Where to start.....
So for the first time in my Ultra-Running career I went to a race, the Blues Cruise Ultra in Reading PA, with no crew, and no friends at the race. For the most part this was not a big deal. I didn't really need a crew, but I did miss the comfort of knowing a fresh shirt was waiting for me after 20 miles or that dry pair of shoes would be there if I needed them. These two things I could easily get over though. What I actually missed the most was having friends there to share the experience with. In all of the other races I've run I've had friends at the race either running it with me or crewing. It's really nice to see friends at Aide stations and to share stories from the trail during the post race protein feast, also known as a BBQ. So for this race I would be alone.
The drive out was good, quiet, and uneventful. Got to the race about 40 minutes before the scheduled start time which worked out great. I quickly got registered. Picked up my swag (which in all honesty isn't great and I wish they would go back to a tech shirt, personal preference, i'll just never wear the jacket). Then I got ready for the race to begin.
Miles 1-10 The Flats
The race started in gloomy weather. It was cool, humid, and very cloudy. These trails around Blue Marsh Lake had been under water recently and the rain the night before the race made sure that the trails and bridges were very challenging. Around mile 2 the guy in front of me had his feet go out from under him on a bridge and he slammed pretty hard. No blood though, which he thought was a bummer. Most of this section was flat and wet. I was running pretty fast through this part but in all honesty I felt really good and wanted to cruise the flat stuff. I spent some time talking to a few guys, one of them had hamstring problems and wasn't sure if he was going to be able to finish. Hopefully he did. Anyway, I got to the 3rd aide station, mile 10, at 1hr 19min.
Miles 10-20 The Hills
Basically the flat part of the course was over and the hills began. At mile 10.5 I found "the infamous ski-slope hill." This hill rises about 250 feet in less than 1/3 of a mile. I train on hills steeper than this particular hill but I also don't usually run them after 10 miles, nor do I run 20 miles after them. That being said I ran almost all of this hill and I still felt fresh. I got to the top of the hill and started the decent. Near the bottom of the hill I was caught by a guy named Todd; nice guy, good conversation, former soccer player like myself, and we basically spent the rest of the race no more than 100 or so yards apart. We both wanted to finish around 4hrs and 30min but in all honesty I thought that was a pipe-dream for me. Having the company over the next 10 miles or so was cool.
Basically this section was rolling hills with some nice views. I was not expecting the one view which I come up on right at the midpoint. You make a left turn and run along the side of a big hill, and the view of the valley is really great. Other than that the only major note on this section was the waste-deep creek crossing at mile 19. I loved the cool water but when I got to the other bank I had a significant amount of tiny pebbles in my shoe. Being stubborn, I decided not to take my shoes off to address the problem. This was probably a risky decision on my part but it didn't end up hurting me. After a few miles the irritation was minimal and I practically forgot about it. Got to mile 20 around 2hrs 55min.
Miles 20-31More of the same
At this point I had a few issues. First of all I was on pace to finish around 4:30 or so. While this was a good thing I knew that being so close to my goal would make the final 11 miles or so a "race" instead of the steady plodding along that I had been enjoying. Secondly, my right hamstring felt like it would cramp at any minute. Luckily I had an extra POM energy gel with me and after a few minutes the cramping ceased but it was still an scare for the rest of the race. Couldn't push the hills too much. Came into the last aide station about 200 yards ahead of Todd. I think he just spent more time at aide stations than I did because every time I saw him he was running and he seemed to be faster than I was. This aide station had some crispy bacon! OH that was soooooooo good. Go figure.
Well anyway I left this aide station and about a mile down the course I had an interesting realization; I never asked, at any of the stations all day, what position I was in. Last year I finished in 50th or so and I hadn't thought about it much but figured I was near the top 20 or so. Then I started looking down at the trail and noticed that there weren't many tracks from other runners. This could mean one of two things. Either I was off the trail somehow or I was doing much better than I thought. This got me really excited and I started pushing it. This wasn't a problem initially but then the final 2 miles had a significant amount of hills and for the first time in the race I started to feel tired. The hills seemed to go on and on and because this was a new course I didn't know where the last turn was. I kept looking at my watch and saw the I had 2 minutes to break 4:30 and was about to give up the push but then I heard someone around the corner say "1/3 of a mile to go!" This meant that I would need to run a sub 6' pace for the rest of the course if i was to make it. I thought about not trying for about half a second and then realized that if i didn't try now I would have to wait another year before I could go for it again. So I took off down the road, felt pretty good, and on the final run in I was about 20 yards out when I saw the clock pass 4:30. Oh well, 9 seconds off isn't so bad after all.
So back to my thoughts on how I placed. I finished and was pretty excited to be able to sit down. The Pagoda Pacers guys were there taking numbers and handing out the finishing awards and I talked to them for a bit. Then I started looking around and thought to myself "where is everyone?" I had never finished this early before and was used to coming into the finish line when all the crews and families were there waiting for people. I walked over to the ladies at the computer putting in times and asked them how I finished. 8th! I was very surprised! I had never finished in the Top 10 so this was a really cool feeling for me. Not only that but Todd came in only a few minutes behind me in 9th! Top 10 for Todd in his first Ultra, congrats brother! (I'd tag his facebook account but he doesn't have one, which I respect).
Anyway, had some great potato pancakes, and grilled cheese. Talked with a few guys for awhile. It was a good time post race sitting around, talking about the race and how everyone dealt with the conditions differently. Overall it was a a great. The race itself was well-run, had good aide stations, and moderately cool swag. Took 36 minutes off of my time from last year even though the course this year was much tougher. I think it's because I got almost 300 miles of training in in the last month and a 1/2 this year as oppsed to 90 miles or training last year. Next up the MMTR, and the conclusion of the Lynchuburg Ultra Series. Maybe I can move into the top 10, we'll see.