The morning began with a 4:30 continental breakfast at the hotel. They opened the doors and got everything going early for the racers, which I thought was a considerate touch that I don’t usually see when I travel to races. I had brought my own food that I was used to, so I just made use of their toasters and orange juice before heading back up to my room to get dressed for the race and to make sure my bag had everything I’d want or need for the start/finish aid station.
We couldn’t have asked for better weather on race day. The Stone Cat races comprise a marathon and 50 miler that both start at 6:00 in the morning. The 50 milers head straight into the woods, while the marathoners only run to the treeline before hanging to the right and running a 1.2 mile loop to get to the same point. Once in the woods, the marathoners run 2 of the 12½ mile loops while the 50 milers run 4 of the loops. We were greeted to clear skies (though dark) and temperatures in the low 30s at the starting line, eventually to warm up to a sunny day in the mid/high 40s for the late morning and early afternoon when most of of the runners would be finishing.
Loop 1 – Strategy
The goal during the first loop was to go slow. Painfully slow, if necessary. It would be dark, and I didn’t want to trip and fall on a tree root or rock and didn’t want to waste any energy that I didn’t need to. My headlamp is bright enough that visibility wasn’t going to be a problem, so once I got into the trees I’d try to settle into a pace that was right around 9:20 per mile, give or take about 10 seconds. Ideally, I’d come through in 1:55 to 2 hours. I’d be wearing my hydration pack, which would give me somewhere to stow my headlamp after the sun came up since I wasn’t sure if I’d have any friends at either of the aid stations to drop it off with.
Loop 1 – ExecutionWhen the race started, I made my way towards the woods. Not as fast as I usually start a race, but still a bit quicker than I needed to be going. I quickly found that I was in 3rd place (at least amongst the 50 milers, there marathoners were off to the right a few feet) and was able to slow down and not worry too much about a bottleneck going into the woods.
I pretty quickly settled into my pace, getting passed by at least a dozen or more people within the first mile. I was running with my friend Ian for about half a mile, and we were chatting, but then I got to a hill and walked up behind another runner, Dima, who had not brought a headlamp. He seemed to be running at a reasonable pace, so I ran with him for a few miles, which made it easier for him as I have a bright headlamp and he had none. Once the sun came up, he went ahead and while I would almost catch him at the end, he still beat me by a couple minutes.
About 3½ miles into the loop, I went through the flooded area of the course for the first time. My feet got cold and wet, but it wasn’t too bad and they’d warmed up just fine by the time I got to Al Cat’s Lounge at about 4.2 miles. (My feet were dry by the time I got to the second aid station around 7½ miles into the loop.) Passing through Al Cat’s Lounge, they asked if I needed anything but all I wanted was a trash can as I’d taken my first gel and I was carrying my own water so I just planned to pass right through.
The lead pack of marathoners was around 12 to 15 strong when they passed me around 5½ miles into the course. I would later catch back up to at least a few of them that had gone out a bit too fast while I was running my second loop.
My water pack has been temperamental for me since this Summer. It works fine for my wife, and it worked fine for me the first year or so I used it, but sometimes it doesn’t like to actually let me get any water out of it. So today it worked well for 5 miles and then it was too much work to get much more water out of it the rest of the day. I never did put my headlamp into the pack, since I wore it the entire loop even after turning it off shortly before the marathoners started to catch up.
Because the pack wasn’t behaving, when I took my second gel near the second aid station, I did stop for a cup of water but quickly moved on my way. It was probably a good thing the pack didn’t make it easy to drink; I was well enough hydrated as it was. I spent more time watering the trees than I did in the aid stations, even counting for gear changes near the start and finish. I actually stopped 3 times each of the first 2 loops, and twice in the 3rd loop.
I averaged about 9:12 pace for the first loop, coming through right around 1:54:55. Right about where I wanted to be.
Loop 2 – Strategy
The goal for the second loop was to maintain that same easy pace, which should still feel pretty comfortable. It might get a little tougher later in the loop but for the most part I expected the first 25 miles to be relatively easy and hopefully I’d be able to maintain a pretty good rhythm. I would be dropping off my headlamp at the start/finish area, and leaving my hydration pack behind and picking up my waist belt which carries two bottles. I had one bottle full of water and one full of Crank e-Fuel.
Loop 2 – ExecutionAs I started this loop, my hands were freezing and going numb, especially my left hand. When I came through the start and finish area, I swapped out the belt for the pack without any trouble, but had trouble grabbing new gel packets. My hands were too numb to pick them up, which surprised me.
The timekeepers were trying to figure out my bib number, but I told them I’d be stripping off my Run to Win shirt which I’d used to keep a little warmer in the dark. The rest of the race, I’d be running in my Trail Monster singlet, which I’d had on underneath.
As I headed back towards the woods, I pulled my arm sleeves down over my hands, so rather than going from wrist to mid/upper arm, they went from fingers to elbow. I also swapped my watch to my right arm since the left hand was number and I wanted to make sure I didn’t restrist the blood flow.
I figured out really quickly that my waist pack was a mistake. It’s great in training, but it messes with my center of gravity too much while racing. I also didn’t need nearly that much in the way of fluids.
When I came to the downhill stretches and the flooded part of the trail, I actually took the bottles out of the pack and carried them in my hands since I could move faster and easier that way.
Oh well, lesson learned. I knew that if Erin was at Al Cat’s Lounge I could drop the pack with her, and if not then I considered leaving it anyway and recovering it later. I didn’t see my wife, but I did see my friends Erik, Chandra and Four so I left the water bottle with Erik, grabbed a third of a banana, and kept moving.
The rest of the loop, I kept the bottle full of Crank either in my hand or swapping between one side of the pack or the other, with the pack twisted around so the bottle was right behind me rather than being unbalanced to one side. This actually worked out pretty well; I still didn’t want the bottle in the pack while I was running downhill but the rest of the time it didn’t bother me.
Shortly after Al Cat’s Lounge, I started running with Greg. We’d be within earshot of one another for the rest of the second loop, and for a mile or so of the third. Other than the 2 miles or so that I had company at the beginning of the race, and a bit over a mile at the end of the first loop when I ran with a man named Jeff, this would be the only time I’d really be running with another person the entire day.
I didn’t bother much with the second aid station since I was carrying the Crank in my water bottle, although it did begin to get a bit strong by the end of the loop so I wasn’t drinking as much anyway.
I kept looking out for my friend Emma, who had passed me near the end of loop 1, since she’s usually really good at running an even pace and it would have been fun to run with her for a while.
When I got to the end of the loop, though, I was told that I was way ahead of her, which made no sense to me.
Greg and I averaged a pretty solid 9:22 pace for the second loop. I came through somewhere in the 3:51:xx range, about a minute and a half to two minutes slower than I ran loop 1. Right on schedule.
Loop 3 – Strategy
The goal for the third loop was to maintain that same easy pace, although I fully expected that running at the same effort level was going to begin getting difficult so if I dropped back a little that would be okay as long as I kept moving and maintained the same effort. Between the two aid stations was where I expected trouble to really start based on my experience in Nevada, when I hit a really dark place around mile 33. I’d be dropping the water belt and the two water bottles near the finish line and taking my hand held bottle, probably with water but I could mix up some more Crank or Nuun or something similar if I felt the need. I’d probably grab the bag of gummy bears or honey stinger chews at the start of this loop.
Loop 3 – ExecutionI finally got to see my wife between loops 2 and 3. She had been driving around with some other folks to cheer on the marathoners who had come down with us, and my pace usually had me getting places before she got there and she’d have moved on before I returned. Once the marathoners were getting ready to finish, though, she’d spend the rest of the time cheering folks coming into the finish.
That meant I got some crew help for the last few laps, which was nice. When I came in, I handed off my water bottle, still about a third full, and had Erin fill it halfway to three-quarters with water to dilute the remaining Crank. While she was doing that, I stripped off my arm sleeves as I’d warmed up enough that I no longer needed them. While I was having another piece of banana, I realized I forgot to grab the strap for the water bottle so I sent Erin back to my bag for that and then began the loop.
I got separated from Greg at that point, and while I’d see him through the woods off and on and we even ran near each other again for a mile or two, we basically ran our own races and drifted apart. I ran alone the rest of the race except when I’d pass somebody and we’d potentially run near other for a short time.
The handheld was a good choice. It’s not as efficient as the hydration pack and you can’t carry as much water, but it’s the option I’m most comfortable with and have been using for years now. While I managed to remain upright the entire race, it’s also useful to keep yourself from breaking a wrist if you do fall.
I had meant to grab my bag of honey stinger chews or my gummy bears going into loop 3 since I hadn’t had any solid food other than the pieces of banana, but I didn’t think of it until I was back in the woods. I still had 2 gels and the Crank in the water bottle though so I wasn’t too worried.
Going through the aid stations, nothing really appealed to me to eat, which is unusual. I can normally eat just about anything, and during an ultramarathon it’s not uncommon for me to snack and sample my way through the course. Pretty much all that seemed good were the bananas, though, so that’s what I stuck to. I didn’t wind up using either of the gels, although I did come close to finishing the water bottle, and did have 1 more piece of banana while I was running.
This loop I started to pass a lot of marathoners. There were also a lot more people out enjoying the weather on their bikes and horses (well, there was 1 horse, I just passed her a few times.) The only Trail Monster I passed was Kate, who after the race told me she was struggling at that point but she was all smiles and seemed pretty happy when I saw her a few miles from the finish line.
I was still maintaining an even effort; I wasn’t hurting all that much, I remained lucid, and I never went into that dark place that I had hit 3 years ago. About the only thing out of the ordinary was that I kept getting the beat of one of the songs that my ride had played on the drive over to the race in the morning in an effort to pump herself up for her marathon. (It actually took me a couple days to get it out of my head after having it echo in my brain for 5 or so hours of the run.) Thankfully, it was just the beat and not the lyrics, as it wasn’t a particularly good song.
My average pace had slowed down to 10:20 per mile for this loop, but I was dead on my sub-9:36 goal pace since I came through right in 6 hours. I was still pretty confident that I could break 8 hours, and while I didn’t expect the final 12½ miles to be my fastest of the day, I did expect to be able to run it in under 2 hours.
Loop 4 – Strategy
The goal for the last 12½ miles was to see what’s left. Ideally, it would be my fastest loop, although if I could maintain that sub-2 hour pace for it then I’d be happy. The primary focus was to be done with my 37½ mile warmup and to start racing…this is when I would want to chase people down and pass them and make sure that nobody could catch me. I’d probably stick to the handheld, taking a water bottle with whatever fluid I felt I needed when the time came.
Loop 4 – ExecutionIt was time to race. When I finished loop 2, I had seen my friend Ian when he had about a mile and a half lead on me. Coming in at the end of loop 3, he was leaving the field as I was entering it, I still felt pretty good, and I was pretty confident that I could catch him and quite a few others.
I decided not to bother carrying water with me for the rest of the race. Having watered a tree 8 times in the first 6 hours, I wasn’t worried about my hydration levels and I’d still be able to get some water about every 4 miles. That meant I didn’t have to carry the water bottle, and instead I grabbed the pack of honey stinger chews.
Other than using them during some Fat Ass runs over the previous Winter, I’d never really trained with the honey stingers. Once I got the package opened, I would take one out and let it melt in my mouth before chewing it every time I got to an uphill that I was planning on walking. This actually worked out pretty well. I got through most of the pack before I got to the flooded part of the trail, when I put the rest into the pocket on my shorts.
I started passing people right away, most of whom knew Ian as he directs some popular trail races in Maine and is friends with everybody. They’d let me know how far up Ian was, and pretty soon I’d catch glimpses of him through the trees. I caught up to him about 2 miles into the loop on one of the bigger hills, and we ran together for a little ways. He wasn’t feeling too well, but he still had a strong finish left in him after I took off on the next downhill stretch.
Shortly after that, I reached the flood section of the course.
The water hadn’t really bothered me most of the race. I’m used to running with wet feet, my shoes drain, and it hadn’t been much of a problem for me. I’d gotten used to doing a little stretch and flick of my shoes to help drain water out the tops of them right after getting through, and then letting them dry over the next few miles.
This time, though, the water seemed to bother me a lot more. My toes got cold and they never really thawed out. Running through water that sometimes was as deep as my calf meant that I was splashing my legs to my upper thighs, and for the rest of the race I wasn’t able to feel the ground with my feet very well and my calves would spasm off and on. I never knew when a spasm would come, except for when I had to hurdle downed trees. Then it was guaranteed.
This slowed me down a lot, unfortunately. About halfway through the loop I started to have doubts of maintaining a 2-hour pace, and by the last aid station I knew that it wasn’t within my reach. Every time I’d pick up the pace, one calf or the other would spasm and threaten to introduce my face to the ground, so my goal became letting nobody catch me, even if it was somebody that I had just passed.
I wound up taking the last 2 gel packets that I had as I went through the aid stations, as well as another piece of banana and a cup of water at each one. I felt well enough the entire way that the only places I walked were where I had originally planned to, running everything in the last loop that I’d also run in the first loop.
With about 2 miles in the loop to go, there’s an abandoned car in the middle of the woods. Some guys had dragged a car battery out and hooked it up so they could blow the horn at the runners and serve them shots of kahlua, and as I came up on it I was thinking that since there was no chance of hitting my goal I should stop for a shot with the Stone Cat. Unfortunately, they’d packed up by then, so I kept going.
As I was beginning to think about putting in the final “sprint” (hopefully running around 7 minute pace for the last mile and a half or so) I heard somebody almost fall behind me. Turning around, I saw Dave Merkt (I think – that’s a guess, I never spoke with him) who had been visible through the trees for most of the last 6 or 7 miles since I’d passed him. That spurred me on to pick up the pace because I didn’t want anybody to pass me.
Coming into the gravely section of trail before the last real turn, my foot hit a rock and I twisted my ankle, threatening to go down. My calf in my other leg decided to spasm at the same time, so for the guys coming in the other direction to start their last loop they got to watch me windmilling my arms for about 20 meters while I tried not to fall down with less than a mile to go in the race. Somehow I kept my balance, but could only manage a 7:21 final mile.
My pace for the last loop was better than loop 3, but at 10:14 it wasn’t enough to break 8 hours. My final time was 8 hours, 7 minutes and 50 seconds, about 20 minutes slower than my PR, and good for 10th place out of 107 finishers. (At Stone Cat, you can drop down from 50 miles to 37½ miles or the marathon if you want.)
I was really happy with my race. The only thing I’d have done differently would have been to go straight to the handheld and skipped the waist pack; other than that, I think I did everything right and ran the best race that I had in me given the training I’d given myself and the course I found.
I have no doubt in my mind that I ran better this past weekend than I did 3 years ago despite the extra 20 minutes. Had I run the course in Nevada this weekend, I’d have had a new PR. Had I followed this race strategy 3 years ago, my PR would probably have been significantly faster. Had I had the extra thousand miles of training and speedwork under my belt for Stone Cat, I could have not only broken 8 hours but set a new PR as well, I have no doubt.
That’s one of the beautiful parts of ultra running. There are so many variables, you never know exactly how one day is going to compare to another. It’s a complete judgement call about which race was run better than another, and it’s easy to play a game of “What If…?” to state how things might have gone differently.
I had a lot of fun this weekend. Running from an Angel was fun too, but this was more fun. I’d do it again in a heart beat.
Check back on the blog later this week; I’ll share what equipment I used during the race, and break down my nutrition. Surprisingly, I ate fewer than half the calories I did the first time and felt much stronger at the end. (Not because it was half the calories, though, I don’t think…probably more because I didn’t go out like an idiot for the first half of the race.) I’ll also share what I did to recover from the race and how speculate on my plans for the near future.