aiming for a faster second half.  This would fit well into Bighorn 100 training, when I’d need to dig deep despite growing fatigue.  I hoped that this strategy would still yield a personal best, because it had been SOOOO long since I’d beaten any of my 2013 times.  In fact, other than running new distances, I’d not PR’d since JFK (November 2013).

In all, I thought this would be “another-day-at-the-office” kind of race.  I’d spend the day outside, run my best, and hopefully  ‘Conquer The Mountain’.

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I’ll admit it….I am a total data nerd.  Give me some numbers and a spreadsheet and I am a happy gal.

I crunched through my mile splits from 2013 and 2014.  To my surprise, I actually ran MORE miles faster at Terrapin last year.  However, those miles that I ran slower were a LOT slower than 2013.  The result?  A 5:47 (2013) vs. a 5:53 (2014) finish.

Let me break in here to describe to course profile….

terrapin elevation profile
Image credit: http://iliketoplayoutside.blogspot.com/2013/03/2013-terrapin-mountain-50k.html

Terrapin is a 31 mile course.  It starts with a 4 mile climb up to Camping Gap, and then a sweet 5 mile descent on gravel roads.  From there runners climb 7 miles back up to Camping Gap, and then run a 5-ish mile loop on the White Oak Ridge (WOR) trail.  The WOR loop brings everyone back to Camping Gap for a third time.  At mile 22, runners endure the .75 mile BRUTAL climb up to the summit of Terrapin Mountain, run along the ridge, squeeze through Fat Man’s misery, and then shred whatever is left of their quads as they bomb down the rocky side of the mountain.

fat mans misery
Fat Man’s Misery! Image credit: http://chuckruns.blogspot.com/2013/04/terrapin-mountain-50k-march-23-2013.html

A final aid station awaits at the bottom, a brief respite before the last 5.5 miles – a grinding trail along the side of the mountain (seemingly uphill), and then a steep descent on the road back to the Sedalia Center.

Turns out, last year I bled time on the climb back up to Camping Gap.  Here are the splits:

2013 2014 Improvement
Initial Climb 0:48:06 0:48:00 0:00:06
Descent 0:37:41 0:37:47 -0:00:06
Camping Gap 2 1:22:10 1:27:21 -0:05:21
WOR Loop 1:06:03 1:06:03 0:00:00
Final Aid Station 0:55:30 0:55:06 0:00:24
Finish 0:57:50 0:59:20 -0:01:30
-0:06:27

[** Note that in both years I not only covered the first 9 miles in the same time, but also ran identical splits in the WOR loop!!]

Two days before the race, I realized that I’d lost 5 of my 6 minutes on that one climb.  I HAD to switch my strategy.  Instead of running easy to the WOR loop, I wanted to be able to run that 10 mile climb as fast and as swift as 2013.  I hoped my stronger legs and deeper experience would allow me to make up some time on the back half.  How much time?  Who knew….My fitness was equivalent.  My lead-in training was worse.  My ankles still caused problems on downhills.  Maybe 5-7 minutes?  I’d have to wait and see.  I finalized a plan.  Run the initial climb at a decent effort, keeping the Heart Rate at 165 (or less).  Stay strong but controlled on the downhill, aiming for 7:05-7:10 min/mi pace.  Then push the effort on the climb, running as much as possible through the WOR loop.  Use whatever was left to hold my position and not fall to pieces in the last 10 miles.

It wasn’t much, but it was a plan.

—————–

It’s been a dreary, damp winter in Virginia.  On Friday we had another day of cold rain.  Snow at elevation.  But Saturday – race day – brought the promise of warm sun and clear skies.  I arrived at the Sedalia Center around 5 p.m. (after a happy detour to restock at Crozet Running!) and settled into Camp Richmond with Martha, Mark, Emily, and Phil.  Its always fun to hang out pre-race.  Clark, once again, gave all runners a really cool pottery mug…by far the best race swag around 🙂  My minivan provided a warm(ish) place to spend the night, and I got a solid bit of sleep.

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Morning Joe tastes best in a Terrapin Mug!

 

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Martha’s van next to mine…Trail Mom taught me everything I know about car camping!!

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Race day dawned with perfect running conditions.  A bit chilly, but I was comfortable in shorts and arm-warmers.  I laced up my new goodies from Crozet Running: Pearl Izumi N2’s (straight outta the box) and Sockwell compression calf sleeves.  I also wrapped my ankle for the very first time with KT tape….Calculated Risks #1, 2, & 3.  I know better than to try new gear on race day, but was confident it wouldn’t really create any problems.  And I thought the new shoes would certainly be a blessing on the pounding downhill stretch. I carried all fuel I’d need…homemade energy balls (dates, cranberries, cocao nibs, almonds, chia seeds), Hammer gel & GU, and bit of Tailwind in my bottle.  We started with the GONG at 7:00 a.m. sharp, running the first flat stretch easy.  I chatted with Bethany and greeted friends as they caught up and passed.  I stayed with the lead bunch a bit longer than usual but let them go ahead as we started to climb.  UP and up we went, and my heart rate climbed as well…I noticed it was at 175, but didn’t worry…I’d pull it back and slow down as the pitch steepened. (Calculated risk #4)

But I never really did slow.  I was enjoying the climb and the camaraderie and came into Camping Gap in about 46 minutes – 2 min ahead of pace.  As I started to descend I was feeling good.  I let gravity take over, I focused on form, and found myself right on pace.  First mile:  7:05.  Second mile: 6:50….oops – too fast!  But it felt easy and good so I rolled with it (Calculated Risk #5).  Up ahead I saw Beth Frye running in second place…pulling along side of her we had a nice chance to catch up and talk for a bit.  After another mile or so I caught a glimpse of Bethany.  As expected, she was in the lead, and I couldn’t resist the opportunity to sprint up to her and surprise her.

[FYI – I have NO business being near Bethany 9 miles into any race…Calculated Risk #6!!  BUT….she is my team-mate and also a great friend, and it was really special to be running stride-for-stride into the second aid station.]

Coming out of the aid station, Bethany took off up the road.  Beth and I leapfrogged for a bit, but I pulled back to focus on the task at hand….running strong and smooth back up the mountain.  My heart rate was still really high…even on the downhill stretch it was north of 165 – well above by 160 target for the race.  Climbing back up, it stayed at 175-180.  But I wouldn’t back down – I was invested at this point.  I hiked a bit, ran as much as I could, and came back into Camping Gap just a minute behind Beth and 5 full minutes ahead of 2013 pace.

Into the WOR loop….16 miles down, 15 to go.  I was tired, and for the first time acknowledged the possibility that I *might* have dug myself into a hole.  I started to increase my calories to ward off a bonk and replace the glycogen I was burning.  A bit into the loop I saw Horton who told me that Bethany was 8 minutes ahead.  Yes!!  She had turned on the juice and was setting herself up for a great race (she’d finish first female in 4:58…not too far off of the course record!).  Horty said I was running well and that I had a shot at second.  I smiled and waved, but knew that I was balancing on the THIN RED LINE.  Pushing it here would NOT be a good idea.  In fact, it was time to finally dial back and go into self-preservation mode.

And as soon as I did slow a bit, the two awesome women that I knew *had* to be right behind me passed.  First Alexis, then Lori Cooper.  It was fine.  Despite my #102 bib I knew 6th or 7th place was realistic for me.  I exited the loop with Hannah Bright right on my heels.  So there it was.  Running in 6th place now, 7 minutes ahead of pace, I had two missions.  First, minimize the damage from going out too hard.  Second, try and hang onto 6th.  That would be a better finish than I’d ever had a Terrapin, and I’d be happy.

But cramps, which always seem to find me on the steep climb to the summit, were nipping at my heels.  My toes curled, my calves seized.  I pressed on….willing away the pain…pushing fluids and pushing forward.  On the out and back to the bib punch [runners have to ‘check-in’ and punch their bibs at three points along the course], I saw Jeff.  Trilled to see another CRUT face, I wanted to wait, but I felt like I was slowing down and I knew I’d need to push to beat 5:47.  So I ran on through Fat Man’s and to the rocky downhill.

And though I wasn’t setting any records, I ran that downhill without fear….shoving away the memories of turned ankles and tentative steps…taking big strides to keep my 7 minute cushion intact.  Coming into the last aid station, I saw that I was only 4-5 minutes back from Beth and Lori….but….I had a little more than an hour to beat my goal time.  I *thought* it was enough, but I knew I couldn’t walk much.  And then, headed back up to the turn, I saw sweet Shannon. She is such a strong runner, and we raced to the line at Holiday Lake.  I wouldn’t be upset if she took this match, but I’d invested so much effort in the day that I pushed on up the trail.

The final 5.5 miles is rough, but I found the strength to run it faster than ever before.  Despite 5 + hours of a heart rate > 170, despite flirting with cramps for 10 miles, despite going out hard I held on and crossed the line in 5:36…an 11 minute PR!  My Crozet Running teammates – all of whom had stellar days – were there on the line to greet me, along with Clark and Horty.  BBQ, sweet tea, warm sun and soft grass made it about as perfect a start to Spring as possible.  I stayed there for a long while, rehashing the day, cheering on friends as they crossed the line and just happy to be alive…feeling blessed.

Crozet Running Ultra Team (CRUT) and friends post race
Crozet Running Ultra Team (CRUT) and friends post race

 

RVA Trail Runners blocking the finish line :-)
RVA Trail Runners blocking the finish line 🙂

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SO what makes this Terrapin memorable??

To date, the ultras of which I’m most proud (Holiday Lake 2013, MMTR 2013, JFK 2013, and Grindstone 2014) have happened because I ran by feel and without any set of expectations.  I’ve taken those days as they’ve come, and been pleasantly surprised.

This race marks the first time I’ve started hard, given an all-out effort, and hung on to finish without imploding.  And for me, breaking out of my comfort zone like that, is HUGE.

I’ve spent my whole life trying desperately to be in control.  Preparing, studying, taking the safe road.  While I might do things that others deem crazy (like run 100 miles), I can assure you I’ve thought it out, planned, and visualized it over and over.

Running 30 miles at (what felt like) 10K or 10 miler pace has never happened.  I’m not really sure I want to go there again.  That being said, my legs felt GREAT throughout the day (cramping aside).  A bit of trashed quads on the last downhill was the only evidence that I’d run far.

My heart rate and cardio…that’s another story.  All day I was red-lining it…breathing hard…utterly focused.  I didn’t have any real mental low spots, but it never felt easy.    I really, really need to work on that before Promise Land and ESPECIALLY before Big Horn!!  I have a hunch that the altitude could manifest in the same way, and I really don’t want to feel that come June.

I was really happy with the day’s splits:

2013 2015 Improvement
Initial Climb 0:48:06 0:46:27 0:01:29
Descent 0:37:41 0:35:03 0:02:38
Camping Gap 2 1:22:10 1:25:00 -0:02:50
WOR Loop 1:06:03 1:01:57 0:04:06
Final Aid Station 0:55:30 0:52:49 0:02:41
Finish 0:57:50 0:55:20 0:02:30
0:10:34

Aside from the climb up Camping Gap (ironically, the one part I planned to run faster), I gained time on every section of the course.  In fact, almost all the gains came on the back half, when I felt like I was pulling back a bit.

———————–

In summary, here is my take on the day:

 

What went well

Calculated Risks paid off!

  • New shoes were just what I needed,
  • the KT tape stabilized my ankle (may have been placebo but I’ll take it)
  • Running hard set my legs and brain up for a fast day
  • The sprint to catch Bethany gave a morale boost and didn’t wreck my pace or overall strategy

– I was mentally in the game – I believed I could run hard and I did.

– I didn’t let the pressure of a #2 seed (or Horty telling me I could finish 2nd) take my mind off the task at hand.  I set realistic expectations and so wasn’t deflated when I got passed by other women.

– I was able to push and pull back effort as needed throughout the day – no death marching it in!!

– And….this one really deserves its own post…I do believe Crossfit gave me a huge advantage in terms of strength and endurance.  My legs were able to WORK it and my stronger core kept me balanced as I pushed the downhills!!

What could have been better

– Fueling and Hydration.  I should have eaten a bit more and drank a lot more water.  Those cramps could have wrecked the race!

– Training leading in…more tempo runs, intervals, and hill repeats would have made the perceived effort easier (and maybe have reduced my average HR).

– Climbing.  I’ve covered that ground better in the past….I can run it even faster in the future.

All in all, I’m glad to be running hard again…its time to add 5K and 10K races (and maybe a road marathon) back into my calendar.  Those shorter races are demanding and frightening, but they have a place in an ultra-runners tool kit.

———

So, did I Conquer the Mountain?  Nope….I conquered myself.  I let go of the Fear and raced well.  I passed the Ghost of 2013 on that first climb and never looked back.  My prize?  Without a doubt it is the confidence I earned on the trail Saturday.  I look forward to putting it to use in the coming weeks as we gear up for Big Horn.

Congratulations to all the runners who toed the line Saturday….especially my RVA, CAT and CRUT friends.  Thank you Clark Zealand, Jeremy Ramsay, and all the volunteers who gave their time this weekend.  Terrapin remains one of my favorite races of the Spring season, and I can’t wait to come back for more fun (and another mug) next year!!!

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