Pineland Farms 50 Mile Trail Race
New Gloucester, Maine
Sunday, May 27, 2012
8:20:36 (10:01 pace)
Ascent: 3500 feet over three loops
25th Place Overall of ~150 (200 registrants)
7th AG M40-49
*3.5 mile loop + 25K (15.5 miles) loop run 3 times
3.5 – 29:09
25K #1 – 2:23:35
25K #2 – 2:29:38
25K #3 – 2:58:13 (ugly)
Maine Running Club: here
When I approach a race that is out of my comfort zone in difficulty level, say an ultra marathon, or one in which I will run far out of my comfort zone in attempts to achieve my potential, for example a marathon in which I want to run hard, I tend to ignore the race itself and the pain I will go through. I do this by not thinking about the race. Instead, I distract myself by either ignoring the race completely or, if I do think about it, visualizing myself being strong on various portions on the course. I let the day come to me rather than anticipating it every waking hour. The former allows me to head into a race stress free, while the latter amps up frenzied anxiety. I prefer one over the other.
This technique – or, really, this coping mechanism – works for me most of the time. It allows me to sleep in the days leading up to the race. I spend little time thinking about the race except to visualize myself being successful.
Unfortunately, once in a while, this strategy doesn’t work.
At Pineland Farms 50, a fifty mile ultra-marathon that is part of a trail running festival in New Gloucester, Maine, this approach bit me in the ass.
I totally overlooked this race by ignoring it. Did I really think I could jog a 50 mile ultra-marathon? Did I really think I could go into this race with the only plan being to jog easy? Apparently so.
By ignoring this race, I let my guard down; this helped me slide into a fast pace in the early going. I had no idea just how relentless the roller coaster hills on the course would be. Where I had hoped to be ready to run strong for many, many hours through to the end, I was now making decisions – or, truthfully, NOT making decisions – that would see me run strong for a few hours and then suffer through several more.
The only thing going for me was that I was fit and mentally plugged in. In other words, although I was not anticipating a battle, my training over the past few years left me ready for one – it was just that I was not expecting one.
Pineland Farms Trail Running Festival caught my attention a few months prior. Friends told me this event is a perfect late-spring ultra marathon with great organization and some of the most picturesque trails you can run on. So with the Canadian Death Race as my target race for the year – coming two months later in early August – I realized that the 50 miler would be the right stepping stone to take me toward my real goal of the Death Race.
Overlooking this race had me not doing my homework on the course profile. I had heard the course was rolling hills, but I didn’t do research to find out what that meant. “Rolling hills” to some is prairie land and poppy fields to others. Little did I know that the course was so choppy, up and down like a runaway roller coaster, there were few sections that were flat. Mentally and physically, I was ready. But that didn’t help me make the right decisions early on with my pacing.
I went out a little too hard. And it bit me in the ass. This proved to be far more work than I anticipated, all because the coping mechanism that keeps me sleeping well in the days before the race, this time failed. I needed to do more homework.
Pineland Farms Trail Running Festival is a family event with races of distances from 5K all the way up to 50 miles. There is even a 5K Canicross event where you can run with your dog! The way it is set up bodes well for the longer races, since the courses loop by the start/finish festival area many times.
The 50 Miler was essentially 3 laps of a 25K (15.5 miles) loop. Because this was shy of 50 total miles, there was a smaller 3.5 mile loop prepended to the day.
After the race started, I settled in to a comfortable breathing pattern on the opening 3.5 mile loop. The rolling nature of the course started right away. Up and down we went. Not long after, I hooked up with a guy from Central Massachusetts. As we swapped stories, we both remarked that we were probably going too fast. “Just means we’ll be walking sooner,” I joked. Funny. Or maybe not.
Upon completing the 3.5 mile loop, we swung back by the start/finish area. There were early morning spectators cheering us on. I used this as an opportunity to hit a Portopotty. It was odd, because here I was, stuffed squat in a green stink chamber, with people outside clapping. I did my business, snapped the door shut, and said to those now looking at me: “I felt like I had my own personal cheering section in there.” I was pointing at the Portopotty. “Thanks for the support!”
Back running, I was now beginning the first lap of the 25K course. Having started on the fast side, and due to the nature of the hills on the course, I had a hard time slowing down. Hills are like that. You have to work to get up them, whether you are going hard or easy. I decided not to fight it. Just run, I coached myself. Had I known what the rest of 25K course profile looked like, with those relentless ups and downs, I would have coached myself differently. Live and learn. How do you like funny now?
Lap #1 was a fun ride, almost an exploration expedition, as I soaked in the scenery and tried to take mental notes of key landmarks for the next two laps, when things would no doubt get tougher. Nice about the course was that each of the 25 kilometers were marked with large white signs on trailside. Because of the potty break, I spent the first three kilometers (roughly two miles) passing people until finally the pace at which I was running was the same as those around me.
In and out of dark forest and cutting across pristine farmland, the course rolled and snaked. Someone would tell me later that the land was designed by an architecture firm who has made world-class cross country ski resorts in Norway, Switzerland and even was part of Salt Lake City Olympics. It was easy to see. The course alone, with wide trails of grass and others of hard-packed dirt and pine needles, was worth the entry fee alone. One day when I get into cross country skiing, I thought as I was out there, I’ll be back!
At roughly 7K into the first lap (total mileage 3.5 miles + 7K = 8.25 miles), I came upon my friend Jay Pags. I met Pags earlier in the year when we ran the GAC Fat Ass 50K together. Pags was one of the guys who talked this race up. It was good to see him out there. We chatted until one of the steeper hills came upon us. Pags and another fellow took the smart approach by walking. Me, I still haven’t decided if walking hills is my thing, not at least on a 50 – but definitely a 100 — so I ran easy, light on my feet up. I repeated this for most of the first two laps. Once in a while, when the trail tipped up a bit too much, I walked to give my legs a break. The third lap, however, would be different.
By the time I got to 10K into the first lap, I had a good idea of the aid station setup. This was important since in a race this long you tend to break up the course by segments defined by aid stations. To this point I was drinking often, and even though the day started on the cool side, it was now warming, even getting hot at times, and I was sweating non-stop. This was good. I also was gobbling gels and had a few peanut butter and jelly squares.
Back into the forest the course went as it made its way again toward the start/finish area. This section was bit hard to get a feel for. Because of that it seemed longer than it really was.
Each 25k lap has, as my friend Mat would say, a “front nine” and a “back nine,” in golf speak. The front nine was a 15K loop on the west side of farm and forest land that would start and return to festival area. The back nine was a 10K loop that did the same on the east side. So in completing one lap, front nine plus back nine, you go by the start/finish line one time before swinging out on the back nine to complete the loop.
Now on the back nine, I was feeling more fatigued than I would have liked. Too much too early. It was then when I knew that I had started too hard for the course. If this were Stone Cat or another 50 mile course, I could have done this same pace. But not here, not on these hills. And the back nine was filled with more of the same. Up and down and up and down.
Finally, I hit the “Final Mile Aid Station,” the last aid station on the loop, and completed the first lap in 2:23 time. Add in the first 3.5 mile loop and I was now nearly 20 miles in. I grabbed a few more gels from my bag, which was under a tent by the finish area, which I had just passed, and started on the second lap.
Lap number two grew hot. Although the temperature wasn’t that high, when in the open farmland of tall grass, of which there was a 12 foot swath of path cut for the race, it got muggy and hot, probably because of the moist, humid air lingering around in this grassy ecosystem.
Sweating good and fueling right, I made my way through the course. By the first aid station and to the second, which we loop in and out of a total of three times, I couldn’t help but think again of the course and how well it was marked and the trails maintained. In fact, the course was so well marked that it was impossible to run off course. There was never a doubt where to go. Even if you had your head down, there was still no way of going off course. So well it was that course markings weren’t even needed in most areas, although they were there.
It was on the second lap when things also got hard. I kept up with gels and peanut butter & jelly and now even fig bars and bananas. My hydration was good, and I even popped a salt tablet. But the constant up and down was wearing on me. My legs were having a tough time turning over when I ran down the hills, and it was taking more and more energy out of me to go up. This is also when the camber of the farmland started tweaking my ankles. At times the course cut across grassy hills – not up or down, but across – on a camber, or tilt, 20% or more. I was feeling all sorts of pains and twisting motions in the ankles.
My favorite part of the course was among the toughest. Just out of the Yurt Aid Station for the first time (Yurt is the station that the course loops out from 3 times — it is the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th of 5 total stations), the course cuts through tall grass about six feet high. The trail was mowed low, with dead grass still in the path making footing tough. This pointy grass would poke your ankles and shins. As I was ascending the open farm land amid this tall grass, again with the grass up to above eye-level, you could see way up the hill where the path goes, see the path cut right — see only because of the heads bobbing above the top of the grass line. A closer look would show the course switching back and forth all over the hill as it made its way up. What I liked about it was that when you finally made your way through the ascent and were now at the top, you could look back to see the cut in the grass of path where you came from, and if you were lucky you’d see a head bobbing about the trail to prove, yup, that’s where you came from.
On this part of the course I felt as if I were in a video game. We were all Lemmings making our way through the course. I toyed with this video game idea for many ups and downs.
Somewhere in here my mental sharpness got blunted, in case you hadn’t noticed already. But it was, at least temporarily, in a way that favored me. I had learned to count the number of times I hit the Yurt Aid Station. I knew I had to come into and out of it three times before the course would start heading back, marking the end of the front nine. As I came into the Yurt the second time, it hit me that this wasn’t the second time – it was the third! I was that much farther along. I used this mental lapse as a clue to catch up on my fuel.
When doing long endurance events, every once in a while I will do what I call is a “catch up” on either my hydration or nutrition or both. I drink and eat along the way, but the “catch up” is a time when I get in more than a few sips or bites here and there, to catch up in case I was running low. And with that kind of mental hiccup just happening, I knew there was a good chance I needed it. Third time at the Yurt aid station, I caught up.
To this point I kept telling myself that lap 2 was the hard one. If lap 1 was the social lap, and 3 the party lap, lap 2 was the tough one. Just get through it, and the fun lap, the final one, would start.
Lap 2 finally came to an end in 2:29. I was happy with the time because I thought I would be much slower than the first lap. First was 2:23. This wasn’t far off. But that would change.
Through the festival area I went, without stopping, and onto the third lap. I wanted to get this over with. I was growing hot, tired, and I knew the next lap would get ugly. To this point I was mostly running by myself. I would come upon other runners from time to time, but they would mostly be those in the 50K race, and some in the 25K, once in a while somebody from the 50 miler. I never felt alone, for you could always hear through the trees cheering from a distant aid station or chatter from other runners on the zip of the zag of the course. Plus, the next aid station was at most 4K away.
The third lap is also when I paid the price for having started the first lap on the fast side. Where I was hoping to plod my way through the farmland and to each of the aid stations, a Lemming making his way through the maze, I was slipping more into survival mode. One thing I made sure to do was to stay focused, keep my mental game entirely plugged in, so that I wouldn’t suffer more. Embrace the pain became my game.
Hills were growing steeper, and I was walking more of the ups. About 3K into the loop, my legs grew so fatigued that I was not able to run well down the steeper hills. This was perplexing because my quads, something that often get hammered on courses with a lot of descent, felt fine. They were not sore. But they were fatigued, as were my hamstrings and in general my whole body, and running down hill fast was not at all possible. So now I was not only giving back time on the ups but I was also giving back on the downs not to mention slowing down on even the mild ups and downs and flats, where ever they were.
From there until the end, my breathing was labored. I was running as easy as possible, but with the ups and downs, I was tapped out. Walk the steeper ups, easy tip-toe jog down the downs, and simple plod on all else. I kept focused, kept trying to “get into the land”, as I called it. There was a long stretch where I was listening to birds chirp. When I lost focus, I’d get back to focusing on breathing and keeping it on edge of control. Soft-step easy up the ups. Easy does it.
After what seemed forever, I finally made it onto the back nine of the last lap. I now had 10K more to go! Embracing the pain and deep fatigue, I forged on.
Over the back nine, things in the race changed drastically with those around me. I was not only picking off some of the slower 50K’ers, I was passing many 25K’ers, too. Not only that, but also, the 50 mile race was shaking up. I passed several runners with orange bib numbers; orange was the color for the 50. Some of those whom I passed looked like death. Just as I was getting buoyed, other orange bibs came by me. I probably looked like death to them. I would try to hang with each of the five that went by me, and I would for a short while, pulling me farther along the course, but not too long later they were gone.
Where my “party lap” was supposed to be the entire third lap of celebration of completing 50 miles, like a victory lap, then was cut short to just the back nine, it was now getting so tough that the abbreviated party lap of just the back nine was cut even further to the “Final Mile Aid Station” – with one mile left!
What made this bearable was that having been through here two previous times, I had a good idea of how the course was set up, and I had several landmarks to check off as I went by.
Now at the Final Mile Aid Station, I was so psyched to finish that I went quickly through it. I didn’t need anything. I was about to finish my second 50 mile ultra marathon. I had a mile remaining. And I wanted to get it done. So I opened my mind further, soaked in the land, the experience, and even the hurt over the final mile.
Deep down I knew that this course, even with me underestimating it by looking beyond it, would prove to be awesome training for the Death Race. With the steady up and down, this hurt is now in my body in the form of strength. And by not anticipating the hurt and how long it would be, this too is now in my mind in the form of mental capacity.
Death Race, it’s in me. Mind and body.
After passing on the outside of the finish line chute six times during the course of the long, grinding day, I was now ready to cross the line. With high-fives from friends, that’s what I did.
Finish came in 8 hours, 20 minutes, and 36 seconds. This was good for 25th place overall of 200 registrants (150 finishers) and 7th AG M40-49.
Lap 3 was 2:58, nearly 30 minutes slower than lap 2. Yeah, it was ugly. But I was still in control, walking only by my own accord on steeper up hills.