This race reminded me why I do ultras. Except for the pain, it was a great experience from beginning to end.
For some details on the race (map, logistics, etc.) see my report from last year. The race goodies were pretty much the same, same hotel, same course, etc. After picking up my packet we went to visit my new two month old cousin and have dinner, then drove to our hotel in Huntsville.
I slept well and the next morning my wife and daughter drove me to the race at around 6:15. I had them drop me off (they went back to the hotel and to sleep) and I wandered around getting pysched up for the race and visiting with friends. Joe Prusaitis of the Hill Country Trail Runners had offered to let NTTR members drop their bags in their tent so I looked for their tent and found a place to drop my bag. In the tent I ran into Jennifer who was running her first 50k that day and who had a great race.
I ran into my walking friends from the marathon walkers Yahoo! group that I had dinner with last year. They are a great bunch of friendly, hard walking women and it was great to see them again. They were all doing the 50k. I was chatting with them when I realized it was almost time to start so I headed over to the start area. After the National Anthem the race began and we were off. I quickly dropped to almost last place, but that never bothers me. I need time to warm up, plus I'm slower on the flat pavement at the start of the race than most runners. I usually catch people on the trails and the hills.
After about 1/4 mile I saw a familiar face on the side of the trail. My good friend Frances, who I met at last year's Sunmart, was looking for me and gave me a big hug and some encouragement. She was also doing the 50k and appears to have had a great day judging from the results.
After that it was into the woods. The Sunmart trail is great--very scenic and wooded, at times straight and easy, at times twisty and rooty. This year there were only two muddy patches and after the first or second loop someone had placed a temporary wooden sidewalk and hay over them so we could keep our feet relatively dry and clean.
There are three features that I like a lot about Sunmart:
1. It's a loop course. Normally I don't like loops, but it's nice to see people several times on the loops. You get to know your comrades in this effort.
2. There is a long out-and-back after about 1.2 miles that is 1.2 miles out and another 1.2 back. It's a little boring, but again you get to see people, make temporary friends, commiserate, encourage, etc.
3. There is a portion of the trail at the start/finish area that is shared by incoming runners and outbound runners, so again you get to see people ahead of you who have finished their loops and offer them words of encouragement.
During loop one I found all the hidden pains that hadn't fully recovered from Ultracentric. My left ankle started hurting but it wasn't sharp or severe, it didn't affect my pace or form and it didn't seem to be getting any worse. But my hips were really hurting, and it was getting worse. I kept pushing the pace and tried not to worry about it. When I'm having pain I try to "draw in" from the pain: I imagine myself as smaller than my physical body and not really attached; I'm just sort of floating around in there. So I tried to ignore the pain and keep the pace.
I ate and drank well at all the aid stations and periodically sipped on my bottle. I took an electrolyte caplet every hour but after two loops I noticed some swelling so I stopped. I tried to switch between sweet and salty foods so I wouldn't get sick to my stomach; I didn't have any nausea problems at all that day.
I finished loop 1 in 2:42, exactly the same as last year and a 12:57 pace. I was very happy with that. I stopped at my bag to drop off my gloves and then headed back out. I continued to keep moving at a pretty quick pace. The cutoff for loop 3 is 3:30, and I can't take that cutoff for granted. Although the overall race allows a pace of 14:24, I had to maintain a pace of 13:36 to make the cutoff. I knew I had to push myself hard for three loops and then, if necessary, I would have 3:30 or more to complete the last loop so I could take it easy.
My hips were really screaming at me during the second loop. I promised my body some Advil after the second loop if it got me where I needed to be. I gradually got to know my fellow racers (I started thinking of us as the "Flashlight Finishers" because the back-of-the-packers would finish in the dark). I finished the second loop in 2:48, giving me three hours to finish loop three. As long as I didn't have any crises I should be able to make it. My concern was my hips.
As I promised, I took two Advil as I left for loop three. After a while I started to feel markedly better. I was able to walk mostly pain free and started to really enjoy the race. This was probably one of my favorite times in ultrawalking. Again I got to chat with my fellow racers, aid station personnel, etc. We enjoyed sharing stories, talking about the cutoffs and the pace, and the camaraderie of doing something hard. I started saying "Good job" or "good work" or "looking strong" to everyone I saw. At one point I was getting ready to pass two slightly slower women. As I came up on the right I said, "I'm about to zip by you on the left; don't be alarmed." As I slowly crept by them one of them said, "What was that yellow blur?!" (I was wearing my yellow Ultracentric shirt) and the other said, "I have wind burn on my face!" It was a great day to be alive and out on the trails.
I exchanged places with several people and groups of people. Everyone was suffering but most were still able to joke and enjoy the experience. As I got close to the end of loop 3 I started to really push, and I ended up finishing in 2:49. Now I had 3:41 minutes to finish the last loop. I knew I could do that, even if it was death march.
As I left for loop four I gave myself the luxury of an easy walk (and two more Advil). I knew I would finish and started to think I would PR so I decided to give myself a little break. As I was walking back out I saw lots of people coming in, some finishing the race and some finishing loop three. Again there was lots of encouragement shouted around, especially to those of us heading back out for our final loop.
I chatted a little more with some of my fellow racers and again enjoyed a great loop. I can usually finish strong if I've paced myself, and I can also walk fast in the dark, so I felt I would pass some people on the last loop (like I did last year). I don't care about "beating people," but it is motivating to be able to pass people. So I was able to keep up a nice pace and pass quite a few people. I don't think anyone passed me on the last loop, but I probably passed at least ten people. At about 5:30 I had to turn on my lights. Not long after that I got to the last aid station. Only 2.8 miles to go! I shouted, "104 coming in, and I'm going home" and skipped the aid station. I took one more Advil so I could stay strong to the finish.
I started to realize I would finish ahead of plan. Unfortunately I had told my wife and daughter to be there at 6:30; I didn't think there was any way I would finish earlier than that. I was afraid they wouldn't be there when I finished and I really wanted to see them.
I picked up the pace as best as I could and started to take it home. It was really hard to see the trail in the dark since the trail and the surrounding land were almost indistinguishable. Luckily they had more glow sticks than last year so that helped. I had to slow down a little but I tried to push as hard as I could. I started to think I could beat last year's time (11:47) by 20 minutes. Finally I emerged from the woods onto the leaf-covered asphalt trail to the finish. Push, push, push. I came out of the woods and had trouble seeing the path to the finish line but found it with the help of a race volunteer. Finally I could see the race clock: 11:27 and counting, so I pushed hard and finished at 11:27:34 (chip time 11:27:04). I beat last year's time by a little over twenty minutes.
And best of all, my wife and daughter had arrived early and were cheering for me as I crossed the finish line. A volunteer clipped off my chip, I collected my medal (afghan to follow by mail) and we headed to the car and to Chili's for a big meal and a Shiner Bock. After that we made the long drive back to Dallas to a warm shower and straight into bed.
So I feel like I had a good race, and I wonder what I could have done if I hadn't just completed Ultracentric two weeks ago. Could I get to 11:00? I'm not sure if that's possible, but I might try to find out next year. I've definitely decided to take a break from racing and give my body time to recover. I've done three ultras in five weekends, and although it's been fun it's also been painful and it's totally wrecked my weekday training. I'm always tapering or recovering so my training has suffered. So I've decided to skip Bandera in January and focus on Rocky Raccoon 100 miler on February 4.
Here's an analysis of my splits compared to last year. I had the same slowest split and fastest split, but I was able to maintain a faster pace on the other two loops.
Loop 1: 2:42 (12:57 pace) Last Year: 2:42
Loop 2: 2:48 (13:26 pace) Last Year: 2:59
Loop 3: 2:49 (13:31 pace) Last Year: 3:06
Loop 4: 3:06 (14:53 pace) Last Year: 2:59
And here are this year's official results.