2017 Hinson Lake 24 Hour Ultra Classic Race Report

October 21, 2017 at 6:55 pm Leave a comment

Race information – Hinson Lake 24 Hour
Website: [results]
Strava activity: [Part 1] [Part 2] [Part 3] [Part 4]

Training

A few weekends ago, I ran the Hinson Lake 24 Hour Ultra Classic. While I didn’t train specifically for THIS race, training in a general sense has been going quite well since early July. After the Finger Lakes 50k on July 1, I took a down week to allow myself to physically (and, more importantly, mentally) recover and recuperate from what had been a successful but demanding first half of the year. After that week, I quickly ramped up the mileage and ground out an average of 110 miles/week through one of the more miserable summers I can remember. The summer was light on anything resembling quality or speed, but heavy on the volume. Starting in August, I began to incorporate some longer runs and was doing a few of them at odd hours (like starting at 10pm and finishing up in the early morning hours). While this had much to do with my general laziness and inability to wake up and run at a reasonable hour, I told myself it would also be good practice for running overnight and running tired. Super Week in early September went about as well as could be hoped for, and I wrapped up almost 190 miles with a really encouraging 50+ miler, finishing the run with negative splits and feeling stronger at the end than the beginning. All of that was encouraging and pointed to things moving in the right direction for my fall goals. Like I mentioned, Hinson Lake was not my goal race; that comes in December, when I will run 24 hours around a track at Desert Solstice in Phoenix, AZ. Even still, this would be an opportunity to test myself for 24 hours, something I have never done well in what had been seven attempts thus far, and get an idea of what works/doesn’t work in terms of pacing/nutrition/etc… things that cannot be imitated nearly as well in a non-24 hour race setting. The weekend before, some of my internet friends visited, and I ran a parkrun 5k on Saturday in my fastest time (17:49) since I was in PR shape back in 2011 and then a downhill 5:06 mile the next day, which is tied for my fastest all-time mile. I spent the week leading up to the race doing some easy shakeouts to keep the legs moving, nailed one baby 3 x mile workout on Wednesday, and felt as ready as I’ve ever been for a race like this.

Pre-race

Ari and I drove down to Rockingham after I got out of work on Friday. The past week had been very hot, but the forecast fortunately called for cooler temps overnight and through the weekend. After a stop at trusty Panera, we made it to our “hotel” a little after 9 pm. Ari was less than thrilled with me, as I had been tasked with booking a room for the night before the race. Of course, I chose the place that looked like we were definitely going to make it onto an episode of Law & Order. The beds were riddled with bugs, and we quickly went to Plan B — get a refund, drive to the lake, camp in our car. Fortunately, there was a spot for us right near the Lodge, a quick walk from the start/finish of the loop. We parked there, and Ari turned her Renegade into a pretty cozy mobile motel. After setting up our table by the aid station so I wouldn’t have to rush to do that in the morning, I settled in around 11:30 pm for what ended up being a relatively ok night’s sleep.

I woke up pretty easily about 6:45 am, ambled over to the Lodge to collect my bib, and proceeded to get ready in a much less rushed way than for almost any race I’ve done in recent memory. By 7:30, I’d already made my bathroom trips, gotten dressed – including my brand new, super sweet SHARK SHORTS – gone over some of my race plan, said hi to old friends, brought the rest of the stuff to the table, and gotten fully ready to go. The group of 300+ runners gathered near the timing mats a few minutes before the start. As is my standard nervous tic before races, I tied, untied, and retied each shoe at least 4-5 times in the last minutes. Right around 8:00 am, Jerry, the fantastic RD, said go, and we were off.

Race

The start of an ultra, and specifically that of a super long one like a 24-hour race, is such an odd sight. There’s just as much energy and enthusiasm and anticipation as there is at the start of your typical marathon, but when it starts, it almost seems like someone hit the slo-mo button. I took off at a torrid jog, waving to Ari as I went by, and settled into what felt barely quicker than a walk. Still, I was out in front of most, only a handful or so ahead of me. One guy, last year’s race winner, Ron, did sort of blast off to the front at what was definitely sub-8:00 (or close to world record 24-hr) pace. As we crossed the dam, passing by most peoples’ tents and tables and other aid accouterments, making our way to the woods, he was already rapidly moving out of sight.

The first lap went as uneventfully as I could have hoped for. I made my way around the 1.5032-mile lake loop, most of it shaded, with a bridge demarcating the halfway point of the loop; the highlight of this loop was one of what would be at least several dozen high-fives from an adorable 5- or 6-year-old named Fabiola who was out cheering on her mom for most of the day and night (and next morning). Hinson is unique even among ultramarathons for a number of reasons. First, it’s only $35 (used to be only $1/hour… inflation), so it’s super cheap for the amount of aid and goodies and the quality of timing services it provides. It’s also my understanding that Hinson is the largest 24-hour race in the country, with over 400 registered and 330+ actually ending up in the official results. Fortunately, the length of the loop, the fact that the trail is relatively wide in most places, and the fact that most people are there more for the party/reunion atmosphere and to get a specific mileage goal (50k, 50 miles, and 100k tend to be the most popular) make it seems much less crowded than one would imagine.

Despite my best efforts, the first lap ended up being my fastest of the race (roughly 9:00 pace, or about 45s/lap faster than I was targeting). The first few runners were already out of sight by the time I crossed the line the first time, and I was wondering how long they would hammer for before either reeling things in voluntarily or unavoidably burning out. I decided to not obsess about pacing early on, and in an effort to force myself to run by feel, I switched my watch over to HR mode and decided I would just aim to keep my heart rate at a number I knew correlated with a very easy pace for as long as I could manage and worry about paces and time later.

Around the start of the second lap, I came up on my running friend Cherie who was running with a tall guy, Ken, who I recognized from previous years. I ended up falling in step with them, and we shared a few early laps together as a group, catching up and whatnot. When Ken fell off a bit, Cherie and I stuck together more or less for the first two or so hours. It was a nice way to ease into what would be a long day without thinking too much about just how long right away.

And that’s the major story for the first few hours. It’s strange how if I tried hard enough, I could probably remember minute bits and pieces of each lap, or at least most of them, but taken as a whole, things blend together in large chunks. The first few hours were coolish and pleasant, and I was hitting my goal splits despite almost immediately losing track of what lap I was on or how far behind the leaders I was. I was focused on making sure I was drinking enough and staying relaxed. To the former, I opted for three scoops of unflavored Tailwind in a large bike bottle and tried to sip on that pretty much constantly. I supplemented it with the odd orange slice or banana chunk early on; some sips of coconut water, Coca-Cola, Red Bull, or whatever Gatorade mixture they had at the aid station later; and the occasional Honey Stinger ginsting gel throughout.

Around 3 hours in (11 am), the sun started to break through the cloud cover, and I could sense a marked increase in temperature. Fortunately, the majority of the loop was shaded, but the bridge on the far side, the dam where the lap started and the area with all the aid were directly exposed. Despite this, I hit “50k” (really, 31.5ish miles) in exactly 5 hours, which happened to also be bang on goal pace (9:30). With the exception of a few stops to water a tree and a couple seconds to swap out bottles or grab a gel in between laps, I had been moving consistently and easily those first five hours.

Shortly after, I wavered for the first time. I don’t know specifically what mile or lap, but I remember coming through and mentioned the heat and how I was getting a little annoyed at the sun. A lap or two later, in typical Mark fashion, I yelled and cursed at the sun and gave it the middle finger in front of at least one or two children. One lap later, Ari, in her typical brilliant superhero way, threw my silly-ass bucket hat, which she had been soaking in ice in the cooler, on my head and tied my bandana (also soaked in ice) around my neck. Instantly, I felt a million times better and fresher. I meant to tell her the next time around and never remembered, but I can now… that simple move absolutely saved my race. I was allowing too many negative thoughts to seep in way too early and allowing the weather to affect me too much, and that snapped me out of all of it. It also helped in a practical sense, cooling me off, and my heart rate dropped 5-6 bpm almost immediately.

I set off, reminding myself that I knew the middle hours of the afternoon were going to be warm and that I had actually planned for that and allowed for some slowing here. I knew I just needed to get to the evening feeling fresh and able to keep pushing, when temps would cool and the trail would thin out, both considerably. Shortly after 4 pm, 8:19 into the race, I crossed the mat for the 34th time, giving me 51.1 miles, about an hour after the leader, Ron, had, but pretty close to an 8-hour 50-mile split, which was in line for my not-so-secret goal of hitting 150 miles as evenly as possible. Accounting for the weather (hotter) and the terrain (sandy and rocky/rooty pretty much the whole way around) compared to my 50+ miler a few weeks prior, I was happy with how I felt and was moving at that point. I’d already made one big bathroom stop (in the woods) and was hoping the worst of the heat was behind me.

At this point, I knew I’d been lapped at least four times, so I had 6+ miles to make up, which seems daunting in absolute terms, but in a race that was only 1/3rd over, it’s really not that much. Almost like magic, as 5 pm approached, either the weather DID begin cooling off considerably, or I was just adjusting to it well, because I began to feel much better again. I got a huge mental boost when I came through at the end of a lap and noticed Ron sitting on a table at the aid station, with a thousand-mile stare on his face, looking hot and tired. I knew he saw me so I didn’t even bother to slow down to grab anything that time, just giving a thumbs up to my crew (which had grown to include my friend [Jay](https://imgur.com/XcjmxWN) who, last year, had a stellar race, running 105+ miles to capture 3rd place, but had been dealing with some injuries that cropped up early in the day and decided to call it quits after a couple laps) and trucking along like I could (and would) do this all day.

Over the next eight laps, which took roughly two hours, I maintained my average pace almost to the tenth of a second. In doing so, I made up essentially all of the lead. When I crossed the mat at 63.1 miles, I was on the same lap as the leader and only 12 minutes behind with a little less than 14 hours still to run. As daylight turned to dusk, the temps began dropping precipitously, and each lap that went by, I was gaining minutes. This was probably the strongest I felt all race. At some point around here (maybe?), I asked Ari to retie my right shoe. My foot must have swelled some, and the laces were very much too tight and causing some increasingly troublesome pain with each step. Like the hat/bandana magic earlier, as soon as she did that, I felt like I had fresh legs. And my lap splits here show as much. They were all at or faster than many from just a few hours ago, despite no discernible increase in effort on my part. I was barely stopping between laps, and if I did it was to quickly swap out a bottle, grab a gel, or take a swig of Coke or Red Bull. In and out in mere seconds, truly the envy of any NASCAR pit stop.

As I was nearing the end of my 49th, and last, lap of the first 12 hours, I came up on and quickly went by the leader, who was walking with another participant. I crossed the line, 73.6 miles and 11:58:13 into the race, in the lead for the first time. Despite knowing I was only halfway there, I couldn’t help but feel pretty fucking stoked at this development. As I went by Ari (who was now joined by John Stiner, my friend and also incredible massage therapist), I yelled something that was likely incoherent and/or inappropriate, which probably came across as exceedingly bro-ish and douche-y, but I’d like to believe came across at the time as animated and adorably competitive. ::shrug:: The next lap was my second fastest of the whole race, one second slower than that first. Part of it was the adrenaline, and part of it was not wanting to give him a chance to respond and make a race of it… the whole surge when you go by someone in a race, just on a much bigger scale and at much slower speeds.

As the adrenaline burned off, I settled back in, darkness now fully enveloping the lake, and the sight of headlamps bobbing along stretched out like a slow moving, disorganized conga line. I, of course, grabbed the headlamp whose battery was dying rather quickly. The combination of my growing fatigue, my frustration about the battery (and dislike of wearing headlamps in general), coupled with the reemergence of the pain at the top of my right foot/ankle and one or two other aches/pains that inevitably emerge when one has been running for literally half a day, turned my mood rather despondent. I was approaching the low point of my race, I knew it, but there was little I could do, mentally or physically, to change it, or so it seemed. As I came to the end of a lap, I yelled at Ari that the headlamp sucks, the battery was dead, and everything was terrible. Of course, in my infinite wisdom, instead of spending a few brief moments to fix the problem, I muttered to myself and kept moving, leaving everyone in confusion about what exactly I needed them to do. Neat!

Fortunately, whereas I was going into diva mode, they were cool, calm, and collected. As I came around the next time, they handed me a marginally better headlamp and made me keep going. The next time I saw them, the previous headlamp had a fresh set of batteries and a very bright light, and all was basically right with the world again…at least in terms of my ability to see where the hell I was going. With less than ten hours to go, my lead had grown to a full lap or two, and I was still well on target to hit 145+ miles, despite the (largely self-inflicted) fiascos and now two fairly significant bathroom stops (in addition to the quick pees, hooray my kidneys are functioning pretty normally).  But mentally, I was still struggling.

My mental math told me I needed to average about 10:00/mile for the next ten hours to get that 145 and all of a sudden, in those terms, on that scale, the task seemed not just daunting but overwhelming. I stopped briefly when I got to Ari to tell her as much. I think I even told her I was running all out the last lap or two and could barely maintain the necessary pace (at the time, I even believed it but I know now that was a lie). She, rightly so, told me to shut the fuck up, that I could definitely keep doing that, and to go back out there and, well, do it. So I tried, and it sucked. I felt like I was pushing but could tell I wasn’t moving very well. Fortuitously, on this lap, I came up on the one and only Ray K. I slowed briefly to ask his advice, as I’ve followed his racing and training advice for much of my ultrarunning experience. I told him where I was at and what I’d need to do to hit 145, and he promptly asked me, “Why 145?”. I told him because that’s the number to make the list for the World Championship team. He quickly dismissed it, saying 145 won’t make the team (he’s right), and that on a course like this, I shouldn’t be killing myself for the bare minimum number. His advice amounted to, protect the lead (I was now up at least 4 laps), run smart, keep moving, don’t wreck yourself, and go run a lot more on the track.

This was, in the back of my mind, what I wanted to tell myself. But coming from me, I would feel like I was just being mentally weak in a 24-hour again. Coming from Ray, it sounded like sage advice. I immediately felt completely unburdened and eased eversoslightly off whatever gas pedal I was still pressing down. Like with many of the “eureka” moments during this race, I also felt better physically almost immediately. When I came around, Ari walked along the length of the dam with me as I explained my race plan to her. She showed me some really nice snaps from some people, including some of you wonderful Meese. Then she read me some of the comments that my delightfully irreverent friends and random internet strangers left on my live results page (apparently there was an option to leave comments for individuals if you clicked on their name as you were viewing the live results). The comments had me laughing and almost forgetting how ugh I felt. What was even better is that pretty much no one else in the race had any comments at all. It was like I had an entire cheering section virtually rooting for me, and that thought really gave me a huge mental boost. So, thanks to everyone who left an encouraging and/or inappropriate note, and BUTTS BUTTS BUTTS!

Right before 1 am, 16:41 into the race, I crossed the 100-mile mark (100.7 if we’re being precise). I’d slowed…but not excessively. Shortly after, Ari went to nap for a few hours in the Jeep while John stayed up to help with whatever I needed. As it were, I didn’t really need much in those early morning hours, falling into a pattern of walking from the timing mat to the aid station (maybe 100 yards), grabbing something if I needed it (usually just a fresh bottle of Tailwind or a gel), walking/shuffling the rest of the way back to the woods, and then doing what passed for running at that point the rest of the way around the loop. On some of those loops, I allowed myself to take it a bit easy on “Mount Hinson,” the rutted out “hill” of very loose sand that went on for maybe a tenth of a mile (or sixteen chemlights) right after the bridge halfway around the lake. Slowly but persistently, the laps and miles ticked on by. Even still, every time I came to the end of a lap, part of me hoped to see the clock further along than it was, even if that meant less opportunity for miles. I had figured that even with some extreme slowing, I was safe for 130 miles (likely 135, as long as I didn’t run into any major trouble). By 2 am, my lead had grown to 7 or 8 laps, and no one would cross 100 miles until over 2 hours after I had.

The way I figured it, if I could maintain that lead until about 6 am, I would be able to, worst-case-scenario, just walk a bit and still win. That’s what I TOLD myself, but I should have realized I was never going to allow myself, or be allowed to, do that. Shortly before 4 am was my weakest moment of the whole race. I was almost 20 hours in; it felt like so much longer. The prospect of moving at all, let alone running, for another four hours caused some serious depression. I told myself to just walk one lap and then reset and get going. I stumbled along in the dark, headlamp off, just taking in the sounds of the night, feeling kind of sleepy, when I got to the bridge. Without really thinking about what I was doing, I laid down on a bench and closed my eyes. It felt like I was lying there for ten minutes (it definitely wasn’t), and part of me wanted to spend an hour or so there. But then I saw Ron run by, and something told me I shouldn’t just let him get a lap back that easily, so I popped up and quickly broke into an amble. In about a minute or so, my muscles relaxed enough to allow me to move in a way resembling running, but thanks to the 50-degree temperatures and the fact that I was still in my sweaty singlet from the start of the race, I started shivering rather violently. In my exhausted delirium, I figured my only hope of survival (dramatic much?) was to run fast enough to either warm up and stop shivering or to get back fast enough to change into something warmer. I ended up doing both almost simultaneously, and in the process caught up to Ron and went by him as we finished the loop.

As he slowed to a walk through the aid station, I quickly threw on a t-shirt and took off. My slowest lap was followed by two quicker ones. During this point, I made a deal with myself. I could easily do 20-minute laps from now to the finish; if I did that, I would hit 135 miles, and that seemed fine. At this point, it was approaching three hours to go, Ari was up again, and I felt like I could relax some. Her and I started walking a lap. As we approached the bridge, Ron came running past again. Just like a few laps prior, instinctually I went into race mode and took off chasing. We quickly caught up to him and maintained a gap of about 10 m until the end of the lap, where I once again went by and carried on at a much quicker pace than previous.

With three hours to go, I set off on the lap that would tie me with my current PR. That felt really cool. I knew I would only have to do a few more laps in the dark before the sun would start creeping over the horizon and I could finally be rid of my infernal headlamp. The pain in my foot had returned, and with two hours to go, I asked Ari to tie my shoelace as loose as it could possibly be. It gave me a modicum of relief, but I knew it would be enough to let me at least get to the end of the race. At this point, I could feel blisters on at least two or three toes, but I knew as long as I kept moving, it couldn’t start hurting too badly. It was here that I was very vividly thinking of the Breaking 2 documentary, specifically of how Kipchoge seems to force his face into a smile when he’s clearly grimacing in pain toward the end of his races. It was that thought, amongst a few others, that kept me driving in the waning hours before daybreak. Around 6:30 am, I could start seeing the faint strands of pink over the lake, and that gave me a renewed sense of optimism and urgency. I was going to win the race, and somehow, despite what it felt like just a few hours prior, the race WOULD end.

When I got done with lap 89 (133.7 miles), I saw 40 minutes to go on the clock and realized I’d miscalculated and underestimated myself. I told Ari I only had one more lap to go, and she laughed at me because we both knew I wasn’t stopping until the horn sounded. Despite knowing running faster wasn’t going to get me done any sooner, I started running harder. I finished 135.2 miles with 24 minutes to spare, blew through past my crew, and kept pressing. My last full lap, the 91st of the race, was an entire minute faster than the previous and as fast as most of the laps from the beginning of the race. It’s amazing what a second sunrise will do for your psyche and legs! When I crossed the mat, there was exactly 10 minutes on the clock. I grabbed my banana (another unique-ity about Hinson is that when there’s only a few minutes left and you won’t be able to finish a full lap, they hand you a banana with your bib number to run with; when you hear the airhorn to signal the race is over, you put the banana down, and they wheel measure everyone’s distance, so you get partial lap credit for your banana lap), and Ari said GOOOO! I figured that I could just run to the other side of the dam and that would assure me 137 miles. But Ari told me, fuck that, you’re running until the horn. And I did. I thought for sure that the horn would sound before I got halfway around. But it didn’t. I went up “Mt Hinson,” no horn. I went down. No horn. I ended up getting just over another mile before finally, mercifully, bewilderingly, the horn sounded. 8 am. FIN. It took me 10 minutes to run to that point and another 15 or so to shamble the half a mile remaining back to the end of the loop. It was as if my legs had exactly 24 hours worth of running in them and not one second more. D-O-N-E.

Post-race thoughts and what’s next

The final total turned out to be 137.8 miles. I literally don’t even like to drive that far! It works out to a 14+ mile PR and the win by about 10 miles. Given the outcome, it’s hard to be anything other than thrilled with the race, and I certainly am. More importantly, to me, is that I ran for the whole 24 hours with no major stops. According to my watch data, I was moving for roughly 23 1/2 hours total, which makes sense to me: two major crap breaks, about a half dozen pee stops, a few seconds to a minute here and there in between laps, and that almost certainly closer-to-2-or-3-minutes-than-10 moment of weakness on the bench. It may sound fairly obvious, but 24 hours is a long damn time to do any singular thing, let alone run. If I hadn’t actually done it, I would be slightly incredulous that it was even possible. I think the decision to run based on feel and heart rate instead of obsessing over pace allowed me to run smart and relatively even for a long time and also let me know that I definitely had more in the tank if need be later in the race.

Winning felt pretty satisfying, particularly at this race. I’ve had some less-than-great memories here among injuries, being out of shape, leading by three miles 16 hours in and then absolutely cratering and barely logging anything else the rest of the race in 2014, how stupid I was in 2015, and so on. For my efforts, I took home a cooler, $100, and a really cool, handmade pottery bowl (which the cats have taken a liking to, too). Jerry also told me that next year, I would have free entry into the race. At the time, that last bit seemed more like a cruel joke than a reward. I’m still not so sure it isn’t.

The damage from all that running was relatively minor and largely superficial. I had a few blisters on various toes and my instep, my ankles where the laces were cutting in were a little tender and swollen, and my left hip flexor had basically shut off and stopped working 14 hours into the race on. Immediately post-race and all day Sunday, I wasn’t able to lift my left knee off the ground without physically picking it up in my hands. A week later, I was sore in some places, but two of the four major blisters had subsided, and I lost one toenail (that was engulfed and forced off by a blister somehow) with one more on its way out, and the swelling in my ankles had largely subsided. The couple jogs I went on that first week were stiff but not impossible. I gave myself one more recovery week. As of today, three weeks post-race, thanks in large part to Stiner’s always (but even moreso than usual) incredible work, and me somehow managing (for once) not to be a fucking moron, I’m back to almost 100%, my hip flexor works like it’s supposed to, and I’m at the tail end of what looks like a more normal training week (with even some quicker-than-typical miles) and ready for that final push leading up to Desert Solstice.

BONUS PICTURES FOR GETTING THROUGH THIS MESS!

Before the start, happy to have fully operational legs, for now

Taking this very seriously

 

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