Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Berryman 50 Mile Race Report (30 days to go!)

I wrote a race report after last July's Voyageur Trail Run, my first 50 mile run, but I have yet to publish it. I'm proud of that first foray into ultrarunning, particularly as the race that qualified me for Western States, but it was a race that also nearly broke me. I was eight pounds underweight 24 hours after I finished, and I couldn't finish a beer later that night back at the hotel. Yeah, I was done.

Fast forward to Saturday. As this blog has documented, I've upped my mileage, with a lot of it on trails. I have another 10 months of running experience under my belt. And I have a goal: Western States. So there I was, scrambling to the starting line of the Berryman Trail 50 miler, hoping my Garmin would find a satellite signal in the middle of the nowhere otherwise known as the Mark Twin National Forest, praying that I was ready for this endeavor, and wondering if I'd be able to drive myself home after the race. No, I couldn't have done so after Voyageur. Not a chance in hell.

The Berryman Trail Run consists of a short out and back on a gravel road before darting into the forest for two 24 plus mile loops on the Berryman Trail. The trail is largely single track, frequently rocky and/or rooty, occasionally hilly in a uniquely Midwestern way, and for this go-round anyway, very, very muddy. We'd had some storms the day before the race, with more in the forecast on race day. They fortunately stopped a few hours before the race started at 6:30 a.m., and that of course led to temperatures near 80 degrees with bright sunshine for the second loop. Instead of being soaked to the bone in rainwater, we were soaked to the bone in sweat.

When the magic words were spoken, we were off.

I ran along the gravel road with my buddy Tommy, who has been so good to me as a training partner and advisor since I first got into Western States, Ben, a fellow WS100 entrant that I affectionately (and accurately) refer to as the best ultrarunner in the State of Missouri, and a fourth guy who dropped off the lead pack after a couple miles.

Tommy (in yellow above) was coming off a stellar victory at the Potawatomi 100 mile race in Pekin, Illinois in April, and you may remember Ben (leading the pack in red above), the returning Berryman 50 mile champion, from my race report about the Double Chubb 50k last month (where he repeated as champion). Throw in his 19:32 win last November in the Ozark Trail 100, and there is no question that this guy is the real deal. I expect big things from him next month at W100.

We dipped into the woods, and after a mile or two, I realized they were going out too fast for me, with our pace in the mid-7s. When we reached the first aid station 4 1/2 miles into the race, I stopped at the buffet of candy, chips, and Gatorade, letting the other two slip away from me in an effort to run my own race.

That was a decision I didn't regret. Running alone, I found a comfortable pace in the 8:30-8:45 range, pounding through the muddy sections that seemed to be around every corner and focusing on my caloric intake. In that first lap, I ate a PB&J sandwich I carried in my pack, pounded gummy worms, and dined on lighter fare like bananas and oranges while slamming a regular dose of water and Gatorade. I am proud to report that I didn't take my first Gu until the 21st mile.

When I entered start/finish area approximately 3 1/2 hours after I started, I took a minute or two to swap out my Garmin for Beth's to ensure that my batteries wouldn't die and weighed the pros and cons of changing my soaked shoes and socks. David White, the co-director, saw me pondering this decision and laughed: "They'll be wet again in a mile if you change them." So away I went, stopping my first Garmin watch at 3:32 and hoping it wouldn't take long for the second watch to find its GPS tracking. Like I had been for the last 20 miles, I was in third place.

The task put before me by my coach was to attempt a negative split by running the second half of the race faster than the first. Of course, he wanted me to run my first 25 miles at a 7:30 finishing pace, and I came in on target for a 7:00 finishing time. But I try my best to be a good pupil, and so I barged forward into the woods at a faster clip than the first lap.

A few miles into the second lap, I came upon Tommy. Like he always does, he gave me some positive reinforcement and mentioned that Ben was only a few minutes ahead of me. While I knew he had been running with Ben, I really couldn't believe him. But a mile or two later, and Tommy was proven right. I saw Ben's red shirt through the tree branches.

Uh oh. This wasn't part of the plan.

I made a quick pass just after a small creek crossing. As Tommy and I did, Ben and I checked in on each other, making sure we were both doing okay. Sure, it's a race...but it's really a race against yourself, not the others out there with you. And now I really was racing myself, though there were dozens of runners behind me, all wanting to catch me, and I now didn't have anyone to chase.

I won't lie. This development scared me. My respect for Ben as a runner is about as high as it is for any runner, and on most days I'd only see him at the start and finish. And here I was passing him. I could tell from his stride that he wasn't having his best day...but I also figured that it was just a bad stretch that he'd soon shake off. In fact, I think my final words to him were, "I'm sure I'll be seeing you again later." He's a better runner than I am, much stronger and more experienced. And somehow I was now in first place, with 18 miles to blow up.

I did an internal check of my system and realized that I might not be able to keep up my current pace (about a 7:30/mile when I saw Ben) with the course ahead. I figured I could, however, keep up a consistently strong pace that might lead to a win. And just like that, I switched from a run worried about my nutrition to a race worried about my position. And to be clear, Ben wasn't my competition. I just didn't want to get passed at all, by anyone. [I found out later at the finish that Ben took a DNF at Mile 40. No runner likes to have to make that decision, but Ben made a good choice to keep his eye on the Western States prize.]

The rest of the race is a bit of a blur. I started making shorter stops at the aid stations, focusing on refills of my two water bottles combined with a few solids. I popped more Gus and S-Caps than I'd planned, all in an effort to keep the cramping to a minimum and the energy at a maximum. I had some faint cramping in my right hamstring, a first for me, and my body never appreciated the gymnastics required to squeeze through the branches of a few trees that had fallen over the trail. By the time I was running my 40th mile or so, I was fairly confident that my consistent 8 to 8:30 miles over the last eight miles would be tough to overcome, but I was still concerned about blowing up...and I swear I could hear Ben's footsteps approaching behind me. I tried to keep running, afraid of being caught from behind like prey on the Serengeti.

For the final five to six miles, I found myself working strategic walk breaks into my running, picking a few uphill stretches (which were not steep compared to my normal training trails) to walk at a brisk pace. When I entered the final aid station to the cheering welcome of another training partner, John, who had finished the trail marathon and joined his wife at the aid station she was working, I finally realized that I'd be able to win this race. John was polite and told me I was looking good, and I asked him to confirm the remaining mileage, since the numbers on my Garmin were no longer accurate after 47 miles in the woods. John confirmed that I only had 2.3 miles to go, and that seemed...runnable. For the most part, anyway, as I unfortunately had to pull up once or twice for short walking spells.

When I finally emerged from the woods to the ringing of the cowbell that greets all finishers, I couldn't have been happier. Sure, it was great to win the race. Even better, though, it was over.

In a lot of ways, this race was a bit of a redemption from my Voyageur run last summer. I was well-trained (90 mile weeks instead of 50 miles weeks), healthy (no bruised foot from a skydiving mishap), and never got lost (an extra six miles will add some time to your 50 mile race, believe it or not). It also was a huge confidence boost, proving to me that the last five months of training were starting to pay dividends. My official time was 7:01:51, and I pretty much ran even splits after falling off my negative split effort in the final few miles. I finished far ahead of my expectations, and no, I'm not sandbagging.

Western States is less than five weeks away. I leave for California tomorrow for the Western States training camp, getting a preview of the course I'll be running in just over a month.

I can't wait.

[Special thanks to Shannon Drohan and Renee Cash for the photos!]


  1. You rock Silky.

  2. Absolutely awesome racing and report! You are going to K-I-L-L Western States.

  3. Chad! That's sick, man. Crazy impressive speed for a 50! Very exciting to see how far you've come in the past 10 months.

  4. Awesome report. I love those moments when we find ourselves at a place in a race where we feel we have no business in being. Those moments, for me, have just never been as the front runner.

  5. Congratulations again, and you're going to be great at Western States!

  6. Makes me excited to be there supporting you next month! Great job!

  7. Outstanding! I can't wait to read about your success at Western States!