Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Race Strategy and Ultra Running

In marathon running, it is race suicide to go out to fast and then fade at the end. But does that principle hold for ultras?

The night before Bandera, Dan Olmstead and I were reviewing some of the race materials, including Nick Clark's (at the time CR) splits from 2010, which Dan had along as a guide for his own race. Nick completed the two 50k's in 4:15 and 5:01. That's about a minute and a half per mile slower the second time around. Chakira Omine's second loop was 3 minutes faster than Nick's second loop, but Nick had a big enough cushion from the first loop to hold on for the win (and CR).

And so I asked Dan: Is it better to aim for consistency or is it better to go out fast, get a good lead, and just hope to hang on?

That night we both kind of shrugged it off, with no decision on which was the better strategy. But it is something I keep wondering about. Two years in a row I have had the fastest second 50k of all the women (7 min ahead of Jill/Aliza in 2010; roughly 5 minutes faster than Liza this year), but it hasn't resulted in a win. I was super happy with my race both years and I am not harboring any regrets. But one of the appeals of this sport is that there is so much to learn, so many variables to consider, so much experimenting to be done and I am an eager student (oh, let's not sugar coat it: I am the class nerd!). My strategy in basically all of my races has been to aim for consistency, but maybe I need to adapt. Maybe I need to risk a little more in the beginning, at least in "shorter" races?

Are you a gambler or do you play it safe? I would love to here thoughts from other runners and especially ultra runners on the idea of going out fast and hanging on vs. staying consistent... that is, if you are willing to share your strategy. ;)

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

WooHoo- I Got Two Votes!

The results for the ultra-runner of the year voting were announced this week. In no way was I in contention for the award, but seeing my name on the "also receiving votes" list was kind of like getting a gift from a secret admirer! Definitely an honor to be mentioned with so many great athletes.

Full results here.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Back To Bandera

A short while after JFK I read an article on the McMillan Elite Team training in Flagstaff. In the article, Coach Greg McMillan described how he selected people for his team. He stated there are many runners that post fast times but he is interested in the winners - people who have shown that they can win big races not just run fast. Reading between the lines, I realized Greg McMillan thinks I am a loser!

You see, my 2010 started off with me breaking the Bandera course record by 42 minutes...and losing by three minutes. At MacDonald Forest I ran faster than the 2009 winning time, but was second to Ashley Nordell by two and a half minutes. And then the real crusher was JFK, when the 9th fastest time in the race's 48 year history was 21 seconds too slow for a victory.

To me the disappointment wasn't in finishing second, but rather the idea that maybe something was holding me back. That moment of self-doubt, fear, and insecurity at mile 46 of JFK haunts me. And so I vowed to stop being a loser in 2011.

Now in no way do I mean that I plan to win all my races or that I am only running to win. What I mean is that I want to believe in myself, to not be intimidated by others, and to not be limited by fear and doubt. At the end of the day, win or lose, I want to look back and say, "I fought hard and I have no regrets."

After JFK, I changed my physical training very little (though I tried to get a bit more technical stuff - something that is pretty hard to do here in Oregon. "Technical" for us mostly means mud, not rocks and poor footing!). However, I did add what I call Stuart Smalley Training: "I am good enough, I am smart enough, and doggone it, I am a fast runner." Basically, a lot of positive mind set and self affirmation type of stuff.

Now I am not exactly one for touchy feely, new age Kum Ba Yah sessions, but I do think ultras have a huge mental component and so going into a race in the right frame of mind is really important. So I set off for Bandera feeling good about myself, ready to test out my fitness and my new Jedi mind tricks.

I had the pleasure of traveling with some of the members of the Sunsweet running (and comedy) team: Meghan Arbogast, Craig Thornley, his wife Laurie, Dan Olmstead, Jeff Riley and his wife Laura. I had a lot of fun with them cracking jokes, bonding over pedicures, and laughing ourselves silly over sexually frustrated burros.
"I love my Ducks!" (Thornley's photo)

But Saturday morning, the comedy show was over; it was time to race! Meghan and I noted Liza Howard as a top contender, with the "scouting report" on her that she would go out fast and be good on the rocks - the exact opposite of me! Other fast chicks on the entrant's list were Darcy Africa (DNS) and Alison Bryant (DNF), but with those two out, the race basically played out between me, Liza and Meghan.

Wipe those smiles off of your faces; It is time to get serious! (ph:Olga V.)

Knowing I start slow, I lined up in the mid-pack, but the race photographer made me move to the front for more female representation. Within about ten seconds of the race start a big mob passed me by and I saw Liza dart into the lead for the ladies with Meghan hot on her heels.
Look at me lining up with Geoff Roes!
And they're off...and I am already behind! (photos: Olga V.)

I felt a little sluggish to start, legs kind of flat, but I just kept thinking I always start slow and need time to warm up. Look at that positive thinking at work! ;) I ran in third for about 30 minutes, when another woman came darting by me and took off up a hill. I didn't like that, but I wasn't about to speed up either. I hit the first aid station in 55:30 - about three minutes faster than last year. And then I was way up on my split for the second section, too. It seemed like a fast pace, but heading into the flat section I made up my mind that I wasn't backing off. I think maybe I run too conservatively at the beginning of races and since I was here to race, I made up my mind that I would gamble, push fear aside, and see what came of it.

The flat middle section is MY section on this course. In a post-race interview, Roy Pirrung asked me, "So what is your strength - uphills, downhills, or technical stuff?" I kind of just laughed and said,"None of those really. The flat non-technical section was where I really excelled." Not exactly the type of skills one should brag about at a trail championship! But on both loops this is where I closed the gap on Meghan and the only parts where I was able to eat into Liza's lead, particularly on the second loop.

I passed the woman who had blown by me (who I later learned was Amber Monforte, third place finisher at White River) early on in this flat section. And then about half way between Chapas and Cross Roads, I was shocked to spot Meghan at the top of the powerline grade just as I was starting at the bottom. She couldn't have been more than three minutes ahead. I knew I was either running really well or really stupidly to be that close to Meghan. Even more surprising, as the section wore on, I was getting closer so that by the time I left Cross Roads she was maybe only 100 yards or so ahead. I finally caught up to her a few minutes later while the trail was still relatively flat. She turned around with a friendly greeting, her hands in the air, and an excited yell of "Pammy!"

But before we could hug and exchange best friend charms, Meghan picked up the pace. I knew she was testing me, but I only stayed with her for a minute or two before these words came into my head: "Ok, Pam, you proved your point. Now don't do anything stupid to f*ck up third place!" (My Jedi alter ego has such a potty mouth!). I am still not exactly sure what "my point" was, but I decided to abide. It wasn't fear, it was just me be smart and sticking to my race. As the trail once again got hilly and technical, Meghan floated away.

I cruised through to complete the first lap in 4:41, which seemed smokin' fast especially compared to last year's 5:08 first loop. Now time to hang on! I had seen Meghan on the short out and back to the start/finish so I knew she was only a few minutes ahead, but I didn't know what kind of lead Liza had on Meghan. What really bothered me was that 4th place was only six minutes back. I was really hoping I had put more time on her than that.

Back to the first section and I was six minutes slower to the first aid station. Twenty-five miles to go and I was already losing a minute a mile. Based on my split analysis from last year, in my mind the "gold standard" for consistency at Bandera is a split differential of less than 40 minutes. I kind of pride myself on my consistency (excluding hundred milers at this point in my career) and I was really hoping not to die after the first fast lap. The next section I was down another six minutes. Well, I reasoned, six minutes for each of the six sections will still keep me within a 40 minute difference.

At Chapas (AS#2), the gang of Laurie, Craig and Laura (who deserves all star crew recognition for juggling six different runners in three different races!) were out to cheer and crew. They wore shock all over their faces at seeing me so close to Meghan, but they were full of kind words and cheers. I kind of had a mild panic attack at this aid station waiting for some kind stranger to get me some Mountain Dew from her car. She was hustling but the few seconds felt like an eternity and I couldn't even wait for her to get back. I grabbed a bottle with Coke and ice and just bolted. The crew later politely told me that I was "extremely focused" at the aid stations, which I am pretty sure was code for "You need to take a frickin' chill pill!" But I didn't want to lose any time. (I spent over three minutes at this aid station last year, and I lost the race by just over three minutes, so I had good reason to get out fast).

Then back to MY section. I spotted Meghan early and knew I was closing. With a bottle full of ice, I couldn't exactly sneak up on her. More like I announced my presence with maracas! This time I was first with the greeting and she responded with lots of encouragement. But now it was my turn to test her. Run, and just keep running, and don't look back.- The words echoed through my mind. I hit the powerline grade and NO WAY was I walking. Right before the aid station I tried to look back, but it wasn't a good view so I couldn't tell where she was. But climbing up the Three Sisters, I looked back from the top and saw her at the bottom. This was the same place she dropped me on the first loop, so I fully expected her to make it up here again. But I was going to do my best to put that off for as long as possible. I kept telling myself, "You have to run this hill because Meghan will be running it." I was so winded when I got to the top I was finally glad to have a very rocky trail for a slow descent.

The rest of the race I pushed and pushed thinking Meghan was only a minute or two behind. I got to the last aid station and the volunteers told me I was only a few minutes behind Liza. I knew I was running well, so for a brief moment I had thoughts of running her down. "How many minutes exactly? I need to know," I asked in a tone that I hope did not sound too bossy. But the woman's first instinct was to protect her hometown girl: "That's not fair to Liza because she doesn't get to know exactly where you are."

Are you kidding me!?! Tell me the Goddamn time!

Fortunately, that is not what I actually said. Instead, I asked, "Well can you give me an approximate time? I am sure her crew has given her an approximate idea of where I am." About eight to ten minutes was the answer. I was pretty sure she wasn't lying and I knew Liza was too good on the rocky stuff to make up that kind of time on a technical 4.9 mile section unless she totally blew up. But I was still convinced Meghan was two minutes behind me, so I ran hard. In fact, I was only one minute slower than my first time around. I needn't have worried as Meghan was actually 25 minutes back by then, but I wouldn't have believed that if you had told me, I was that scared of Meghan passing me in the final miles.
I seriously hope I wasn't flapping those chicken wings like that the whole race! (ph: Olga)

I finished the second loop in 5:06, for a finish time of 9:46. I may be the only person who has broken a course record by more than 40 minutes two years in a row and not won the race - a very dubious distinction! The split differential was 25 minutes, not quite as consistent as last year's 14 minutes, but I'll take it considering my time was 50 minutes faster! Liza had a stellar 9:35 for the win and Meghan went under the previous course record and claimed the master's title with her 10:19.

The men also had a slew of speedy performances, with winner Dave Mackey taking an hour off the course record and the next three guys also destroying the old mark, including Dan Olmstead who missed the money by 23 seconds. Trust me Dan-O, I feel your pain!

I wasn't the winner on the day, but I most definitely don't feel like a loser (despite what Greg McMillan might say!). I felt good about myself all day, I wasn't intimidated on the course, and I was ready to compete. In the end, I fought hard and I have no regrets.