Saturday, January 17, 2009

Cold and lost: The Frozen 5K

Photo by Shannon Johnstone
I highly recommend this race to runners who have grown bored of the usual 5k , one that presents the humdrum task of running exactly 5 kilometers as fast as you can on a straightforward, well marked course.

The Frozen 5K adds the exciting challenge of trying to decipher the mind boggling complex puzzle of a course while you’re running. Apparently the course was designed by mathematicians using chaos theory, because the layout looks like a plot of a Mandelbrot equation. It involves 3 overlapping, yet unique loops of various lengths and paths which cannot be shown in a single map. Instead, 3 maps are provided before hand, but not the special glasses needed to combine them into coherent directions.

This morning was 13 degrees F, maybe the coldest temperature it would reach all year here in Cary NC. Shannon and I thought we were being very brave and hardcore for just leaving the house this morning, dressed appropriately for the Shackleton expedition to the South Pole. Shannon was excited at the prospect of winning the race by being the only ones to show up, but I thought this would starkly reveal our desperate quest to boost our self esteem.

But when we arrived at Bond Park in Cary, there was a good turnout of about 100 people, including some track team members in their shorts and t-shirts. I ignored them and cursed the fact that I only wore 1 pair of gloves. The announcer said the starter pistol was frozen, with a blast from the bull horn we sprinted across a frozen grass field.

After a couple of turns through the woods, the track guys in shorts were way ahead down an asphalt path. After passing some volunteers at a water stop, I heard people shouting “turn left!”, “go back! Go back!”, “turn around!” Apparently we had already fallen victim to the wild and crazy Frozen 5K course, and missed a turn that even the volunteers were unaware of. I stopped and looked around trying to get some advice at which way to go. The consensus, though not unanimous opinion was to make a hard left and back across the field, which I did, and got back on the course with some of the slower, but less easily fooled runners. With the order of top 10 runners instantly reversed, I think I briefly took the lead.

After another loop, and the track guys back in front, we again approach the water stop. This time the volunteers were ready and confidently directed the leaders to make the left turn, which, apparently, was incorrect this time. “No! Stop!”, “Go straight! Straight!”, “Go back!” I had to slow down because it is hard to breathe when you are laughing so hard.

From there, it devolved into pandemonium with people running in every direction like they were blind folded and being attacked by yellow jackets. Seriously though, I have to commend the volunteers who mostly gave the right directions and bravely stood out in 13 degree temps. It must have been much harder than running in it.
I managed to find the finish line, my lungs and throat seared from the cold air, and I was presented with the final challenge of writing my name and bib # on an index card. I nearly failed this after breaking a pencil and briefly forgetting what comes after the ‘e’ in my last name. Shannon crossed a minute later, and I forbid her from waiting around for any awards. So we retreated to the car and then Starbucks.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

2009 Frosty 50K - Winston-Salem, NC

Frosty 50 collage by Shannon Johnstone
A cold 33 deg at start

Ultra running has always been a mystery to me. Running 50 miles in a week leaves me broken and lifeless. How can someone run 50 or 100 or more in day?
My current theory is that the mileage doesn't kill you, it is pushing yourself too hard that does it. I am not saying that I could run 100 miles in day, but I could run 50 miles a week a little bit slower and feel a whole lot better.

The Frosty 50K (31 miles) would be the first (and maybe only) Ultra
Humiliation: realizing you
and your girlfriend
are wearing matching shirts
Marathon for Shannon and I, and it is probably one of the easiest Ultras out there. "Ultra Marathon" usually means running 100 miles over mountains, but this is pretty flat and only 5 miles longer than a marathon.

With my "bonk" at the City of Oaks marathon, I had not successfully run farther than 18 miles since the great "Chicago salt crisis" back in October. So my plan for the Frosty 50k was to go very slow and be able to finish. My goal was to not push myself too hard.

In past races, I have run faster than Shannon, so I thought I would take it easy by running with her. This plan was not only overconfident and condescending, but quite painfully stupid.

START: We started out at a comfortable 9 minute pace while talking with local Ultra runner celebrity Laura MacLean, who did a 50k the weekend before, and was trying to talk us into the Falls Lake 50k in two weeks.

Laura MacLean and I, at about mile 5

MILE 7: we had to step through an ice cold stream up to our ankles, and on the other side was a patch of ice that caught Shannon like a trap. She was paralyzed there on the embankment, her hands on the ground and her butt stuck straight up into the air, unable to move for fear of sliding back into the water. I managed not to laugh too much, and gave her rear end a little assist up the slope.
MILE 13: my hamstrings started to get tight and sore, which always happens on long runs but never so early. I said to Shannon, "you go ahead, I'll catch back up you", and I stopped to pee and stretch a little bit. This is where things got hard.
MILE 15.5: I saw her again at the turn around, where she discovered she was the 6th place female. They only give out awards to the top 3 finishers, so this sparked her little competitive streak and she started to pick up the pace.
MILE 18: I finally caught back up to her, but it took an enormous amount of effort, my legs felt like lead. She had passed another woman, which made her run even faster, "Sorry, I want to stay in fifth place", and she took off. I let her go, thinking "she can't keep that up".
MILE 23: Wrong. At the last turn around, I saw her coming back, smiling, and going faster still. My plan to take it easy went out the window, and I had to catch her again. After all, she was one of my rivals on Athlinks and I loved to tease her about my perfect 39-0 record against her.
The Duchess of Frost
MILE 27: It took every thing I had, but I finally caught up just past the marathon mark. This was the farthest either of us had ever run, so we celebrated with a "yeaaa". I was in a world of hurt at this point, breathing really hard, and when we stopped at the aid station, I was afraid my wooden legs wouldn't start moving again. This is where Shannon saw the 3rd place female only few hundred yards ahead, and took off like a rabbit. I let out a very loud groan, "oh, come on!"

MILE 28: We passed the woman, who was very gracious, congratulating Shannon, "great job, your the 3rd female now!".
MILE 30: All energy now was diverted to my legs and I could no longer suppress moans of pain. "Uggghh". Shannon asked if I was OK, but I couldn't answer. I just leaned forward and focused on putting one foot in front of the other so I wouldn't fall over.
We got through the finish line just under 4:30. After we changed into some warm clothes, Shannon collected her trophy which entitled her "The Duchess of Frost".

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