Boulder Field 50K Race Report

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The beautiful sunrise at the start of the race.

If you are a frequent visitor to this page, you may have picked up on the fact that I’m a planner.  This is usually never more true than when I have a race approaching.  In the weeks leading up to a big race, I tend to stalk the weather forecasts, memorize the course and elevation, and plan my clothing, food, & hydration down to every last detail.  This past week, I threw all of that out the window in the lead up to Boulder Field.

Boulder Field, which had both a 50K and 100K option, was a brand new race put on by Stephan Weiss of Uberendurancesports.  I have run many of the Uberendurance events in the past, and they are always fantastic.  When I saw that they were creating a new, more challenging race in Hickory Run State Park, I knew I had to try it out.

Of course, while September tends to bring great running weather, the start of the school year is hardly the ideal time for me to prepare for a big race.  I was so swamped with work and kids’ activities that I barely gave the race a moment’s thought until Friday afternoon.  I made a batch of waffles, packed on my race gear, and set my alarm for a ridiculously early weekend wakeup.

After an unusually good-night’s sleep, I got up, made some breakfast, and hopped in the car to head up to the race.  I had miscalculated the time needed to drive up, and that along with a missed turn caused me to arrive just about 40 minutes prior to the race start.  Fortunately my attitude for this race was to just go out and enjoy it.  I hadn’t even planned a goal finish time.  I wished my friend, Nicole, “good luck,” lined up at the start with 3 minutes to spare, and took off with the other 150 runners.

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Smiling with Nicole at the start.  This all-star went on to finish as the 2nd overall female!

Stephan had warned us that the first 12-mile loop was the more challenging section of the course.  The first few minutes gave us a nice easy warm-up before we turned onto some gradually uphill single track.  The single track at this race was impressively narrow.  I don’t think I’ve ever run through more branches.  It allowed me to feel a bit bad-ass, as if I were bushwhacking through a jungle, but it did make the first few miles a bit challenging.  With so many runners in single file order, it was hard to get into a good rhythm at the start, as the hills caused a lot of start & stop running.  After about two miles, the course opened up slightly, and I was able to settle into a relaxed pace.

I’d never been up to Hickory Run before, and I was impressed by how beautiful the course was.  It didn’t hurt that we had lucked out and scored perfect early autumn weather as well.  We reached the first aid station about 5 miles in, then looped around for 4.5 miles before returning to that aid station.  The loop brought us to the first challenging terrain of the day, as we encountered several decent climbs.  There was also a downhill section with some technical footing that required a fair amount of focus.  After making it back to the first aid station for the second time, it was just a short 3 miles back to the start and the third aid station.  Along the way, we ran along the “Shades of Death” trail, which was much less intimidating than the name implied.  While it boasted a lot of tricky footing, it also included several beautiful waterfalls.

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The second part of the course was a large 19-mile loop.  I started that section in high spirits which quickly began to fade as I found myself struggling to maintain my pace.  What had previously been a comfortable run turned into a challenging slog, and I found myself taking frequent walk breaks.  Though I know that the half-marathon mark is often a challenging spot for me, I was dispirited to discover how the race had become so difficult so quickly.  After about a mile of this, I was passed by another runner, who commented about the never-ending hill.   I was running without any kind of tracking device, and the hill that we were on was so sneakily subtle that I hadn’t even realized that it was to blame for the increasing challenge.  I was so relieved that I could have kissed the kind soul that clued me in.  Even better, just after he passed me, the terrain leveled out and then began to slope back down, allowing me to get back into a good rhythm.

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The lovely, but deceptively uphill trail through the woods.

I know that we hit the fourth aid station somewhere around 16 miles, but for the life of me, I have no recollection of the course at that time.  I just remember feeling relieved that we were past the halfway point, as that’s always a mental hurdle for me.  A few miles past that aid station, we hit another long stretch of technical single track, and after struggling with my footing for a couple hundred feet, I slowed to a fast hike.  I felt pretty good at that point, enough that I was annoyed at the slower pace, but I just didn’t fancy the idea of trying to cover the last 10 miles of the course on a twisted ankle.  Fortunately just as I was getting truly annoyed at all of the little rocks, the course opened up into a more runnable section of packed pine needles.  I coasted along for almost a mile before we reached the infamous boulder field.

While I was initially disappointed to learn that we would only be crossing the boulder field for about 200-yards, by the time we got there, that short distance felt plenty long enough. While some boulders were quite steady, others shifted underfoot, requiring a high level of focus.  There was a good-sized crowd hanging out on the far side of the field and it was nice to encounter some spectators after seeing no one but racers for many miles.  We also reached the fifth aid station right after the boulder field, which provided another appreciated boost.  PB& J was my snack of choice at this race, and I happily scarfed another sandwich quarter and some Coke before continuing on my way.

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The infamous boulder field, the race’s namesake.  

The course between the fifth and sixth aid station was a very runnable five miles.  I was pleased to find that my legs felt strong (at least, as strong at they can 5 hours into a race) and I think I managed a good pace on the gently sloping terrain.  There were several other runners nearby, and that also provided a good burst of energy, as I focused on staying close to them.  We all came to a brief pause when the trail appeared to stop at a creek crossing, but after navigating our way through a somewhat dubious tunnel, we found some pink tape and were happily back on our way.

I came into the final aid station feeling optimistic that we were nearing the finish, and after a very short stop and one more sandwich quarter, I happily continued on my way.  The course continued to be kind, sloping gently downhill for more than a mile, and I tried to maintain a comfortably hard pace throughout.  After almost 20 minutes, the course turned back into the woods, where we encountered some gently rolling hills, some narrow footing, and a couple of sharp switchbacks.  This section reminded me of parts of the Worlds End course, and I actually found that I appreciated the varied terrain.  It was definitely preferable to the unending hill that followed.

With about 2.5 miles to go, the course turned onto a paved road that went up and up and up.  Honestly, at that point in the race, after so much runnable terrain, it felt like a sick joke.  I believe I said as much to two other runners.  I focused on trying to power hike as quickly as I could.  After many minutes on the road, the course turned back onto the grass, but the hill continued.  I couldn’t see any other runners before or behind me, and when I lost sight of the pink course markers, I felt doubt creeping in.  I almost turned around, afraid that I had somehow gone off course so close to the end of the race.  Fortunately I pressed forward, and a minute or two later, I found a piece of pink tape that assured me I was on the right track.

Of course, it was a huge relief when the course leveled back out, and then began to slope back downhill.  I picked up my run, trying to maintain as hard of a pace as possible for the last few minutes.  Of course, without any tracker I had no idea how much farther I had to go, and despite the downhill slope, I found myself feeling impatient to find the finish line.  It was such a relief to turn back toward the lake, and to hear the cheers coming from the crowd.  I gave it my all the last few hundred yards, running in as quickly as I could to finish in just under 6:45.  Not at all bad for a race that I started with no expectations.

As I mentioned at the top, I’m a huge fan of Uberendurance events.  This race was every bit as wonderful as their other events.  The aid stations were top notch, the swag was high-quality, and the course was fantastic.  I would love to have the opportunity to train on those trails on a regular basis, and I’d happily return to this race again in the future.

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Labor Pain 2016 Race Report

Some of you may recall my awesome experience at last year’s Labor Pain Ultra.  The stars pretty much aligned for that race, and it was fantastic in so many ways.  My experience at this year’s Labor Pain was quite different, but still wonderful in its own right.

When I signed up for this race, my goal was to hit 40-50 miles in the 12-hour allotted time limit.  Then this summer occurred and I decided to try to balance running and life a bit more,  which caused me to rethink my goals for Labor Pain.  I went into the race yesterday with the plan to play it by ear, with the goal to at least come away with a 50K finish.

One of the big changes about this year’s race is that I was approaching it completely solo.  Last year, I had my favorite running partner alongside me, along with a variety of awesome friends who came out to accompany us on some of our laps.  I knew that this year was going to have a very different feel without anyone else along for company.  Fortunately I’ve gotten pretty good at running by myself over the years, and I’ve learned how to zone out when I’m on the trails.

I’m also blessed to have the most supportive family ever.  My husband must have been able to tell that I was a bit reluctant to be on my own, because he decided that he and the kids were going to join me for this one.  We all piled into the car before sunrise on Sunday morning to make the 70-minute drive out to the Reading Liederkranz, where the race was held.

Labor Pain kids

2/3 of my awesome race crew and cheering squad.

I love running races that I’ve run before because it’s such a more mellow feeling the second time around.  Going into this race, I knew the course, knew the best place to park, and knew where to set up our stuff.  We arrived nice and early, got everything unloaded, and set up camp for the day.  I checked in, received my bib, pint glass, and t-shirt, and got fitted for my long-sleeve finisher’s shirt.  With all of the official race business taken care of, I made a quick stop at the indoor bathrooms and then relaxed on my blanket with the latest copy of Runner’s World.

I’m sure I’ve mentioned before how wonderful it is to go into a race with such a low-key atmosphere.  About 3 minutes before the race was scheduled to start, Ron Horn, the race director, asked everyone to head over to the starting line.  Once there, we received some helpful and humorous reminders about the race before we were sent off on our way.

Labor Pain is a 5-mile loop that you run as many times as you want in the given 12-hour limit.  Having been there last year, I knew what to expect on the course and was prepared for the bottleneck that tends to occur when you first hit the singletrack trail  a little over a 1/4 mile into the race.  This year I lined up right near the start and I was pleased to find that it allowed me a smoother transition onto the trail than last year.  We wove briefly through the woods, circled down onto the grass and around the pond, and then headed up into the main portion of the trails.  As I often find in races, it took me the first few miles to settle into a comfortable rhythm.  It was made more challenging by the hillier first half of the loop, as well as the fact that I was running without my GPS.  When I hit the aid station at 2.5 miles, I checked my watch and realized I was considerably ahead of my goal pace for the first lap.  I slowed slightly, and that, combined with the lengthy downhills on the second part of the course, allowed me to get into a comfortable rhythm.  I came through the timing chute about 5-minutes ahead of my target time, fast enough that my family was still sitting at the blanket unprepared for my arrival.  My husband helped me grab a quick drink and my handheld bottle, and then I headed back out for my second loop.

I settled into a good rhythm over the next several loops.  Once the course entered the heart of the woods, it followed a gentle uphill slope before hitting one of three real hills on the course.  The first hill had a steep portion, followed by a longer stretch of gradual uphill climb, which feels easy enough on the first lap, but progressively more challenging the later you get in the race.  I got into the habit of hiking this stretch until it took the slight downhill turn to the stone wall.  Once over the wall, there was a nice stretch of downhill paved road for a few minutes before the trail returns to the woods.  What follows is a very runnable section that winds around for about a half a mile before bringing you to another road crossing and the aid station halfway through the loop.  The aid station is always a welcome site because it also signals easier terrain ahead.  Following the aid station, there’s a good 1/2-3/4 of a mile of mostly flat trail before the course turns to the second hill of the loop.  This one is steeper, but also shorter than the first hill.  At the top, there’s a very technical, but short, rocky section and a few more brief ups and down before the course turns downhill for good.  You run along a mile or so of gently downhill-sloping trail before coming to another road crossing that loops you around to a short grassy section of the course.  This connects you back to one final road, with one final descent, before a punishing, but mercifully short hill at the very end of the loop.  Honestly, after all my climbing at Hyner & Worlds End this year, that hill was a lot less intimidating than I had remembered.

On each of my laps, I tried to take advantage of the numerous flat & downhill sections of the course.  I struggled a bit on my third lap, which is a historically difficult part of most races for me.  It was somewhere around that point that I decided that I was going to just run the 50K.  I knew that I would be able to push on for a further distance if I really wanted to, but I honestly just didn’t feel the desire to do so.  It was a gorgeous day and I wanted to just enjoy my time on the course and then wrap up and head home with my family while the sun was still shining.  As I moved into my fourth lap, I was pleased to find that the discomfort I was feeling, while definitely still there, had kind of streamlined.  The more I run ultras, the more I find that for me, the hardest part is somewhere between miles 10-18, when you start to hurt & feel tired, but know that you are still really far from your goal.  After you acknowledge that discomfort, it often tends to level out, and I find that much easier to deal with because I know that to expect.  For laps 4-6, there was still a lot that was hurting, but it didn’t get any worse, so that, combined with my desire to cross that finish line, allowed me to keep moving forward at a steady pace.

The last lap was actually quite enjoyable for me.  Every time I came to a new section of the course, I found myself chanting “last time through here” in my head.  It was such an uplifting feeling to know that I was almost done.  When I ran through the transition area for the sixth time I chucked my handheld to my husband, begged him to meet me at the finish, and then ran out on the short stretch till I found the 50K turnaround mark.  Along the way I spotted several runners who were returning to finish their milestone distances, and it was so exciting to know that I was about to be one of them.  I reached the turn around, flew down the final hill, and sped into the chute for the final time, happy to report that I was calling it for the day.

The best thing about this race has to be the wonderful organization and great atmosphere.  It’s just full of people who truly love trail running.  Throughout the day I chatted with numerous other runners, both those who have run races I’ve finished, and those training for ones I’ve considered.  It’s really cool to be able to share a course with such a wide range of runners.  Some are doing their first trail race and hoping to hit 10 miles, some are walkers who want to complete their first marathon, and others are ultra stars who are crushing 50 or 60 miles.  People are so encouraging to one another, that it makes it a lot of fun to share the trails with them.  The perks of the race are pretty sweet too – this year we received a pint glass, tech tee, and car sticker for pre-registering.  Every finisher also receives a custom item (this year a long-sleeve zip-up tech shirt) about 6-8 weeks after the race.  Those finishing milestone distances (26.2, 50K, 40 miles, 50 miles, 100k) get that noted on their shirt.  In addition, there’s a tremendous food spread at the start and finish.  I brought a lot of my own food, but I also supplemented that with some chips, pretzels, gummy bears, and half a veggie burger.  There’s very reasonably-priced food for spectators, and my husband was able to enjoy a cold beer while the kids happily munched their hot dogs and played on the shaded playground.  Labor Pain is a race that truly invites you to bring along the whole family.

I enjoyed the beautiful weather, felt good on the course, and finished with a time and a distance I felt proud of.  My return to Labor Pain just reminded me, once again, that this is definitely a race worth returning to each year!

Labor Pain

Feeling good at the end of the day.