Monday, November 17, 2014

Tunnel Hill 50 Report: Done Before Dark!

This past weekend I ran the inaugural Tunnel Hill 50 mile trail race in Vienna, IL. There was an accompanying 100 mile race, but that was too much for me. After finally going sub-24 hours at Umstead in 2013, I think I'm done with 100s. This 50 miler provided enough challenge.

On Friday, I took the afternoon off from work and drove the 3.5 hours down from Champaign with two running buddies, Jeff and Gregg. We grabbed our race packets, plus packets for 7 friends, in Vienna. After chatting a little with Steve Durbin, the race director, we drove to the race start/finish area and scouted out parking spots and race infrastructure (drop bag area, port-o-potties, tents, starting line, etc). As darkness decended, it was time to meet up with friends for dinner in Marion, IL. Perfect location since our hotel was there too. As we ate dinner, conversation turned toward recent races and our goals for the upcoming 50 miler. Seemed that all of us were predicting slower times than we were capable of running. Were we sandbagging or was this an ominous foreshadowing of things to come?

After a quiet night in the hotel, race morning arrived with frigid temperatures: 18 degrees, light breeze, and clear skies. Gregg, Jeff, and I headed back to Vienna and the race start. They wore shorts, I wore pants (and pretty heavy fleece jacket). We placed our start/finish drop bags and tried to stay warm. As the race start approached, we wished all our fellow runners well. It was going to be a long day...maybe part of the night too.

The first 26.5 miles (first out/back section) was pretty flat. The whole course was a converted "rails to trails" path. Fairly wide and smooth. Even with 300+ runners (in both 50 and 100 mile races), we had room to maneuver and pass as needed. I tried to stay patient during the first half of the race. I walked EVERY mile. GPS watch buzzed and I walked for at least one minute. It kept me disciplined and under control. Even with the walking, I managed under 10-minute pace for this whole section. It felt rather easy and I was feeling strong. Good way to start. My Tailwind sports drink was working well and I simply nibbled on pretzels at each aid station to keep something solid in my stomach. I finished this 26.5 mile section in 4:25. My goal was 4:30. All was good.

As I headed out of the start/finish area on the second out/back section, I immediately noticed we were heading uphill. This section was not flat like the first out/back. No huge hills, but a consisitent 2-3% grade. Up and up. By mile 30, I was already feeling serious fatigue. I started to walk more than once/mile. In fact, by mile 33, I was consistently walking. For about 4 miles, all I did was walk. I wanted to drop out. I gave up on any chance of a PR, or finishing before dark. Finally, I told myself "Bend, but don't break." (See race elevation profile here to realize why I almost broke.) Just keep placing one foot in front of the other. Relentless forward progress. Once I reached the 36 mile aid station, I fueled up and felt a bit better. The terrain flattened out and occasionally went downhill. I wasn't broken yet. At the out & back turnaround I knew I could finish and maybe even pick up the pace. I was encouraged. Hitting the 40 mile point, I felt a PR was possible and finishing before dark was within reach...maybe. I'd have to push. I did. There was now more downhill than uphill and my miles were trending quicker and quicker. I was passing people. At the 47 mile aid station, I really kicked it into high gear and "sprinted" as best I could to the finish. I passed more and more runners. I finished in a time of 9:04, just before darkness engulfed the course! A new personal best by 45 minutes. It would have been truly sweet to have broken 9 hours, but I'm very happy with this finish. I was 33rd out of 175 finishers.

Tunnel Hill was a well organized first-time event (Steve Durbin, the RD, is very experienced). I was a little frustrated that the aid stations didn't seem as well-stocked as other ultras (especially races run by Steve) and the volunteers seemed less experienced than normal at trail ultras. Still, a very solid event. I'll consider another attempt at the 50 miler next year. With just a little better weather (cool, but not cold) and my current knowledge of the course (especially that second out/back section), I am confident I could break the 9 hour barrier. 8:30 might be doable. Geeeez, I better run this race again!

NOTE: My Skechers GoRun Ultra shoes worked wonderfully for this race. No blisters. Great cushioning and lightweight. Same for Tailwind sports drink--the Razz Buzz flavor (with caffeine) was awesome! And RunGum seemed to give me a perk when needed (I should have brought more gum).

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