Bootlegger 50k – A National Championship

Monday, November 18, 2013

                Sorry for the delay… Needed a bit more time for this entry to become fully formed. Last weekend, I traveled to Boulder City, NV, to run in the Bootlegger 50k. This race was also the home of the USATF 50k Trail National Championships. I hadn’t planned on running another 50k this year, but after a friend emailed me and said he was going, I figured why not. It wasn’t too far to travel and the promise of good competition was really intriguing, as I wanted to see how racing 50k while actively working against/with other runners would play out. Friday afternoon, we arrived at the hotel in Boulder City and I went out for a couple of easy miles in the dark on a fortuitously-placed bike path which ran right behind the hotel. Running in the desert at night was a novel experience and seeing the stars and silhouettes of the mountain ranges against the night sky was amazing. While the shakeout run was great, the dinner left a bit to be desired. We opted for the $11 buffet and as I was reminded again, you get what you pay for. Warm but stagnant pasta and a red sauce that upon first glance looked to be marinara but proved to be clam (thankfully I discovered that before eating it) meant that I was eating limp salad and plain noodles for dinner. Not ideal, but pasta is pasta even if it is a bit crunchy. After dinner, I drank my Osmo Pre-Load Hydration, got into bed early and was able to sleep rather well.

                On Saturday morning, we were up early and headed over to the race start. We parked about 50ft from the finish line and I ran a mile or so to warm up before waiting in line for the bathrooms while finishing my 2nd round of Osmo. At 7am, we lined up and before I knew it we were running. Now, to backtrack a bit, I had been told about the guys who were signed up for the race and from what I’d heard, there were several fast guys who would be in contention for the title. My race plan was to stick with the lead group as long as I could and see what happened towards the end. Having only run one 50k prior to this, I really don’t know many ultra-runners (at least by sight) and so I just stuck with the lead group. There were 2 guys I knew from before, Dylan and Mario, and heard rumors that they were both fit, so I keyed off of them a bit more than the other guys. The course itself was composed of two 15.5 mile loops with about 2000ft of climbing each, for a total of around 4000ft elevation gain/loss over the 31 miles. The weather was fantastic at the start – probably 55 degrees and totally clear, but the course had no trees on it, so the sun would be a factor as the day wore on.

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                The first mile was all downhill so I wasn’t too surprised when I looked at my watch and it read 5:26 at mile 1. I chuckled to myself and thought: “Well, here we go.” I was pleased that while the 1st mile was fast, the effort I was putting into it felt more like 6-6:30. At this point, we turned off of fire road and onto a single track trail. I was in 5th of a group of 6-7 guys and was content just to sit. The biggest climb on the course of maybe about 800ft occurs in the first 3-4 miles, so I knew what we were in for. However, as soon as the grade kicked up, I got tired of sitting in the back and moved to the front of the group. Mario came right up behind me and at the top of the climb, we had a gap of about 20-30 meters on the next 4-5 guys. That didn’t last long, as they caught back up to us fairly easily on the descent and we rolled as group for the next 7-8 miles. At one point, Mario and I had opened up a bit of a gap again, but took a wrong turn that led to us backtracking about 10m and that was enough for the rest of the guys to catch up and for one guy to make a move to get some space on us. Looking back on it, that’s where the pack split for good – around mile 10 with more than 20 to go. I wasn’t sure what to do, so I just concentrated on running my own race. I was probably off the leader by as much as 200 meters at some points, but knew there was a lot of race left. In the later miles, the course had an out-and-back section of single track, which made it really easy to see just how far behind you were. I was in 3rd at this point, behind Mario and another guy I didn’t know, and was closing the gap as they hit the turnaround to head back towards the start/finish. I caught the other guy in another mile or so and remained 50-60m behind Mario as we crossed the start/finish line and headed out for the 2nd loop.

                At this point, I should note that while the group had strung out a bit, we were still within sight of one another. I was maybe 10 seconds behind Mario and the 3rd and 4th place guys were 15 seconds behind me as we began the 2nd loop. During the first loop, I ate 1 Picky Bar and drank a decent amount of water. I think the heat got to me a bit and made me less hungry, since I was planning on eating more than I did. I was drinking regularly, though, and at the start/finish line the first time, I picked up another half of a Picky Bar and 2 Gu’s. I lost a little time due to the stop, but it wasn’t much and I figured Mario would have to stop sooner or later, as would the other guys.

                On the 2nd loop, I caught up to Mario as soon as we started climbing. The 3rd and 4th place guys were in sight for a while, but he and I quickly realized the race was between us (assuming nothing went really wrong) when we got to the top of the big climb and no one else was in sight. We descended into an aid station and I stopped to fill my water bottle up. With about 11-12 miles to go at this point, it was my plan to make this my last stop. Mario had someone giving him small, handheld water bottles which enabled him to open up a bit of a lead on me. We went back and forth for the next 5-6 miles over the undulating and turning trail. Every time I would begin to gain ground on him, he’d find a way to put some back on me, and so we yo-yo’d for quite a while. At this point, my legs were feeling quite fatigued. The constant climbing/descending of 20-30ft rises really was taking its toll and I knew that if he put in a surge, I was probably going to be running alone for 2nd. However, every time the rubber band felt like it was going to snap, it didn’t. He couldn’t pull away from me. I don’t know if I was fighting harder than I realized or if he wasn’t feeling it, but I managed to stay within striking distance. He still had a 20-30m lead on me heading into the next aid station, but he stopped for longer than I expected, and having just eaten a Gu and still with a fairly full water bottle, I was able to quickly drink 2 cups of water and leave the station before him. I had 30-40m on him at this point, and was heading into a section of the course that wound into and out of a bunch of smaller canyons, meaning that even a lead of 10m meant you lost vision of the person in front of you regularly as you went around corners. I tried to use this to my advantage, and surged as best I could when we were out of sight of one another. It worked and before long, I had opened up a larger lead. At this point, we headed down the out-and-back section and I knew that I would see exactly where he was. As I was coming back up the trail, I judged he was about 2-3 minutes behind me and knew that I just had to keep it together for the last couple miles and I’d win. Those last 2-3 miles seemed interminable. What on paper was a small climb felt huge and I fought the urge to walk several times. Finally, I came into view of the finish and mustered a final “kick” down the road and across the line. I crossed the line in 3:33:18, good for a new course record by 6+ minutes, and about 5 minutes in front of Mario, who came in 2nd.

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                Breaking the banner was an amazing feeling and I really tried to savor it as I was coming in to the finish. There’s a stretch of about 200m of dirt road leading slightly downhill to the finish and I made an effort to soak it all in because who knows when or if I’ll have that opportunity again. Looking back, I’m obviously happy I decided to run the race. It was really, really well organized and a blast. The race director and his crew made sure everyone had a great time. The course itself was deceptively difficult. While it had much less climbing than Headlands (4000ft vs 7000ft), the difference was that in Headlands, you could find a rhythm as you climbed or descended for extended periods of time. You knew that a 2-3 mile climb was coming so you could just put your head down and find your stride. In Bootlegger, aside from the first big climb, the rest of the course was constantly undulating. You were hardly ever running on flat ground and when you were, you were still turning left and right all the time. It left me much more tired than I had anticipated but I was also able to use it to my advantage. Running such different types of courses definitely tells me where my strengths lie, on the climbs. I also really enjoyed running with people for the vast majority of the race. It helped me stay engaged and it allowed me to see the tactics other people employ in terms of fueling and hydration. Winning a national championship in my 2nd go at 50k was something not even on my radar 3 months ago when I ran Headlands. I feel incredibly blessed to have had such amazing experiences at both races and look forward to the future. I’m already considering a 50 miler…

                I’ve spent the last week recovering and feel pretty good. I’ll be racing at the PA XC Championships on Sunday, so I’ll wait until next Thursday (Thanksgiving!) to post again and then hopefully we’ll be back on schedule. After my experience at Bootlegger, everything else this season/year is just gravy.

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About afvarner

Runner. Donuts. Sneakerhead. Not necessarily in that order. Nike Trail Elite. Picky Bars. Gu. Vicory Sportdesign.
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