The hefty chips on my shoulder didn’t weight me down at Saturday’s Psycho Wyco Run Toto Run race series at Wyandotte County Lake Park.
Instead, they functioned like extra large, double-caffeine Roctaine gel packs to fuel my performance during my first 50K trail race.
The first chip took its place Jan. 22 when my friend Gary — well intentioned as he may have been — asked, “Are you sure you’re ready for a 50K? Those WyCo trails are tough.”
Am I ready? Heck if I know! But there’s only one way to find out!
Yeah, I’d show Gary. I’d finish. No doubt about it.
The second chip was from the man in the mirror. I ran my first marathon in November. I signed up the Monday of the race, puked my guts up with the stomach flu the day before, and then walked a good portion of the final eight miles due to severe dehydration from said stomach flu. I finished, but it wasn’t pretty. Wael Sammur paced me for the final 14 miles of the marathon, constantly urging me to run a bit while I grumbled about being sick and needing to walk.
I was a pathetic sight that day, and I expected better. This was my opportunity for redemption. Wael volunteered to pace me for the final loop of the WyCo 50K, and I wanted to make it worth his time. More than that, I wanted to finish the race the right way.
So yeah, I’d show Gary, and I’d show me. I’d finish — and finish strong.
After weeks of being teased by toasty temps, Saturday brought the coldest weather of the winter. Single digits and a wind chill of minus-1 for the 8 a.m. start of the 50K and 20-mile races were fitting for what’s supposed to be a frozen 50K.
Upon arrival, I snagged one of the final parking spots in the lot closest to the start/finish area. Claire — bracing for her first trail race, and the 20-miler at that! — jogged over from a farther lot to join me. Just like about 90 percent of the other runners, we waited in the car with the heater cranking until about five minutes before race time to save every last bit of warmth.
Then, just in time for the start, we hopped out, ditched our drop bags at the main aid station and headed to the starting line. Moments later, Bad Ben sent us on our way. Through an open field, over a bridge, across a grassy patch, up a hill and then a left turn onto the bridle trail.
A week earlier, Claire and I did a full loop of the course as a final training run and it was a soupy slip-n-slide of standing water, shoe-sucking mud pools and treacherous footing. Now, all of that was frozen solid, making for a mixture of ankle-breaking holes and fast stretches.
We stuck together for a majority of the first two loops and maintained a steady, comfortable pace.
The first loop was largely uneventful with the exception of my hydration pack freezing up for the first 1:25. Claire’s stayed frozen into the start of loop two before thawing.
We set out at a relaxed pace, keeping in mind that it would be a long day on the course. After a mile and a half we flew down a steep downhill and out of the wind. It was noticeably warmer, and outer layers were ditched a few minutes later. The WyCo Triangle was a breeze with good footing on the switchbacks and short hills.
Beginning with the Triangle, and on through mile seven the footing was mostly good and allowed for a brisk pace. The speedy descent of Falldown Hill and the first half-mile of single track after the dam aid station flew by and allowed us to make good time before power-hiking the steep, rocky hills during the final miles of the loop.
We finished loop one in a brisk 1:55. For some perspective, my finishing time in last year’s 10-mile race was 1:53, so I was a little concerned about going too fast despite feeling good.
After a five-minute stop aid the aid station to down some snacks and fluid, it was back to the trail for loop two.
The second loop was nearly identical to the first, only a tiny bit slower. Me made good time to the Triangle, flew through it and then quickly proceeded to Falldown Hill and on to the dam aid station. For Claire, she was 75 percent of the way done. For me, it was halfway home.
Despite the frigid temperatures, the sun began to thaw out the dirt during the final five miles of loop two. Footing grew slick. A few wipeouts were avoided thanks to strategically placed trees.
Claire battled blisters on her toes during the final miles and ordered me to go ahead. It didn’t make much difference time-wise. I cruised back into the main aid station and she arrived three minutes later — smile on her face and first trail race done — in 4:09.
I was pumped. Two loops down, one to go, and I felt great.
I grabbed a peanut butter sandwich from my drop bag, downed some Pedialyte and headed out for the final loop. Wael caught up a few minutes later, and once I finished my sandwich we picked up the pace — for a little bit. Around mile 22, a tingling sensation began vibrating on the outside of my right knee. First it was annoying, but it quickly started to hurt.
Damn it. My IT band was pissed, and there were nine more miles to go.
Even with this angry knee, my goal of breaking seven hours was still in reach thanks to a strong first two loops, but Wael upped the ante. “I think you can break 6:30,” he said. I was thinking more like 6:45, but I trusted his calculations.
“We’ve got 6:30, no doubt,” I replied.
So we went for it.
Thanks in large part to five months of training for a Kilimanjaro climb in 2010, I’ve learned to power hike almost as fast as I can run. As a result, Wael and I decided on a plan. Run until the knee hurts, then shift into hike mode for a few minutes. We stuck with it, going back and forth — run, hike, run, hike, run, hike — and made great time. We cruised down Falldown Hill, then hiked up to the dam aid station. Back on the single track, we flew on the downhill sections and then charged back up with brisk hiking.
There was no stopping at the final aid station. Wael ran ahead and grabbed me a drink so I wouldn’t have to pause. We needed a 12-minute pace on the final two miles to break 6:30, and the hardest climbs were ahead of us. It was time to finish this thing right. We dug in and marched up the hills, taking full advantage of my hiking strength, and then tore down the other side with reckless abandon, slipping on thawed mud and stumbling over rocks. Finally, we crossed the road, and then raced the final 200 yards to the finish line at a near sprint.
Claire greeted me with a hug, and “Bad Ben” Holmes offered a warm smile and congratulations before handing me my finisher’s medal and a 50K sticker.
I was finished, and I was satisfied.
Gary was wrong. I was ready for the 50K. And thanks to Wael pushing me on the final loop, I finished the way I wanted to.
The chips are now off of my shoulder, and the 50K sticker is on my car.
First loop: 1:55
Aid station: 5 minutes
Second loop: 2:06
Aid station: 3 minutes
Third loop: 2:13