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Friday, 14 August 2009

ENDURrun Stage 5: 16 mile Cross Country

Racing is pain, and that's why you do it, to challenge yourself and the limits of your physical and mental barriers. You don't experience that in an armchair watching television.
-- Mark Allen

Today's stage was the last "mountain" stage, and arguably the hardest stage of the series. It was the one I was scared of the most. The "Alpine" run. Various experienced ENDURrunners had warned us rookies of the dangers of the course, that it was steep, that it shredded quads at whim, and that it humbles even the most elite of runners. The weeks leading up to the ENDURrun, I'd flipped through the book and looked at the course diagram, and thought... well... it doesn't LOOK bad, even through the elevation map basically shows four 60m vertical climbs per loop. It wasn't until I got to SEE the course with my own eyes that I realized what I was in for, and it was worse than I'd imagined.

Stage 5 is set in and around the Chicopee Ski Club. It consists of five 5km loops through the ski hill. The course winds its way through some switchback trails then takes a service road all the way to the summit. Some more switchbacks to the halfway down point, then straight up the face of the main ski run to the top. We then descend switchback style across the back of the hill, go back up to the top, then down the face. And do it all over again, four more times.

The weather gods didn't make things easier for us. Forecast was highs of 28 degrees, and sunny, with 80% humidity. Lovely. When we got to the hill, the sun was shining, and there wasn't a cloud to be seen for miles around. With the exception of the two small trail sections, the course is totally expsoed, no shade from the glaring ball of fire in the sky.

As I got myself ready before the start, I tried to calm myself down. Just take it easy, I told myself. Walk the hills if you have to; don't kill yourself, you still have a 10km and a marathon to run. Did it work? No. I also slept real bad the night before, worrying about this stage. I think someone said earlier that Stage 3 (Bechtel Park) was a kick in the gut, and Stage 4 was a sucker punch to the face, then this stage was a flying kick to the head by a mastodon.

The other thing I was worrying about was my groin. I'd pulled it ever so slightly going down one of the big hills in Stage 4. It didn't bug me then, but this morning, I could feel it. In my warm-up jog around the parking lot, I could feel it. And with this run containing so many up hills, I knew it would be sore by the end.

We all assembled at the start, Lloyd gave us the course low-down, took attendance, and with a "Mark, Set, GO!" we were off and running. The first flat switchback was good; nice and shady, and I was keeping pretty good pace, albeit conservative. It was fun running through the woods on these narrow tight switchbacks. After 1km, we came out to the first ascent. The road was large gravel and dirt, and a steady climber. I made it about half way up, before I started walking. Again, I was trying to be conservative, knowing that there was much more to be done.

At the top, we hit the first water station. The sun was brutal; it felt like the Sahara Desert out there. I downed some Gatorade and poured water on my head and soldiered on. The switchbacks again were not too bad. The descent back to the bottom was some long back and forth single track trails across the face of one of the hills. This was very tough, as the trail was sideways, and I found that I hadn't tied my shoes as tight as I should have, so my foot kept slipping in the shoe. That, and almost falling after hitting a root in the ground, made this very difficult. At the bottom, another water station, then the straight up climb up the front face. I managed to run the first quarter, then gave up. The heat was oppressive, and the bugs started to attack me wholeheartedly. I think there was a cloud waiting for every runner going up that hill. My groin was starting to hurt at this time, and I felt real tired. I pushed my legs with my hands to get up that hill. 

From there, we descended down the back fairly quickly, then some more switchbacks to the bottom. Another road climb to the top, and descent, and the loop was done. That was all one loop! Four more to go.

With each loop, I got slower and slower, and the heat got hotter and hotter. My groin was starting to really hurt bad. By the 3rd loop, I was seriously wondering if I would finish this stage. I bumped into Duff, one of the ENDURrunners staying in the neighbouring suite. He hurt his knee badly, and had to DNF the stage. Another runner stepped into a pothole and twisted her ankle badly. She finished the stage, but only after downing 9 Advils. Other runners tripped and fell over roots and rocks, but no other injuries.

Stage 4 was when I started getting lapped by the leaders. The event leader, Bob, who ran by me as if on wings, said a couple of words of encouragement, and I could only envy his long gracefull stride, and compare it to my own stumpy bumpy gait down the hill. The going was in full pain mode at this point, and I was starting to limp. I think I was doing way more walking than running at this point, just trying to finish. As I came through the finish for loop 4 and on to loop 5, the elites were done, but still cheered for me. I grabbed some water and Gatorade, got a sponge for my head, and trudged on for my last lap.

I have never EVER wanted to quit as bad as this last stage. Every step forward (upward or downward) was excruciating. I couldn't see anyone I'd been running with; they were all way ahead of me. Again, I almost tripped and fell, mainly because I was so tired I couldn't lift my feet anymore. Every single slight uphill I walked. There was no hope for me to finish in 2:45, never mind the 2:30 that I thought I could do. As in the previous stages, I thought back to all the well wishes I'd been receiving from friends, running buddies and family, and dug deep. Making that last descent down the front face to the finish, I looked at my watch, and saw it said 2:56. I swore a blue streak, told myself I was going to come under 3 hours, and kicked it into high gear. I think I flew down the face at 4:15min/km pace (groin be damned) and burned it to finish in 2:59:30!

This stage really showed me how inadequate my training for this has been. You really have to do a lot of hills to even have a hope of running this stage well. To give you an idea, the winner of the stage finished in 2:06, almost a full hour before me. That's a decent time on FLAT GROUND, never mind up and down a ski hill 10 times. I was happy to finish relatively intact. The groin will need some attention (vitamin I, ice, and rest), but will be okay for the next two stages. The heat was also a very big factor in how I felt in this race, but I think the constant drinking of Gatorade and water helped a lot.

Tomorrow's stage is a flat net downhill 10km time trial. Everyone's saying it will be an easy stage, but I think there's something up Lloyd's sleeve with this one. Maybe it's that final tuneup for the marathon on Sunday. The plan will be to test the groin, and go easy but at a decent pace. 

Total Distance: 16 miles (25.6km, 5 loops of 5.12km)
Total Time: 2:59:30
Average Pace: 7:00min/km

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