After finishing 5th place at David Horton’s Hellgate 100K this past December, I remarked to my wife “..well, that’s the last time I’ll beat my seed for a while…”. One of the neat things about running ultramarathons, at least in our neck of the woods here in Virginia, is that the race directors typically seed the top 10-20 runners. If you’ve been running well, the RD may throw you a 10 seed or 12 seed, or if you’ve been doing exceedingly well maybe you’re a 3 seed, or the coveted 1 seed. Of course, these seeds are completely meaningless when it comes to actually racing. However if you have put in the work and earned a top seed, like it or not they become meaningful – a reflection of the runner you have become. (*Author’s note: picking apart the meaning of a top seed is clearly pretentious and obnoxious…just go with it… I promise there’s a relatable point;).
My first seeding was in last year’s Terrapin Mountain 50K. I placed a surprising 13th in the previous month’s Holiday Lake 50k, and was thrilled to see that Clark Zealand had thought me worthy of an 18th seed. I took pride in being seeded, as I’m a busy 39-year old parent with two jobs – an everyman. With a lot of hard work, I finished Terrapin in 15th place. Beat my seed. Even better. I out performed external expectations, and that felt good for this amateur runner finding his groove in this crazy sport.
For the remainder of my races last year, I beat my seed and with a lot of commitment and hard work, morphed myself into a consistent top-10 runner. At Hellgate, I was seeded 6th and finished 5th. At the finish line, Dr. Horton chided me: “What was your seed?!”
“And what did you finish?!”
After a few weeks off for the “off-season” as we jokingly call it (there is no season in ultrarunning, it’s completely year round!), the first big race was Holiday Lake 50K in February. Holiday Lake is tough in that it has very little elevation gain – for an ultra, it’s a track meet, and speed alone is not my strength. Hence my comment to my wife – I figured Horton may give me a high seed, but I knew it was going to take all I had to break the top 10 in that race. As the race week email came out, the good Dr. Horton seeded me 4th. Crap. But when David Horton seeds you 4th, you better believe you can do it.
Very quickly after the start of Holiday Lake, reality settled in. A large group of fast-landers ran out ahead and it was a struggle to keep close. “Start easy” race plan out the window. By halfway, I was running in exactly 11th place, where I would stay until the end. I did not have fun at Holiday Lake. I was racing hard, yet racing just outside of the top 10, and further away from my seed, just seemed unsatisfying. Yes, I knew that was a stupid, spoiled feeling, but it was how I felt at the time. As I struggled to keep pace in the closing miles, I just wasn’t into it. The thrill was gone and I was racing just to….well, I’m not sure I knew the point…
Ironically, a runner dropped, so I ended up 10th. But that was a hard race, physically and mentally for me.
Fast-forward to THIS race, Terrapin Mountain 50K 2015. Terrapin Mountain is an early season banger. 31 miles and 7000 feet of elevation. The race features a grueling 9-mile climb in its middle, and a ridiculous technical descent of 1700 feet in just two miles near the marathon mark. It is a great test of mountain running endurance with an awesome finish line in a field at the Sedalia Center with friends and food.
The race week email showed a 6th seed, which this time I believed. But for some reason, this stressed me out all week. “Can I do better?” “What if I blow up?” Racing with a top seed gives some pressure to the runner of expectations. OTHER people’s expectations – the RD, your friends, your spouse, the runners you have come to know… It quickly becomes easy to feel trapped by your seed. Trapped with pressure and expectation to perform at a certain level.
On the surface, this is ridiculous! We’re all amateurs, doing this out of our love for running – there are no cash prizes at stake, no sponsorships to rake in. But with all the hours and hard work put in, along with the great friends and relationships we make on the trails, a high seed does indeed come along with some real internal expectations as well.
Race week, I did my best to sleep, rest, and relax, but I felt nagged by that seeding, longing for the days of no seed, no recognition, and no expectations. To force myself to relax, I decided to break some rules and try several new things on race day – new shorts (Patagonia Strider Pros – awesome!), new socks, and for dessert, what the hell, I was gonna race this technical mountain race in my performance road Newtons. Just before the start, a few of the other front of the pack runners and I were making fun of each others outfits, etc., and out of the blue pops up Shaun Pope. Shaun is a runner on a different level than I – he won Holiday Lake handily and is simply much more talented than I ever will be. For some reason, seeing Shaun Pope unexpectedly show up (he was not initially on the start list) gave me this complete sense of calm. It was almost a message to me that you can’t control who shows up, so just go out there and do your best. Right! If there is one thing that holds true, you can only do as good as you can do. Why the hell be anxious about trying to perform at some unrealistic level? I’ll run as well as my body and my training allows. At 7:00am sharp, the gong was hit and we were off on the 4-mile climb up to Camping Gap.
In the lead pack in an ultra, it’s amazingly chummy and chatty. We gave each other hard times, told lies, and earnestly enjoyed catching up. Soon enough a lead group of 4 runners separated and stretched further away. “Keep your heart rate down, run your own race,” said the smart guy in my head, and I let them go. At the top of Camping Gap, the course then descends 1800 feet over 5 miles on forest service road, testing your downhill running strength. It is hard to keep patient when your running sub-6-minute miles, but I tried to keep from blowing the wad here and relaxed. At one point something caught me eye and got my adrenaline pumping – I looked over and noticed a huge stallion was galloping along side our group in an adjacent farm. That was an awesome sight. I was running in 8th place.
At the bottom of the descent, we are then treated to 9 miles of climbing over the next 10 miles. I never knew you could climb for that long in the Blue Ridge! The climb back up to Camping Gap is a hallmark test of pacing. Its still early in the race, so don’t ruin your legs, but this is also a great place to put a gap on people whose legs are not quite up to the mountain. Shaun, Brad Hinton and I all locked in together and steadily chipped away at the climb. About halfway up, Shaun started to ease up and without much thought I just kept pushing on up the mountain. Right at that time, another runner came up and passed us. By the time I reached Camping Gap for the second time, I was in 7th place. Brad and I ran much of the rest of the next few miles of climbing together, but in silence, both trying to both push and conserve, the endless challenge of pacing in a mountain ultra. At the highest point on the course, mile 19, I stopped to take a leak and let Brad take off. For the first time in the race I was alone. I had kept a fairly conservative effort thus far and was feeling ok, but regardless of pacing, after you’ve run 20 miles in an ultra you feel like you’ve run 20 miles. Yet as I headed down the trail back towards Terrapin Mountain, I felt completely at ease and a smile came over my face. I think letting Brad go ahead was me allowing myself to not care about my placement or seed. I knew I would finish well, but decided not to run this race with any sort of expectation except those of my own as a result of my training. I began to enjoy myself.
This is the part of the course where you are on an out-and-back lollipop and get to see the middle of the pack runners running by. I felt true encouragement from them and I shared mine with them as we passed each other and exchanged ‘good job’s and high fives. I saw many of my good friends from Crozet and C’ville and this only brightened my day even more. When I hit Camping Gap for the third and final time, I was ready to take it home.
But first, a ridiculous ½ mile climb up to Terrapin Rocks, so steep that there is no running, and sometimes there is grabbing on to trees to help you up! Hands on knees, I power hiked up and suddenly near the top saw Brad again. We climbed out to Terrapin Rocks where we had to punch our bibs again – what a beautiful view on a bluebird spring day. I quickly ran back up the trail while Brad was dealing with some leg cramps.
The next 2.5 miles are some of the most punishing I’ve ever raced. Descending over 2000 feet over incredibly rocky, technical terrain, your quads feel they’re going to explode, and all this at mile 25 of the race. But it was a beautiful section, running through some rhododendron tunnels and hopping and skipping down the treacherous slope like a child. Alone in the woods again, I had a smile on my face. Now THIS is racing!
As I hit the final aid station, I was reenergized for the remaining 5 miles, which follow the ins and outs along the sunny side of Terrapin Mountain’s base before finally reaching the Sedalia Center. I was running inspired. Inspired that I could run in the mountains on a beautiful spring day. Inspired that I was racing with my friends. And inspired because I seemed to have figured out that my place in this race did not define who I was, but rather I could do what I could do because of training and hard work.
Coming into the finish, I was a minute ahead of my goal time and finished in 4:39 – 6th place. My seed. And a 26-minute PR. Full circle.
The best part of any ultra is hanging out at the finish line with your friends. I got to see every one of them come in and we sat in the grass on a sunny day trading war stories, laughing about our low points, and enjoying the day’s gift on the mountain.
I talked with Dr. Horton for a bit and admitted to him my pre-race anxieties.
He replied, “What you’ve got is an identity crisis! You think your identity is tied to your race results. But it’s not. Your training is what defines you as a runner.” Those words rang true and I feel like they were the verbal affirmation of what I just figured out over the past 4 hours and 39 minutes.
Later in the day, I spoke with Shaun Pope and chided him for taking it easy on us, as I know he can beat me on any given day. This wise 26-year old shrugged and said, “eh, you’ve got to pick your battles, you can’t go out and kill it every race”. Wow, here’s someone 13 years my junior who has already figured out his identity. He has the talent to win, yet just went out to finish and have a good time in the mountains. He even told me how when he punched his bib at Terrapin Rocks and started to run back up the trail, he stopped, turned around, and went back out to the overlook and just took a minute to enjoy the view. Now that’s someone who knows his identity.
Thank you to Clark Zealand and all the wonderful volunteers who so generously gave their time to help us find ourselves out on Terrapin Mountain. We’ll see you next year!