I started running Ultra Marathons in the Spring of 2013 with Ironmasters Challenge. I had only been Ultra training for 5 months and although I was an instant student of the sport, I was only going to learn so much from reading other people’s advice. There is a science to this stuff… but not a perfect science. The variable is us. We are all different and without experience, there is no opportunity to make mistakes and accidentally discover what works for you as a unique individual and to learn from mistakes. Improvement is a sign of increased fitness, but it’s also proof that you’re LEARNING. And in order to learn you have to pay attention to your failures and successes.
What does this have to do with the Blues Cruise 50k? Well, in my first year of running Ultras I ran Ironmasters 50k, Dirty German 50k and Blues Cruise 50k. I did fairly well and was happy with the results, but I barely knew what I was doing. The following year I ran both races and chopped 32 minutes off my Ironmaster time and almost 27 minutes off my Dirty german time. So in my head, I figured there was no reason that the next time I ran Blues Cruise, taking 30 minute off my time of 4:57 should be doable. I didn’t run Blues Cruise in 2014 because I had ran Steamtown Marathon and the races were too close together. Plus they switch directions every year, and it is fairly accepted that the other direction (clockwise) is the faster one. So had a chose to break my PR going the other direction, it just wouldn’t have meant as much.
Leading up to Blues Cruise this year I had an odd season. I ran Bull Run severely undertrained do to health, weather and work related circumstances over the winter. I did ok, but it was ugly and I know I can do better. Next up was Laurel Highlands 70 miler which I was running for a WSER qualifier. That was a new record distance for me and the recovery was slow. I didn’t feel “right” for weeks. I ran a 6 hour event called Coventry Challenge while still feeling like I needed more time off. I won the under attended event by 20 minutes which was nice, but it wasn’t competitive. After that I took three weeks off of running and really any strenuous activity. Once my break was over I quickly built up and into a 4 week training block before scaling back a week and taking most of the week of the race off. I tried to mix marathon training and trail training because although Blues Cruise has it’s share of hills, none are very tall and there are no long, sustained climbs. Lots of short steep hills and mixed in sections where you can really run fast. I tried to tap back into my speed and recovery with faster long runs, tempos and track work. It hurt but felt good to be close to where I was during marathon training last year. I wasn’t sure how it would work out though. Taking 3 weeks off wasn’t ideal but had to be done if I wanted to be able to train hard. I knew the fitness I acquired from an otherwise fairly steady summer of training and long races like Bull Run and Laurel Highlands was “in the bank” and the dividends would be paying for some time. But not having 2-3 months to prepare for Blues Cruise made me unsure of how it would all turn out.
Blues Cruise is one of the best organized events you’ll ever run. The course is one giant loop, you don’t repeat any section of the trail and there is a lot of variety. There is lots of single track, sometimes you’re deep in the woods, sometimes you’re in the wide open surrounded by acres and acres of fields, there are short road sections and lots of little, often slippery, bridges.
The course is marked very well, the aid stations are so close, many of us skip some of them and they are loaded with a buffet of Ultra food. It’s a great race for anyone. Beginners will find it challenging and rewarding to finish. Runners that love long, steep, technical trails won’t find much of that here, but there are enough hills that a runner who likes to eat hills will benefit from their ability to do so. But more than anyone, this course is great for very fast road runners who don’t mind short steep hills. It’s a fast course (5 guys would break 4 hours this year!) and the pace up front is blistering. Dirty German in Philadelphia is the best local trail 50k course I know of to get a PR at, but Blues cruise is close to that speed but has much more variety.
Bottom line is Blues Cruise is a really great race and I don’t know how anyone who has ran other Ultras could find anything to complain about. If you haven’t you should run it!
This year I toed the line with 350 some runners on a cool but not cold morning. The terrible weather that was forecasted just 6 days before (hurricane!) changed and there was pretty much no chance of rain. Parts of the course drain poorly and it had rained in the days prior to the race, so we all expected mud. Prior to the race I had checked the list of runners signed up and there was a handful of guys I had heard of, and they were very good runners. As this is a Championship, it seems to be come more and more competitive in that top 1-10 every year. My goal was sub-4:30… top 10 would be nice but not likely.
I Chose to wear North Face Better Than Naked shirt and shorts, Swiftwick socks and Hoka Challenger ATR. At first I really hated the Hokas, and I still think the upper and tongue are the worst I’ve worn in a while. But once I ditched the flimsy insole and replaced it, they have grown on me. Blue has a lot of steep, short downhills with small rocks, roots and exposed shale. The Hokas work well for this so wore them. For nutrition I took 2 GUs and 6 Gu Roctanes and took my time eating each one with 30 minutes in between gels. I wore my Ultimate Direction AK vest with a 24oz bottle in the back. I never filled it more than 18-20oz, but the extra length makes it easier to grab out of the scabbard! I also took a Salt Stick on the hour and two when I drank a cup of Coke at mile 26. Pretty simple setup.
The race starts and the field took off at a very fast pace. I know the course well, but I still have trail amnesia. I can run a trail 30 times and still forget most of it. Races are worse. Anyway, the course left the field by the pavilion and up a .25 mile driveway to get to the trailhead. The course is nearly all single track with some wider trails, fire roads and old deteriorated roads from the farm community that once stood where the park is now. There is a mix of paved roads, which makes adds to the speed of this race. In the first mile I was quickly passed by a lot of runners. I mean A LOT. It didn’t really phase me. I figure one of two things was going on. They were all much better runners than me and that’s who deserves to place higher at a race, or they weren’t better runners and there was plenty of time to catch them. We would hit steep 40-70 foot hills and as I “baby strided” up them (keeping short, quick efficient strides) I was being passed by guys taking long powerful strides as they charged the hills as if this was a 10k. Again, I thought that time will tell how that works out for them. After 3 miles I don’t think I was passed again except for maybe getting passed up a hill only to catch back up soon after it. By mile 4 I was running with a couple guys. I told them that most likely the opening pace was way too fast for a lot of the guys in front of us and that the majority of rolling steep hills begin just before the half way mark and continue to the finish. I said it was likely that there would be a lot of carnage between miles 15 and 20. Soon after we passed a runner at mile 5 that looked like his wheels had already fallen off with a marathon to go. Ouch. That can be hard to bounce back from (he went on to still have a great race and held onto a top 30 finish!)
Even with my mindset of trying to remain calm and run my own race, there’s that idiotic male gene that makes us want to chase what’s running away from us. I got a little sucked into the pace, but not to the point that it was going to ruin my race. I was riding the line for sure, but not past the point of no return. I commented to another runner that early on in a race, I almost like when I can’t see anyone in front of me, then I won’t chase them. After mile 4.5 and until close to mile 10 mile, the course takes the flattest sustained section of the trail. There are some little lumps mixed in there and sometimes it seems like you’re running on a flat section, but it’s actually a slight uphill. Either way everyone ran really fast through this section. The section ends when you hit a road and cross a paved bridge before entering the trail again and running down the west side of the course. My pace was around 7:55 at this point. Soon after you hit the tallest hill of the course. It’s only about 240 feet, but it’s steep and there are lots of hills to follow. I was around 3 runners at the time and they all chose to run up the hill until they eventually started to walk, then run again when they saw the top. I walked the entire hill, passed one of them on the way down the other side and caught up to the two guys I had been running with for a while now soon after. It started to get to the point where they would charge up a hill that I would either hike or do my baby step run up, I’d catch them on the descent then get stuck behind them as they would run the flatter sections a little too slow for my liking so I would pass them. After this happened a few times, I realized that my race strategy was the complete opposite of theirs, I believed mine was going to work better today, so I shouldn’t run with them anymore. Around mile 14 I ran in the grass to the side of the single track to pass them and made a small move to create a gap so we could stop this cycle.
One of only a couple places where the course leaves the standard multi-purpose trail is to run up and down Skinner’s Loop at mile 15. It’s a peninsula that an auxiliary trail loops. You go up about 120 feet, down a bit then up a smaller hill then back down to return to the main trail. On the way up I saw a group of runners ahead of us on their way down and out of the loop. I looked back and saw the two guys I just passed. I pointed down the hill at the group ahead of us hoping it would give them the mental boost it gave me to see that I was still in the game. From that point on I would start to slowly pick off a lot of those guys in front of me. As the miles went by I noticed how the trail wasn’t as muddy as I had anticipated and areas of poor drainage had options to get around and my feet stayed dry. I didn’t really see anyone that got terribly muddy.
I had it in my head that I wanted to stay at a pretty steady effort, pick it up after mile 20 and just dump the tank after mile 26. I followed this plan and picked off 9 or 10 runners all the ay up until the last mile where I passed the last one. There are a lot of hills crammed into these last 10 miles and I ran nearly all of them. I walked the hills early, assessed how I felt late, and with not that many miles left decided I should be able to run them and have the energy to keep pushing. You can’t do that if you’re roasted from charging the early hills. It’s too late. Been there. Done that. No thanks.
I have been that guy that blows up and gets passed late in a race MANY times. It feels terrible. You try to talk yourself into thinking you banked time early and you were better off doing that (that’s nearly never true). I passed dozens of runners during my marathon last fall and that was my first experience of being much stronger late in a race. Nothing beats it. It takes the right training before the race (for me a progressive long run 3 weeks out where I ran 24 miles, the last 8-10 mile the hardest), discipline during the race to not screw yourself early and more than anything, a rough game plan and sticking to it while still thinking on your feet if you need to tweak it. I’m sure some of the runners I passed had issues besides training or game plan for the day. They could have had GI issues, made a mistake with their nutrition, got injured, who knows. But I’m willing to bet many made the mistake of going out too fast. I’ve not only been there… more often than not I feel like I make that same mistake (sometimes much worse than others!).
After taking two more places in the last mile, I hit the driveway back toward the pavilion and just completely emptied the tank. My heart rate equaled my max for the day (178) and I bolted across the field and into the finish. Final time of 4:23 and 14th place overall.
I was happy with the outcome, thought that I ran a smart race and felt like on that day, I couldn’t have done much better if I did anything different. I ate 8 gels during that race and 5 salt sticks, drank enough water but not too much, skipped a lot of the aid stations and didn’t regret any of it.
Now I plan on running the DWG 50k fatass in a month then taking some time to rest before beginning my training for the Boston Marathon. I am hoping for a mild winter!