Sunday, February 12, 2012

Mid-Maryland Ultra 50k and other musings

The first ever Mid-Maryland Ultra 50k on February 11th was a big success, especially for an inaugural event.  I was very attracted to the idea of this event when I first found it online.  It was a five-loop course on reportedly fast trails in Elkridge, MD, just outside Baltimore.  The five loops made it very family-friendly, and it was the closest-to-home ultra I've done (or, closest-to-school, I should say).  I was expecting a small race, which it was - I think all of the starters fit under the pavilion at the starting line.  However, included in that small crowd were apparently some pretty good runners.

After Bandera, it took basically exactly two weeks to start running again injury-free.  That pain I had been experiencing in my foot was finally gone.  I did a couple of test runs at slow paces, and felt like it had completely recovered.  To convince myself 100% that I was healthy, I went out for a 20-miler on January 23rd.  I kept a pretty good pace and even splits, and felt no pain, just a little out of shape.  I was incredibly happy to be able to get back to running again.  So, of course, I didn't hesitate when LT asked me if I'd like to join him for 10x400m on the track at lunch the next day.

I did what every runner knows to resist doing.  On the afternoon of the 11th day running again, I began feeling a little pain in my shin after having done a hard tempo workout that morning.  On the 12th day, I rested it to see how it would feel - a little sore/stiff, but not terrible.  On the 13th day, I ran almost 34 miles on pavement to visit my brother in DC, and then my shin hurt a bit.

Somewhere in the middle of those 13 days was when I signed up for the Mid-Maryland Ultra.  I believe it was on Jackie's birthday, after our 24 miles for her 24th on the beautiful Mason Dixon Trail.

Jackie & Steve winding along a mossy stream
So basically, I had 11 days of good runs, followed by a rest day, followed by a long run that caused some pain.  There were some very quality miles in those 13 days though.  Two really solid 20+ milers on roads.  Two really good track workouts (each of them the day after the 20+ers.  24 looonnngg slow miles on the Mason Dixon Trail for Jackie's birthday.  That trail is probably the most scenic/challenging/generally fantastic trail I've run on anywhere in this area. 
Climbing one of many steep hills/rock piles

My favorite - pine trees! ...(I love pine trees.)
The other good memorable run was from Annapolis to DC to visit my brother.  It was a little bit of a gamble on my shin, and it turned out to be not such a great idea, but I wasn't in much discomfort during the run.  Definitely an interesting run, in bright green knee-high compression socks and my obnoxious red and blue plaid running jacket (had to be visible to the traffic).  It rained lightly for at least the second half of the run, and it was dark by the time I was approaching DC.  I got some looks from folks at bus stops, and my directions got wet and illegible, so I had to make several phone calls to my brother for directions while running.  It took about 4:40 and was actually a pretty safe route, traffic-wise.  Probably something I will do again when I am recovered.

After that, I took a week of icing every day.  My shin felt maybe slightly better each day, but not much.  There was no sharp pain, just soreness.  It's the same leg that was injured post-JFK/pre/post-Bandera.  So coming into the Mid-Maryland Ultra, I wasn't really sure if running the whole thing would be a good idea.  I thought it'd be okay though, since it was 5 loops and I could decide after each loop whether or not I wanted to call it quits.

To make things interesting, a mixture of rain and snow persisted throughout the night and into the morning, leaving the ground and the trees covered in a very pretty little layer of white.

The start - also the aid station and finish
Paying close attention to how my shin felt, I began jogging from the pavilion under which the race started (which I thought was kinda cool).  It felt pretty good actually, but didn't take long to start feeling slightly sore again.  I decided I would take the first loop very easy, and just play it by ear.  It didn't take long to see one familiar face - David Ploskonka.  During the first mile, I saw who I thought was David just a little ahead, and forced myself to stay back.  I had no business running with him, especially on what was supposed to be an easy paced experimental day.  Unfortunately, he was feeling pretty beat, probably from the 100 miler he ran the day before or something (okay, I exaggerate..but only a little).

During the first couple miles, I watched the small lead group run away.  When I signed up for the race, I wanted to run it relatively competitively.  My plan was to take a few days easy before it, and then run it relatively hard without all-out racing.  Instead, with my shin feeling the way it was, I resisted the race at the front and focused on staying comfortable and enjoying the mud.  The best part of the day was that my brother Billy, Jackie, Trent, and my parents were all there.  Getting to see them every 10k made the day even more fun.

I had to poop for most of the first loop.  About halfway through it, I was delightfully surprised by a lone portapot on the side of the path.  My excitement was soon crushed by a lack of toilet paper.  Alas, I continued onward.  Another few miles and the first loop was over, and I released my extra weight in the porta at the start/finish area.  I said hello to my family and got some powerade, etc. at the pavilion before heading out for loop two.

I should mention how slippery the trail was.  Whether it was the wet snow in the open fields of the first mile, or the mudslide singletrack of the second mile, footing was incredibly close to zero for a significant portion of the loop.  Then later in the loop, there were some nice shoe-sucking ankle-deep sections.  I'm not terribly experienced with trails, but I have definitely never run on anything that muddy and slippery.  I never thought running on flat ground could be so difficult.  Turns had to be taken extremely slowly and carefully, and increasing speed only made keeping balance more difficult.  At times, I admit that I was getting frustrated, but in general, it was fun.  The mud did get worse and more slippery with each loop, as 100 or so more pairs of feet had trudged and slid over it.  But I also got a little bit better at running on it and staying upright as the miles passed.

I left the aid station at 52:38 after the first loop.  That was very comfortable and reserved, so I figured I would keep doing that and try to be as consistent as possible loop by loop.

Heading out for another loop
 On the second loop, I noted my footprints in the snow leading up to that lone TP-less portapot a few miles in.  Apparently I was the only one who tried it.  That's the only thought I remember having on the second loop.

I rolled out of the woods again to the sound of my family cheering and had some animal crackers and powerade.  The cool temps meant relatively low hydration needs, so I wasn't carrying a bottle on this run.  A cup or two every 10k was plenty.  Loop 2 was another 52:something, almost identical to loop 1, still feeling comfortable.  My legs were actually feeling a little zapped, but the pace felt fine.  I think the mud was just sucking some of the energy out, and they seemed to loosen up a bit after 2 loops.

Animal crackers and Pepsi
During loop 3, most of the snow had melted.  My portapot footprints were barely visible anymore.  There was a certain turn on the course that I had established by this point as a kind of checkpoint.  I had broken the loop up like this:
1. snowy slippery field
2. extremely slippery mud
3. TP-less portapot (with fading footprints)
4. little paved path section that goes near the road, where people were playing music from a car for the first two loops
5. the 32 minute turn
6. shoe-sucking mud
7. the 46 minute bridge
8. the last few minutes

With these 8 mental sections, plus a couple more little checkpoints along the way -- like the steep asphalt downhill, the steep slippery downhill, the little paved uphill, and more -- each loop went by quickly and without boredom.  Anyway, the 32 minute turn was a certain turn where I looked at my watch for the first time on both the first and second loop, and it read 32 minutes both times.  Same for loop 3.  32 minutes.  That turn was followed by a few minutes worth of what I thought was the fastest part of the loop.  The trail was relatively smooth with a couple downhills, and the mud was less slippery.  Then it was ~15 minutes 'til the end of the loop, during which the shoe-sucking-est part of the course was encountered, followed by the 46 minute bridge (same concept as the 32 minute turn).

My dad told me when I got to the pavilion that I was in something like 8th place, I think.  But I was still totally unconcerned with place.  I left the aid station to begin loop 4 after another spot on 52:something third loop.  Jackie and Trent had run two loops of the course while I was running, and I saw them for the first time at the beginning of loop four.  Jackie decided to get another loop in and keep me company.  I knew her and/or Trent would join me for at least one of the laps, but didn't know which one, so this was a nice treat.

Jackie joins me for a loop!
Three fifths of the race were (was?) now complete.  My shin felt pretty much the same, sore but not painful, and my legs felt better than they did during the second loop.  So I decided to start pushing the push-able sections a little bit.  I was surprised a bit confused, then, that I reached the 32 minute turn at 36 minutes.  I guess I must have dilly-dallied a bit for the first mile or so when Jackie joined me, so I probably started out slower without noticing.  And also, like I said before, I think the course got a little bit harder each time around as the mud got turned up more and more; so a slightly higher effort level was needed to keep the pace consistent.  I took advantage of the faster section after the 32 (36) minute turn, and hit the 46 minute bridge at 48 minutes.  When I came out of the woods at the end of the loop, one of my parents asked if I was alright.  "I'm fine! It's only two minutes!" was my response - while I understand it, I was a little amused by the concern.

Oh, I forgot to mention...there were 2 or 3 times during that 4th loop when I suddenly experienced a sharp pain in my shin, in the same spot that was hitherto just generally sore.  The pain debilitated my stride but lasted only for a few seconds, during which I had to consider walking the rest of the loop.  It didn't last long though, and I think it may have actually made my shin feel a little better once it went away (maybe it just felt very relatively better now).

Anyways, I left the pavilion at 53:50 for my 4th loop, 3:31 for 40k.  Starting loop 5, my legs and shin actually felt the best they had all morning.  My dad told me I was in 4th (was actually 5th apparently) and that the guy ahead of me wasn't very far ahead.  So, what the hell, I thought.  I saw the guy ahead of me on sections of the field as the course doubled back over itself a bit in the first mile, and I was feeling relatively great.  I felt like I was flying across the mud, but apparently wasn't going that much faster than the other loops.  Every once in a while on a straightaway, I would see the blue-shirt-clad fellow up ahead.  I slowly got closer, and going up a little hill just before my portapot, I saw him look back twice, which made me wonder if the layer of brown covering the back of his legs was something more than just mud. He was scared.  (Joking, obviously...just a thought that I remember entering my head to keep myself amused.)

~2 miles into loop 5
Anyways, I trotted along and hit the 32 minute turn in 34 minutes, which genuinely confused me again because I really thought I was running faster this time.  Then I hit the 46 minute bridge in 45-high or 46-low.  Pushing the pace a bit gave me a little leg burn to finish out the race, and by the time I came out of the woods, I had moved up one more place by a comfortable margin.  I finished feeling good in 4:22 even, for a 50:28 final lap.  Then my shin started hurting.

As I write this, I don't know what the times ahead of me were, but they must have run good races because I don't think I ever saw any of them.  As David pointed out after the race, there must not have been anyone who went out real fast and crashed, which is definitely unusual (think: me at Bandera).

So all in all, I was quite pleased with the day, although this is now the second race report in a row that I've written while icing my leg.  The race was a lot of fun though.  I loved having my brother and everybody there.  I kept it very casual for about 3 and a half loops, then decided to pick it up.  My splits were very consistent, which always makes me happy, and my last lap was the fastest (maybe pretty close to the first lap if you take out the toilet breaks, but still).  All of that, plus the muddiest trails I've ever experienced, made for a really fun morning.  The only thing that could have made it better would have been if my shin didn't hurt.  But f*ck shins, life is always better after running a lot of miles.

"You know you can't take the course home with you, you've got half of it on your legs!" -another runner during loop 3

I limped back to the car and for the rest of the day.  I'm still limping a little today (race was yesterday), and I'm pretty bummed knowing that this will probably take at least another week of no running and lots of ice to feel any better before I try running again.  It was worth it, though.  Fun day.

Afterwards, went to Ruby Tuesdays for lunch with Jackie and Trent, then a little shopping and limping around the Inner Harbor.  After driving back to Delaware, I enjoyed some gourmet cupcakes and cheap wine while watching The Ring with my valentine (that movie's still just as scary as it was in middle school).

Oh yeah, I meant to put in a little plug for the race.  It's definitely going to become a great annual event.  Personally, I really enjoyed the 5-loop aspect.  It went by quick and didn't get boring (again, just me personally...some people hate that).  Had it been dry, the course would have been smokin' fast.  In those conditions, 7 or 8 people finished under 4:30.  If it were dry, I think that mark would have been moved down to 4:00, or very close to it.  Yeah, that sounds like a lot, but seriously, I really think the mud and snow made that much difference. ...So good, fast course (or fun and muddy depending on the weather), very spectator-friendly, and a nice central location in Maryland to make it convenient for folks from all over.  I'd definitely return.

Most over-used word of this post: loop. loop loop loop.

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