I've been quiet on the blogging front recently as I prepped for the US National 50K Championships at Caumsett Park. I pulled my left hamstring during a track workout in late January and I've been skittish talking about racing for fear of jinxing myself. Through heavy use of the foam roller and the excellent work of ART expert Dr. Ness I've been able to keep training at about 85% intensity which kept me in reasonable shape and got me to the starting line yesterday feeling cautiously optimistic about my prospects, but unfortunately it was not to be.
My goal for Caumsett--ten laps on a rolling, paved 5K loop--was a 3:20 or better, which is generally the minimum qualifying time for the IAU 50K World Champs. Having run 3:25 at Caumsett in 2008, and with a solid, solo 3:32 two months ago under my belt, I thought I had a real shot; even after the hamstring injury I thought if it could hold up for 50 kilometers that a 3:20 was in reach. So on a windy, chilly day I stood on the line next to defending champ Joe Gray and four-time champ Mike Wardian and immediately watched them run away from me.
My goal was 20 minutes per lap, which placed me almost immediately in seventh place, following the leaders, who were running 16-18 minutes per lap, with two other runners around my pace in 5th and 6th, and several minutes ahead of the other chasers, including many of the top women, running around 21-22 minutes. I went back and forth with fifth and sixth for awhile, but none of us seemed to be running the same pace at the same time, and I was finding it very hard to slip into a comfortable rhythm when they were around, so for the most part I ran solo with my iPod. The first lap was 20:06, and even then I knew 3:20 was probably out the window, as it as more of a struggle than I had hoped it would be. At that point I decided to simply try to find a repeatable pace and hope to maintain it. And, for a while, that worked; my next few laps were 20:15, 20:21, and 20:23. Lap five was a 20:58 for halfway in 1:42:05, on pace for a PR 3:24, although I knew I didn't have even splits in me on this day. I didn't feel terrible, just not great; 3:20 obviously wasn't happening, but I was pretty sure I could maintain 21-minute pace, run a second half in 1:45-1:46, and come home comfortably under 3:30, which would have been a satisfying result given the "injury".
The hamstring didn't feel particularly painful, only tight. I could tell it was affecting my stride, however. My quads, which usually take the brunt of the pounding when I race, felt completely fresh, since I couldn't get enough extension on my stride to even engage them; consequently my calves were tightening by the minute. Lap six was another 20:58, for a 2:03:03 at 30K, about four minutes faster than my split from Norrie Point in January, and though the hamstring was definitely a problem at this point, I still somehow felt confident I was going to run under 3:30. But halfway through the seventh lap I simply couldn't make what felt like a normal stride. The 25K runners I had been keying off of for the prior half hour immediately pulled away. I limped to the end of lap seven right around 2:24:30, about a 22:30 lap, and decided to call it a day. I finished the lap still in seventh, about two minutes behind Boyd Carrington, who would hold on to fifth place in 3:28, and about four minutes ahead of Shanna Ailes Istnick, the women's champ who would eventually wind up sixth overall in 3:33.
This was my fifth career DNF, and they all suck; this one sucked a little more than most, as I was still in pretty good shape and wasn't in agonizing pain. I justified it by telling myself I was risking further injury by continuing, but I doubt if that's really true. I dropped out of JFK in 2008 and 2009 after walking from miles 27-38 because of real injuries that sidelined me for weeks afterwards; that wasn't this case this time. Sure, I might have aggravated the hamstring a little more if I had kept going, and altering my stride was bound to cause other problems later on if I persisted for the last nine miles. But ultimately this injury wasn't painful as much as it was limiting, and when it came down to it, I just didn't want to be limited to a crummy performance. I've blown up and limped to the end of ultras before, at the Vermont 50 in both 2010 and 2011; it sucks, and I didn't really want to do it yesterday. I'm at a position in my career where I focus on races where I'm trying to run fast, place highly, or both; in effect, where I have some goal other than to simply finish. I've finished a bunch of marathons and ultras, and at this point, especially for "shorter" races such as 50K, limping to the finish holds no real allure. And that's a problem, because it makes it much easier mentally to throw in the towel when something goes wrong--which, given the distances involved, is a near certainty.
So, my focus for the next few months is: 1) get healthy, and 2) get mentally stronger. The first should be easy enough. The hamstring is definitely better than it was a month ago, despite not taking any time off; I expect (hope) it will continue to improve. The second one is going to be harder. If healthy, I'm planning on heading down to the Hyner View Trail Challenge in about six weeks, a 25K sufferfest which should help recharge the batteries and get me ready for the big one: the Cayuga Trails 50 mile in June, where the field potentially includes Sage Canaday, Dave Mackey, Max King, Dave James, and Yassine Diboun. With any luck I'll be able to pick up some of the pieces from what should be an absolute firefight up front. Should be fun.