Sunday, October 22, 2017

Ultra Baby! Bear Chase 50k Race Report 2017

After pacing our friend Doug at the Leadville 100 in August, it was inevitable that I'd be inspired to try an ultramarathon. Of course my first wouldn't be a 100 mile race, but I wanted to know what it felt like to run more than 26.2 miles at one time, on trails. Following Doug's advice, I signed up for the Bear Chase 50K, which would take place approximately 6 weeks after inspiration struck at Leadville.

I was concerned that there wouldn't be enough time for a real build for this 31-mile trail race. I haven't been doing that much running this year anyway; I was barely trained to run the 13.1 miles at the end of Boulder 70.3 in August. But a trail race is very different from a road race, and I'd learned in Leadville that there would be a fair amount of hiking instead of running. Without allowing myself to think too carefully about it, I signed up for the race, and the wave of fear-induced nausea that came over me when I pressed the "submit" button was wonderful.

Besides the lack of time to prepare, I had another potential complication going into this first ultra: I would be self-coached for the first time in 7 years. I could write an entire post about the agony of that decision, but the short story is that I couldn't justify the financial cost of having a coach against what I was willing to put into training. I loved having a coach, and it was a fairly large sacrifice to go off on my own. Two months later, I do ultimately feel like it was the best decision for me at the time.

After some online research and some great tips and advice from my lovely friend and original coach(ie) Dawn Elder, I put together a plan for this trail race. It wasn't particularly sophisticated: training consisted of running and swimming a lot, and putting my bike away for a few weeks (our relationship needed a break anyway).

I felt super cool buying all the important necessary gear: a new pair of trail shoes, a hydration backpack, and a hat with a picture of a runner on it. Trent joked that I was wasting no time "rebranding" myself as an ultrarunner. I have to say that it felt very cool to be doing something different.
Super cool, super necessary gear.
The great thing about the race that I picked is that it was right next our apartment. That meant that I got to practice on the course nearly every weekend. Whiting and I had signed up for the race together, and we ran one unlucky training run on the course where she literally broke her foot. I felt terrible for her having to end her season that way, and I wasn't thrilled about continuing to train by myself, but I was committed.

Whiting standing in one of the water crossings on one of our training runs.
It takes a lot longer to run on trails with elevation gain than it does to run on pavement. My 17, 19, and 20-mile training runs were taking upwards of 4 hours. But, in a very short amount of time, I developed an intense love for running on trails. It's the kind of running where you don't have to be distracted by music. You somehow get connected with the air and sky and the ground beneath you and although it hurts to run for several hours at a time, it feels completely different from training to run a particular pace for a road race. It's somehow just completely freeing. Maybe because as a beginner, there are no expectations (from myself or others) of time or pace. I loved training for this race.

Race day itself was a total celebration. The course was 1 small loop and 2 big loops around the Bear Creek Lake park. It was marked by little ribbons tied to trees. There were 7 knee-deep water crossings and 3 hikes up a hill labeled Mt. Carbon, so I am going to say that I ran up a mountain 3 times during this race. It was such a small event with barely any fanfare and just over 100 participants. Basically, it was totally the opposite of an Ironman. I loved it.

I spent the first 20 miles smiling and giggling and apparently breaking into song and dance and jazz hands every time I saw someone with a camera. After I began the 3rd loop, with 11 miles left, the wheels began to come off, and there was plenty of walking from that point on. At the 26 mile mark, I marveled to myself that every step after this would be further than I'd ever ran before. And then the guy in front of me yelled "rattlesnake" and 3 of us had to jump over a terrifying snake, which at that point in the day, took quite a great deal of energy!

Jazz hands

More jazz hands
Doug was volunteering to direct traffic about halfway through the big loop. Seeing him was amazing and I cheerfully thanked him for the inspiration. Doug and Whiting's kids were volunteering at an aid station just down the hill, and it was so fun to see familiar happy faces three times on the course. I finished the race with a cheering section led by Trent, Whiting, and Annette, whose husband had also raced.

My race took seven hours. I have never run for such a long time in my life. After talking with friends post-race, I realized that starting my triathlon journey as a fairly slow participant actually gave me a huge mental advantage as a beginner at this event. There was a ton of suffering out there on the last loop of the run, but mine was minimal compared to that of other participants. I know what it's like to suffer through a 7 hour half ironman, and a 16 hour ironman race. Other folks making the leap to "ultramarathon" likely do it after a few successful marathons, and running 26.2 fast miles on a road is very different from running 31 miles on trails.

I wasn't even close to fast; in fact, of 133 entrants, I finished in 100th place, near the bottom of my age group. None of that mattered. I was so excited to finish my first ultra and to be able to say with pride, "I am an ultrarunner!"

Although I know my true love is triathlon, running is always like coming home. Trail running is quickly becoming one of my favorite things to do. I think back to some camp experiences where I described trail running as "the seventh circle of hell," and it makes me laugh to think about how different my mindset is now.

As always there is a common denominator in endurance racing of any kind. I love that all of it has the same kind of lesson for me - what can I do? How far can I push myself out of my comfort zone? I think the answer is "pretty far," and I'm fairly certain I haven't even scratched the surface yet. I say it every year around this time, and I'm saying it again: I can't wait to see what's next.