Saturday, February 8, 2020

My 2020 Algonquin 50k Race Report - 2019/2020: A Rough End Begets An Even Tougher Beginning

My Mom showing off her new Mt. Shasta jacket,

From a running stand point, 2019 wasn't one of my best years, a DNF in April and a smattering of injuries seemed to mess up my brain for the whole season. I screwed my head back on and I committed to having a fun visit out west to see Nathan and I was determined to have a blast at the Headwaters 50K. If you read my last blog post you know that the trip to see Nathan was magical and so was the race through their beautiful California mountains. I'll be damned, maybe 2019 wasn't a total loss.

High above Heart Lake and Castle Lake outside of Mt. Shasta CA

Arriving home from that trip, I was high as a kite and I felt absolutely bullet proof,  but that feeling only lasted a few days. I was out for an easy run on my home town mountain when I felt pain on the back of my right knee.  Three days later, Janice playing co-ed softball blooped a dribbler towards 2nd base and she heard a pop and she ended the day on crutches. Janice and I were bitten by sports injuries and at the same time my Mom was noticeably slowing down. If you know my Mom, all 4 feet 11 of her, you know she never did anything slow. Still living independently at age 95 and for the first time in her life she was showing signs that she wasn't 45 anymore. I ended up in physical therapy with Distal Hamstring Tendonopathy.

Pre-surgery selfie, the beginning of what
proved to be an excruciatingly painful day for Janice.

Janice greatly out did me with a ruptured Achilles Tendon requiring surgery and Mom at this point was concerning us. I told her that I couldn't believe that during a recent visit, the doctor hadn't recommend hospitalization. She shot back, "hospital? why?", "if I'm going to kick the bucket, I can do that just fine right here at home". Mom's appetite was falling off and getting around the house was getting tougher and tougher.

Needless to say, I had a lot on my mind. Two women I love were struggling and I wasn't in the best of shape to be of much help. I did what I could to fix myself while trying be a helper too. The guys at InspiredPT were great, Dan and Steve quickly saw where my pain was and developed a plan to get me back to running as soon as possible. Along with PT, I decided to register in some short fun races I could use as part of rehab while trying to keep my brain in the game.

SMT Turkey Trot  - The Turkey Trot Tri, which I selected by accident, meant I would get to run a 5k, but at about the mid point I had to eat a small pie, drink apple cider, grab a pumpkin and run with it to the finish.

Me & my pumpkin.

The Santa Shuffle - Yep, you guessed it, I ran a 5k in Harrisburg while wearing a Santa Suit. It was a total hoot and my Santa pants never fell down. [I was also registered for the Last Mile in Duncannon, PA and the Fleetfeet New Year Run Challenge, but I wasn't able to participate in either.]

December 18th, everything changed, Mom was in need of serious care and that day ended at the Hershey Medical Center ER. Man was she mad when I told her I had called for an ambulance. Mom was now on a journey and she wanted only one thing, to be well enough to go home, but Christmas would be at the hospital. Who knew that if you had a loved one stuck there for the holiday that the hospital hosted Christmas dinner? In an odd way, it was nice to share Christmas dinner with Janice and my Brother Larry in the hospital cafeteria. The doctors and nurses at the med center took such great care of her and eventually she got her wish and with Hospice Of Central PA, Home Instead and me learning how to be a home health aid, Mom got to go home. Mom got to see 2019 become 2020 and a few days later she turned off the television and Janice and I said what would be our last good night. It's been tough to start this blog, but now that I'm writing, it feels good to share. Dad provided the path, but Mom definitely kept us on it. We knew right from wrong, we knew perseverance, we had strength, we learned so many lessons because of Mom. To be so privileged to be 58 years old and still have my Mom was such a gift. At 95, she was finally ready to say goodbye.

Mom grocery shopping on her 95th birthday.
I have no idea what she did with that big loaf of bread.

Whenever I was late to visit, Mom just assumed I had been running. We'd be making her hairdresser appointment or a doctor appointment and she was always worried it would conflict with my getting to run. One time I took her grocery shopping after running in a cold rain storm. I was running late to pick her up so I showed up soaking wet, still wearing muddy shoes and tights and starving. That seemed to make Mom mad, so she made me get food at the store hot bar and sit down and eat while she started shopping without me. [She made me promise to never do that again.] My running, now that I'm old, seemed to scare Mom as much as it amused her. So she wouldn't worry I never told her about ultras until after I had run them. She did always want to hear about them and she knew running was important to me so she made it important to her. Now Mom was gone and I hadn't been running at all since she got sick. To know that I wasn't running would've really upset her, she never wanted to put anyone out.

The beautiful morning sun in Janice's lens.
Milburn Landing, Pokomoke River State Park, MD

For the past 3 years I've started my running year at Pokomoke River State Park at the Algonquin 50k and true to form I was registered this year too. I was in no way prepared, no miles in my legs and a huge gut. I had no excuse; I had to be there as I knew Mom would be watching and I couldn't let her down.

This year's Algonquin 50k would be different in a neat unique way as well. An old childhood friend, in fact one of my original childhood friends, Mike McCauley would also be making the trip to the Delmarva to run the race. Mike grew up literally right across the street from me and yes he also knew my Mom all his life. [How many kids who grew up as neighbors would become ultra runners later in life?] #weird

Packet pickup fun with Shane, Janice Me & Mike.
(photo stolen from Mike's Facebook feed)

The Algonquin 50k has made a name for itself with its battle cry of, "Mud or Blood". The course is at sea level and flat so in many spots there is nowhere for water to drain, which really is a great understatement. Some of the puddles on this course resemble small ponds and one is affectionately known as Lake Swanson, named for the Race "Dictator" Trent Swanson. All anyone was talking about at Hopper's, the sight of packet pick up, was the heavy rain that had just hit the area. The storm cleared out for the weekend but not until it had left plenty of water in its wake. Oh did I forget to mention the blood part? It's simple, if you choose to avoid the water and mud by wandering off the trail through the trees; you'll find yourself sliced and bleeding as the forest is full of razor sharp briers.

I'm not from Delmarva, but this event has a feel that I haven't experienced at others. I feel at home at this one, among friends. Often you go to races and you run into the regional clicks, whether they're all from the same town, region or running club and if you don't fit one of those categories; you're left standing alone waiting for the gun to go off. And at the finish line those same folks are all standing around, puffing their chests and boasting of their effort and surely you'll hear the letters PR, quite a bit. (to me PR represents the beautiful island of Puerto Rico) I'm sure those groups exist at the Algonquin 50k, but due to the atmosphere that's generated, and I have to say caused by the Race Director's personality; the event is focused on fun more than anything else. I've gotten to know so many people from returning for now my fourth year, that I feel a little embarrassed when someone calls me by name and I can't think of theirs (please accept my apology if you're reading and that's happened to you). The first year Janice and I met Gabe and Will  at packet pick up and I ran much of the day with Sara. Year two introduced us to the Air Force buddies, Shane and Clayton. Year three I spent much of the day running with Erin and Dani and I'm leaving out a bunch of folks, but you get my point. I'm not a social runner, I train alone and at events I yearn for those hours on the trail in solitude; so by much of my own doing I don't meet people at races. From the social event the packet pick up at Hopper's has become to the finish line where most everyone waits for the remaining finishers, some other events need to take a lesson.

New friends and old, just another cool bi-product of trail running.

Race day weather was mild, Trent was yet again denied his true winter ultra (maybe we'll see snow next year). Got to see Mike and Shane before the start and then I filtered my way toward the back, having no idea if I'd make it much past the first aid station; I didn't want to be mixing in with the folks who had actually prepared for this event. After words from the Race Dictator and the National Anthem, we were on our way. My run started off with a faux pas right away, I had been using the 'Sleep' feature on my Suunto 9 watch and I didn't realize that setting came with a "do not disturb" period and that didn't end till 8am and the race started at 7:30. I was maybe a 10th of mile in when I looked down at my watch and instead of data, there was a message on its face. I'm not sure what it said, but I stopped and restarted my watch and all looked normal. Now I was really at the back of the pack. (I no longer use the Sleep setting, I sleep pretty well and pretty consistently, I don't need to monitor it)

After a short stretch on a park paved road, the course turns onto the Algonquin Cross County Trail. The start of the trail is a mellow section, flat and with few obstacles; it's a nice warm up before tackling the water and the sand. Well this year was different, with the immense storm that had visited, this typically mild section of trail which has never had water or mud had both. With this as a preview the talk in the pack went right to wondering what the wet sections would look like. The water on the trail did not disappoint, entry to the aid station at Mile 4 which is usually dry had a fun pool of water; I say fun because it was fun to watch runners try to avoid it or splash through it. Out on the wet sections, pools of water were in new spots and many of the usual ponds were much longer than past years. There were so many big ones this year, I lost track as to which was Lake Swanson. It was more like the Great Lakes of Swanson this year.

Through the aid station at Mile 4...and still smiling.

I moved through the first aid station smoothly without getting in the tumult of the crowd and found Janice out on the road waiting with Pickle Juice. It was just 4 miles, but I was feeling better than expected; nothing hurt and I felt like I had already found a pace that I could maintain while I waited for the wheels to come off later in the race. Next up is Furnace Town, my favorite aid station on the course, simply for its cool historic name. Janice handed me Pickle Juice and I changed my gloves that had gotten wet when splashing through some crotch deep water. Janice also went to hand me a new bottle and that's when I realized that I was 10 miles in and feeling good, but I hadn't drank any Tailwind or eaten anything. I ate a Mama Chia Squeeze which hit the spot and I took off.

Uphill in sand...
#dreamcatcher #janiceshadow

Immediately after Furnace Town, the sand starts in earnest at the spot now known as Algonquin Beach. It's not just sand, it's actually on an incline (notice I didn't say hill, because there are none); sloped just enough to add to the difficulty of running in sand. I got maybe another mile down the trail and finally drank some Tailwind and gobbled down a Huma Chia Gel. I left Furnace Town saying I'd make a conscious effort to get some calories in me and I still forgot. A nutritional blunder like can ruin or even end your day.

Looking for The Greenbrier Spur Trail

With the festive beach party behind me, I now arrived at the mouth of the Greenbrier Spur, an out and back section, that for some reason really gets in my head. First it's an out & back so you end up retracing your steps which makes me nuts. Second you end up seeing runners who are ahead of you and behind you after you turn around and I have no idea why, but I find that mentally taxing as well. It's also at a point on the course where fatigue is becoming a factor.

The Goatman wears Altras.

To make matters worse, just before heading down the spur trail, I tripped and fell. This was my third tumble on the day (yes it was one of those days) and the worst. First I was pretty stoked when I realized that my face plant had landed just to the right of a tree instead of going headlong into it. Unfortunately though, I soon realized that my left knee took a nice hit and I could feel it getting sore and swelling. Before I knew it, the Greenbrier Spur and it's mind game was behind me and it was cool as I was able to see Mike, got to see Pete and even Shane who was running with Kyle from Altra.

Got to share some trail miles with Jackie, up from North Carolina.
She's quite an inspiration and a member of The Suunto Elite Team.

I think it's like 7 miles to the next aid station after the Greenbrier Spur and for some reason, in past years it's felt more like 17 miles and I've wished I was carrying 2 bottles through this section.  This year I planned ahead and had a race vest with 2 flasks.

I get NUUN Hydration stuff from The Suunto Factoryteam and I mixed those flasks with NUUN instead of Tailwind. Towards the end of races I start to reject Tailwind and having NUUN as an alternative seemed to work well and soon I was striding into the next aid station.

The party was raging at this stop, I could hear The Who, Baba O'Riley, "Out here in the fields, I fight for my meals" booming through the trees as I approached the break in the forest. Smith Island Cake, food, shots of Whiskey, whatever you wanted, they had it. I wanted a cup of sugary Coca-Cola, in fact I had 2 and they did the trick. Janice gave me Pickle Juice, took my vest and handed me a new bottle with Tailwind and Huma Gels in the handheld and I was quickly back on the move. Janice could teach a class on crewing.

In this next stretch I realized I was running with Erin who I finished behind last year. We talked about dogs, Josh who didn't come this year and her work with UPMC and their expansion in the Harrisburg area. The time passed which is nice, because it's always these late miles in an ultra that seem to never end. I stopped and walked a bit when I saw Janice at the last aid station which felt good.

Cramp free running all day thanks to Pickle Juice Sport.

I found myself behind two women who were so psyched to know that at 28 miles they only had 3 to go. They were so excited I had to tell them the final distance was more than 32 miles so they weren't let down when 50K passed and they were still running. I suggested they view it as bonus miles that Trent wasn't charging us for. They were in such high spirits, they took it very well.

Watching and waiting for me and the end of long long day.

Winding my way through the final muddy miles, I caught back up to Erin and soon we were heading into the finish. Kinda' strange (but neat) to be finishing with the same exact person 2 years in a row. As we neared the line, Trent knelt holding two mugs high, one for each of us. After a big Race Dictator hug, I stumbled around til I found Janice and promptly filled my new mug with cold beer and raised a pint with Shane and Mike. It was good day. I in no way assumed I could finish and something got me there, it certainly wasn't training. Maybe it was Mom. 💖

The Algonquin 50K finish line is the gem of this event. Beer, food and music blaring. An MC announcing your name as you finish. The crowd of those who have finished before you cheering. I would guess that more than 75% of the runners hang out and cheer. You're also faced with the fear that if you miss that 8 hour cut off, Trent will smash your mug. We did see mugs that didn't survive. More finish lines need to have this feel. I really don't give a crap about your PR, your place in the race, your mile time or any of that. This isn't road running, chill out, go get a beer and cheer for your brothers and sisters who are still finishing.

Next year will by 5th year toeing the line at Pokomoke River State Park, can't wait for registration to open! Go run this race, I dare you to not have fun. Register early too, because it has built a great reputation and it will sell out fast!

Trent The Race Dictator
"Roads Are Dead"

Next up for me is The Seneca Creek Greenway 50K.

Those folks that make the race a reality:

If you scrolled this far you must really be bored or you simply scrolled too far. Like the three previous years, Janice and I made a weekend of it and headed to Rehoboth DE for the night. This year was different, we drug Mike along with us. We had a hoot, so glad Mike joined us. Dinner at The Crooked Hammock, a brief Karaoke night at the wrong kind of bar and then a fun night cap at The Rehoboth Ale House. Of course we made Mike join us for breakfast at The Robin Hood Restaurant. 
Breakfast didn't stand a chance.
I was accused of licking my plate...

Big Oyster Brewing

He hit the road and we bought Grotto's Pizza to take home. After a quick visit to The North Face Outlet, a brief stop at Big Oyster Brewing Company and then Total Wine & More (no tax) near Wilmington we were eventually on our way home. Until next year!

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