I'm back from what was both a rewarding and inspirational weekend in Florida at the Iron Horse 100. Here's the report!
I awoke on race morning wanting to make 100% sure I gave myself every chance to actually run the race if my injury allowed. I took the time to go through my usual pre-race routine starting at 5:00 a.m. - I prepped my body and mind as though I was going to run 100 miles, and when the Starter's gun went off, I was right there in the middle of the crowd running my planned 9 min/mile pace. I had spent the preceding 48 hours resting my injured leg as much as possible, and as I cruised through the first mile pain-free, I smiled as I enjoyed the familiar and comforting rhythm of my stride for the first time in two weeks. The sunrise was tinting the early morning sky a brilliant pink, and feeling the dirt and rocks under my feet made every step feel like I was shaking hands with old friends. I couldn't have been happier - All was perfect in my running world.
At that point I let my mind run away with crazy thoughts: Maybe I'd actually be able to run a 25 mile loop? Maybe 50? Shoot, if I just ran 1 pain-free mile, certainly 100 is possible too, right? I imagined myself in the final moments the 100 miler, fighting off fatigue as I crossed the finish line with a 15 hour time and a celebratory fist pump. Oh what a magical day this could be...
...then, about 3 steps later, my shin pain came back and I knew I was done. Crap! A bucket of water to the face on this cold 31 degree morning couldn't have snapped me back into reality any quicker. I am indeed an injured runner, and only rest and rehab (not wishful thinking) will get me back running free...
...*sigh*...being human sucks.
After I felt the pain return, I just finished the first 3.5 mile loop that brought me back to the Start/Finish aid station. I told them I was dropping and would love to stay and volunteer. Sure, I was disappointed that I had to stop, but the remainder of the day would more than make up for my personal disappointments. Simply put, I really really really REALLY liked working at the main aid station - especially in a race like this when runners passed through multiple times over the course of the day. It was like the best Reality TV show ever: I got to see all of the individual dramas unfold as the hours clicked by. So many triumphs, struggles, and moments of pure inspiration unfold during an ultra, and to be there to play a roll in helping people fight so hard to achieve their goals is so rewarding.
There are WAY too many highlights to mention, but here are a few:
- Super fast Bob Adams was there to run the 100k version of the race as his first ultra. He's a 2:35 marathoner, and as he took the lead early on, I spoke with his parents to find out more about him. I made sure to run ahead to get his water bottle from him and refill it so he didn't need to stop at our aid station each time he passed. Sure, it hurt my leg to do this, but the excitement of the moment easily numbed the pain. He was clicking off the miles all morning, and as he crossed the 50 mile mark in 6:04, he was only 6 minutes behind the qualifying time for the National 100k Team. I gave him this update hoping it would help him fight off fatigue a bit, but even though he wasn't able to reach that qualifying mark, he crossed the finish line with a stellar 7:40s time. For someone who had never raced longer than 26.2 miles, that's pretty darn good for 62!
- At the pre-race meeting the night before, I met a great guy named Keith from Florida. He was running his first 100k as well, and when he pulled in next to me on race morning in his 350Z (I love that car) and we chatted again, I knew I had my favorite runner to root for all day long. As it turned out, he ran a fantastic race. When I saw him at mile 50 he had a fired up look in his eye and was still light on his feet - he knew he was going to make it and was clearly enjoying the moment. Twelve miles later, just before sunset, I saw him emerge from the woods striding toward the finish line. He had about 10 family/friends there to give him a great ovation as he came down the home stretch. Since the race director was checking on the other aid stations at that point, I had the great pleasure of awarding Keith his 100k Finisher's belt buckle. I've never been so certain that I need to direct a race myself at some point - It feels SO GOOD to give an exhausted and elated finisher their finisher's award!
- Watching the number of couples/pairs who run these long races together (and I mean stride for stride the whole way!) is amazing. After seeing their names in seemingly every 100 mile race results list, I was able to watch the tandem of Anita and Jay Finkle hammer out yet another 100 miler together. Jay was even in an arm cast from his elbow to his hand, but that didn't slow them down one bit! In addition to the Finkles, there was a pair of 20 year-old twins from Texas who ran, and another 2 or 3 couples who came to suffer with each other on the course. It was so great to see that kind of teamwork!
- Race Director Chris Rodatz put on a very well organized race. As a 30 year man in the Marines, he clearly had his logistical plans well in place. Heck, he even had an old military Jeep (complete with the old gun-mount on the hood!) that he used for driving up and down the course as needed. He had a great staff of volunteers (friends, family, ROTC guys) to make sure everything went smoothly. It was an honor to join them to help make the race a success for everyone involved. This race has now been run 3 years in a row as a 100 miler with a 100k, 50m, and 50k option. Chris allows anyone who can't continue to stop at any of those distances and receive credit for their efforts. About 85 runners started the race, and as long as this new course doesn't have the same size-limits as the old one (75 runners), I can see this race easily growing to 150 runners in the next couple years. I recommend this race for anyone looking to run their first ultra, the loop course and distance options make it perfect for reaching new distance goals.
As for anyone considering this race as THE ONE on which to set your 100 mile PR, I'm not so sure it's definitely the fastest option out there. Sure, it is flat and fast, but there are enough sections of lose rocks along the way that will chop up your stride and force you to slow a bit. When the railroad shut down and they pulled up the rails and wooden ties, they left behind most of those baseball-sized rocks that you usually see surrounding railroad tracks. Over the years many of the rocks have been covered by dirt/grass, but even on the short 3.5 mile section I ran, I quickly realized I needed to focus on my foot placement just about the entire time. Judging by the number of runners finishing with bruised toenails, I'm guessing anyone running this race should expect to kick more than a couple rocks along the way (especially at night when your feet get heavy). A light trail shoe with a rubber toe is highly recommended. Gaiters too...lots of loose debris will fill your shoes otherwise.
The other obstacle(s) that will slow you down just a bit are the old trestles you'll need to cross (think 'Stand By Me' train bridge scene). These haven't been maintained in many years, and the wood (or what once passed for wood) is in rough shape. The Race Director put plywood over the longest (350-foot) trestle, and his wise advice was for everyone to walk over it to be safe...with no trains bearing down on you from behind, his advice should definitely be followed. Between the trestles and the rocks, I'd say this course is about 1 hour slower than what someone could run on an optimal flat/smooth surface...with Rocky Raccoon now on a rootier (not a word, I know) and slower trail itself, I'm guessing the Iron Horse is about even with it in terms of speed potential.
As for my running plans, I am encouraged that I healed up enough to walk without any pain at the end of last week, but seeing as the pain returned after just a mile of running in the race, I'm no longer going to try and rush this healing process. For the next couple weeks I'll be doing only non-impact rehab, and my plan will be to slowly build back up to run Bull Run as a training run. Once I get through that, I'll finally ratchet up my training again for my focus 100 miler of the year - the Mohican Trail 100 in June. I'm already excited to get out there and tear up that course, but I also know the road of rehab before that will be a long and frustrating one. I'll just keep telling myself it's all part of the mental training, right? Hopefully I can learn to watch movies on the elliptical machine without getting dizzy and losing my balance (haven't quite figured that out yet), because I'm going to be logging some serious time on that thing for next month or so...
If anyone has any good movie suggestions to help pass the time, fire away!