I actually felt really good in my training leading up to this race, but being that I basically only trained 2 weeks I certainly wasn't expecting too much on race day. The open mindedness that I took into this race was probably the only thing that kept me plugging along with almost constant focus and determination all day. Had I gone into this expecting more from my body it might have been hard to keep pushing through so many struggles.
Things started pretty typical. A few guys running really hard out front (especially Mackey and Gall) and a "chase group" of 6 or 8 guys including Wardian, Flaherty, Grossman, Sharman, Basham, myself, and others. For the first 20 miles I felt okay. Certainly I wasn't feeling great but I was having fun and I was happy with my position in the race. At this point I was running anywhere between 3rd and 6th, anywhere from 3-6 minutes behind Mackey and Gall. The pace was fast and I was quite certain that no one was going to keep up anything close to this pace, but I felt like maybe I could hold on to something close to this and hope to drop others as the miles built up.
But then we hit the largest climb of the race, just after mile 20. Almost as soon as we started up it became obvious that I was the one that was going to get dropped. Flaherty and Wardian both put some time on me on this climb and I got to the top of it (mile 26) feeling pretty horrible. I knew I was going to keep plugging along and finish the race but I certainly didn't think there was much chance I would be able to do it as a serious competitor near the front. At one point just past the mile 26 aid station I remember doing the math and trying to figure out whether I was even going to be able to finish this thing before dark. It took me about 3:40 to run the first 26 miles and I was pretty sure I was going to be lucky to run the last 36 miles anywhere near this pace. I was thinking sub 12 hours was going to be a challenge.
And thus down the road I went from mile 26. But slowly I started to feel a little bit better. I was running in 5th place and kept looking behind me. Not because I was worried about whether someone was going to catch me from behind, but because I just wanted to run with someone for awhile. I thought if I could just take my mind off of how crappy I was feeling I might be able to turn things around. And then somewhere a little bit before the mile 33 aid station I realized that I was actually feeling really good. I hit the aid station and got a boost from the fact that I was only 6 minutes behind Flaherty and 10 minutes behind the leaders (this turned out to be some good sugar coating from the folks at the aid station as I was actually 16 minutes behind the leaders at that point). The best news I got here though was that I was getting back onto rolling, technical trail for the next 8 miles. All day I was running stronger than anyone whenever we hit the rolling or downhill trail. I just never really had it on the uphills or on the roads. And so I hit this trail and hit it hard. Suddenly out of nowhere I was feeling about as good as I've ever felt in a race. Within minutes I saw Dave who was walking back to the aid station to drop out; passed Scott who was hurting pretty bad (and would eventually drop out); and passed Matt. These 3 had come through the aid station 16, 11, and 7 minutes ahead of me respectively. And I passed all of them within 3 miles! By now Wardian was the only one ahead of me and when I met him (this is an out and back section) on the trail he looked smooth and strong.
When I finished the out and back trail I was 16 minutes behind Wardian (had taken only a minute off his lead in that 8 miles) with just over 20 miles to go in the race. It was clearly going to be a serious battle to try to catch him. And this was when things got really crazy for me. I would feel great for 2 or 3 minutes at a time, become almost certain that I was going to be able to chase down the lead and then almost out of nowhere I would feel horrible again. Just when I would get frustrated with how bad I felt I would start to feel good again without even realizing it. The stretch from mile 41 to mile 48.5 is entirely road. I knew no matter how strong I ran this part I wasn't going to gain too much on Wardian so I just tried to keep moving steady and save as much as I could for the last part of the race that would really cater to my strengths (mile 48.5 - 53.5). When I got to the aid station at mile 48.5 I found out that I had cut another few minutes off his lead. I was now about 14 minutes behind and feeling pretty good (even though I had had about 5 distinct ups and downs in this stretch).
I headed up the dirt road out of the aid station and just began preparing myself mentally and physically for the 3 or 4 miles of downhill technical trail coming up. I knew that if my body responded the way I was hoping it would that I could likely cut his lead in half on this one short stretch of trail. I hit the downhill and my body responded. I was running smoother and faster than I had run all race. I wanted this terrain to continue all the way to the finish, but knowing that it wouldn't (the last 9 miles of the race is all road) made me push even harder to make up as much time as possible. I was cruising down the narrow trail when I came across some folks at a junction in the trail who told me that it seemed quite likely that Wardian had taken the fork to the left (because no one had seen him ahead on the proper trail that went to the right). This was a very easy spot to go off course because earlier in the race we had come up from the trail to the left and the course markings were still there in that direction because there were still a few back of the pack racers coming up that way.
Almost instantly this news took a huge amount of focus and determination out of me. I didn't know for sure if he had in fact made the wrong turn, but I also didn't know if he was out in front of me. Suddenly I had no idea if I was chasing or being chased. And I was low on calories and I was bummed. Bummed for Mike, but also bummed because I was having so much fun trying to chase him down. Eventually I received confirmation that he had gone off course and that I had a large lead. I put it into low gear and just grinded it out to the finish.
In hindsight it seems very unlikely that I could have caught him if he had stayed on course, but I also think that I would have been able to make it very interesting for the last few miles. He was running uphills stronger than me all day and the last 3 miles of the race is all uphill. Even had I somehow found the energy to pull even with him it's hard to imagine that I then would have been able to out race him up that last climb. But it sure would have been fun to try.
In all this was a really satisfying race and great learning experience for me. It was far from my best day physically, but for the first time ever I learned that I'm capable of pushing through so many low points in one run. I got a bit lucky to win the race, but I feel really satisfied with the fact that on pretty much persistence alone I was able to be in the position to finish near the front of this race. In almost all respects I think this race taught me more as a runner (and as a person) than it would have if I had felt great all day and been able to simply run away from the field on physical strength alone.
It was also a really well run event and a great group of folks to run with (many who I've run with a lot in the past, and many I had never met before). I think this first UROC race was a huge success and it was cool to see everyone involved so excited about the event and looking forward to where it goes from here. I know I am. It seems almost certain it'll only get more exciting in the coming years.