As I padded the soft dirt along Salamander Flat, it occurred to me that I was nearly 15 miles into this race, and yet hardly felt it. Somehow the first half just coasted by, so I decided that for the second, I was going to put in a decent effort. Nothing crazy — I'm not trying to injure myself with untrained speed. But I could work a little bit for it.
Beat teased me when I passed them again on the second long climb. "I can't descend worth anything so I might as well run the uphill," I called out as I motioned them to follow. They nearly caught up when I was snacking at the 20-mile aid station, but I didn't see them and took off again before they arrived. The next section is six miles of rollers. I passed quite a few people during this segment, some running the marathon distance at a slower pace, but at one point I passed a woman who had slowed to walk one of the short uphills. She blazed past me on the next downhill, and after that I noticed that any time I got close to her again, she'd speed up. "She's racing me!" I thought, and then, "Okay, it's on."
We passed each other a few times — she couldn't quite hold me off on the longer ascents, but she was more willing to let go on the descents. Finally I started to feel embarrassed about our leapfrog game, and decided just to keep her in sight. As such, I sometimes got a little rest on the climbs, and her downhill speed would spur me to take a few more risks on the descents. It was a lot of fun — relaxing and thrilling at the same time.
The final five miles has two short climbs, but it's mostly a long descent. I assumed I'd never see her again, but thought I should at least try. I managed to maintain the shadow all the way through the final mile, a much more gradual descent on a gravel road. When it was nearly flat, she started to slow. My legs felt surprisingly fresh. I pondered engaging a sprint to the finish, but the prospect of racing a random woman for one less notch in the standings seemed too embarrassing. I just can't bring myself to behave that way, which is one of many reasons I'm not much of a racer. As we coasted into the finish, I noticed the clock read 5:36. My initial reaction was that I'd mis-read the number, because that would be 15 minutes faster than I've ever run a 50K, and that didn't seem likely. You have to run hard to run fast(er), right? But as I strode back around to watch for Beat, the clock was still in the 5:30s.
Oh, the woman who finished 8 seconds in front of me was third female, 12 minutes behind first place. Missed the podium by that much, ha!
I am pleased that I was able to run a personal best 50K time, comfortably, having fun the whole time. Tonight I was able to meet with "Sea Legs Girl" Tracy, who was interviewing at Stanford, for dinner in Palo Alto. Amid engaging conversation about overtraining patterns and life in the Bay Area, the topic turned to what part of my winter training could have helped me become faster when my entire focus has been long-term endurance building. I speculated that I'm still feeling the after-effects of the Fairbanks training, where pulling around a 30- to 40-pound sled on difficult terrain helped build uphill strength. I can actually go back and compare mile-for-mile splits to previous races on the Crystal Springs course, and almost all of my extra time was gained on the climbs, and by effectively negative-splitting the final half. If pulling a sled makes me a stronger uphiller, I still wonder whether running lots of hills can make me a stronger sled-puller. My brain expresses doubt but my heart wants to believe. Mostly because I just want to keep running.