Before racing the 2016 edition of the Sweltering Summer 8 Hour ultra I had won 6 races overall in my running "career" (including the 2015 edition of this race). I had the mindset going into this race that it would absolutely be my 7th career win. That's how I tend to approach most races these days, unless of course I know it's not realistic. Also, coming into this race I had never successfully "defended" a title either. I also expected that to change. Suffice it to say that I have been putting an enormous amount of pressure on myself for the past few weeks leading up to this race.
By no means did I think it would be easy because no matter where I ended up placing, I wanted to run 60 miles in the 8 hour time frame of the race. This was an ambitious goal and would mean that I would need to hold under an 8 minute per mile pace for the entire time including any stops. Leading up to the race I know that I am in much better shape than I was last year when I won the race, setting the course record at 55.794 miles in 8 hours. My coach Amy has really building up my volume this past year and I think it's showing in my results. Last year around this time I was so excited to hit 100 miles in a week on vacation in Wisconsin, but now I'm hitting 90-100 mpw on a regular basis and my legs are feeling strong and fast! I am so excited to see where they will take me the rest of the year and beyond.
I was also really excited that just a few weeks earlier I had convinced one of my Zoom Multisport teammates, Tyler to join me for this race. It would be fun racing with him at my side and having his girlfriend Erica there to help crew for the two of us.
Leading up to the race this year I had been stalking the Ultrasignup.com watching the entrant list and scoping out my competition. It was there that a few weeks ago I noticed another local Boston ultra runner bad ass Padraig Mullins (black/green shirt to my left at the start) had registered for the race. I spent more time than I care to admit scoping out his Athlinks.com and other results pages. I quickly learned how very accomplished Padraig was in the world of ultra running. I knew that he and Brian Teason (another very experienced New England ultra runner) would both be strong competition for the win. Though, unfortunately Brian wasn't able to finish due to dehydration issues (so I heard). I had actually briefly met Padraig a couple of weeks ago at the Vermont 100 when he was spectating/crewing on the course. We chatted again just before the start about each aiming for 60 miles and said good luck. As soon as the race began Padraig TOOK OFF! My aim was to keep right around 7:50-8:00 pace for the first couple of hours and then pick up the pace from there. Though, I knew if I stuck to that plan, I might be several miles behind Padraig as the race wore on.
Through the first 13.1 mile split I was averaging 7:48 pace and was now 10 minutes behind Padraig! I just kept watching him zip around the Clapp Park oval and lap me time and again, getting more frustrated each time. By about the 2 hour mark I could see that we were now running about the same pace because we kept passing opposite each other in about the same location on the oval. Finally, he was beginning to slow down a little bit. Now I only have 6 more hours to make up the 4-5 lap difference. I think it was about at this point that I ran by Tyler and told him that it was probably going to be "a med tent kind of day" because I knew it was going to take every ounce of energy I had to get to my 60 mile goal and to hopefully catch Padraig. At the marathon split I had run a 3:25: 49 and was only down about 6 minutes to his 3:19:43. I didn't know the exact margin at the time, but I could tell that I was getting closer as time wore on.
In a race like this, there isn't much going on...so the 4 hour mark when you got to loop around race director Benn Griffin and circle back to the start/finish line in the opposite direction it's about the most exciting thing to happen all day. That's also what I love about this type of event. I get to focus ALL of my energy on the running and not worrying about anything else, I know where my next foot step is going to go and I know when I'm going to pass my aid station or the finish line again. It's very easy to plan for. At the 4 hour mark, I was only down 1 lap, 84 to 83. It was at this point that I knew I had a pretty good chance of taking the lead soon and hopefully holding onto it for the rest of the race. Padraig seemingly had went out too fast (which he later confirmed) and did not seem to be doing great. I think he gave it one more good push because he actually pulled a little bit further away again before stopping at his table for some aid.
Once I ran past Padraig and took the lead I was extremely pumped and was feeling strong. Though, at this point in the race about 4 hours and 30 minutes in I had already been running faster than I intended to and my heart rate was well above where I would have wanted it to be earlier on. I just had to keep relaxing and maintain the pace as best as I could while keeping my heart rate as low as possible. I wasn't 100% confident that I could hold that intensity for another few hours until the end without catastrophically blowing up myself. At this point, I had no choice but to keep pushing. Had someone asked me before the race if I could sustain a zone-3 heart rate (this is generally my interval pace in normal training runs or marathon pace for my marathons) for the last 4+ hours of the race I would have laughed at them. Turns out, I can.
Turns out, I can. I can push my body further and faster than it's ever been pushed before.
The rest of the race was pretty uneventful as I raced each lap around 2:50 give or take a few seconds here and there just counting down the time until the clock struck 8 hours. I did hit a new 50 mile PR in the process at 6:40:13, so that was fun. It also began raining pretty hard with about 2 hours to go, so I was LOVING every minute of it. Though, unfortunately with about 1 hour left in the race the rain stopped and the sun came out making it very humid and hot out.
I knew I was going to be very close to the 170 laps necessary for the 60 mile goal I had set for myself. I also knew that I would very easily pass my course record from last year with plenty of time to spare...but I wanted 60! I did my best to math it out, but with the little energy I had left I just couldn't calculate the pace per lap I would need to get to 170 in that last hour. I decided to just keep steady and just push a little harder and harder with whatever I had left as time got closer to the end. As those last 15, 10, minutes came up, it became increasingly evident that I was going to be 1-2 laps short of 60 miles; but in my heart of hearts I knew there was nothing left in the tank to continue pushing any harder than I was already doing.
I ended up finishing in 1st place crossing the finish line, falling to the ground in the nearest patch of shade I could find, and began crying. I was so happy that I had defended my title and had pushed myself just to the brink of blowing up, but still managed to hold it together. I know this is what I'll need to do as I keep pushing myself in training and racing to qualify for the USA Men's 24 hour National Team.
On my way home I called my dad to tell him about the race and he reminded me that I "never hit the goals I set for myself," most likely referring to missing my goal in the 24 hour race in May which was the last big race I did. I'm still not really sure how to take that, except for the fact that I have a high bar set for myself and that I occasionally DO achieve it and I'm going to keep working harder and harder until I keep achieving my goals.
Some questions remain in my mind though. Would I have been able to get to the 170 laps had I started out the race a little slower instead of adjusting my pace a little quicker to try to minimize the deficit Padraig was putting on me? I don't know. Could I have even gotten to the 168 laps if I hadn't started out as quickly and pushed myself as hard as I did for as long as I did? I don't know. Maybe? Maybe not?
In the end I think this was one of the best executed races of my life and I know that I have never pushed my body this hard, for this long. Possibly I've pushed myself as hard during Ironman Timberman 70.3 back in 2014 when I qualified for the 70.3 World Championships, but even that was only for 4 hours and 49 minutes. When I crossed that finish line I immediately collapsed and had to spend 2 hours in the medical tent getting IV's of fluids, no way I could have continued at that intensity for another 3 minutes, let alone another 3+ hours.
After taking a couple of days to reflect on the effort I put in training the past few months and the race this past weekend I know that I don't think I have ever been as happy with a race result as I am from this race.
I also know that I wouldn't have been able to keep as consistent of a pace or run as many laps without the amazing help of Erica who helped crew Tyler and I for the entire 8 hours. She was ON TOP OF EVERYTHING. Cold bottles of Tailwind every 45 minutes or so, new handful of gels every few hours, tossed me a new hat or singlet when I wanted one, sunglasses, towel, etc. you name it and she had it ready at the drop of the hat. It was also great seeing Tyler out on the course all day, always ready with a fist bump or high five when I came by him. And of course, in natural Tyler Harris fashion, he finished up the race in his standard issue Zoom Multisport team speedo!
Thank you for everything Erica. Also, special thanks to the BURCS running crew, volunteers, and race director Benn for putting on an amazing race. I'll be back again next year to once again defend my title and extend my course record.