Tuesday, October 29, 2013

2013 Surf the Murph 50M Race Report

What a way to end the racing season!  Good friends, perfect weather, hills and 50 miles of beautiful trail.  I went into this race with some distinct personal goals, and I came out wondering how far and how fast I can take this running thing.  In the end, it was a real eye opener for me.

But first-things-first – Surf the Murph is a series of three races set in the 2,800 acre Murphy Hanrehan Reserve in Savage, MN.  A single loop of the park nets a little less than 17 miles, so we get races at a long 25k, a long 50k and 51 miles depending on the number of loops you feel like suffering though.  The terrain varies from dirt road to technical singletrack with about 2,000 of elevation change for each loop.

A few things someone interested in running this event should know:
  • Most all of the hills are encountered in the first 5 miles of the loop; they are a bit relentless, but each no more than 300 ft or so.
  • The event is pretty low key; no laser light shows or paid MC’s.  Costumes are encouraged!
  • Don’t zone out if you are not familiar with the course.  There are so many intersecting trails, that losing track of the flags will get you off-course in a jiffy.  Pay attention at this one.
  • If you like fall scenery, you’re in for a treat.
  • What other race do you get announced at an aid station with a horn?!

Race Goals – As I stated before, I had a few goals for this race.  Last year was a pretty good run for me: a 9:30 goal while actually crossing the line in 9:12 and 11th place overall, while losing 10 minutes on an off-course jaunt.  This year, I felt that an 8:45 finish should help me crack the top-10, so I planned my pace to match, with no unintended off-course excursions this time.

Race Morning – The alarm went off Saturday morning at 4:30 am, so my wife and I could be at the park for the 6:00 am start.  I am so glad that we pack everything the night before; I am pretty worthless for the first 30 minutes each morning (commuters you have been warned).  The weather was a wonderfully clear 43°F with some light winds.  This would be a good start compared to last year’s 22°F start.  Plus, those giant klieg lights in the start/finish area?; they put out an enormous amount of radiant heat.  And I forgot my sunscreen.
For clothing, well, I was afraid of getting too chilled at the start, so I wore two layers, with a plan to remove the outer as I warmed up: technical tee, shorts and arm sleeves underneath, with a sweatshirt and running pants over top.  Add a pair of gloves and a Gore-tex beanie, and I was set.

At the Start
Packet pickup and the pre-start went very quick; the StM team is pretty efficient.  The race shirt was the same as in the previous years (long-sleeve technical with a turtleneck collar), though lime green this time.  A note to the RD: your pre-race pep talk was hard to hear.  Maybe get in the middle of the crowd or get a bullhorn?  No big deal though, we knew the drill.  We all chatted and milled around the start area, waiting for the clock to wind down.  Typical pre-race nervousness.

Loop 1
And then we were off.  After a resounding “runners ready”, we were off down the bunny trail; about 100 bobbing headlamps leaving the well-lit start area.    Into the void.  I started near the front with the intention of staying within the top 10 for the entire race.  I just love the start of races, the opening miles feeling effortless, though always a bit unnerving to think of the 50 miles yet to be run.  Easy running though, keeping the pace under control, and conversations going with those around me.  Until the hills start that is.  After about a half mile the terrain shifted from flat and easy to (pointless) 100-300 ft ups and downs, some kinda steep.  I just kept the heart rate under control and tried to Zen through.  I knew that any over-expenditure here would be paid back three-fold on the later laps; not fun.  I was getting warm though; the extra layers would need to come off soon.

Aid station 1 was located in the hills here, but after only 3 miles, most of us just ran right through.  I had taken no calories prior to the race, and did not intend to do so until much later, letting my fat-burning furnace kick into “sizzling”.  I just had my waist-pack water bottle, which would not need a refill until much later due to the cool temps.

A little different this year, I ignored the standard operating procedure of walking the steep hills, running most of them.  I thought it foolish to train so hard in the hills prior to the race, only to walk them during a race.

After about 5 miles, the hills mercifully stopped, and the trail spit out into the horse camp aid station.  It was here that I met my wife and crew, Beth.  We traded water bottles and I lost the sweat shirt and pants.  After some words of encouragement (I think it was, “well, what are you waiting for?”) I headed out onto some flat land trails, with my headlamp still on my forehead.  The sun was just starting to lighten the horizon by now.

The terrain between the horse camp aid stations is fairly flat and even, so it was time to kick up the pace a bit.  I joined with a group of guys, and the eventual women’s winner, and we kept between an 8:00 and 8:30 pace.  Aid station 3 came and went, and then there were only three of us.

Between Aid 3 and 4 is Smurph village, a couple miles of deer trail that wind through the forest.  Running your own pace can be difficult through this section in a conga line, so I sped up a bit to hit this section first.  This proved well for me as I run well on this type of terrain.  I gapped the other two in this section while I wound my way amongst the Smurph signs; off her meds indeed.
Into Aid 4, I met Beth again, and it was here that I took my first calories of the day.  I traded my water bottle with one filled with UCAN.  This liquid/food/starch stuff seems to provide a steady drip of carbs without tripping my insulin response, resulting in no central fatigue/no bonk.  This stuff works for me.  Unlike a gel, it takes a while before it truly kicks in.

The section between Aid 4 and the finish is a bit hilly, but nothing like the start.  There is one hill (Pikes Peak) that I walked.  Last year I remember a log that needed to be hurdled on the steepest portion of this climb; not so this year.  I think it had decomposed enough that it no longer posed an obstacle.

And then I was into the start/finish for the completion of my first lap.  I had planned on a 2:50 lap, and was just a bit concerned when I saw 2:30.  That’s a lot of time off my goal pace and it left me wondering if I would have to pay the piper for going out too fast.  Beth told me not to even think about it.  I removed my arm sleeves, replaced my beanie with a ball cap and sun glasses, and I was off again.  Feeling strong.

Loop 1:  Goal: 2:50,  Actual: 2:38

Loop 2
I ran out of the start/finish area feeling pretty good about that time, and had decided that if I could finish the second loop under 3 hours, I would gun for an 8 hr finish.  Ha!  I was already writing my victory speech.  I've done that before, and you can guess the end result in those races.  Ah hubris.

Typical Fall Murphy Hanrehan View
The initial hills felt fine on the second loop, and I was still feeling strong.  The quick first loop made me a bit worried about an overdrawn energy account, so I slowed it up a bit.  Just a bit.  I ended up running this section with two guys, Yellow Hat and The Red Rider.  It is tough to run with someone through hills as we all needed to pace ourselves individually.  We all stayed within viewing range, with a little bit of chitchat, but that too can be tough in the hills.

One feature of lap 2 that I remembered from last year was the addition of new trail signs.  Billboards had been erected at a few tricky locations between loops.  Hmmm, some folks must have been taking off-course excursions this morning.  Easy to do.  Gotta pay attention.  I should know.

With a swap of UCAN bottles with Beth, I left Yellow Hat and The Red Rider behind at Aid-2.  For the remainder of loop 2 I worked hard at keeping my pace under control, saving something for the last loop.  I was nearing the midpoint of the race, and from here on in I would not be passed by another 50 miler.  The first three 50k racer came through.  Eric Sensemen was well ahead of the other two and looking very strong.  He ended up setting the 50k CR that day at 4:04.  Smokin’, Eric!  I also started to come upon the back end of the 50k race.  It was nice to have some company on the trails; it can get a bit lonely out there.

As the second loop was drawing to a close, I was still feeling great.  Weird.  I now felt I might be in the position to try for something remarkable on the third loop.  The fatigue I am so familiar with late in races just wasn’t there.  It was at that point that I started to fear going off course, as I have done in my two previous runnings of this race.  I’ hatedthe thought of running so well and then getting lost.  I would search hard for the next trail marker, and feel a sense of relief when I saw one just around a bend.  A few seconds after passing a marker, I would start to doubt my navigation, and would stress until the next trail marker.  Sometimes I just need to learn to relax a bit.  Funny.

Loop 2:  Goal: 3:00,  Actual: 2:42  (Race time: 5:20)

Loop 3
I decided to hammer the last lap; as hard as I could push.  It is not often that I think I can achieve something remarkable while running (my use of the word “remarkable” is relative of course; I by no means consider myself really fast).  But an 8 hr Surf the Murph 50 mile would have been something, and I probably wouldn't get many chances at something like this.  Think strong thoughts!

The initial 5 miles of hills on the last lap went something like this: “I won’t have to do this hill again.  Or that hill, and so on…)  It was like this that I found myself pretty spent but smiling, coming out into the Horse Camp aid station.  That hurt; but it “hurt so good” as John Mellencamp says.

With the keto-adapted, fat-burning diet I have been adhering to the previous year, central fatigue/bonking is a thing of the past.  It is a strange thing to feel discomfort to that level, and to be so completely mentally sound.  But as I get used to that feeling, I learn that I can push my body much harder than my mind lets on.  And push I did, and my body did not fail me.  Almost.

At about mile 40 my left calf started to cramp.  I did not feel this cramp was due to fueling, hydration or electrolytes; I was managing these pretty well.  I think it came from pushing my muscles too hard and for too long, plain and simple.  I started praying for relief.  I did not want to come this far and work this hard only to be brought down by cramping.  If I kept my left foot flexed forward and minimized the push-off, I found that the cramp would diminish and become manageable.  It sure slowed me down, but not too much.

I concentrated on getting down every stretch of trail as fast as possible.  I have never run this hard this late in a 50 mile race.  It is a strange thing to have so much fun while experiencing so much discomfort.  I used each mile marker to remind myself of each manageable distance yet to come.  14 miles, 13 miles, 12 miles…

I’d like to diverge a bit for a moment.  I do not care for the term “pain” when describing what I feel when running hard.  That term gives that feeling too much power.  I feel pain when I break a leg or pull an Achilles tendon.  Pain makes me stop.  “Discomfort” now, that is something I can work through; I am tough enough to deal with that.  I was feeling a great deal of discomfort.

Hammering the remaining miles
(Bryan Cochran Photography)
At the last aid station I ditched the waist pack and pounded home, my cramping calf setting as my speed limiter.  I was passing many 50k racers and second-loop 50-milers at this point, and I concentrated on reaching and passing each one.  That helped take my mind off of the distance remaining.  And before long, I heard the cheering at the finish and I knew I was as good as done.  I was really enjoying this!

Loop 3:  Goal: 3:00,  Actual: 2:51  (Race time: 8:11)

Wow, what a great feeling to have finished so strong.  I had run an almost complete race (except for the slow second loop and the cramping on the third).  And holy cow did the runners get fast when compared to last year!  In the 2012 event I ran 9:12 for 11th place.  This year I took an hour off of that time and ran… an 11th place?  The front runners were smokin’ this year!  Michael Borst ran a 50M course record 6:46, way to go Michael!

Note: Final results put me in 8th place.

It is a strange feeling to run so hard that I start to cramp up, and enjoy the sensation of pushing myself to my limits!  I think that now I better understand my limits and how best to prepare and push past them next season; nothing some specific training can’t overcome.  Next year will be exciting for me!  Steve Quick stated that he would be gunning for the M50 win next year at Afton.  That got me thinking about what I really could accomplish there.  I think a 4:30 is certainly within my reach.  We’ll see!  It is always dangerous to put such lofty goals in print.

At the End with my Jujyfruits Shirt
(thanks Bobby!)
I’d like to finish this blog post on a spiritual note, as this run was certainly a spiritual experience for me.  God gave me this gift of running, and I am grateful.  What gift can I return that is better than utilizing His gifts in the best ways possible; using His gifts to the fullest.  I ran this race as a gift to God, working through my great discomfort for His glory, not mine.  I could have been disappointed for falling short of an 8 hr finish time, or missing the top-10… again.  But that would be making it about me.  Thank you God for the gift of running, I hope you liked my gift to you.

Thank you Beth, as always, for sharing this experience with me, and making my food/hydration/aid stations so easy for me.  Thanks to the volunteers; the aid stations seem to be better each year I run this race.

And now I can eat Fritos and have a hamburger, on a real bun.  With French fries!  Time to relax, get a little fat, and enjoy the holidays.  The Kettle 100 is not too far off!