Sunday, July 8, 2012

How to Shave 38 Minutes off a PR (or: 3rd Annual Vashon Ultra 50K Race Report)

Two years ago, I ran my very first ultra. Cajoled into it by my friend Tom (not the first, nor last, thing that's followed this pattern; see also: Vibram Fivefingers, MovNat, green smoothies, and chia seeds), I ventured across the calm waters of Puget Sound to try my hand at running 31 miles on Vashon Island. A perfect little getaway from the city, Vashon boasts a lively community of folks, including many artists, musicians and, evidently, runners. It's always a treat to visit this rural, small-towny oasis.

The race directors - Bruce, Lisa, Kevin, and Claudine - did a spectacular job with the race this year. They've been great every year, but this year, they truly outdid themselves. To honor me and a couple other runners who've done the Vashon Ultra all three years of its existence, they made posters for the mid-loop, Western-themed aid station:

Their race blends what I love most about trail runs - beautiful wooded scenery, a great community of friendly runners and volunteers, a homegrown post-run BBQ - with a couple of the perks you typically only see at road races - finishers' medals, and (relatively) flat terrain for posting (relatively) fast times.

I carpooled over to Vashon with Glenn, who was shooting the race (lucky us!), and his friend Kathleen - an accomplished ultrarunner and overall awesome woman I had the happy fortune to finally meet in person. Kathleen, who signed up for the race last minute, I have largely to thank for the slightly ridiculous feat alluded to in the title of this entry.

So, a little background on my history with the Vashon Ultra, for those who don't know: Having won the women's race the first year, then having run pretty much the exact same time last year and thereby gotten my butt whipped by Canadian badass Mel Bos, I returned to Vashon this year with a bone to pick. I had three tiers of goals: (1) Beat last year's time of 5:36:24, (2) Run sub-5:00, (3) Win.

I started off at a pace that fell somewhere between relaxed and hard - gently challenging, perhaps? I was breathing a little harder than I wanted to be on the first loop (of three), but rather than slowing down, I tried to catch my breath through moving meditation, muscle relaxation, nasal breathing, and a controlled sense of calm I've been working to cultivate during training runs these past few months - a kind of active, experimental biofeedback, I guess. Pretty cool stuff.

Photo by the illustrious Glenn Tachiyama

Kathleen had jetted out ahead of me at the start, and I quickly lost sight of her. I wasn't quite sure where I fell in the lineup, but at some point, got wind from other runners that I was in second place in the women's race. As I approached the main aid station at the 11-mile mark, I caught a glimpse of Kathleen on her way back out for her second loop - probably about three or four minutes ahead of me. I blazed through that aid station pretty quickly, energized by Bruce's awesome loudspeaker race-announcing (made me feel like a real athlete!) and buoyed by the knowledge that Kathleen wasn't too far ahead.
I only ran with a bottle this year, instead of my full hydration pack. I guzzled liberally, refilling the bottle with water every 5 miles, taking plenty of Endurolytes and some gels - though probably not as many as I should have. I stopped for fresh fruit and fizzy drinks at the aid stations, but not much else.

Partway through the second loop, I caught sight of Kathleen ahead of me. Without even being fully cognizant of my insidious competitive spirit, I instinctively fell into a steady pace, with just enough distance behind her that she'd be unlikely to notice me. I guess that counts as stalking? I ran behind her like that, at a distance, for several miles, noticing that she was slowing down, thinking (foolishly!) that this would mean I'd be able to overtake her at some point.

Well, just about when that some point came, it just so happened that she started to take a wrong turn and veer off course. Realizing immediately that she'd taken the wrong trail at a fork, she turned back around - and saw me. Here, I thought (again, foolishly!) that we'd fall into step with each other and have a nice little chat in the woods as we ran together - but the sight of me sent her foot straight to the gas pedal. I ran on her heels for a mile or two at a challenging clip, before she pulled away from me for good - never to be seen again until hours later when I crossed the finish line at 4:57:50 - 38.5 minutes faster than last year, 6.5 minutes behind Kathleen, for a 2nd place women's/10th place overall finish.

Nevertheless, it made a huge difference to have someone on the course who challenged me at such a higher level than what I'm capable of on my own. I spent the last two thirds of the race running at the edge of my ability level, trying to keep Kathleen within sight, within reach - wanting that win, knowing I probably couldn't get it, but also knowing I'd better damn well do my best trying for it. I know I wouldn't have smashed my own Vashon PR so thoroughly without her presence to push me. We collapsed into laughter at the finish line, marveling at how competitive we'd gotten with each other during the race - but how it was the best kind of competition, the healthy kind that drives you to do better than you thought yourself capable of. To yet another woman who kicked my butt in a race, I say thank you.

I also say thank you to Glenn, for yet again letting me have some bonus fun in front of his camera lens.

27ish miles in (I think). Ladies like to be ninjas in woods.

So! What else was different this year? For one, my body has simply gotten accustomed to running/racing 50K's. I went from running one 50K (Vashon) in 2010 and one 50K (Vashon again) in 2011, to running four (Orcas, Gorge Waterfalls, Yakima Skyline, Vashon + a handful of 30-38 mile training runs) already in the first six months of 2012. Two, in the same vein, I trained at a MUCH much higher volume, mileage-wise, than last year.
Last year, in the 8 weeks leading up to race day, I averaged 22 miles/week (peaking at a 41-mile week).

This year, in the 8 weeks leading up to race day, I averaged 49 miles/week (peaking at a 90-mile week.)

Apparently, training makes a difference. Imagine that! So here's to three weeks of last-minute cramming for my first 50-miler...woof.


  1. Wow, great race report. Who knew, two years ago, mild mannered Yitka would feel the hot blood of competition surging through her veins in a 31 mile race (who really runs that far, anyway?). And thanks to the fourth co-rd, Lisa, for the great food. What could be better? Wait until you see next year.

    1. Amended to include Lisa in my thanks! The food was indeed fantastic. Nothing like a hearty meal after a race :) Yup, I'm already looking forward to next year! Thanks for the opportunity, year after year. Y'all are great.

  2. Awesome pics! I grew up Vashon and that I where I started and cultivated my love for running. Glad you enjoyed the race on a beautiful island.