Race Review: Cowtown Ultramarathon

I’ve been away a few months. Training takes time and energy, and writing takes time and brainpower, and working on caucuses and primary nights and through Super Tuesday as a project manager in a real live newsroom takes a lot of time. But here I am on the other side of a bunch of hard work with a shiny new 50K road PR, legitimately pleased with my training and racing so far this year.

I sat down to write a post about how oddly well my training was going in early February, but I scrapped it. First, I’m superstitious, and I didn’t want to jinx a good training season by acknowledging that I was making progress. I’d written virtually the same post about a year earlier. The paces that were amazing to me then seem like my normal fast runs now. The post I wrote about being ecstatic to work in one 90-mile week seems like it was ages ago, but it’s really only been 18 months since I hit that first peak. I’m now stacking up multiple 90+ weeks to train for ultramarathons. I’ve changed my training to take easy days absurdly easy, pace-wise. Instead, I started using a heart rate monitor to keep my training in the 130 to 140 bpm zone on easy days. And I continued my strengthening and stretching routine from my hamstring injury in the fall, so I’ve maintained glute, hamstring and core strength that I think has kept any new injuries away.

I consider most of 2016 so far to count as a gradual buildup toward the Boston Marathon where I’m hoping to break 3 hours. On the right day, I’ve got that. For now, I’m pushing Comrades to the back burner but maintaining a legitimate mileage base while I work on speed. I would like to run well at Comrades too, but that’s not this year’s “A” race. I know I’m physically capable of covering the distance but that it might mentally wreck me without some longer runs. But if I have to choose one thing to focus on, it has to be sub-3 in April.

To continue to build mileage and work on time on my feet, I ran the Goofy Challenge in Walt Disney World in January. The goal there was to have fun, relax and put in a bunch of miles. I ran my slowest marathon and half marathon times in years, in costume(!), in the heat at 5 a.m. Neither race was meant to be fast. I did nothing resembling a taper, and I walked around the Magic Kingdom until 10:30 the night before. But over the weekend I certainly got in a lot of time on my feet. After putting in 89 weeks the week of the Goofy Challenge, I dialed back the mileage the following week for a mini recovery. To build toward Cowtown and to build a base for Boston, I put in four more 90+-mile weeks. And in December I met a new running buddy who has helped push me to run faster earlier in the morning than I’m used to. She has helped me build that tired-leg speed as well, I’m sure!

Two weeks out I tried a legitimate taper leading up to Cowtown. The race was important to me, and I wanted it to go well. I didn’t want to run it on tired legs like I’d run Austin on much the same training schedule in 2015. So I ran a trail half marathon at a moderate pace, though not all out, eight days before Cowtown and put in one nice hilly workout the Tuesday before the race. Then I did several easy runs and one steady run over the last few days. I didn’t doubt my training or the taper, and I felt entirely ready leading up to the race.

The Race

Cowtown Ultramarathon tomorrow! My first road 50K, so it has to be a PR 💪

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My huge stretch goal going in to this race was to break the course record. With two elite athletes running ahead of me, I knew I wouldn’t win the thing. The course record was 3:54:20. On the right day in great conditions, I could break that. If I didn’t go out too fast, I at least had a shot. Plus there was a cash prize for breaking the record. I came up with a plan — decided to stick to 7:20 pace to leave room for tangent-running errors or late-race bonking. I would need 7:32 pace to break the record. Even if I didn’t break the record, I was sure to PR at the 50K because it was on a road. It would have to be faster than the 5:09 I ran in North Carolina last year.

On Sunday morning, I drove to the start from Mom’s house, did a quick jog to the line-free(!) portapotties, and then found a spot inside on the floor of the expo building to relax and stay out of the wind until the start. Conditions were not ideal. It was already in the low 60s with winds gusting to 20 mph.

Just chilling

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I relaxed inside and then jogged out to the first corral with about five minutes until the gun went off. I’d run the marathon here twice before, so I knew where I was going. The first corral was a bit crowded, but I edged my way toward the middle of the starting pack. The gun went off at 7 a.m. My first mile was a little fast on the downhill, and yes, it was hard to hold back all that taper energy. But damn it if I didn’t knock off consistent 7:20 miles. The miles seemed to come to me. There wasn’t a struggle to get there. The wind was pushing me along, and the pace felt remarkably easy. People were kind of passing me at the start. Everyone seemed to go out too fast. I stuck with my pace, even on the uphills, drawing from the fact that I could go much faster than 7:20.

About a mile before the half marathon turnoff, I started talking to a guy from Ireland who was going for a 1:35 half marathon time. He was right on pace. He was great company, but when I start talking, I run faster than I should. We pushed the pace to 6:40, which, yes, felt good, but, no, was not in my plan. He turned off to run the half course, and I kept going. I was alone here, but I knew if I kept the pace consistent, I could probably hold it for a while. The 3:10 pace pack was just ahead of me. At this point, what was a pleasant tailwind turned into an awful headwind. Still, I maintained my pace into the wind and up the hills. The temperature was climbing, and I started to take a Powerade (to drink) and a water (to dump on my head). Then some amazing angel from heaven handed me a damp blue towel around mile 14. This thing was like my security blanket. I dipped it in water. I sweated all over it. I might have waved it around a little bit. I’m carrying it in all my pictures.

Most of the middle miles of this race are blurry. I ran through neighborhoods where the roads were severely slanted. Maybe they weren’t that slanted in reality, but I had a hard time discerning where to put my feet. I didn’t specifically hallucinate anything, but I think the roads couldn’t have been that slanted there. Things were a little blurry as I continued to pass people and meander along between water stops. Still I held my pace. A woman on a bike kept hanging out near me. Then I realized HOLY SHIT she’s WITH ME. She had a sign on her back that said something about third place ultra woman. People started telling me I was in third in the ultra. Ran some more. Held my pace. Ate salt tabs and GU right on schedule. I ate a banana, so I know I’m at least still fine at taking in solid foods. I made a 20-second pitstop (I timed it) and tried to sing to myself to keep myself from freaking out too much or cramping. I finished the marathon portion in 3:11. That would be good enough for 11th female in the marathon if I’d stopped. It would have been faster than my stupid Hartford Marathon time from the fall. But I didn’t stop.

The last part of the race is quite clear. Once we made it to the Trinity Trail around 22 miles in, I knew where I was, basically, because Michael and I ran that part of the course in December. In December I didn’t know we were running the course, but when the race turned on to the path, it was instantly clear that some part of the course would be windy. In December, we had tailwinds and headwinds coming off the flat land and the water on a day that wasn’t specifically windy. On race day, there were gusts from all directions and some fun bugs and mosquitoes blowing in the gusty wind. The day was still heating up, and my pace started to fall off. In my head, I was trying to figure out how much longer until the turnaround and how much longer I needed to hold my pace. I went through two water stops where I had to come to a complete stop to pick up water because the volunteers weren’t paying attention. When I came back through after the turnaround, I yelled out, maybe in a slurred way, “Powwahryayyde!” and someone handed me Powerade. Honestly, that’s my only complaint about this race. The volunteers were great for the most part. The crowds were supportive in the right parts. I would have loved a day that was about 20 degrees cooler, but hey, what can you do?

finish line

Once the course joined back up with the full marathon course, I breathed a sign of relief. With a few miles to go, I always start counting down the portions left in Yasso 800s. You know how fast I can normally run an 800? Knowing that I can string just a few more of those together gives me some kind of mental trick to piece out the last part of the race. I rounded the last two corners to finally see the finish line. My pace had dropped with the wind and fatigue in the last few miles, but around mile 29, I knew if I could just keep a decent pace, I would beat the record. The finish line stretch was a little rough. My legs started talking to me, telling me they were starting to get tired and that maybe another GU or salt tab would have been a good idea. I powered through the last few hundred feet, which were cruelly a little bit uphill. I crossed the finish line in 3:53:40, beating the course record by 40 seconds. But hey, a course record is a course record, right?

A volunteer flagged me down and told me they were holding an awards ceremony. I’ve won recreational, small-scale races, but I’ve never been flagged down at a major event. The elites were hanging out and talking about the course. I felt out of place, but then when I started talking to such friendly people, I thought you know what? Maybe the fact that I’ve had a podium finish three weeks in a row says my training is going well. I should enjoy this. Here’s a writeup of the event. The woman who won is a complete bad ass who actually would have won the marathon if she’d stopped. This was her first 50K. She won the Cowtown 5K the day before.

Recovery this week so far has been a dream. I took Monday easy, but I was happy enough with a decent pace on Tuesday. I don’t want to jump back in to speedy stuff yet, and my legs are still not quite back, especially after not getting enough sleep this week with work duties. But I’m easing back in to the big miles and hard efforts that will position me for a strong marathon performance this spring. I have to think this race was one more building block to get me ready for longer road races. I stuck to a pace, I handled pain, and I hit the time I needed. Can’t ask for more than that.

On to Boston

What’s next?

I will most likely drop from the Rock ‘n’ Roll USA full marathon to the half. When I registered for the Rock ‘n’ Roll race, I don’t think I looked at a calendar. It’s just 10 days from now and way too close to Cowtown for me to run it well. Still I’ll get in lots of big miles next week to keep building up.

Because the Cherry Blossom 10-Miler is 15 days ahead of Boston, I’m planning to race it like I’ve always wanted to.

Finally, I have a trip to Tahoe planned for the week before Boston, so I’m hoping to relax and get in a few beautiful, easy runs before Marathon Monday.

More miles await!

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Amanda

Amanda runs nearly every day. She likes data and avoids deer at all costs.