Land Between the Lakes 50 Mile Trail Race
Four times now I’ve run 50+ miles. Two of these were 8-hour races on a relatively easy course (difficulty rating ★★☆☆☆), while the other two were 50 mile trail races on more challenging courses (difficulty rating ★★★★☆). I’ve struggled during all of them, but persevered to finish (with good results even).
I wasn’t super happy with my last 50 miler. I felt I had better fitness than for my first three 50 milers, yet I fell apart early in the race and ended up running my slowest time yet. I wanted my next race to be different. I wanted to do something special, but I didn’t know how to pull it off. It was obvious I would need to have a similar level of fitness, if not better. But fitness clearly wasn’t enough. I needed a stronger mental game if I was going to have a breakthrough performance.
Completely coincidentally, as I was training for the Land Between the Lakes 50 Mile Trail Race I listened to an episode of a podcast I enjoy, Trail Runner Nation. The guest that episode was an unlikely one, a guy named Lanny Bassham. He’s not a runner, but a former sport shooter with Olympic and World Championship gold medals. As he talked I was fascinated with just how similar the mental aspects of long distance running were to those of shooting, or golf, or any other sport. To make a long story short, I read his book, With Winning in Mind, and it provided many valuable tips to get me where I wanted to be for this race.
I trained throughout the harsh winter, in the rain and snow and ice. I trained for hours at a time, gradually increasing my pace so I finished each run strong. I trained my stomach to handle the types of foods I would need to eat during the race. I used metabolic efficiency training to teach my body to burn less sugar (which the body can only store so much of) and more fat (which even fit people have a virtually unlimited supply of). Every single run I visualized my target race.
I didn’t train so hard because I required the fitness to perform well at my race. I was pretty fit at the start of the training cycle. I trained hard because that’s what I needed to do in order to gain the confidence that would be required to perform well at my race. And the confidence is what made all the difference.
We packed up the family and headed to Grand Rivers, Kentucky. I would be racing, while Melissa and Will would be spectating and providing me with support.
Food for the weekend. Photo by Melissa.
My drop bag with food and spare clothes.
We ran into a number of friends from our former home of Champaign-Urbana, as well as some Saint Louians I knew. LBL is one of the biggest trail ultras in the midwest, so there were runners there from all over. The 11.3 mile trail would host four different races simultaneously: 23K (1 loop), marathon (2 loops), 60K (3 loops), and 50M (4 loops). On paper, at least, this particular trail (difficulty rating ★★★☆☆) is easier than the two previous trails on which I’ve raced 50 milers. The footing is good (not rocky, very few roots). It’s mostly flat, though there are a few decent sized hills. The trail conditions would be a factor, though, as it snowed 6″ in the week before the race and it was slowly melting away.
The 6:30 AM start was overcast and 35˚F, though the expected high was 60˚F. Rather than try to change clothes during the race I decided to dress for the warmer weather and add arm warmers and gloves that I could easily shed. This worked out pretty well, though it made for a chilly start.
At the starting line. Photo by Melissa.
The first 2 miles were on a paved road before we hit the trail. I started quickly in order to not be held up once on the single track. My first two miles were 7:26 and 7:22, and there were about 20 people ahead of me.
Once we hit the trail I kept my GPS watch going, but I made a conscious decision not to look at it the entire rest of the race. This is fairly abnormal for me. As a data junkie my running is heavily influenced by my mile splits. But this gets back to the mental game I discussed earlier, and one of the points from that book. Focusing on the outcome (running a certain distance in a certain time) is the wrong way to go about it. Instead I wanted my focus to be on the process of running my own race at a comfortable pace, whatever that pace may be (The lost art of running by feel). I had to focus on executing the race I wanted to run, and have faith the outcome would be satisfying. After all, if I was happy with how I ran the race, how could I not be satisfied with the outcome? It sounds so simple, yet it was so difficult to buy into.
The first 11.3 mile loop was fast. The trail was covered with 1-2″ of crunchy snow (if there must be snow, this is really the best kind). As I was near the front it was still in pretty good shape for me. I gradually moved up several positions and by the end of the first loop I was the 11th or 12th runner on the trail (including participants from the three shorter events).
The first loop was snowy. Photo by Paul Farr.
One loop down, three to go. Photo by West Kentucky Runners Club.
Near the end of the first loop I caught up with a guy I know from Saint Louis (Tommy) and we ran the next several miles together, chatting about races, jobs, and desirable locations to live. What had been nice crunchy snow on the first loop was now muddy on the second loop. At 1½ loops I refilled my pockets with food from my drop bag (which for some reason was placed surprisingly far away from the trail) before continuing on ahead of Tommy.
Arriving at the aid station after 1½ loops. Photo by Melissa.
I heard Will cheering each time I approached the aid station. Photo by Melissa.
The mud got more intense on the second half of the loop. At the end of the second loop (when I had nearly finished the marathon distance) I briefly realized how far I had run, but I quickly refocused on the task at hand. I found it much easier to break the race up into four loops. Knowing that I only had two loops remaining was much easier to handle than thinking I still had 25 miles to go.
On the third loop the trail went from bad to worse. Everything was muddy, and there was now a lot of standing water on the trail. Given that most of the water was fresh snow melt at around 33˚F, my feet got cold, and even went numb a few times during some of the longer sections. Check out these great photos of the mud here on Flickr (which I can’t repost here for copyright reasons).
The trail was pretty soupy by the third loop. Photo by Seth Byers Photography.
Muddy legs. Photo by Melissa.
After 2½ loops the leader of the women’s race passed me. We were going about the same pace so I followed her for several miles. She asked if I was in the 50 mile race and I said yes. She responded, “Me too. That fourth loop is going to be an epic suck.” I didn’t see how the trail could get any worse.
She was running the uphill sections faster than me and she frequently pulled ahead of me, while I often ran the downhill sections faster and caught back up. While this was by no means a hilly course, there are some hills. They’re not even 100 ft high, and they are shallow enough to be runnable, but steep enough to hurt when you do run them.
Back in 2009 I ran the LBL 23K race. I was a strong runner then (I finished 6th place), but I was reduced to walking up a few of the hills in that one-loop race. This year, confident and stronger than ever, I had decided I was going to run every hill, every loop. By the third loop it was a struggle. But as I was following this woman up the hills I would briefly consider walking before looking up to see her running. Each time I thought to myself, if the person ahead of me isn’t walking, what excuse could I possibly have to walk? And then I kept running.
Eventually I slowed a bit and she pulled away from me. The fourth loop actually wasn’t any worse than the third loop. I had been lapping a steady stream of runners since about the 1½ loop point. By the fourth loop nearly all of the runners from the 23K and marathon races were gone, so the lapped runners were fewer and farther between. On top of that the previously frigid standing water the covered much of the trail was beginning to warm up a bit and was now simply chilly, not cold enough to numb my feet.
At 3½ loops I saw Melissa and Will for the last time at that aid station. Melissa asked me how I felt, and before she could finish I blurted out I feel fantastic. Okay, so maybe that was a bit of hyperbole. In absolute terms I didn’t really feel fantastic, I had just run 43 miles fairly hard. In relative terms, I felt better than I ever had before at mile 43. Of course I felt fantastic. If I didn’t believe that how else was I going to make it to the finish line?
I feel fantastic and I’ve never felt as good as how I do right now except for maybe when I think of how I felt that day when I felt the way that I do right now.
In each of my previous 50 mile races I went through a rough patch where I felt terrible and I slowed down drastically. In my most recent 50 mile race it began uncharacteristically early (mile 22!). That wasn’t going to happen this time. I was going to get through this feeling great. Why? Because I wanted to with every fiber of my being. How? By convincing myself that was the only possible outcome, focusing on the process of running the race I wanted to run, and working to get the job done. The hardest part was convincing myself this would happen, but that happened long before the race began.
I finished the fourth loop, ran a 1.2 mile out and back on the road before heading back into town to the finish line. During the out and back I saw one person ahead of me (the women’s winner) and nobody behind me, so the gaps were large. I had no idea what position I was in all day. As I passed the last aid station one volunteer told me I as in 5th place and another told me I was 4th male. Both were right.
I didn’t slow down, because I feel fantastic. I sped up and got back under 8 minute per mile pace. Once I hit the road back into town I relented and looked at my watch for the first time in 7 hours. 7h28m it said. This was a good run. But I already knew that.
The finish line. Photo by Melissa.
I crossed the finish line in 7h39m, over an hour faster than my previous best 50 mile trail race. It was a wee bit slower than my first 50 miles at Howl at the Moon last summer (7h24m), but that was on an easy course in ideal conditions. This course was more narrow, technical, hilly, muddy, snowy, watery. I’d handicap this course at least 40 seconds per mile slower compared to that one. This was a far better race.
Fourth place male.
The first thing I want after finishing a 50 miler is to sit down, and this was no exception. Once you cross the finish line and your brain is no longer saying shut up legs, you begin to realize what a world of pain you’re in. I hobbled back to the car, inhaled a container of BBQ Pringles, then headed back to the hotel for a hot shower.
The notable aspects of this race:
- no walking
- no blisters
- no chafing
- no bonking
- no cramps
- no falls
- no bathroom breaks
I did get sunburned, despite the cloudy 35˚F start. I also had the misfortune of getting Hammer Gel stuck in my mustache that, for all I know, may still be in there.
I ate/drank roughly:
Rob’s difficulty ratings:
- ★☆☆☆☆: paved roads
- ★★☆☆☆: grass, gravel/dirt roads, easy double-track
- ★★★☆☆: moderate single-track, few hills
- ★★★★☆: technical single-track, moderate hills
- ★★★★★: technical single-track, mountains