Getting back in the ultra-running saddle has taken some time
for me. Three and half years to be exact. I’ll just chalk it up to life
getting in the way. The particular saddle was the Ranch 50k which took
place last weekend, on my 60th birthday, in Escondido California.
John Keating, played by Robin Williams in the Dead Poets Society, in a memorable scene encouraged his students to live by the dictate carpe diem. It’s a scene that reminds me of why I run ultras – to seize the day. I couldn’t think of a better way to celebrate my big day.
On my drive to the event it crossed my mind that I was now society’s definition of an “older” runner. But as I rolled into the parking lot, any of this chatter in my mind gave way to the pre-race rituals I’ve become so familiar with. The sprint to the porta-potty, the slow walk to the registration table, the suiting up in my car to stay warm, the jog to the starting line.
I was bracing for a brutal day with a website calling out 6,000 feet of climbing. What I didn’t expect, despite warnings from the race director, was problems staying on trail. Runners were advised to wear a GPX watch and download the course so as not to get lost. For a 50K? I’d never heard of this on a marked course.
Turns out the course was very well marked, which made it all the more difficult when some a-holes moved the markers to intentionally throw us runners off course. I’ve been lost in trail races before. It isn’t a good feeling. But when I saw 10 or so of the lead runners running back toward me after running a mile in the wrong direction, I knew we were in for a long day.
The Ranch 50k is a two-loop course with significant climbing, lots of single track, incredible vistas offering views of the Laguna Mountains, and a heathy mix of technical trail. My watch recorded just over 5,000 feet of ascent, or 161 feet per mile.
Despite the 3.5 year hiatus from racing, I’ve tried to use this time off by focusing on my running technique, specifically on my running cadence. My default cadence was low to mid 170 steps per minute. In the last year I’ve focused on keeping a consistent 180 steps per minute on training runs with the help of a drum loop / metronome on my phone. A bit tedious, yes, but also a big help in many ways. It's well documented that an increased cadence puts less stress on the muscular-skeletal system. Shorter, quicker strides bring less impact on the knees, ankles, hips and back than longer, slower strides.
This has paid substantial dividends. I’ve noticed a difference after training runs. My legs simply don’t feel as trashed with a higher cadence after long runs. During the race, I found myself running more on the climbs, and noticed my heart rate was actually lower when running with a quick cadence than power hiking.
Thoreau said “none are so old as those who have outlived enthusiasm.” I’m grateful to still be an enthusiastic runner on this winding road called life. The clarity running brings to me is difficult to match, whether it’s under the stars in the black of night during a 100 miler, or down a long, rock-strewn trail when my instinct and legs carry me to the finish of a 50k.
When I signed up for the Ranch 50k I was set on a simple finish as the goal. A good way, I thought, to get back into the swing of things. As the day unfolded, however, I realized I was feeling pretty strong, especially on the second loop. Maybe it was the new cadence training, or maybe it was the years of experience knowing that if I just keep moving forward, eventually I’ll be at the finish line, reveling in another worthy experience.
It was somewhere around mile 28 when I came across another runner who was walking it in. He said I was now in 5th place, and the runner in front of him was struggling a bit. Reminding myself that simply finishing was the goal, I continued to run along, content with just getting to the finish. I came upon the next runner not more than a half mile later. I moved passed him gently knowing there were still a few miles and a very steep climb remaining. Then, as it happened, my competitive juices began to flow and I pushed the effort to create a bit of a gap with the hope of sealing a 4th place finish.
It was on the steep climb, about a half a mile from the finish line, when I looked back only to see the other runner 20 yards behind me. Shit, I thought, now I really have to hustle! On the top of that hill I told myself if I keep a solid downhill pace, I would reach the finish line in time.
That I did. And fourth place overall it would be!
Age? What do we know about age?