It was to be my 8th consecutive time to represent the USA on the 100k team at the World Championships – and a lovely ride this has been. It is a far step away from the trail scene must ultra runners are familiar with – where fast roadie meets crazy ultra distance and the resulting participant number is drastically reduced. There just aren’t that many runners who would choose hard flat pavement over beautiful trail in any form of terrain, especially when the course consists of 10 x 10k loops. But the field that does amass in this championship event time and again is tough, particularly in the mental aspect, and many are freakishly fast. I am drawn to this event for a number of reasons – I love representing our country in a peaceful, friendly atmosphere that encourages camaraderie between cultures, rather than one of divisive politics. I actually love fast, rhythmic running the pavement, pushing to hold onto my speed as long as possible. And I love traveling the world to run my guts out for 8 +/- hours, in the company of my Team USA mates, with the exemplary management skills of our team handlers.
This year the race was held in the small Spanish Mediterranean coastal town of Los Alcazarez, a mostly tourist town that was pretty sleepy this last weekend in November. The few days that Mark and I arrived early we found the restaurants and pubs were often run by expats from the UK – apparently the cold winters up north finally did them in.
Being a veteran in this event has resulted in calm nerves leading up to races, and I enjoyed my time leading up to the race connecting and reconnecting with new and returning runners. Race day arrived, and the prevailing cool temperatures were welcome, perfect, for our 7:00 am start. After the jostling of start line positions, the loud announcements of time ticking down to the start by IAU pr guy Nadeem, and the well wishes of our team mates and handlers, we were off into the relative quiet of the still dark streets of Los Alcazarez. Feet barely made a sound on the paved and cobbled surface as we ebbed and flowed amongst each other, trying to gauge effort and calm the competitive flow of adrenaline. One kilometer in, and we turned onto the beach front path, the lead men already stretching out before us. For 3k, we had soft turns and a wide path, with some fans scattered along the way. With the darkness it was difficult to see my watch, so I focused on going easy, and waiting to see what the outcome would be in a few miles.
As dawn arrived, I glanced down and saw that I was running 7:20 pace by 3 miles. My heart rate was below 155, right where I wanted it to be, so I was pleasantly surprised. Based on my training, I felt confident at this effort. My goals today were 1) finish 2) break the world record for 55-59 year olds (8:41), 3) break 8 hours, 4) break my PR of 7:41.
After the stint on the beach front, the course took a 90 degree turn for our first out and back section. 4k, then a 180 degree turn, where I could see my team mates Traci Falbo and Pam Smith close behind, then the 5k mark with a chip timing mat and clock. and finally a 90 degree turn to our first team aid, where Mark and half of our team handlers were stationed. Team USA table was at the end of the nations, and Mark was at the ready, handing me my bottle of Tailwind. I was relaxed and cruising. Then another 90 degree turn, then another, and another. At 7k we had another long stretch, ending with a 180 turn, where again we could see our team mates and competition, and offer words of encouragement to each other. Each time we ran away from the sea, we were at an ever so slight incline, and as we came back, a nice gentle decline.
Two Swedish women and I were close together, taking turns leading and following. Two more sharp turns and the end of lap one was complete, in 45:30 – a good time, and my pace had dropped to 7:13. My other handler, Lin, and the other team handlers were stationed right past the end of the lap. Lin held my bottle out for me, I felt super, and extremely grateful to have my body working this well.
One of the Swedes pulled off at the portapotty, so I ran with the other, back down to the beach. We are all finding our rhythm, when a woman came sprinting by, looked back and smiled, then dove into the shrubbery to relieve herself. We finished up the beach front, turned onto the street for the out and back, where the field was really spreading out now. Our friend Jo from UK was leading the women, followed by Aussie Carol Bull, and then a tall Netherlander. Croatia, Japan, Sweden, and the woman who dove into the bushes, from Austria, and me. Running in the top ten this soon was exciting, but at the turn around it was obvious that the field was deep. There were 3 more Japanese women close by, another Aussie, a Finn, Pam and Traci.
Just when I was feeling good about things, my lower gut started complaining. This was entirely my fault. I normally take pre-emptive Imodium, but had stupidly made it unavailable to myself at the start. I had been training with Tailwind for awhile now and had such good luck with it, that I decided not to worry about it – if I had to go to the bathroom, I would use the portapotty at that time. Well, my plans before a race and what I actually do during a race quite often don’t match up. Half way through lap 2 I should have stopped, but no, I had to push it to the very last moment, somehow believing that moment would pass. But by the end of lap 2, I yelled to Lin for an Imodium, and immediately stopped at the portapotty, way too late. Going in, my pace was 7:14. Coming out, it was 7:16. Never mind, I thought, all is well now, and I’ll maintain pace. Such was not the case. Beachfront, 3k, 4k, I yelled to one of our handlers that I would need more Imodium. At 5k, I could have stopped again, but I stubbornly pushed on, got to Mark who handed me another Imodium, and I kept trucking on. By the end of lap 3, things were not better, Lin handed me another Imodium, and I stopped again. Now my pace was 7:17, which was still great, but I felt very uncomfortable. Through the remainder of loop 4, I found myself mentally begging for bushes, and made 3 more pitstops. Now at 7:20 pace through 4 laps, my gut finally relaxed. Ah, such a huge relief.
Whether or not this brought on a demise, or if I would have slowed that much is hard to say. By the end of the first half I was 7:23 pace. My split was 3:50, so my only hope for goal 4 was to not slow down. That wasn’t realistic, but I hoped to only slow down by 1 second per mile per lap for the next 5. Meanwhile, with all of my stops, I had slipped into 10th or so. Pam was slowly inching her way up, but Traci was not to be seen. There were 4 Japanese women ahead, so looked like they would be finishing gold. Jo was now in 2nd, with the Netherland woman in first. The Aussie girl was in 3rd, looking very strong, followed by the Austrian.
Meanwhile, the men’s race had opened up, with the South African team in a group of 4 blowing by before I was halfway done. What?? That was crazy fast. Eventually, my men team mates, Geoff Burns, Patrick Reagan, Chikara Omine, Zach Bitter, and Matt Flaherty caught and passed me – all of them super strong.
For awhile, temperatures were a bit warm, but some clouds moved in and let down some light rain to start with, and later, with a large clap of thunder, an actual down pour. And just when it seemed that anymore rain and cold could start to affect me, it stopped. The laps started to blend together, but by number 8 I could visualize finishing. The front woman had started to fade dramatically, but I was so far behind the leaders now that I was unsure who was up there. I was pushing harder and harder, letting my heart rate rise as well, actually surprised that I was able to achieve that. At the end of lap 8 my time was 6:15 or so – well off my dream goal, but I started doing the math for goal number 3. 1:45 to run 12.4 miles. Surely I could do that. Surely.
During lap 9 I passed the Netherlander who was now walking. Ouch. I chugged on, and made up a new game of running hard for 10 steps, easy for 10 steps, just to try and keep from falling into a complete slog. At 8 and half laps, I knew that this would be the last time I would see Mark, as he would go to the finish and wait for me there. After he gave me my fluids, I kept seeing him on different street corners all the way to the end of the lap. “Looking good Meghan! Just one more lap! Then you can have a hot shower and a cold beverage!” and all I could do was grunt in return. Pam was getting closer and closer, and I anticipated her catching me before all was said and done.
At the end of lap 9 in 7:08, I had less than 52 minutes to run my last 10k. My pace was now 7:35 or more, I wished I could just sprint for 6 miles, but all I could do was surge and relax. Lion told me that we were in Medal position, that Pam and Traci were doing well. Down on the beach front one last time, I could see Pam gaining on my steadily. I yelled back “come on Pam!!” She soon caught me, and we ran together for a bit. I told her to not wait, please go, but she hung with me, telling me to stay with her, and I reminded her that time matters, so she should go. She cruised away smoothly. With 5k to go, my time was 7:34ish, and I told myself I could run 5k in less than 25 minutes. I fought tooth and nail those last 3 miles, harder than I would have if hadn’t been so close. At 3k to go, I told myself I can run that in 15 minutes. With 1k to go I told myself I could do that in less than 5 minutes. I rounded the last corner, and plowed across the finish line in 7:58 and change, in 13th over all. I was woozy, ecstatic, and very happy to be able to stop running. Pam had finished in 7:56, for 12th, and in just 12 more minutes, Traci finished with a huge PR. We three did what we knew we had to. Finish smart and strong, and we brought home the Bronze.
I happily had achieved 3 of the 4 goals. I was thrilled to have the new age group record, but of course want to come back and improve on that. And it bears repeating that as a team, the women did great – we had no wiggle room, no one could drop, no one could slouch, and we pulled it off. The men ran smart, bringing home a bronze as well.
Many many thanks to our team managers, Lin Gentling, Lion Caldwell, Tim Yanacheck, and my handler, er, person, Mark Laws, my sponsors Altra Running, Injinji socks, Nathan Sports, and Squirrel’s Nut Butter.
I don’t often include even more personal history, but the real icing on this trip happened a few days later on the Eiffel Tower, where I received this ring from this guy. It definitely trumps the world record.