Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Race Report - Hinson Lake 24 hour

Hinson Lake 24 hour (HL24) race is unusual in that it is how far you can go in the time, rather than how long it takes you to go a distance. This fact means that for different people, HL24 is a different race. Not just a different character, in the way most races are for the leaders and back-of-the-packer runners, but a completely different race. Some of the different races I saw run at HL24 include…

Marathon preparation race
For some, HL24 is the perfect marathon tune up race. You can set whatever distance you like, but 18-24 miles would be typical. HL24 provides the real race feel, which is hard to replicate in training, combined with outstanding aid. The course has a near perfect trail for the distance, being soft, wide dirt with a few boardwalks, and almost flat. While this might be one of the few places you hear “I’m only doing 20 today”, no one think any less of someone doing that distance. The loop course makes it easy to bail early if things go badly, which is sometimes a possibility with a marathon preparation race. To add sugar, the low entry fee also makes HL24 a very cost effective marathon preparation race.

Fixed distance
For another group of runners, HL24 represents the chance to cover a specific distance without any time limits cutting in, and under easier conditions than most races. Common distances I heard people doing were standard marathon (26.2 miles), 50 miles and 100K (62 miles). Some were aiming for 100 miles, but at that distance, the time limit does become a factor. I saw one couple push on through the night to make 100K, visibly battling exhaustion together; I thought it was very romantic.

How far can you go?
If you want to know “how far can I go?” HL24 is an ideal place to find out. Eventually the reasons to stop become greater than the reasons to keep going, and movement ceases. Different people will stop for different reasons, but they can all push the boundaries of their mental and physical capabilities. ("Mental fortitude is more important than physical endurance”, but that’s another blog entry!) Some people will go until they can’t go any more and stop. Others will take breaks to increase their distance, some for a few minutes, some lying down to sleep for a few hours. This makes HL24 a great place for a first time ultra runner. There is no fixed distance that has to be conquered, no possibility of ‘failure’. My friend Vince did his first ultra at HL24 this year and covered an outstanding 100K. In his own words “This was a fun race, kind of the gateway drug to Ultras. There were people of all ages (7 to 72) and abilities, each with different goals. Everyone was encouraging and friendly and there was no pressure.”

Fun with friends
The loop nature of HL24 means that you get so see nearly everyone at some point. The front runners and the slowest all share the trail as they go around the loop. This makes HL24 a supremely sociable race. In other ultras you can be on your own for hours at a time, but not HL24. Seeing other runners, checking on their progress, giving and receiving encouragement is a great part of the race. For some, the social side is an important aspect. Friends you make in the middle of the night while you are both suffering through an endurance event are not like other friends; the bond is different, and I won’t even attempt to explain further ;}

Racing 24 hours
For a few, there is the prospect of pushing the boundaries of the 24 hour limit and cranking out lots of miles. This was my approach to HL24, and I went in with a goal of doing 111 miles. I felt that this was a rather ambitious goal, but I wanted to shoot high. On the ride to the start of the race with Vince, I joked about 131 miles being 5 marathons back to back. That joke came back to haunt me in the small hours of Sunday morning.

I started off too fast and running each lap with no walking breaks, but that was intentional. I know that I need to burn off some of the initial enthusiasm before settling into a routine. After these first few laps of youthful exuberance, I used the pattern of walking from the aid station to the end of the dam, which takes about ~2 minutes. That gave me opportunity to eat and drink on each lap, while giving my legs a chance to bounce back. I managed to hold that pattern for most of the rest of the race and it worked well.

The day passed uneventfully, cranking away steady miles, listening to some tunes and trying to stay relaxed. I had one blister form on my heel, which got bad, then burst of its own accord, so I ignored it. My feet did swell up, which caused pressure on the top of the foot, even though I kept loosening my shoe laces. There was a lot of pain from the top of my feet, which I convinced myself was ‘just’ crushed tendons and not stress fractures (turns out I was right). I’d modified my shoes a few weeks before the race, cutting off the heel so it is the same height as the forefoot. This modification worked well in my training runs, but I’d not gone this kind of distance in these ‘new’ shoes before. It all worked well, but made the pain in the feet a little more worrying.

I hit the 100 mile mark at about 2 am, which was a milestone for me, as this was the furthest I’d run. The frightening thing for me at this point is that I’d done 100 miles, but I have a lot of the race left. The idea of keeping up the pace for 6 more hours was between daunting and overwhelming, especially in the dark.

Everything was going as well as you would expect (think ‘horror movie’) until 5:30 am when I hit mile 115 and I was informed that I could possibly break the course record of 127 miles. In my weakened state, madness set in and I asked the timers to work out what pace I’d need to hit the 131 miles. Remember Vince and me joking about that earlier? On the next lap the timers told me that 10 min/mile pace would get me to 131 miles. How hard can it be? I just need to pick up the pace for another 2.5 hours having just done 115 miles! I was able to speed things up a little just by skipping the walking break. That meant no food or fluids, but hey, it’s just another 15 miles or so, right? Skipping the walking break was not quite enough and I also had to speed up the running somewhat. The faster pace triggered some nausea, which forced me to slow up slightly and take some fluids. I was then running at the boundary of nausea; just fast enough to feel bad, but not so fast that food moved in the wrong direction.

At about mile 125 I misread the timer and became confused, thinking I’d nearly run out of time and would not make the course record without speeding things up further. I found the “don’t care if I die” pace for another lap before I realized that I actually had more time than expected. To my great surprise, I had not died, and nothing vital had fallen off the body or broken, so I hung onto the speed. I completed the lap that gave me the 131 miles at about 8:30 pace. I knew I only had a few minutes left on the clock, and I was given a banana to drop on the trail to mark the part of the final lap I completed, so I picked up the pace as hard as I could. Those few minutes lasted far longer than I expected. In the end I managed to complete the last lap at sub 8 min/mile pace, which made it my fastest lap of the day. I finished the race with a new course record of 132.24 miles.

Random Musings
One of the songs I was recommended before the race by my running buddy Theoden was “Remember the Name”, with the lyrics:

This is ten percent luck, twenty percent skill
Fifteen percent concentrated power of will
Five percent pleasure, fifty percent pain

This echoed in my mind during the race. The ratio described seemed to sum up the race; even the 5% pleasure, 50% pain was about the right ratio ;}

Timed races are different. You have a given amount of time to go as whatever distance you can. That means that going faster means going further. 10% more speed means 10% more distance as well; it gets exponentially harder. With a distance race, there is a sense that that if you can run faster, the pain will be over sooner, but not with a timed race.

For those with an interest in the statistics, my marathon split times were 4:08, 4:30, 5:00, 5:40, 4:47.

I can highly recommend HL24 to any endurance runner. Ultra runners will find a very sociable, well run race. Any marathon runner will find a new challenge and opportunity. For an entry fee of $24, how can you not do it?