Sunday, June 10, 2018

2018 Hyner View Trail Challenge 50k

Then and Now

My parting view from my second visit to the Hyner 50k course.

"We see past time in a telescope and present time in a microscope. Hence the apparent enormities of the present." --- Victor Hugo

Training and preparing for the 2018 Hyner 50k was an experience unique to me since becoming immersed in ultrarunning. If you read my report on the 2017 Hyner, you’ll know that in my opinion it was the best performance I felt I have ever had at the 50k distance. The question of how to follow what was a nearly perfect day at peak performance in my estimation plagued me. My goal for most races that I’ve gone back to run additional times is simple:  see if I can improve on my previous time. My experience at Hyner was different though; I questioned if there was any room for improvement. This probably was not the best mindset for an improved outcome, but it forced me to accept that if I am not able to dedicate more time to training then I shouldn’t expect improved results. Since I did not expect to have any additional free time to put into training, I settled to just try to match or get as close to matching my finishing time of 5:36:36. Since my overarching goal for this year is to complete the entire PA Triple Crown Series for the second consecutive year and to try to do it in a faster cumulative time, just matching my finishing time from the Hyner last year seemed like a good start. Especially, considering that I felt I had the least room for improvement at Hyner than the other two races (Worlds End 100k and Eastern States 100).

Since I knew I had very little room for improvement, I figured my best chance to better my time would be to simply push myself closer to that proverbial red line for as long as I could. Considering I felt like I was pushing that way for the most part of the race last year other than the early big climbs, that seemed like a good place to start. So that was my plan, attack the climbs from the start and hammer the downhills harder than last year. The plan started off working well. I cranked out a good pace on the short paved section (a little over a mile) of the course from the start to the trailhead. Then I hit the first climb, Humble Hill, a gain of roughly 1300 feet over the course of a little under two miles. I pushed myself hard for this first climb, a stark difference from last year where I tried to reserve my legs during this first climb for the next four big climbs that I knew lay ahead over the remainder of the 50k course. After the climb, I hammered the downhill trying not to even consider the possibility of blowing my quads out.

I continued this strategy throughout the day almost hoping to feel exhaustion. Last year at Hyner I never felt exhausted which made me think I may have been able to give more at some point. This year, for better or worse, feelings of exhaustion began to creep in around the halfway point. I was happy about it because it meant that I had pushed myself to a point that I had not reached last year. I dialed it back trying to maintain and hoping I had made up enough time early on to come out ahead of last year. Looking at my watch and estimating the miles left to the finish I knew it was going to be close. It was desperation pushing me from around the halfway point to the final aid station at the top of the last and steepest climb up SOB, looking at my watch and doing some poor math far too often. At that point, I thought I had a chance. I popped out from the trail to the final short road section to the finish with three minutes to match last year’s time. I soon realized that the road section was longer than I remembered and even sprinting the whole way I was not going to make it. I ended up finishing in 5:42:02, five minutes and twenty-six seconds slower than last year.

Chart 1
Hyner 50k Strava Pace Data - 2017 VS. 2018
Column graph of 2017 and 2018 Hyner 50k Strava splits data.

I took a risk and I failed. It didn’t pan out the way I had hoped it would. Did it bother me? Yes, but was it a total failure? I would argue not completely. I didn’t match last year’s time, but I wasn’t far off and there was still plenty of room for improvement at the next two races. Even using this solid logic to deagitate myself, I still wanted to explore where things went wrong. So I of course made a spreadsheet of my Strava data to compare my splits from last year to this year (Table 1). And of course I followed that up by using that data to create a column graph to visualize that data (Chart 1). Of course the Strava data doesn’t perfectly match up to the official results, but it provides an idea where my improvements were and where my shortcomings were. As can be seen in Table 1, I was ahead of my 2017 pace up until the fifteenth mile and from there I never was able to make up the difference. Interestingly, this completely coincides with my early interpretations of my performance where I assessed that it was around the halfway point that I started feeling exhausted and felt like my pace slowed. Looking at Chart 1 it is apparent that my first half of the 2018 race was an improvement over the 2017 race. Also apparent, is that my second half of the 2017 race was overall better than the second half of my 2018 race. So, the data shows what I felt was true. This concept that the data confirms my initial feelings about my performance is really cool to see, but the real question is the why and the how. Why did things take a bad turn? How did things go wrong? Is there anything I could have done differently to avoid the negative turn and come out ahead?

Table 1
Hyner 50k Strava Pace Data - 2017 VS. 2018
Hyner '17
Hyner '18
cumulative '17
cumulative '18
Strava split data comparing 2017 to 2018 Hyner 50k.

I did my best to examine these questions as objectively as possible, but could only come up with two decent answers. The first being the most blatantly apparent that I have already alluded to:  I went out too hard and didn’t have enough left in the tank to finish strong. You could say that this is just not running smart. I would argue that when I felt like there was little to no room for improvement, this at least gave me a shot at improvement. So, stupid or not, at least it gave me a shot. Long story short, I’m not mad or disappointed with myself for going out harder than I thought was “smart”. My second answer sounds like a total excuse or that I’m just a dumbass for allowing it to happen. And that answer would be that my shoes broke somewhere around the 20 mile mark (see pics). Now my shoes didn’t totally break and I didn’t run barefoot, but I feared that I would end up having to at some point with one major misstep. I will readily admit that my shoes had minor tears to start the race. In hindsight, I probably should have never started the race in those shoes. But, I did and I dealt with the consequences. And looking at the data, from the time I noticed that my shoes were in jeopardy of falling apart (around mile 20) I had an equal number of faster splits from that point to the finish in 2018 when compared to 2017. So maybe the greatest impact was that mentally it affected me, but physically I was obviously able to run just as fast with broken shoes looking at the data.

Shoe photos after 2018 Hyner 50k.

So what’s the answer? Maybe there isn’t one. I had a better day in 2017 than in 2018. It could be that simple. Weather wasn’t vastly different. Training time and intensity was similar. Regardless of the reasoning and the whys and hows of it, I am happy that I set myself up well to be able to come out ahead for my cumulative PA Triple Crown Series time. If I am being totally honest with myself, I’d say that being only about five minutes off from my finishing time last year felt like a win. In a way, it was a hard but valuable lesson to have reinforced; if you go into a race with the same amount of preparation and effort, don’t expect improved results. At best, hope for an equivalent outcome. I feel that this lesson is especially valuable heading into Worlds End 100k and Eastern States where I am dead set on improving my times. Forget the fact that I finished about ten places back from where I did last year at Hyner and five minutes is nothing looking at how bad I blew up at Worlds End 100k and how much time I had the potential to make up there. Additionally, if I’m smart and take care of my feet while having a good day at Eastern States this year I could very well gain even more time there. Let’s just say it was more of a mental speed bump than a truly damaging setback to my ultimate goal for 2018. With the right training, appropriate effort, and smart running, I feel that my 2018 goal of improving my overall PA Triple Crown Series cumulative time is still well within reach.

Scott Snell
June 10, 2018

Sunday, April 22, 2018

2018 Rat Race 20k

A Rat Race To Kick Off Easter Weekend

It has been a full two weeks since I ran the 2018 Rat Race now that I find myself sitting down to write this report. It is a shorter distance race:  a 20k that is made up of running two laps around a 10k trail loop. I decided to run it and register for it rather spontaneously as I was unaware of it until I saw an announcement that it had been rescheduled for a week after the originally planned date. I saw this announcement about a week and a half before the newly scheduled date. The timing of the newly scheduled date serendipitously worked out that on the morning of the race I would be driving right past Wells Mill County Park in Waretown, NJ where the race is held. I figured “why not run a 20k on my way to the in-laws’ house for Easter?”. I couldn’t come up with a good reason to say no to that. I thought racing a 20k on some new trails would be a great way for me to push myself harder on a mid-distance run than I normally do during a training run. The entry fee was pretty reasonable at $30 for day of registration. In addition to all this, I would get to explore some new trails that are only about a 40 minute drive for me from home.

This was a smaller race than most I’ve run, both in the number of runners and distance. Including all three distances offered (20k, 10K, and 5K) less than 70 runners showed up. This could be in part due to the race date being rescheduled. I’m not writing this as a positive or a negative, but simply reporting it. In many ways I prefer smaller events over ones with huge crowds:  parking isn’t an issue, day of registration is no problem, and they usually provide a better opportunity to chat and hang out with other runners at the finish. However, even for this race being a pretty small gathering in general, the crowd at the finish line seemed especially small. I would guess that in about an hour’s time from when I finished until after I ate a sub and some cheese balls before leaving, there were at most around 40 people including race volunteers/staff, runners, and spectators. My only explanation for the severe lack of a lively finishing celebration is that the majority of runners were running the 5k and 10k distances and most of them finished while nearly all of us running the 20k were in the midst of our second loop. I’m guessing that the majority of them finished their distance, got their fill of the subs, and headed out before any of us made it to the finish. Maybe I’m griping a bit here where I shouldn’t be, but found it mostly surprising and also a little disappointing that so few stuck around to cheer in the 20k finishers.

The scene at registration at a park in the New Jersey Pine Barrens.

I’m approaching this report a bit ass backwards, but I like to get complaints (however minor they may be) out of the way first. So let’s go back to my arrival at the park. Wells Mill County Park is just a few miles off the Garden State Parkway, making it barely out of my way as I traveled north on the parkway to visit my in-laws. Day of registration was painless and quick. I got my bib and awaited the start on a beautiful early spring day. I hung in with the lead group from the start of the race until about the first mile mark. We covered that at a 7 min/mile pace. At that point the group started picking up the pace a bit. My goal for the race was to run all 12 miles of it as hard as I could for the entirety of it without blowing up. With that plan in mind, I decided not to push too hard too early by chasing them. Without picking up my pace to keep up with the leaders, I was still able to keep the last runner of the pack in sight until about the 1.5 mile mark when the course cuts off of the fine, gravel maintenance road it had followed and hops onto some single track trail. From there the last of the lead pack was out of my sight.
Having never been at this park or seen any of the trails before, I really had no idea what to expect. All I knew for certain is that the course follows some trails that circumnavigate a lake. It turns out that the lake is much smaller than the trail network that we used to run around it. In fact, I don’t think the lake was actually visible through the trees until the last mile or so when the trail runs right along the edge of it. Even lacking lake views for the majority of the sixish mile loop, the trails were still pleasant and pretty fun to run. There were many more hills than I was expecting. There weren't an big climbs, this is still South Jersey after all, but many quick ups and downs which made the course interesting and forced me to stay focused.

The start/finish area.

During my first trip around the loop I was still catching glimpses of the last runner from the lead pack. After the first loop, the course hops back on to the straight gravel maintenance road that we ran in the beginning. This is the only section of the course where you can get a good look ahead for any amount of distance. Unfortunately, no runners were in sight ahead of me. I decided to try to crank up my effort for the second loop and see if I could catch anyone on the single track during the second loop. I was pushing and giving what felt like my maximum effort as I covered the miles and saw the familiar sights during the second loop. I developed a side stitch early on this loop and it continued for the majority of the lap. It was a bit surprising for me when I felt it because I usually don’t push to that exertion level during most races because most races I run are a much longer distance. During those races my goal is to only push as hard as I think I can maintain for the duration of 30, 50, or 100 miles which is never to the level of developing a side stitch. Nonetheless, I expect to incur a certain amount of pain and discomfort during any race so I did my best to bear it and continue to run through it.

When I hit the last mile or so of the loop, a stretch through a wetland area near the lake populated with Atlantic white cedars, and I hadn’t caught sight of any of the runners ahead of me I figured my chance of catching them before the finish was pretty slim. I was bit disappointed that I wasn’t able to catch any of them; I crossed the finish line in fifth place with a 1:40:33.2 finish time. Later after looking at the official results it was even more disappointing when I saw that I was only about a minute and a half behind the runner who finished just before me. It’s easy to second guess things in the moment, but it’s even easier (and probably unhealthy) to second guess decisions and question your effort after the fact. Being aware of this, it’s exactly what I did. Even in doing this, I know that I gave my best effort during the second half of the race and it wasn’t enough to do better than fifth on that day. Regardless of placement, a bit of disappointment, and the second guessing there were many positives I took from the race. I put in a hard 12 mile run. I got my first race of the year out of the way which I feel helps resolve some of the pre race nervousness in future races for the rest of the year. Lastly, I discovered some new trails with a few hills not too far from home for me to revisit. And I did it all en route to our family’s Easter weekend celebration.
Scott Snell

April 22, 2018

Friday, March 16, 2018

Eastern States 100 Group Training Run

Looks a little different in March than it did in August.

It’s pretty rare that I write a blog post about anything other than a race. It’s even more rare that I write a blog post about a training run. I almost exclusively only carve out the time to write a post when I am ready to put together a race report. The fact that I had the drive and felt the need to begin writing this post suggests to me that this past weekend of back to back long training runs must have been special or at least far enough out of my normal routine to cause me to reflect on them this week. It wasn’t the first time that I’ve done long (25ish mile) back to back training runs in a single weekend so it wasn’t the consecutive long days that made these training runs feel any more notable than other big training weekends. It was two other aspects of these runs that are causing me to reminisce on them with more joy than they they would probably bring most others. The two characteristics that made these training days noteworthy to me were the specific routes I ran and the groups that I ran them with.

An early climb from the first day.
The routes I ran this past weekend were significant to me because over the course of the two days I covered the second half of the Eastern States 100 course. Day one we ran from the Halfway House AS to the Blackwell AS. Day two we ran from the Blackwell AS to the ES100 finish and then about a mile beyond to the campground visitor parking lot (a somewhat cruel joke thanks to a certain Runhole). Although I’ve thought about the ES100 course extensively and replayed my experience there many times over, I hadn’t seen the course in person since running the race in August. Surprisingly, for as often as I relived that race in my mind, much of the course looked completely new to me. A few areas began to rekindle some memories:  the water only AS that was anything but a water only AS where I loaded up on perogies, the hemlock woods just before the final aid station, the crazy final descent just before the finish where it felt like my legs wouldn’t be able to stop me from just tumbling down the loose rock. But for the majority of the 50 or so miles, I had very little recollection of it. Of course there is a great explanation for this; for much of the time I spent running the second half of the course during the race the only light I had was my headlamp. Even so, I expected to recognize more of the trail or for it to at least feel more familiar than it did.

The finishing point of day one.
The second aspect of the training runs this past week that made them out of the ordinary was the fact that I met up and ran with a group of runners both days. To some runners this isn’t an oddity, but since I’d estimate that well over 90% of my training miles are run solo it was a big change for me. Especially considering the size of the groups. I didn’t do a count both days, but I’d guess we had a group of about 15 on Saturday and around 12 on Sunday. The groups between the two days weren’t completely unique, but other than myself and about four others who ran both days they were. It was a great chance for me to run some long miles with some company for a change.

We had a bit more sun on day two.
So this long training weekend stressed two lessons upon me:  the second half of the Eastern States 100 course wasn’t nearly as bad as my memory of it and that group running is important, maybe more important than I like to admit. Running the second half of the course on fresh legs was a huge confidence booster, especially this early in my training build up. Nearly all of my memories of the second half of the course before this weekend focused on how exhausted I was, how much I hurt, and how difficult the terrain was. I’d like to think that having now run it at a comfortable pace during back to back long runs I’ll be better prepared to face it again come race day when my legs have already endured 50 some miles of abuse. And the second lesson that I went home with was a greater appreciation for group training runs. Everyone has a busy life. I’m a father of two young boys that works full time so I’m no exception. I manage to train for ultras by running when I have time. By doing so, it makes scheduling group runs difficult because I’m asking others to accommodate my schedule. Therefore, I train when a few free hours present themselves. However, after this weekend of running with a fun couple of groups, most of whom I hadn’t met before, I feel like group running should have a place in my training regimen. So another running goal for me this year is to put forth a greater effort to make group runs happen and to partake in them when they appear.

A part of the group from day one.

Scott Snell
March 16, 2018