Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Chester Woods 50K 2014 Race Report (or, The Day I Ran a 73 Minute PR)

Executive summary:

50K in 6:28:40, a 1:13 PR. It was a very runnable, moderate course, the trails were dry, the weather was overcast and breezy. After a series of 50Ks (and my 50 mile attempt) on rocky, rooty singletrack over mountains, this was a totally different experience! 
On the last lap, still running happy!

Prologue: Wait, I signed up for a 50K?

Chester Woods 50K came only three weeks after a big 19 minute PR and all-around fantastic run at Spring Superior 50K. I really wasn't sure what to expect. I'd signed up way back last winter, thinking it would be a good training run for Voyageur and that why not, it was only $35. I'd never run the course, I wasn't sure whether my legs were going to want to race or just run a catered training run, heck, I wasn't even sure till the week before that I was going to actually run it. But by race week, I was feeling pretty recovered from Superior (I'd done short "long runs" of 12 and 8 miles in the intervening weeks) and figured, why not go run?

At the last minute, I decided not to drive down the morning of the race (6 am start + 1.5 hour drive to Chester Woods = 3 am wake-up call) and rode down Friday night with Brad and Julio. Thanks, Brad, for driving! And many thanks to Julio's cousin Linda for letting the three of us sleep in her basement guestroom and bump around her kitchen at 4:30 am fixing breakfast. She lives only 10 minutes from Chester Woods, so it was a perfect place to stay the night!
Me, Misty, Bob, Julio, and Brad.

Plan? I don't have a plan

I woke up with Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'" stuck in my head. No explanation for that one, but it was my mental accompaniment for much of the day. Despite that, it was a beautiful morning, with temperatures in the low 60's, though there was an 80% chance of rain and thunderstorms predicted for the day. I caught up with friends at the starting line, did an Upper Midwest Trail Runners group photo, took some pictures, milled around. I still wasn't sure of my race plan. The format is based on a looped course of 9.5 miles per loop. There's an extra section around a meadow at the beginning of the first loop to bring it up to 31 miles. I figured I'd try and run it like a training run at Lebanon Hills -- 12 minute miles, or so. I estimated I'd take 2.5 hours on the first, 12 mile loop, and then see what happened.
Ready to run!
Team INKnBURN, with Kevin.The last time we'd met
was at Zumbro (he was running the 100), and we didn't know it,
but we were both about to get knocked out of the race
by the weather gods. Fun to meet under better conditions!
Bob ran the 50K, then volunteered at the FANS 24 Hour
race all night! What a guy!
Jon burned it up, as usual. His shirt is for Break The Stigma,
the group Julio started to talk about and promote mental health.
Check them out!
Willow and Misty (finish line)
Misty and John (finish line)

 First loop (12 miles, 2:30): Look! I'm running a 50K!

A quick pre-race briefing, a countdown, and we're off! I took off, still sort of bemused to be out there running a 50K race. We started with a 2.5 mile one-time loop around a wooded meadow, and I chatted with Stephanie, who was out running her second 50K, on the spur of the moment. It was a beautiful morning, overcast and a little breezy. I tried to hold a "training run" pace and take it all in. On the loop, I could see the race leaders, with John Storkamp in front, far ahead already.

We finished the meadow loop and ran a brief stretch on the road before turning onto a gravel road, then onto a series of horse trails through the woods and prariries.
A short paved section leading to the woods.
The route had several out-and-backs, lollipop loops, and other hazards to navigation, but it was quite well marked and I never got lost. It was fun seeing other runners, both 50K and 10 mile racers (who started two hours later) on all the out-and-backs.
Blurry, but fairly typical trail.
The whole route is very runnable, with grass and gravel trails, alternating areas of woods and prairie, no mud, rocks, or roots to speak of, and only one hill of note.
It's even got a name!
And coming off Superior and my Afton training runs, Big Dam Hill was not a Big Dam Deal. You could make good time on this course.

One of my favorite features of the Chester Woods course was the mile markers, which were laminated signs in the style of Burma Shave road signs. In fact, I'm pretty sure the rhymes were actual Burma Shave rhymes. Funny enough to entertain for three loops!
Of note, the mileage on the signs is distance to the 10 mile finish, while the start/drop bag area is actually another half mile or so further. The first time through, that last "mile" felt r-e-a-l-l-y long.

I finished my first loop at about 2:20. Took about 10 minutes to replenish food (I ate Larabars, Picky Bars, and a Gu Roctane at the end, used two S-Caps per hour, and drank water), hit the bathroom, and put on sunblock. On my way out at exactly 2:30.
Loop 1 finished!

Second loop (9.5 miles, 2 hours): Weather? Whether?

As soon as I put on sunblock, the weather went from looking like the clouds were going to burn off, to looking foreboding. The sky darkened, the breeze picked up. I grabbed my "Zumbro security blanket" (rain shell, didn't bring the wool shirt this time) and tied it around my waist. My plan must have worked, because although it continued to look threatening throughout this loop, even with some distant thunder, it never rained. Win! I later heard they weren't so lucky in the Twin Cities. FANS 24 Hour was delayed a half hour by lightning, and it rained cats and dogs there until midafternoon. I had come ready for crazy rain, but was so glad not to have it.
Ominous skies over Chester Woods
Loop 2 felt faster than the first loop, since there wasn't the meadow loop to contend with. I cruised along, chatted with Misty and with Nora, who was running the 10 mile race, and passed a couple of other 10 milers. It was lots of fun to see the fast 10 milers racing through the aid stations, and there was a lot more cheering and chatter than on my first loop, which had been 50K runners only.

Around mile 5 (17 overall), as I came onto a big section of prairie, a runner flew by me. "Good job, Robyn," said John Storkamp, and headed off at a scorching pace. He won the race with a sub-4 hour time, just seconds off the course record. Nice work!

Near the finish, I passed three racers (10-milers and 50K runners), one of whom had his arm in a full length cast! "Been there!" I exclaimed. "You rock!"

I finished loop 2, still feeling well, in 1:55. Ditched the unnecessary raincoat, more snacks, more S-caps. Stephanie was there -- she'd dropped after one loop, feeling sick. I'd come into the drop bag area with Misty, but headed out ahead of her. I didn't want to waste any time, and didn't want to think too hard about what was still ahead. Headed out right at 4:30 on the clock.
Loop 2 #selfiefail

Third loop (9.5 miles, 1:58): Don't Stop Believin'

Yeah, Journey was still stuck in my head.

For the first time in the race, I did math. And realized that if I ran the third loop in under 2.5 hours, I could get a sub-7 hour finish, a huge PR (I'd PR'd Superior in 7:41). It didn't seem likely, but if I could do it in under 2 hours, I could get a 6:30. I had a goal.

Although the beginning of the loop had flown by on my second lap, I was starting to get tired and lose focus in the first 4 miles this time. I ran some 4 minute run/1 minute walk intervals, and walked the hills. I kept eating, but sweet food didn't seem appealing, and though I didn't have bad GI upset, my stomach seemed to be tired of accepting and digesting food.

Then, something amazing happened. I crested a rise onto the prairie loop where John had lapped me on the last loop. The terrain leveled out. A breeze picked up and refreshed me. And I suddenly felt like I could run.
Running happy again.
I ran the prairie loop. Then, there was a long gentle descent so I ran that. Then it leveled out, and I found I could keep running. I walked some hills, but suddenly the miles were clicking by again. The course in front of me was growing steadily shorter, and the course behind me lengthened out into the past. I came to a downhill. "I'm good at downhills," I reminded myself. I am. I came to a straightaway. My watch beeped. A walk interval? "I can walk when I'm finished," I told myself.

I pulled into an aid station with about 4 miles to go. Happy hour was just getting started, with a case of beer arriving by truck. "Want a beer?" the volunteers asked me. "I'd love to, but I think I'm going to get a PR," I told them, and took off.

I watched mileage signs, looked at my watch, tried to do math. Whoa, it was going to be close to 6:30, my "A" goal. Nothing hurt, and it didn't seem like feeling tired was a good enough excuse to walk, so I kept running.

Off the trails, around the playground, through the boat launch, turn up to the sign marked "FINISH", along another hillside... and there it was! I was stunned to see 6:28 on the clock as I ran across the mat. Wow.

Epilogue: Why yes, I will take that 73 minute PR, thank you.

I'm still a little weirded out by this race. I went in with zero expectations for anything other than a finish and a fun day with friends. I didn't even consider a sub-6:30 finish time until mile 21 of the actual race. It's a little hard to get my head around.

I don't quite understand how much of what happened was from the course and conditions (runnable, moderate, good weather, very different from everything else I've run), how much from my training, how much was maybe even just that I've been underperforming up till now. What I do know is that it was me who did this. My legs, my lungs, my heart, my brain. For some reason, it all clicked and for the third race in a row I paced it right, ran it right, kept my head and my stomach and my legs happy.

It's kind of a weird feeling, but I think I like it. 


  1. So awesome, Robyn! You had to have a great base training that kicked into high gear when all the conditions came together for a great race. You were ready--just needed the opportunity to come knocking! Now I need some tips from you on how to stay injury-free for several long races per season. PS Loved the Burma Shave signs and the "catered training run."

  2. Congrats Robyn! Glad to have ya at Chester Woods. Come back again ;)

  3. Way to go! I loved reading this and I am so excited for you. But own the PR. It happened because you work hard and race smart.

  4. So awesome, Robyn! Way to really bring it home. It was fun to see you out there!

  5. Congrats on the PR, and great job on Saturday !!