Fat Ass 50K
North Adams, MA
Saturday, December 27, 2008
3:59:20, 50K (31 miles) – 7:43 pace
3rd place overall of 25-35 starters
“50K (on roads) is nothing more than a mismarked marathon.”
That’s the lesson I took away from my first go at the 50K ultra marathon distance. In fact, after last year’s successful run over that distance at the 2007 Fat Ass 50K in North Adams, Massachusetts, a race I finished feeling pretty good, I wanted to try it again to see if that distance, if on roads, is really nothing more than a mismarked marathon.
And so on Saturday morning, only two days after Christmas with a body fueled with sugary cookies and choice holiday ales, I hopped in the car for the 3-hour drive out Route 2 towards North Adams, Massachusetts. Despite freezing rain and slippery road conditions, I made it out to the far western part of the state in due time for a 10 AM start.
“Fat Ass” races are a type of no frills race with no entry fee, no medals, no course marshalls, and trace aid station support. At a Fat Ass, the only guarantee is that there will be other hearty souls to plod along with, and there will be a course even if not marked. Your watch serves as the race clock. And since many of these type of races, typicially those in the ultra marathon 50K or 50-miler variety, often have multi-loop courses, there is also a check-in sheet to record your time. This Fat Ass was no different.
A minute before 10 AM, with a steady freezing rain falling to the ground, making footing slippery in many areas, and a stiff wind calling attention, Bob Dion, the race director, gave some basic descriptions and finally stepped into the ice-encrusted road. 25-35 runners, dressed in all sorts of colors, pushed closer as Bob looked at his watch a final time and said, “Go.”
The Fat Ass 50K was on.
With a course consisting of a fairly flat 3.5 mile out and back followed by a slightly rolling 5.5 mile loop we did 5 times, it would have been mindless if not for the stiff, chilly winds that filter through the North Adams valley. And with the temperatures stuck at 33F and an at-times driving rain, it grew very cold very quickly, especially heading into the wind.
On the out and back section to start the race, overall position was already set, where it would pretty much stay for the next 4 hours.
Two guys, both 2:40 marathoners, took the lead. I knew their credentials because, only a few minutes before the start of the race, one of them surprised me when he called my name. “Hey Thor,” he said, “it’s Jon from Lake Placid.” At Lake Placid Marathon earlier this year, I came in 4th place overall while Jon, he won the race! So I knew Jon.
Jon and the other guy already gained two minutes on me by the end of the 3.5 mile out and back, and I knew I would not make a move, for I still had much too many miles to run. After a 4 minute break to hit the potty, they were both now completely out of sight. No matter, though, as I was now able to settle into pace.
Loop 1, 2, and 3 of the 5 went very well. I was steadily increasing effort, but not all out marathon pace. I was probably logging 7:20-7:30 miles. After completing each lap I logged my time in the check-in book, looked to see how far behind I was and to see if the two guys in front were still in the race, as many runners had already bailed due to the conditions, and I’d stop at the car to refill my water bottles with Gatorade, grab another Gu, and be off.
The first two miles of the loop grew very cold. The wind was stiff and always head-on, and it always seemed to be pouring rain on this front section. After completing a few loops I realized that it was probably because of the nature of this town in how it sat in the foothills of more mountainous terrain. Those two miles became a part to survive. Barely able to feel my fingers, and with Raynaud’s freezing my feet over block white, I knew it would dissipate once I made the turn off the highway and onto the dirt road beginning rounding the loop.
By the end of lap 3, I found myself playing mind games. I set it up so that lap 4 would be my final, where the real final lap (%5) would be the victory lap, where I would say goodbye to various landmarks and stretches of road — both tough stretches and fun stretches.
Before I knew it, I was on lap 5 and still running strong. My pace was about where it was although my effort was now much greater. Because of the very cold, wet conditions (it rained throughout the entire run), I found my body needing less fluids but more energy, and so I was sure to gobble gels and, before long, changed over to the solids of PowerBar and Luna Bar, and even these amazing molasses fig bars somebody brought.
On that last lap I also learned that the guy in second place was falling off pace. But from the last time check, I knew that even if he walked quite a bit, with 20+ minutes to make up, there would not be enough miles remaining. I cut the gap to 15 minutes before running out of road.
I also knew that I would be close to the 4-hour mark. Last year I did this race in 4:08, and my goal this time was sub-4. But I was also too tired to look at my watch. I was in a happy place, set in my zone, running pretty strong with no desire to look at the watch.
Until the final turn, as I was climbing a bridge, on the other side of which was the finish. The watch said 3:58:10. And so I sprinted it home for 3rd place in under 4 hours.
Final time: 3:59:20.
Conditions must’ve been much tougher than I realized, because from my estimation, over 75% of the starters did not finish. Many bailed early. It was downright raw out there, and I can’t blame them.
After finishing, I changed into warm and dry clothes and popped into the pub across the street where everyone was gathering. Last year when I popped in, the bar was empty. This year, it was packed. Many indeed did drop out due to the weather. I hung around for an hour or more, and during that time there was no other finisher. In hindsight, I’m guessing that just due to the temperatures being so low with a pouring rain, it may have been the worst, or at least it was among the worst, conditions in which I have raced. I faired well because I dressed approapriately and changed gloves halfway through when I could no longer feel my fingers (or get them warm due to wetness), and because my pace was solid enough to generate plenty of heat. Still, it was a tough weather day. But a fun challenge at a time when there are so few other races like it.