Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Race Report: Tesla Hertz 50K

photo: Happily Running

This year did not exactly go as I planned, particularly from a racing standpoint, but one race that was on my calendar basically all year long was the Tesla Hertz Run.  I was drawn to this race from its founding last year, though I was unable to run it in 2013 as it fell just a week before Tussey Moutainback (which didn't turn out all that well).  But I was intrigued by the idea of a runnable trail race not too far from home, and a positive review from Brian Oestrike (third in the 50K in 2013) sealed it for me.  After struggling through much of the summer, but having a fairly productive fall, I made Tesla the focal point of my fall racing season.

Tesla Hertz is actually a festival of races taking place concurrently on a mostly flat, 10.4-mile singletrack loop.  The 100 mile, 100K, and 50 mile starts all preceded the 8 am start of the 50K, so that we were the last of the four races out on course.  As the fields were all relatively small, this was pretty fun, giving us the opportunity to see other runners (however briefly) all in various stages of their own races.  The forecast called for rain, and did not disappoint; it was raining steadily at 5:30, when I woke that morning, and did not let up at all until about 15 minutes after I finished, nearly seven hours later.  This made for some rather soggy conditions, though the course held up pretty well.  The loop, in Rocky Point State Preserve in northern Long Island, runs through a dense forest of pine barrens, which meant soft, sandy trails with plenty of pine needles.  We ran into a few puddles, but very little mud, and the footing was generally quite good, though certainly not fast; the ground was too soft to get any real return of energy, and it was hard to forget you were generally running on hard sand.  Still, though the course was almost exclusively twisting singletrack, there were minimal rocks and roots, and there were certainly long stretches of rhythmic, steady running over the course of the day.

Given the small field, I started the day with the goal of winning the race (this sounds silly--don't you always start with the goal of winning?--but in reality, I don't have a chance of winning the overwhelming majority of races I enter).  In the first few strides of the race, it became pretty clear it would be a two-man battle, as local stud Joe Marinaccio and I broke away and were immediately on our own.  Joe let me set the pace, which I did gladly.  I had been feeling great in my training for at least the past ten days, and as I set a relaxed but quick tempo, my legs responded quite well, and I was happy to establish the rhythm.  We ran together for the first mile or so, Joe right behind me, and I started to think about strategy, even at this extremely early stage.  The obvious thing was to relax and run easy, as we obviously had a long, wet day ahead of us, and there was no reason to do all the work and let Joe draft off me for the next few hours.  I could let him pass and follow his pace for awhile, turn the brain off, and worry about making moves later on.  But for some reason, I wasn't trusting myself with this strategy; I had a nagging feeling that, if I gave up control of the race, I might not be able to respond when the big move came.  Better to stay in front and dictate how the race was going to go.  And if I was going to lead, there was no point in letting Joe just cruise along for the ride; I'd have to make him earn it.  So, ten minutes into the race, I made a rash decision--I was going to try to run away with the thing.

Joe hung close for quite awhile, at first sticking on my shoulder and then slipping back by no more than a few seconds.  The course is basically a continuous loop with a short out-and-back spur, about half a mile each way, just past the halfway point, which led to the only aid station other than the start/finish area.  I turned around here without stopping, spotting Joe only about five seconds back, and continued to push on.  We got back onto the main loop without seeing any other 50K runners, meaning we had at least a one-mile lead at this early point.  By now I couldn't hear Joe breathing, so I continued to keep a steady, even tempo.  On a couple of long, straight stretches I checked over my shoulder and saw him about 30 seconds back, but by the time I finished the first loop I couldn't see or hear him at all.  I headed out for the second loop without stopping; I planned on taking off my arm warmers at this point, but it was still raining steadily and I was still a bit on the chilly side.  I kept rolling, trying to push my advantage.  I started doing some math in my head; if I could build a four or five-minute lead by the next time I saw Joe at the 15.8-mile turnaround, I could feel pretty comfortable over the last half of the race.  I hit the turn at right around the 2:02 mark, feeling pretty strong but starting to tire just a bit.  I knew the course record of 4:13 was within reach, but pushed that to the back of my mind as I focused on holding off Joe.

Unfortunately he was only 1:30 back at the turnaround, which started to play with my mind a bit.  This is the problem with talking yourself into a big lead--when you find out you don't actually have the lead you anticipated, it can be a bit depressing.  The next several miles were a lonely, depressing stretch: I was starting to fatigue, I didn't have the lead I had hoped for, and I was still an awfully long way from home.  I finished the second loop still in front, but as I left the aid station after refilling my bottle and dumping my arm sleeves, I heard cheers for Joe coming in.  My lead was holding but barely, and I still had ten front-running miles to go.

Still, I now had only one lap left; mentally, the game had just gotten a lot easier.  I was certain I was going to get caught, so I focused on the mantra of "Make him earn it."  If he was going to catch me, I was going to make him work his ass off.  This kept me going through the turnaround.  Every time I felt myself flagging mentally, I came back to that, and pushed the pace a little bit more.  I cruised through the turnaround again without stopping, glancing at my watch to gauge my lead.  Joe came by sooner than I wanted, looking very strong, and I looked down--still 1:30.  I couldn't lose him!

I now had two competing mental narratives.  My initial, negative thought was that no matter what I did, I couldn't shake my pursuer, and that being overtaken was simply a matter of time.  But I was able to quickly see the flip side: I'd been running off the front for a marathon, and had held the same lead for the past 10+ miles without giving up even a second.  Now, there were only five miles to go.  I had a cushion of nearly twenty seconds per mile; if I could maintain anything close to 8:00/mile pace, I could make it awfully difficult for him.  So that's what I did.  I ran scared, just like had had for the past two hours, and I must have checked over my shoulder ten times in the past thirty minutes, certain each time I'd see Joe charging up behind me, but it never happened.  I crossed the line first in a course-record 4:08:20.  Joe came in just about six minutes later; I had been able to add nearly a minute per mile over the final five miles.

All in all, it was a satisfying end to my ultra racing season.  Running from the front was a new and somewhat frightening experience for me, but I think it helped focus me mentally and really brought out the best in me on this day.  I was a bit bummed not to hang around afterwards, but I was very wet and couldn't wait to get back to Jodi and our weekend away in the Hamptons (and some dry clothes), so I hightailed it out of there pretty fast.  But I have to complement Vinny, Nichole, and the crew at Happily Running, who put on a great event that hopefully will continue to grow and flourish in the coming years.

I took an easy week last week and am trying to get back in the flow now.  Racing is probably done for the season; I'll run my high school XC alumni race after Thanksgiving, as I do every year, but otherwise I'll be focused on building back up for next year.  I'll come back in a few weeks to outline my plans for next season, which will start with a return trip to Mount Mitchell and hopefully go from there.

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