To race competitively at any distance requires not only training, but also a bit of strategy. Go out too fast and you’ll be spent before the finish. Too slow and you won’t realize your full potential. Last month I ran my first ultra distance race, a 50K in Central Oregon. Now four weeks later I was planning on running the Le Grizz 50 Miler in Montana.
How would I determine the proper pace for a race that’s almost 20 miles further than I’ve ever run? After doing a bit a research on Ultrasignup and Athlinks, I was able to estimate that it would take me about 8 hours. To wrap my head around the idea that I’d be running nonstop for 8 hours, I decided to look at it as a day of work. Instead of checking email, attending meetings, making phone calls and doing paperwork, I would just be running and my “project” on this particular day would be to complete 50 miles. The sooner I was done with this “project,” the sooner my boss (Yoshimi) would let me stop and go home.
On Wednesday, we caught the overnight train across Oregon, Washington and Idaho to Whitefish, Montana. In the lounge car, we celebrated my 42nd birthday with a picnic Yoshimi put together. We sipped and snacked on wine, cheese, prosciutto, and olives while watching the sun set across the Colombia Gorge.
This year would be the 30th anniversary of Le Grizz, making it one of the oldest 50 mile races in the world. It’s held every October along the Hungry Horse Reservoir, just outside of Glacier National Park. Northern Montana usually experiences a dry Indian summer around race time, but this year was a wet one. The day before the race was filled with a cold depressing rain, not the kind of weather you’d want to walk across the street in, let along run 50 miles. Fortunately, a dry weather window rolled in just in time for race day.
At the start, the race director gave us this advice if we happened to cross paths with a grizzly, “What ever you do, don’t run.” It seemed like a strange thing to say to a bunch of runners. He then pulled a shotgun from his pickup, fired it into the air and we were off.
Yoshimi volunteered to be my support team. The plan was for her to meet me every 6-7 miles in the rental car to fill up my handheld water bottle and to replenish my snack supply. What I didn’t know was that she’d also planned to video tape me at each stop because she thought it would to funny to watch my gradual deterioration.
The weather was perfect for long distance running: fifty degrees and overcast with calm winds. I met a guy from Vancouver, B.C. who was cruising along at a similar pace. We chatted about past and future races and the miles seemed to just fly on by. Eventually though, we got to point where we were both too tired to talk AND run.
At the 26 mile mark, I experienced the weird sensation of knowing that I’d just completed a marathon, yet still had to run almost that same distance over again. Yoshimi picked up my spirits with a bag of chocolate covered espresso beans and some upbeat music. At mile 43, the course went right past the finish line on the way to the final out-and-back section across the top of the Hungry Horse Dam. The lead runners were just coming back as I was still going out. I was happy to see that they seemed to look about as bad as I felt. The last few miles, however, turned out to be quite pleasant, now that I was secure with the knowledge that I had enough gas in the tank to get me to the finish.
I crossed the line at 7 hours 16 minutes, finishing in 8th place overall. As good as it felt to finally stop, I must admit that it was also a bit odd. After more than 7 hours of continuous movement, running starts to feel normal. But let me tell you, I was able to adapt to this whole “stopping” thing without too much trouble. All runners were given a homemade plaque and treated to fried chicken and big tub of cold beer. After a hot shower and a nap back in Whitefish, Yoshimi and I joined in on the local Oktoberfest celebration. I felt surprisingly good after having run 50 miles, but not quite good enough to take part in the keg tossing competition. Many thanks to the Cheetah Herders Athletic Club for putting on such a fun, well-organized race and to Yoshimi for being such a great support team and for talking photos that I’ll post when we get back to Portland.