Holiday Lake 50k++ February 13, 2010
by Chuck Stone
Wow, what a race for a first ultra! I had been looking forward to this race for a few months. Reading the descriptions and reports from previous years made Holiday Lake 50k seem too much fun to miss. And it was fun – plus so much more.
I had expected a hard effort would be needed to complete the race since I have not done that distance before and my previous longest efforts were road marathons. As it turned out, Brenda my friend and training partner was also doing the race, so we would run together with a goal to finish before the cutoff. Then came emails with snow reports, extended cutoff, etc; using the ‘sissy’ word to inspire or challenge – all this gave me reason to expect a seriously hard effort was ahead.
The race was about 50 percent harder for me than I expected and showed that my training was not so good for this event. I thought my running base and weekly miles would be adequate for a relaxed "just finish" first ultra. But there was about double the climbing I expected and there was snow, so there was plenty of pain and suffering on my part. Brenda and I finished just ahead of the cutoff with 8:51:43. Race director David Horton made sure we got our money’s worth with a race distance of over 33 miles. And we made sure we used almost every minute that he permitted! The cutoff extension made the difference for us to avoid a DNF.
The trails were snow covered and even the forest roads became single track as runners followed the footsteps of others rather than break through the deeper crusted snow. The snow mostly didn't pack into a firm surface; it was more like sand - loose snow crystals a few inches deep. In some sections the snow eventually wore down and melted and turned to mud. I guess it was about 29 miles of snow, 3 miles of mud and about a mile of pavement combined at the start and finish. Brenda and I had our trail shoes fitted with special screws called IceSpikes and felt that they helped, especially on the hills. Because of the single file running, it was harder to carry on conversations. Talking and storytelling has been my primary way to distract myself from the fatigue and discomfort of running so long, so that strategy was hampered.
Brenda and I were running to beat the cutoffs at halfway (4:15), three quarters (6:30) and final (9:00) and we made each cutoff by 8 to 10 minutes. The aid stations were just over 4 miles apart and our plan was to take an hour between them. We began with an easy pace, walking the uphill sections and also while eating after the aid stations. We stayed on schedule for the most part during the first half although we were slowing a bit near the halfway mark. Brenda had been worried that we would miss a cutoff and that she would be to blame for a DNF, so as we neared the halfway point she said I should just run ahead to make the cutoff. I was feeling ok about our pace and progress, but ran ahead for most of the last mile of the first loop. During that time Brenda heard from someone that the cutoff was only 5 minutes away and it seemed she wouldn’t make it. This caused her a lot of distress and weighed on her as we began the second loop. I beat that cutoff by about 12 minutes and Brenda was there with about 10 to spare. One runner near me said he was dropping at that point because of ankle pain. The race official tried to talk him into continuing.
It was fun to see runners coming back on the second lap as we finished the first one. The race leaders passed us about 3 hours into the race when we were only around mile 12 or 13. Eventually the stream of returning runners was heavier and we were regularly exchanging ‘good job’ greetings. The trail by the lake was narrow enough to require someone to step aside for oncoming runners. We mostly were moving over for those on their second loop, but since we were pushing the cutoff maybe we should have let them step aside. We walked a lot to start the second lap, but we still made the next aid station in about an hour. Gradually our pace slowed and in the last half we walked more and more. Brenda's gps watch battery died after 27 miles so as time ticked away near the end we were unsure how close to the finish we were. The final half mile or so is on pavement and only when we reached the road did we know we would finish in time. For the last 10 miles my left knee gave me trouble, maybe an IT band issue? It started as some tightness, then became painful, then increasingly painful and we did more walking.
We had some concern over the creek crossing. As it turned out that was one of the smaller things to overcome. It was wet and cold, but we came through ok and our feet didn’t stay cold. On the second loop we barely paused at the creek as we crossed. There were no “do or die” moments, just long challenging periods of keeping our feet moving. Often I would find I was getting ahead of Brenda, so I would walk or wait (rest). Her effort was much more even than mine. We spent a lot of time just ahead of or behind a lady named Sandy. We referred to her as the energizer bunny because she just kept going and going, seldom walking. She eventually pulled ahead and out of sight after the second aid station of the second loop, finishing about 5 minutes ahead of us.
The aid stations were fun places. When the volunteers would see us coming, they would ring cowbells and cheer ‘go runners!’ (even if we were walking). They helped fill bottles, described and even recommended food choices. And they would also tell us how much time we had and to get going. I brought a small plastic bag along so I could fill the bag with the food I wanted while a volunteer filled my bottle. Then I could walk and eat from the bag rather than stand and eat. Toward the end of the race there was an aid station without water (only electrolyte drink) and some of the foods had run out. I guess they planned just about right since we were among the very last ones to come through. At the last aid station I drank some cola and ate the hot tomato soup and felt recharged – for almost a mile. Too bad there were more miles to run after that wore off.
As challenging, painful and discouraging as things got, it was still a good experience and fun in many ways. It was a huge help mentally to run with Brenda; going it alone would have been so much harder. I definitely want to do more of this kind of running and I intend to show up better prepared on race day.
Thanks Dr Horton, race volunteers, and Holiday Lake staff! Congrats on a well organized race.