Sunday, March 11, 2012

LBL Trail Marathon Report

Personalized swag
It finally came to pass. Over the last three months I traveled southwest to Kentucky's Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area several times to log long trail runs. With each circumnavigation of the 11.3-mile Canal Loop I became more enamored by this wildly winding path through undulating terrain. I came to know and anticipate the trail's turns, dips, creek crossings, steep switchbacks, and scenic overlooks quite intimately.

How much did I come to love the Canal Loop Trail? A lot! So much, in fact, that I "kissed" it at least once on all but one of those runs. There is a sinister natural phenomena going on when so much natural beauty is presented to the eyes and ears while the feet are almost constantly being placed amongst a myriad of obstacles. Is this intended to make us slow down in order to observe more, to absorb more, and to reflect more? The well-groomed Canal Loop Trail is heavily used by runners, mountain bikers, and hikers who must contend with roots and protruding rocks. Of these groups, I surmise, the runners are most likely to clip a toe on an obstacle.

Glancing too long at a lake might allow a toe to catch on a stone. Focusing on an overhead hawk increases the risk of turning an ankle on a root. Admiring a uniquely gnarled tree can cause a foot to land on or kick a leaf-covered rock or root. Even glancing at a watch can send a runner into an arm flailing, foot stomping, tachycardia inducing effort to regain control. Trust me here, because my personal experiences verify all of the above. Also believe me when I tell you that there is something addicting about circling the Canal Loop.

It was logical then, in my mind, that I lined up with a sell out crowd of about 700 runners just after dawn to take part in the 2012 LBL Trail Run. There were actually five races going on simultaneously: 10K(road), 23K(1 loop), marathon(2 loops), 60K(3 loops), and 50-miles (4+ loops). People are drawn to LBL because of the great course and because race management does a fantastic job of putting the event on.

Many of us veteran runners were a bit surprised when race management beckoned us all the way down to the edge of Kentucky Lake since the start line had been several hundred meters up the slight grade in previous years. It turns out that they were making adjustments to get the distances more accurate and to legitimize the new 10K road distance. The meandering Canal Loop measures 11.3 miles (not the 10.1-10.8 declared by tangent-cutting gps units - look closely and see what I mean), so they added a little to the opening road approach to the trail.

LBL Canal Loop from Polar RCX5 data file
When the gun DIDN'T sound, the field paused and stepped back. The guy in front of me stepped onto my left foot and twisted. I thought nothing of it until my shoe came untied just before we left the asphalt. I had hit the first rolling road mile in 6:40 and was in a chase group behind a lead pack of four. Forty-five seconds later, after fighting a hand held and gloves, I stepped back onto the road and found myself running with and talking to my friend, Greg Fraze, who would go on to have a great run and finish second in the 23K. And I was not happy about entering the single track behind a crowd I had worked to beat.

Only after passing a number of runners did I begin to get glimpses of the group I had been in on the road as they crested hills above or rounded inlets of Lake Barkley. When I hit the first aid station three minutes faster than I ever had, I quickly filled my 10 oz Nathan hand held and continued. Then I evaluated my position.

Four weeks earlier I had run two loops on the trail in just under three hours (1:29s). And during other recent 2-hour runs I finished single loops in 1:25-26. Considering this and previous race results I guessed that I could break 3:20, likely crack the top three in the race, and recover fast enough to race well four and seven weeks later in the Oak Barrel half and Du Nats, respectively. That was my goal. Thirty-five minutes into the race I knew I had not stuck to the plan, since I was on 1:17 pace for the first lap. Already three minutes up on goal pace, minus the 45 seconds for a shoe tie, I knew that I could settle in and enjoy the rest of the run. That was the new plan.

Interestingly, I ran the rest of that first loop having few runners within close proximity. That helped me return to a training run mentality. It wasn't an easy effort - I rarely run easily. The effort was near the top end of my comfort zone. However, I needed to lower my heart rate. It was too high due to the fast start and the ingestion of a blood-thinning Celebrex on Friday morning. Against my better judgement, I looked at my RCX5 often to see if the average heart rate was dropping from the 165 it had been after thirty minutes. (See paragraph three . . . ). That fall, the only one of the day for me, came just after I had passed a guy, so I apologized for words muttered. Starting the day with several scars from a previous fall at LBL and a recently bruised right foot (Celebrex), I was fortunate to only four-point in mud.

Polar RCX5 Data
The Lake Barkley side of the Canal Loop does not have the tall, steep climbs of the Kentucky Lake side.  Instead, it creates difficulty through many stream crossings and sharp turns. The stream crossings are usually dry, but recent heavy rains were still running off during the race. The four- to six-foot drops into those streams jarred the back and stopped the momentum.

I reached the visitor's center aid station at the south end of the loop feeling great. I had only gained another thirty seconds on a normal training run, so I knew I could sustain the effort. And, I could easily refuel along the way! I quickly filled my hand held with a cup of water while walking through the aid station. The Nathan was strapped to one hand and I carried a gel flask in the other hand.

Within minutes I was steadily climbing the hills along Kentucky Lake. The views along this portion of the Canal Loop are amazing, with the lake far below and with beaches often in view below cliffs. More than half of each loop's 1100+ feet of ascending is realized in just a few miles, so it is beautiful and challenging. The climbs tend to be steep switchbacks, while the descents are long and winding. I ran without another runner in sight on the first pass of the hills.

Once I reached the first/fourth aid station, I quickly located my drop bag to exchange gel flasks and to drop gloves and arm sleeves. When I crossed the timing mat to start the second loop I recorded a split of 1:22:42. This was faster than I had originally planned, but it meant that I had stayed on pace since slowing down. Two other runners, who did not use drop bags, entered the second loop with me.

Unfortunately, I was also experiencing GI issues that caused occasional sharp pains. Having one of those "iron guts," I have never had GI issues in races. Though I continued to hold pace, I started to wonder if I would begin to, or needed to, throw up. After several minutes I slowed a bit to let the two guys get a little ahead. Then I took a "natural break" behind a big tree. Actually, it was forced and it took awhile, but I felt immediate relief. After two and ten more minutes of running I stopped for two more such breaks. Those breaks cost me nearly three minutes, but they eased the GI issues. That, in turn, allowed me to resume my normal LBL pace.

Someone in the visitor's center aid station crowd rang cowbells as I approached the Trace Road. Though I only took water, I could see that this aid station was, like all of the others, well stocked and manned. After the GI issues, it was a relief to leave the visitor's center within a minute of the split for my recent training runs. The sun was shining, the air was warming, and my legs and stomach felt great!

The sun was high enough to shine directly through the sleeping, leafless forest into any unprotected eyes, so I was glad I had held onto my Polar cap at the drop bag. The temperature had warmed from 34F to the mid-40's, which made the soft breeze quite welcome. Other than passing dozens of lapped runners on the Kentucky Lake side, the rest of the second loop was uneventful. Well, there were numerous yells which I thought sounded similar to those I let after tripping.

I reached the asphalt having covered the second loop in 1:29:46. Acceptable considering the stops. I laughed out loud as I climbed the first hill on the road because the adjustment from trail running to road running felt eerily similar to the adjustment to running after cycling.

"The Polar Guy" is all smiles . . .

I felt relief that the Brooks Pure Grit shoes on my feet acted as soft cushions to protect me from the hard asphalt. Twelve minutes later I reached the finish line in third place with a time of 3:17:07 - Goal 1 Achieved! Now I need to recover quickly and get back to a very different type of training required to reach the next two goals.  I cannot, of course, stop running the Canal Loop. Addiction? No, I have a date with the 100-mile Bighorn Trail Run in mid-June.

There were several really impressive performances on the day in each of the races. The marathon was won by Jeremy Davis in 2:54. Meanwhile, Scott Breeden (4:32!) and Melanie Peters (4:57!!) ran fast 60K's, and David Riddle (5:53!!!) crushed the 50M. To emphasize their paces, I ran with David and Scott before I decided to slow down - it appears that they nearly kept that pace for multiple laps. Very impressive! All of the results can now be found here.

"Midwest" Jeff finishing strong!
What a memorable experience the 2012 LBL trail run was! The long day began when Jeff and I left Evansville at 3:15 a.m. Jeff is an easy going, awe-shucks kind of guy whom everyone loves. I enjoyed his company. He also ran a PR in the LBL marathon. I was lucky enough to encounter many of the other Evansville area runners who ran on that sunny day. We all had great runs, took nosedives, and lived to trip another day.