Racing the world championships this year in Doha, Qatar, was probably one of the coolest experiences I have had so far in the world of ultrarunning. It was my first exposure to international racing, and it carried a unique set of dynamics—competition on both the individual and team levels.
I was able to fly into Doha late on Sunday, November 16. This gave me ample time to adjust to the nine-hour time difference, and it also gave me the opportunity to experience some of the Middle Eastern culture and not feel rushed in preparation for the race.
Team USA was comprised of six male and six female athletes. The men's squad included Max King, Zach Miller, Matt Flaherty, Michael Wardian, Nick Accardo, and myself. The women's squad included Larisa Dannis, Meghan Arbogast, Emily Harrison, Pam Smith, and Amy Sproston. The race was scored so that the top three finishers from each team had their overall times added together. The team with the lowest time won. This made for a really interesting "every minute counts" mentality for both squads.
Early in the week, my roommate Max King proposed that we get our bodies accustomed to staying up until midnight or 1 a.m., allowing ourselves to sleep in as late as needed. His thoughts were that since the race was to begin at 6 p.m., we didn't want to set ourselves up to get tired mid-race by going to bed much before our estimated finishing times. With the exception of a 9 a.m. random drug test on Thursday morning, this plan worked flawlessly! Max is a master at pre-race planning—as well as race-day execution, which would soon be revealed.
The days leading up to the race were really relaxed. Nobody seemed on edge, and it was awesome to be able to socialize and hang out with the rest of the squad. By 6 p.m. on Friday, I was as ready as ever to start the race.
The weather on race day wound up being much more pleasant than originally predicted. It was still warm and humid, but not to the degree it had been on previous days. The course consisted of twenty 5k loops and looked fast on paper, but in reality it was anything but. The varied surface, which included a hard tile in places, was incredibly brutal on the legs. This, coupled with three 180-degree turns per loop and slippery surfaces when water from athletes cooling themselves ended up on the tiles, created a much slower course. However, when push came to shove, we all had to compete on the same course, so from the competition side of things there was very little to complain about.
When the gun went off at 6 p.m., things got out hot! The men's field had no qualms about the potential slowing of the environment and the leaders quickly got off to sub–six-minute pace. I came through mile one in 5:59, which was safely behind the leaders and within a large group that would eventually begin to pull away from me.
Recognizing that running six flat would do me no good in the long haul, I scaled back a bit and settled into a pace that I believed was much more sustainable (approx. 6:15-20/mi.). I was a bit shocked that I had not only fallen a couple minutes behind the large chase pack by laps 4-5, but that I had also been passed by a handful of other competitors, even despite hitting splits pretty close to American Record pace. Despite slipping as far back as 24th place, I wasn't too worried, as I had a feeling that there would be some carnage to show for the aggressiveness... And there is nothing quite as motivating as moving up a field in the latter stages of a race.
The first half of the race was pretty repetitive in how I felt, how fueling went, and how my legs felt. One of the greatest aspects of ultra racing is you are out there long enough to connect with other runners in a way you wouldn't be able to quite as easily when the finish line is much closer and the intensity is much greater. Throughout the first 50k I was able to work with a both Yoshiki Takada of Japan and Paul Giblin Great Britain. The three of us ran similar paces and I found that I was often either running close to, passing, or being passed by these two. It created a great dynamic and definitely a motivating factor to stay on pace and not waver.
One of the main pieces of advice provided by the team managers was that the race does not start until 50k. Our team managers have a long history of managing and/or competing in World 100k events of past, so there insight was definitely worth taking to heart. I was very excited to hit the halfway point, because this meant it was time to really focus on moving up the field.
|Photo courtesy of Bryon Powell of IrunFar.com|
An interesting aspect of this course is there were two long out-and-backs that allowed you to gauge how far behind or ahead you were from various competitors. One thing I noticed was that in the first seven laps I was gradually moving farther behind the bulky chase pack. Around lap eight, this began to stabilize and slightly swing in my favor, and soon the carnage was quite apparent. Being cognizant that I was not to ask for pace, time, or position until 50k, I kept those thoughts to myself. By lap 11, I really wanted to know! I started asking my crew and Bryon Powell, who was covering the event for iRunFar and was positioned at the start/finish. I really had no clue if I had picked up much carnage at this point; I was passing people, but I didn't know if I was lapping them or just passing them. Folks had been telling me that I was looking strong compared to many in front of me, so I assumed I had moved up some. Bryon informed me that on lap 12 I would move into the top 10.
Top 10 was definitely a tertiary goal for me, because this would mean I would receive an automatic invitation to join Team USA for the 2015 World Championships. Hitting this point and feeling very confident that I was not going to fall back was definitely a mental boost.
On lap 12, I took my only bathroom stop of the day. Anxious to get back on pace, I picked up the pace a bit for the next couple miles. Within those miles, I caught up to teammate Nick Accardo. Nick had gone out very aggressively but seemed to be in a good place mentally. We encouraged each other and continued to race. This was a bit of a benchmark, as passing Nick put me into third place on the team. With the top three athletes from each team counting towards the team total in scoring, I now was on the board for Team USA. One of the best dynamics of this race is the added motivation to help your teammates, rather than just "running your own race," which is a common adage in the world of ultrarunning. From this point on, my mantra switched to picking up minutes on the other teams.
On lap 14 I closed the gap between Zach Miller and myself. I hadn't met Zach Miller before this week, but like most folks who follow ultrarunning, I knew a good bit about his racing. The dude is tough! He went out hard, and had faded a bit, but he definitely refused to fall into a gradual decline. We quickly agreed that we needed to work and feed off one another. Max was out there straight-up murdering the course, and we were currently responsible for the 2-3 spot on the team. With Team Japan's 1-2 in front of us, we knew we had to have strong finishes.
Laps 15-17 were the closest thing I have experienced to the team sports atmosphere since my high school and college cross country days. Zach and I shifted back and forth a bit but were always within talking distance. This section also was the beginning of the mental grind.
I distinctly remember the last five laps as being daunting both physically and mentally. The granite tiling had really done a number on my quads. With 25k to go, I had covered significant ground, but what was left was no small feat. It started to get really hard to keep focus and compartmentalize each lap. My mind began to start counting down. I don't like to do this too early in a race; not focusing on the moment can set you up for a long time of suffering. Here I had to constantly remind myself to focus on the current lap, or to just worry about this segment.
With three laps to go, I had put a little gap on Zach and had a swirl of things going on in my mind. On one hand, I wanted to move up the top ten and bag as many minutes for Team USA as possible. On the other hand, I was worried about a diminishing pace and increased pain in my quads. I kept getting feedback that I was looking strong comparatively. This was huge for my morale, because even if I was slowing a bit, it meant I could continue to move up if I stayed focused.
With two laps to go, I believe I was in 8th place. I knew that two steady laps would likely pick me up at least one more rung, as the last 10k of a 100k race can be brutal, and folks who went out too hard would likely be suffering a lot. It was still unclear whether I was passing or lapping folks. In a race like this, folks who go out too hard and crash often are going about the same pace as folks who are running steady, but just slower paces. I tried to use anyone I'd pass as motivation, always focusing on the person directly in front of me.
Getting to the final lap was one of the most comforting things I experienced this race. I now knew that every landmark I passed would be the last time. As the landmarks I had gotten so use to seeing came and went, I noticed one competitor who was consistently about 20 meters ahead of me. I couldn't seem to drum up the necessary motivation and energy to close the small gap. I didn't know at the time, but this was Vasily Larkin of Russia, who had led for the better part of the first half of the race.
The team aid station was about 400m from the finish line. I had one more chance to gather motivation from our team crew before heading towards the finishing chute. After passing the team crew, I distinctly remember thinking to myself, "If I sprint (or do what I perceived as sprint), I could pass this one last guy." I wan't convinced this was possible, but knew if I didn't dig as deep as possible and try, I would always think about that last spot, seconds in front of me. The last 200m consisted of a short straightaway with a gradual decline, followed by a 90-degree right turn that led into the finishing chute. Just before the final 90-degree turn, I dug as deep as I could and closed the gap. I tried to pass Vasily as aggressively as possible out of fear that he would respond if he thought he could pass me back. As I turned into the final straightaway, less than 100m from the finish line, I was just waiting for Vasily to come storming back past me. Every step of that last straightaway brought uncertainty whether my quads would continue to hold me upright. Rolling, crawling, or scratching my way across the finish line seemed a real possibility with every step. I managed to cross upright and remain in front of Vasily to take the sixth spot overall and second position on Team USA with a final time of 6 hours, 48 minutes, 53 seconds. I saw Zach Miller on the out-and-back leading up to the team aid station, so I knew he wasn't too far back and would likely give us the time we needed from our third runner to take the team gold.
This race was the most exciting and painful race I have done to date. The atmosphere was like no other ultra I have done in that it presented so many dynamics that were more like you see in sub-ultra distances. People were out there to race. That was clear. People were not afraid to take risks, make moves, and roll the dice. These trends were constant throughout. I think that's what made the race so mentally fatiguing. There was always something happening.
When everything was finished our team time total of 20 hours, 8 minutes, 6 seconds (Max: 6:27:43, Me: 6:48:53, Zach Miller: 6:51:30) was good for gold. Max King's time was good for first place overall and a new North American Record. I can't possibly say enough about Max's race. He was consistently strong all day. This was by no means a record-breaking course, yet Max still managed to chop nearly three minutes off the previous AR.
As a team, we were blessed with great support from Tim Yanacheck, Lin Gentling, and Lion Caldwell, our managers and doctor. Our great group of crew at our team aid station. I had a great crew person and wealth of knowledge about Doha in Susan Dun. I look forward to racing next year!