By now many of us have already kicked off the race season in some form. For me, the St. Patrick’s Day weekend saw me tackle my first and only spring trail race this spring, as well as my only EX2 Adventures Back Yard Burn race. It could well be our last BYB race, so after 4 years I was eager for one final crack at the win.
For those of you not familiar with EX2 Adventures and Jim Harmon, then you’re missing out on some of the best, most well-run off-road races in the U.S. The spring and fall trail races have been a staple of ours since 2010. The races courses are like an old friend; familiar, but ever changing with the years. EX2 also promotes one of the featured XTerra races in July. Every race starts on time, and in an age of chi[p timing that still seems to drag the results period out for hours, EX2 relies on good old fashioned skills and spreadsheets to pump out results within minutes of the finish. Every race features more food and drink than you know what to do with and awards ceremony that is on time and predictable, with great awards, and lots of give aways for everyone! But what about the weekend?
Well as I indicated, I’ve never won a trail race here. For two years I was locked in 4th or 5th, as most of the fastest guys are between 30 and 39. However, after a long Fall series in 2012, I cracked a 3rd place in the final race, then a few more in the spring, before winning my age in the XTerra last summer. After a few 2nd place finishes last fall, some good training this winter, and a mountain of stress, I was eager to turn this spring in the right direction. Even after a heavy week of training, I was feeling good, but I’ve had a few bouts of digestive issues/illness, including the recent Monster Cross, where it took longer for my GI tract to recover than my legs! So I was disappointed when a bad case of indigestion left me with little sleep on Sunday morning. However, I still had the sense I had all week, this was my race (trust me, 15 years of bike racing, I rarely had this feeling). So even after showing up late to the race and skipping any warm-up, my plan was simple, keep it low key the 1st mile and ease into my zone.
The race started fast, as they always do, but within the first 1/2 mile, things strung out and I was hanging in 2nd place, feeling terrible in the gut, but running at about 80%. I was only about 10 sec back and holding steady, so I waited for the single track to start and kept my pace uncomfortably comfortable. I should note here, too, that I carry a GPS/HR watch, but eschewed most feedback last year, running by feel for everything under a 1/2 marathon, and then only a watch. I love crunching numbers and looking at data, but I firmly believe that knowing how you feel and where your perceived limits are, is the key to good performance.
As the trails twisted back and forth and rolled up and down, the gap started closing until a little trip saw me close down the final 4 secs. From here I keep my pace solid, occasionally accelerating on the turns testing the gap. With added confidence, I settled into my pace and just kept grinding it out on the uphills and turns before the 1 sec gap became 5, and then 10-15 sec. From here I emerged on the back half of the course that climbed steadily upward. Steady, steady, steady! As I made a sharp right at top of the last hill, I saw my gap was about 20 sec, and more than a minute on the rest. The course from here snakes back and forth always giving you a glimpse of your progress. A brief abdominal cramp, seemed to hamper me a bit, but once that waned I kept pressing on until the final mile where I went from uncomfortable to hurting. With a half mile I opted to press on for some more time finishing about a half minute up at the finish of what ultimately turned into a 5.75 mile race. The luck of the Irish and some solid training were with me as I took my first EX2 BYB win, which included first overall and first in age. A great final race memory!
Whatever stomach issues I had, the race effort seemed to knock them out, and despite some residual soreness, Monday morning seemed a little less taxing. As I looked back over my run data saw some interesting things. First, the fastest trails are early on, because its mainly hard packed road or trail without many turns, so these are my highest paces. Second, my pace was incredibly consistent (~7:25) on inconsistent terrain with lots of uphill and twisty single track. Third, my HR was about 5 bts lower* than usual, which confirms what my stomach and legs told me, and my lower fatigue today; I was having an off day. I honestly believe I could have run at least 30 sec faster, but that’s not the moral of my story. The moral goes back to something Allen Lim said on podcast 39, most wins come on average days, not exceptional ones. Like I said, I believed all week I would win and despite feeling bad, I ran my own race, confident in my fitness. At the end of the day, confidence in yourself is the ultimate ergogenic aid!
*SIDE NOTE: In recent years, HR has gotten a bad wrap largely from individuals who either are selling you on the value of power (meters), do not really understand HR, or both. I have used HR as an athlete and later as a physiologist for 25 years and I can say that the the argument of HR being to variable is utter bullsh!t. Nor is the argument that HR drift, or that HR is not a measure of intensity valid either. I look for HR consistency or inconsistency. If you believe you cannot find anything consistent with your HR then you probably have not looked closely enough. Power meters are an awesome tool, but learning to train by feel and linking that to HR is a powerful tool. I know exactly when I’m at my limit in a triathlon or trail race without looking at a GPS watch, and I have worked hard to develop my pacing, as is evidenced by the data above.