Shoot the Moon

I love playing the card game Hearts. Four players take turns playing cards, following suit when possible, highest card wins. Each card in the suit of hearts is worth a point and the queen of spades is worth 13 points. You don’t want points. Points are bad. Unless you score all 26 points in a given hand. In that unlikely event all the other players get 26 points instead of you.

This is called shooting the moon. It’s hard to do, particularly if your opponents are skilled players. It requires luck to draw just the right set of cards. Then it takes a fair bit of skill to prevent your opponents from stopping you. You need to bluff at first. Then, when the cards remaining in your hand are strong enough, you need to commit. And when you commit, you need to commit fully. The worst possible outcome would be to take the first 25 points only to fail to take the final point.

Des Plaines River Trail 50

October 15, 2016

While running with some friends leading up to this race one of them asked me what my goal was, and I blurted it out: sub-7 hours. Saying it out loud made it more real. To my relief, this stronger runner than me agreed that it should be possible.

A couple weeks later another friend, also a stronger runner, asked the same question. When I repeated my answer of sub-7 hours this friend responded, “Don’t you think you’re sandbagging a little?” Meaning, he thought I could run faster than that. I don’t know, 7 hours would already be a significant PR. My fastest 50 miler was 7:24. Could I have been underestimating myself? This was not the time for me to question everything.

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By race day my mind had calmed a bit and I changed my plan. Rather than average 8:24/mile I would try to run 8:00/mile for as long as I could, and slow down as necessary from there. The weather was nearly perfect: 55˚F, overcast, a slight breeze, lots of shade. I was the only shirtless person at the starting line. I love running in Illinois in October.

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This race is essentially a 25 mile out-and-back on a flat crushed rock and dirt recreation path in the northwest Chicago suburbs. 8:01, 7:59, 7:57 for the opening miles of the race, right on target. I settled into about 10th place or so. I knew this was a fast course and the winning times are always screaming, but I honestly didn’t expect this many people to be ahead of me, given I was probably starting too fast.

With focus I could pay attention to my watch and I could hit my 8:00/mile splits. When I didn’t focus my pace sped up. I fought to hold back, but I was averaging closer to 7:50/mile than 8:00/mile. There was a small downhill in mile 12 and I accidentally ran a 7:38 mile. My heart rate was 123. What was going on? It seemed like the mental effort of holding back was taking a greater toll on me than just running at a faster, more comfortable pace. Either way, my heart rate was ridiculously low. I had plenty of headroom to speed up at that moment, but did I have the guts to do it?

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I continued to pass the fast starters one by one. My pace gradually increased a bit here and there. By mile 20, still running easy, I said to hell with it, and I sped up. I’ve never run so fast so effortlessly. This was uncharted territory. I was fully committed. I had a strong hand, and I was attempting to shoot the moon.

7:35 for mile 20.

7:15 for mile 25.

6:48 for mile 28!

It was so scary to be moving at what should have been an unsustainable pace, but I felt so good I couldn’t help myself. Approaching the 25 mile turn around I discovered only two runners remained ahead of me. The leader was moving at a good clip, but the 2nd place runner had slowed a lot. I passed him shortly after the turn around.

I passed the 50K mark in 3:56, a new 50K PR. Only 19 miles to go.

I caught up with the leader around mile 32, held back for a moment, then passed convincingly to move into the lead. He briefly tried to go with me, but I was still running 7:00/mile pace. Over the last 18 miles I would gain 2 minutes per mile on him.

At mile 37 I found myself in the middle of a high school girls cross country meet. A couple hundred meters of their 5K course was on the Des Plaines River Trail. I certainly wasn’t going to stop, so I just joined in, passing the mid-pack runners as I tried to stay out of their way.

By mile 40 I was feeling the effort. My pace was back up to 7:30/mile, and I knew my fastest miles were behind me. I only need to hang on for 10 more miles, a distance I ran 5-6 times per week. I was only looking at my pace. I didn’t know what my elapsed time was. Every mile I had run at that point was faster than 8:24, so I was certainly ahead of 7 hour pace. I even had a pretty good chance at winning the race. Just 10 more miles. Stay on target.

8:00/mile. My legs were burning. The (warning: graphic photos) blood blisters that had formed on my big toes were becoming more and more unbearable with each step. My calculated, slightly lower than necessary intake of fluids and calories was starting to catch up to me. The wheels began to fall off the last four miles. I was still moving, but now a minute per mile slower than my average.

And then it was over. I was the winner. My time was 6:19:15. Nobody was more shocked than me. How did this happen? I just ran a PR of over an hour. I just exceeded my ambitious goal by 41 minutes. I just averaged 7:35/mile for 50 miles. I just ran negative splits in a 50 mile race (3:12, 3:07). After 250+ races I just ran what was unquestionably the best race of my life. I just made a bold gambit that paid off in a big way.

I just shot the moon.

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