Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Yankee Springs Winter Challenge 50 Mile

My expectations are a moving target. A year ago, if you had told me I would complete a 50 mile trail race, I would have been ecstatic. Six months ago, if you had told me I would podium in my first 50 mile trail race, I would have been thrilled. Don’t get me wrong, I’m very pleased with a third-place finish in the Yankee Springs Winter 50 Mile… however, it’s still the lowest I’ve placed in an ultra.

This was one of the more competitive ultras I’ve raced and took place on a fairly challenging course. The 5,142’ of elevation gain and loss punished those who weren't prepared and some of the rocky descents were perilous. The trail claimed it’s share of victims and the finish rate was around 60%. Many of those who dropped out were just worn down by the distance and terrain, but a fair number were very strong runners who went out too hard in an attempt to remain competitive in a fast field and it cost them.

I went out with 8 minute miles for the first 5k to establish myself near the front of the pack, but then quickly settled into a more methodical pace. I crossed the 19 mile mark in 5th place, averaging just under 8:30/mile. I was feeling fatigued far earlier than I expected so I was very happy to pick up my first pacer, Mark Ott. Mark has a ton of ultra experience and some very impressive 100 mile wins to his name, so I knew I was in good hands. He quickly assessed my condition based on my stride, calorie and water intake, and a few brief questions about how I felt. He set a pace that pushed me but wouldn’t break me and stayed about 5 yards in front of me, pulling me along. I had consumed less than 16oz of liquid during those first 19 miles, which Mark immediately recognized would be an issue later in the race if we didn’t adjust quickly. His periodic barks of “Drink!” kept me hydrated and I downed 50oz over the next 15 miles. As we hammered up some of the steeper climbs Mark offered reminders to pump my arms, and as we crashed down the hills he pointed out loose rocks and roots to avoid. We bounced between 4th and 5th place for a while before some of the leaders began to pay for their fast start as their legs failed them. When our time together ended 34.5 miles into the race, I was in 3rd place.

With 15.5 miles to go I picked up my final pacer, Ben Pankow. While Mark excelled at ensuring my body remained in working order, Ben did the same for my psyche. Ben was a standout runner for Williamston and CMU, an accomplished coach and is a very good friend. As much as he ensured I maintained a good pace and form (I heard "shorten your stride" and "relax your shoulders" more times than I could count), most of his duties involved supporting me mentally and encouraging a positive attitude. Around mile 36 I was struggling up a long climb when I ground out a hoarse “Ben…” between audible breaths. He turned around, and seeing the look on my face offered a soothing, “I know, buddy… I know.” He alternated between understanding and encouraging, and at times provided some much-needed tough love (as you can see in the video of my finish below, with Ben in the blue jacket breathing down my neck).

A race like this is a team effort, and I’m lucky to have an awesome team. Thank you to my crew (my dad, stepmom and beautiful wife), my pacers, my mom and stepdad for watching my daughter so we could stay in a cabin at the trailhead, and the volunteers and staff at Switchback Endurance for putting on a great race.

All in all, this was a good start to the 2020 season and I’m eager to continue pushing my limits. Congratulations to the champion Steve Lawrence and runner-up Chaz Hornberg. Next up: Winter Loops 4hr!

Full Results