After the disappointment of dropping from the Virgil Crest ultra due to ongoing problems with injury, I took a step back, gave my body some rest, and then proceeded to undertake a careful and deliberate return to trail running. The goal was to get myself ready for my last race of the 2012 season: the Bimbler's Bluff 50k in Connecticut.
The race was a month ago, and it's been nearly as long since I've blogged. It's amazing how time flies. (More on the reason for our blogging absence in a post later this week...)
The Bluff race tackles some beautiful wooded country in southern CT east of New Haven. Going into the race, I had two major goals: finish the race (I DNF'd last year with weird cramping trouble), and end the season on a positive note. Although I knew it was unrealistic, given the recent state of my ankle, I also had a third thought hiding in the not-so-deep recesses of my mind: if I was feeling good around mile 20, I'd push the pace and try to actually race the ultra.
Race morning dawned cold, with temps in the 40s. I started the day with some gluten-free cereal and fruit (fresh bananas and apples), then drove to the race site, where I chugged a bottle's worth of my First Endurance Ultragen. Up until that point, I'd exclusively used it for recovery, but I decided to experiment with also having some prior to the race.
My gluten-free race nutrition was vastly different for this race than any other. There were no drop bags for me to send my own gluten-free foods to aid stations. In addition, Kelli and the girls weren't with me for this race, which meant no crew. Combine those two factors together, and for the first time I'd have to rely exclusively on the aid stations for my race nutrition. For other runners that may be no big deal, but for me it introduced an element of uncertainty. From past experience I knew that aid stations tend to be heavy on the gluten items: sandwiches, pretzels, cookies, that sort of thing.
I topped my 20-ounce bottle off with First Endurance Electrolyte Fuel System drink. Once that was depleted, I'd be refilling with the race's offerings of Gatorade, water, or soda. (For the record, I usually went with the Gatorade...)
Despite the cold temps that greeted the day, the forecast called for high temps in the 60s, which is pretty ideal running weather. The trick was how to dress for that range of temps. I opted for running shorts and a T-shirt, plus separate arm sleeves I could remove once things warmed up.
The runners assembled near the starting line for a rendition of the Star Spangled Banner, then completed one lap around a field (a chance for us all to spread out) before hitting the trails through the forest. In the early miles, my ankle was feeling good, and I found myself running in a small pack of three runners—me, plus a marathoner from Boston who'd eventually be the women's winner and 7th overall and a history professor from a college in Vermont who eventually placed 14th overall. As with the Virgil Crest, I found myself running in good company.
We chatted off and on, which helped to pass the time. I'm not always conversational when running in ultras, but one of the professor's children had been diagnosed with non-celiac gluten sensitivity, which gave us some common ground (other than the ultra running) and no shortage of things to chat about. Before I summitted the Bluff for which the race is named, I'd already shed my sleeves, having tied them to my bottle belt. Other than a single handful of M&Ms, my race nutrition was confined to slices of oranges and some bananas.
All was going well—it was the kind of glorious fall day that's made for enjoying the outdoors. By mile 15, though, my ankle was starting to act up. I knew the course from last year, and that certain sections were surprisingly technical and rocky. With a heavy layer of fallen, dried leaves obscuring the footing, it put my ankle through its toughest test since I'd sustained the injury two months prior.
Miles 15 to 20 were especially difficult. By the time I rolled into the aid station at mile 20, I could tell that I'd set my ankle recovery back by several weeks. But it was the last race of the season, and after that I could take all the time I needed to properly recover.
Not wanting to do further damage to my ankle, instead of shifting into another gear to race, I dialed back the pace and focused on one thing: simply enjoying the remaining 12.5 miles, the beautiful weather, and the forest. I wasn't racing; I wasn't pushing myself to run harder or run faster; I didn't care who I passed or who was passing me.
In the next 10 miles, about 10 runners passed me—a pair, a group of four, and a handful of solo runners. No matter. I was enjoying every minute of the run. This section of the race also included the longest stretch between aid stations—a little more than 8 miles. To ration my bottle, I'd take a generous mouthful of fluids every ten minutes. I often even slowed to a walk for those seconds, before resuming my jog for the next 10 minutes. It was a leisurely approach compared to my usual push. And the rationing worked perfectly—I took my last swig of fluids, and rolled into the last aid station not more than 10 minutes later.
I knew I was achieving my goal of simply enjoying the run when I bumped into a hiker walking her dog on the trails about a mile before I reached the final aid station. "You look perky!" she called to me as I passed. Mission accomplished.
The final miles passed quickly, and as I glanced at my watch, I saw that I was flirting with a sub-6-hour finish. At the end of the day, my time didn't matter, but I still liked the idea of finishing before the clock ticked over to read 6 hours. It was going to be close—down to a matter of minutes, or even seconds. Then, from my trail in the forest, I could hear the occasional sound of a passing car—the last road I'd cross right before the finish line. Soon, through the trees I could see the edge of the field we'd circled at the start of the race. And then I burst out of the trees, jogged down the last stretch of trail, and crossed the road to the grassy field that held the finish line. 5 hours 57 minutes 25 seconds.
I'd finished in 32nd place out of 145 finishers. Not bad for taking it easy and just enjoying the run. I felt a deep sense of satisfaction.
I chatted with other finishers, including the professor, swigged another helping of Ultragen, downed a banana and some chips and chocolate soy milk, and prepared for the two-hour drive back to the Hudson Valley. It was a stark contrast to last year, when I was slumped over, miserable in the passenger's seat, with Kelli driving us home. This time, I was driving myself home, and felt as good as ever, the ankle not withstanding. What a difference a year makes.
It was time for some well-earned and much-needed rest, and time to truly get the ankle back to health. More gluten-free outdoor adventures and endurance racing are to come.