Rocks and Roots 40K; My Worst Race Yet

Rocks and Roots bib and race shirt -- achieving millennial

Look at my new hunting race shirt, Altra shoes, and bib.

The more I thought about the February Rocks and Roots 50M 40K, the more I can’t point my finger to any actual reason the race went so poorly.  A sort of perfect storm clusterfuck.  There were many reasons that I dropped out halfway.  Is there any particular reason why it didn’t end well?  Was it not to be?  Was it youthful arrogance?  Recovering from illness?  Just a bad day at the office?

The fifth month in a row that I schedule myself for a marathon or longer came Sunday: the Rocks and Roots 50M.  I ran a marathon in October and November, then two 50Ks the past two months.  That was a lot of racing, without too much recovery and tapering.  I wanted to use race to train for a longer race.  The ultras were for something new to try, without a humongous emphasis on running them fast.  Show up and let a rip.  It’s for the experience, right?

Except Sunday when that Willie-nillie approach came tumbling down.

Last month’s R&R 50K went about as good as possible for the conditions of the course.  Did I execute it well?  I think I did as much as possible?  Did I run it hard enough?  Absolutely, for being muddier than a pigsty.  It’s hard for the new ultra runner to judge how well he or she runs.  Every course is very different and being that they’re all off-road, the conditions of the individual courses vary race-to-race as well.

The first potential problem was my long run of 24mi last Saturday.  That pretty much meant I could have had only a one-week short taper.  But since I ran my two 50Ks with no real taper, I thought no real problem.  The run was a “zen run” which took me nearly to downtown Columbus.  The weather was perfect.  I ran it at a 7:41 pace. The pace felt easy.  The last few miles started to burn more, but it was the good kind of burn.  I would have never pointed to this run had I run 50M.

Midway through Monday I wondered why I was so tired.  Then it hit me.  I’m tired because I’m catching something.  I could feel it in my nose: I was getting a head cold that would hopefully not turn into a fever that would take me out for at least a week.  As the day progressed, so did the congestion and fatigue, but the full-blown fever with its accompanying aches and pains did not.  It did take away sleep, my appetite and hydration, however.

My six-mile run on Monday was the last time I ran until Saturday.  I did hit my bike trainer, Paula, up throughout the week.  Interestingly, my congestion cleared up while riding her.  I can’t not be doing something, and I was as glad about riding her as running outside.  I just wanted to do something.  I rode enough to feel something, but not too much to retard my rest.  Maybe I flirted with the razor’s edge?  I don’t know.

Sleep with a congested nose is hard to come by.  Some may take an illness as overtraining, but in the heart of winter that’s hard to believe.  I could lie in bed for eight hours, but those weren’t eight hours of quality rest.  The feeling of an elevated heart rate fighting off illness.  The worst was the night of the race.  I hit the sack at 8:40pm.  I tossed and turned a little bit.  I think I started to dose off for a bit.  I woke up.  The clock read 10:40.  Damn.  A bathroom break and a snack.  More tossing and turning.  No sleep.  For a race that started a 6am while an alarm set to go off by 2:45am, I thought I would get up a hair after midnight because I would be less tired if I stayed awake with more coffee than if I woke up during the heart of REM sleep.  Might sleep have played a factor?

midnight, race day coffee -- achieving millennial

I needed this about as much as ever.

The day before my race I went for a shakeout run.  By “shakeout” I mean six miles at a 7:37 pace with the last mile being at ~6:40, which is certainly closing to marathon pace than recovery for 50M pace.  Did this play a factor?  Doubtful.  When I’m actually training, as opposed to tapering and recovery, which is seemingly all I’ve done since the fall, I run 70+ miles per week.  Even if it’s six mile fairly quick, it should effect me the way I performed at the Rocks and Roots 50M.  My heart rate, however, was high.  That, though, should have said something.

I’m a person who’s fairly good at reading between the lines, with a gut feeling.  Something just didn’t seem right about the ensuing race.

Rocks and Roots 50M Raceday

As previously noted, I sleep horrible.  Actually, it reminded me of when I traveled to the Far East.  I had to wake up at a stupid early hour, and I barely, if at all, got any sleep before my dad would drive me to the airport.  At least this was only a 50 mile race and not traveling eleven time zones away.  Maybe I should stay away from having to ever go to bed before 9?

On a positive note, I got to look at go through all of my 1,000 Places to Visit Before You Die page-a-day calendar I apparently stopped doing since October.  That reminded me that I want to go see the world.  Which is very different from having nearly the same schedule every week…

Alum Creek State Park -- achieving millennail

Although this isn’t on the course, this is what the park looks like in the sun. Beautiful! I took this Saturday.

The day before I started amassing what I’d wear and bring with me and threw it on my hardwood, living room floor.  I’m not sure why I do that anymore, because I’ve done enough races that it’s doubtful I’d forget something.  But you never know.  After dicking around with my neglected calendar and internet time-wasters, which might have included a Ted talk or two, I got clothed and ready to go.

In case you picked up on it since the race started at 6, it would still be dark.  Headlamp time!  I’ve only run with one once.  In the evening.  And I saw lots of deer in Columbus proper.  Go figure.  I have the Petzl RXP.  It’s a bright motherfucker.  Either I was the only one with something more than the equivalence of a Wal*Mart headlamp, or I was the only once with the highbeams on.  In either case, I never had to worry about a surprise tree jumping at me.

The weather was the same as Columbus: 28 and clear.  Damn near perfect running weather even if your ass is planted right on top of the fire at the start of the race.

The race director did roll call.  Apparently 30 of us wanted to run eight 10K loop on Super Bowl Sunday.  I think I saw two women.  I don’t know how many people finished.  I haven’t checked the race results.  As one person said, you just need to finish to finish Top 30.  I didn’t finish Top 30.

After hearing instructions from the RD, which included bushwhacking a bit of the trails, which proved to lead to route confusion in the dark, we lined up at the starting line.  The RD took our picture.  Since we all had headlamps on, I’m sure it took well.  The RD confirmed that thought when he mentioned he could see no faces.  The race began, with as little excitement as the Columbus Marathon has excitement.

The race was surreal.  It was dark, headlamp only, the ground was “frosty” that was only a matter of time before the heat from the day would thaw.  You could see stars the night was so clear.  About a half mile in we already had separation.  Apparently, I thought I could run with the big dogs as I moved my way up the pack.  I felt great last month, even though I couldn’t run faster than a 12:00 pace without falling on my ass, over and over.  I think I was fourth, starting a half mile in, to about the point that a tree clearing confused a few of us.  There was a large pack of runners on the single-track path about a hundred feet behind me.

Did I go out too fast?  Fuck if I know.  I didn’t run long enough to know how truly fit I was.

frozen mud -- achieving millennial

This is what frozen mud looks like. It is far less fun to run in than photograph. Get your quick feet on!

Running with a headlamp is surreal.  You feel out of body.  I don’t really know how to explain it.  I could feel, hear, and see the runners behind me chasing me.  That was fun.  The bright mother lamp had a wide enough shine that I could navigate the clearings without getting very lost.

With about a mile to go on the first loop, a group of runners past me as I took the wrong turn.  Most of them cleared out at the end of the first, north, loop and I continued onward.  The runner who was ahead of me, I believe anyhow, and I continued on.  I told him we lost them.  We continued to talk for most of the south loop.  He was a cool, nice guy, and it was nice to get your mind off running and on to something else.  Although even after this second 10K loop we’d be only a quarter of the way done.  Although he’s a sub-2:50 marathoner, he’s more of an ultra runner.  What’s more impressive is he runs 100 mile per week with a baby at home.  There’s time management.  If he can run that, you can run that.  No excuses.  You gotta want it.

Was I running too fast that I was keeping just behind a 2:40s 100 MPW (ultra) marathoner?  Maybe.  We were running 11s and 12s, so nothing to really set off any alarms.  I thought the worst that would happen is positive split into 13s and 14s and looking at ultra runners splits that seems normal anyhow.

Maybe around ten in did it start to feel like it was going to be harder, sooner, than what I thought.

I brought my 2L Camelback “Marathoner” hydration pack, stuffed with about 1,000 calories of fuel.  Did you know that those can freeze and keep you from sipping sweet, hydrating water?  They can.  Although you’re never more than about three miles from an a stocked aid station, that’s still half an hour away.  That didn’t help, but certainly didn’t kill me.  I rarely carry water or fuel on runs shorter than 12 miles anyhow, albeit this is a trail run.

When we finished our second loop many of the other race were getting ready for battle.  Rocks and Roots featured 10K, 20K, 30K, 40K, 50K, and 50M that day.  I ran straight through without going to the aid station.  My beginning-of-the-race nutrition could have been better, but then again I’m a light eater on race day.  This is a 50M, I know, and I thought after about 10 miles I would start forcing food down my throat.  My friend exited stage left, to take off clothes and do things experienced runners do, as I continued onward.

I ran by myself for a mile or so.  Well, except for the photographers taking our pictures.  There were about a half dozen of them around.  At this point the frosty, frozen mud, was just frozen, slick mud.  It had lost its crunchy traction.  I had gained too much confidence in my shoes on a hill and slipped on the icy mud.  I fell hard.  It felt like I landed hard on concrete.  By this time the first, fast runners of the shorter races were passing me.  They asked if I was alright.  I was, except my ego.

At this point on for the rest of the third loop I ran among the short-distance racers.  Which turned out to fit me well.  The sun was completely out by now (it was by the beginning of the second loop, but fits the story better here).  Beautiful.  This is what trail racing is: beauty in the environment.  The ground, for the most part, was really nice, with some “hot spots” thawed and muddy.  It felt like the Indy 500 compared to last month.  I stopped briefly at the aid station.  Gatorade and fig.  Mmm, fig.  I love figs while running.

A little bit later Camelback let me drink water again.  I was boarding the struggle bus at this point, but hadn’t sat down.  I was the person who had to say “hi!” to everyone first.

I finished the third 10K loop.  You could tell there were a lot of people who had already finished.  It was like a party.  However, my day should have been only 3/8 done.  I grabbed water, Gatorade, a fig or two, and took a leak.  In some order.  I started out again.  A guy shouted which direction I should go for which distance.  Interesting.  He didn’t mention the fourth loop — for the 50 milers — is left.  That was either an omen or an underestimation of me.  Or maybe I was going too fast.  I don’t know.

At this point I mentally know I had to go slow and easy. I should my seat on the struggle bus.  Downhills felt like Bigfoot, but without much, if any, comparable elevation. For me to finish the Rocks and Roots 50M, I would have to dig deep, take it easy, and play it ~3 miles at a time — the distance between aid stations.  The mud was nearly completely thawed.

Now, there are many opinions regarding race course conditions.  My first rule of running is to have run.  I don’t consider running on a slope comprised of mud to be fun.  I also hate to lose.  More practically, slipping and sliding is helping me sit down on the struggle bus at this point.  It might even push me in.  It’s making my “underperforming” muscles look like the Panthers’ offense.

Aid station.  I chat with the trio for a minute or two, and two runners also make their way.  We all, without me soliciting it, mention the mud and how you almost need a different pair of shoes every mile.  I start up again.  I’m struggling mentally and physically at the 20 mile mark.  Not good.  At this point I’ve come to the realization that I won’t be able to finish the Rocks and Roots 50M, but perhaps I can finish this and one more loop for the 50K.  Crazy.  I was less than a loop and a half from a 50K race.  I’m officially desensitized to long distance running.  “I can do the 50K instead” has officially meandered through my brain as a consolidation prize.

rocks and roots trail -- achieving millennial


Normally it takes me less than 8 minutes to run a mile, or two songs on my iPod shuffle.  Yes, I own – and use! – an iPod shuffle. Now, it’s taking 14.  I’m crossing my legs, opening up a newspaper on the struggle bus.  I have pain.  This isn’t the pain and suffering from the Bigfoot 50K that feels “natural”.  This pain feels unnatural.  It’s not from the hills.  It’s not from the 24 mile long run.  It’s not from the lack of sleep.  It’s the plated stew of this past week’s clusterfuck.

I think the fat lady started at mile 22.  I was done.  My mind certainly wandered to get me to the the point of stopping.  I didn’t really care.  I thought I’d do more harm finishing that loop.  I started walking.  It was a beautiful day, in case you missed that point a few paragraphs ago.  I tried to take it all in, when I wasn’t trying to keep from falling off a clip.  I”m pretty sure I stopped for a few minutes looking over a beautiful edge.  I was already walking, so what’s the harm in enjoying the view.

No 50K, no buckle.  I didn’t feel like I deserved one anyhow.  Even if I wanted to torture my body for a couple more hours.  I couldn’t wear it proudly — and trust me, I was looking forward to.

I was literally walking 25-29 minute miles.  I can probably get close to running 5 miles in half an hour.  But that’s on pavement.  I kind of came to the conclusion that I would end this ultra experiment and stick with road races.  Or at least until I get an inch for trails.  Or when I find a mudless course to run on.  That’ll be a requirement.  Although doing something new and different excites me, I just like my day-to-day runs as much as anything.  I like racing fast.  I like the feeling of floating out of my body.  I suppose I need a headlamp for that.

The last thing that really fucking pissed me off was going up a short, steep, muddy hill just past a water crossing that actually had a rope.  It needed one for the followed hill instead.  I lost traction on the hill and went backwards.  Hard.  Thankfully my $100 Camelback saved my back against the tree.  I walked the fifty feet after that to tell the race people I’m dropping out.  For a moment of adrenaline I thought about one more loop.  Then I remembered adrenaline is temporary and I’d hate life again in a hundred feet or so.

I few people few dropped out at this point.  I heard someone mention one person running the 50M dropped out.  That would be me.  The response was basically “that sucks”.  It did, but I’ll probably learn more from it long term.

I quickly licked my wounds by grabbing a finisher’s medal, and some similar refreshments.  I did do 40K after all.  It’s more of a momento.  I was after the 50M and buckle.  That’ll come a different time.

I heard a guy talking with someone else about dropping out while I sat in my car, with its doors open, changing my shoes and socks.  I sparked a brief conversation.  He was middle-aged training for the Eastern States 100M running the 50K as a training run.  His ankles started to act up and he called it after 30K.  He and I had similar views of why hurt yourself for a non-focus race.

I dicked around on my phone for a few minutes then drove home.

What I learned from my Rocks and Roots 40K

I learned I didn’t learn anything.  I don’t know how else to put it.  At least not definitively.  Everything can be explained by almost a cause-and-effect that may or may not be related.

Did I get sick from my long run?  Doubtful.  I’d have runs like that, albeit not as long (it was at the time my sixth longest run, ever).

Did my illness cause my poor race?  Probably.  And if that was the case, which it probably was once you take the holistic value of my sinus thing, all you can say it “don’t get sick!” during race week.  Which is like telling someone to “be careful”.  You’re making yourself feeling better than the other person.

Did I get too ambitious in my races?  Maybe.  Lots and tapering and recovery since November.  But I haven’t had any real lingering effects.  The first race, Columbus, was the only real focus race.  The others closer to the “fun” category.  Of course I naturally run them as hard as possible, but I didn’t pull out all of the stops.  In a week or two I think I can do the R&R 50M “just fine”.  It’s not a heavily technical course with oodles of elevation.  It’s about as “easy” and “fast” of a 50M as you’ll probably ever find.  Interestingly, I’ve heard more “you’ll be fine” regarding that race than “you probably should be doing back-to-backs and a whole, bunch more overthinking and unnecessary training”.  At the end of the day running isn’t difficult.

Did I start too hard without enough nutrition?  Since I only “completed” half 40 of the 80 kilometers, you can’t know.  Running on the trails is different, but I wasn’t suffering this much during my two 50Ks to think that this was the problem.  If I ran 40 miles then wound up like this you could point to this, not not after less than a marathon-training long run.

Did I not respect the distance?  Again, how do you know?  I know I didn’t, but I might have “gotten away with it”.

On one hand I need to start training better for specific races.  On the other, that limits what you can do each year.  The downfall of running hard, long distance races is you only get a few shots per year.  You get stuck between a rock and a hard place.  Probably better is to stick with specific categories — trail or road?  I say this as I’m going to switch to tris in a couple of months, then have a half ironman toward the end of summer.  At least I’ll have a clear focus on that.

Maybe in a couple of years with a much greater aerobic base I can switch from trails races, to road races, to triathlons, but I’m not there, yet.

I type this wanting to run a 50M more than ever before, for redemption and wanting to prove to myself that Sunday was only an anomaly.  I trained and trained and trained for Columbus last October after a hugely disappointing debut marathon a year earlier.  You learn more from your failures than your successes.


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2 Responses

  1. Alen says:

    you’ll get it next time.

    • Christian says:

      Thanks, Alen. If I run the series next year I’ll do the 20K/20K. Both loops, but easier on a road race body.