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Race Result

Racer: Aaron Schwartzbard
Race: Great Eastern Endurance Run 50K
Date: Saturday, September 20, 2003
Location: Waynesboro, VA
Race Type: Run - 50 km
Age Group: Male 25 - 29
Time: 4:17:39
Overall Place: 2 / 165
Comment: 2nd overall, 165 starters, 159 finishers, I was supposed to do the 100k, but the course was flooded

Race Report:

Bad weather continues to follow me, at least on the east coast. The Great Eastern 100K was going to be my first ultramarathon since I tore my achilles in the Massanutten 100 Miler last May. Hurricane Isabella came through town on Thursday and Friday, but the race directors made it clear that both the 100K race and the 50K race would start as scheduled at 5:30 am on Saturday morning. With an equally firm resolve, despite no power, no water, a preacher who canceled at the last minute and a beauty salon that canceled an appointment hours before it was to take place, a friend announced that come hell or high water (the latter being quite possible, if not probable), her wedding would occur as scheduled on Friday night.

Well, it was a lovely ceremony. I loaded up on wedding cake and cookies for the race, then set out to Waynesboro, VA. I arrived at 12:45 am, and set my alarm for 4:15 am. I tilted my passenger-side seat back, and settled in for a little nap. The benefit of sleeping in your car is that you're not too bummed out when it's time to wake up. In fact, you've probably been looking forward for it for a while. So I got up, had my standard car-camping race morning breakfast (half a small box of granola poured directly from the box into my mouth, and some water to wash it down), and found the race check-in. The big news at the race check-in was that late Friday night, a dam burst, and a major section of the 100K course was under water. The race directors announced that everyone who was signed up for the 100K could either defer entry to next year, or do the 50K.

There were some mumblings about doing the 50K twice from folks who were signed up to do the 100K. I considered jogging it twice, but decided to race it once. Now that everyone was racing the 50K, we'd have a fairly competitive field. The two to watch would be Serge Arbona, who has a few sub-15 hour 100 milers under his belt, including a 14:37 this past February, and Barry Lewis, who is one of the most prolific ultra runners in the area and who was the number one seed int the 100K.

I figured that if I ran well, and there were no surprises, I might be able to crack the top five. I was also worried about my achilles. This would be the most severe test of it since I tore it. The 50K course includes a little over 7,000 feet of ascent, and just as much descent. About half of it is on roads, and half on rocky trails.

As the race started I just focused on finding a steady pace during the first two mile climb up the Blue Ridge Parkway. Since it was dark, I couldn't see how many people were in front of me, or how spread out the field was. After a half mile, I started to pass runners --- most of whom seemed to be unaware that if you're anaerobic in the first half mile of a 50K, you're doing something wrong. By mile four, the field was fairly thin. Running downhill on a rutted, gravel side road, I knew that since I had a flashlight, and none of the last few people I passed did, I could build a bit of a cushion behind me. There were two guys 50 meters ahead of me, and at least one more person ahead of them. I didn't want to make any sort of move this early in the race, so I matched pace with the runners in front of me.

Reaching the third aid station, which was eight miles into the race, and at the start of the single-track trail section of the race, the runners in front of me stopped to fill their water bottles. I ran through the aid station, passing them. I knew it was a bit of a mistake on my part; I knew that the trail started with a significant climb, and I'm not much of an uphill runner. I pushed to maintain a good pace, but eventually, I had to move aside to let the other two runners ahead of me again. Up the hill, eventually they disappeared. On my own again, I found my own pace, and worked steadily to the fourth aid station. Running through the fourth aid station, I was told that I was in fourth place. I had been guessing fifth or sixth. Unfortunately, even as I was leaving the aid station, I could hear numbers five and six coming in.

Up the next climb, number five passed me, so I became number five. He disappeared into the distance. The course doubles back on itself, so eventually I came across runners still on the outbound section. "You're about 20 seconds behind number four," they'd tell me. Then it was 30 seconds, the 50. Then I was just number five. By the time we got back to the road section of the course, he had built up a significant lead. I knew that number six couldn't be too far behind, and I knew that there was one more significant climb in the race, from mile 25 to mile 27. Coming into the sixth aid station, just before mile 25, I resigned myself to getting passed one more time to end up in sixth place. A couple moments later, I decided that it was stupid to resign myself to such a thing. If someone else was going to pass me, he was going to have to work for it. Someone at the aid station said that the lead was about eight minutes ahead.

I knew that on the climb, I could really destroy myself, so I decided to just focus on breathing easily. One of the race directors was on the hill taking pictures. He told me, "The first place guy totally died, so that's one place you're sure to make up." I wasn't sure what he meant. Was the first place guy out --- meaning I was now in fourth --- or was it just likely that I'd pass someone? I decided he meant the latter, then spent the next few minutes thinking about how we would use the verb "to die" figuratively in a thing we do for fun.

Eventually, I saw the last guy who passed me. He was walking, and I was catching him. Then he ran for a short while, and put some distance on me, but then started walking again. I wasn't moving fast, but I was moving consistently. A few minutes later, I passed him, moving myself into fourth place. "Looking strong," he told me. "Next guy's about 40 seconds up." I thanked him, and kept moving. Now I had a shot at third. I continued to focus on breathing easily, since I didn't want to mess up by pushing and blowing up.

Running up the hill, I spotted the guy who had been in first place, but who "died." It wasn't long before I moved past him into third place. "Barry's about a minute up," he told me as I went by. Now, in third place, I was only a minute behind Barry, the guy I had my money on. That had to mean I was making up time on him. I had a real shot at second place. That would change the nature of the rest of the race for me. Based on the way I was passing people up the hill, I felt confident that as long as I didn't blow up, I could hang on to third. However, if I passed Barry, it would be near the top of the hill. There would still be four miles left in the race at that point: two miles of gentle uphills, and two miles of steep downhills. That'd give an ultra-stud like Barry plenty of time to regroup and re-pass me.

Just before the top of the hill, Barry came into site. He was harder to pass than the last couple guys. He'd walk a little bit, then run a bit, then walk a bit. Once he realized that I was not far behind him, his running was fast enough that overall, I was hardly making up any ground on him. I wanted to get by him, and put some distance on him before the end of the hill, at which point we'd start running on the Blue Ridge Parkway, and the dynamic of the race could completely change. As we reached the Parkway, I was ready to start my final push when he stopped at the final aid station to fill his water bottle. I moved passed him, and the race director told me I was now in second place, six minutes behind Serge. So for four miles, my goal was to hold on to second.

I raced hard over those last four miles, prepared for Barry to come past me at any moment. I could tick off the miles by the mileposts along the road. A few minutes after passing the last mile post, I took a quick glance behind me. No one. I could see far enough behind me that I knew that I was safe. I could ease up a little, but I was pretty eager to get to the finish line. So while I didn't really ease up, I did relax a bit.

I got a nice finishers' medal, and nice plaque for finishing in second place, and a nice massage, and then I spent a few hours hanging out at the finish line, cheering for the finishers and chatting with friends while getting a nice sunburn. But the nicest part was just to get back to racing.