6 hour race – First overall and new course record

This was my first ultra back in 2015, running in the Florida heat and humidity in the middle of August. For some strange reason I fell in love with racing ultras and have been doing them since. That year I finished second after several severe cramps sent me crashing to the ground and destroyed my chance of winning. The following year in 2016 I returned and won, setting a new course record of 37.5 miles. While that may not be a lot for a 6 hour race, given the conditions it’s pretty decent even if I say so myself. In 2017 I was injured and didn’t race for over 12 months but the winner only managed 33 miles.

This year I had trained harder, not so much for this race but for the Pinellas Trail Challenge (PTC), a 46 mile race in Florida running the entire county of Pinellas on Labor day weekend in grueling heat. I’ve also ran that race in 2015 and 2016 finishing 2nd and 5th, my goal for this year is to finish first. It’s a tougher race than the 6 hour race, it starts 30 minutes later at 6:30am and the last 10 miles is on a concrete stretch with no shade. This race attracts a few more runners and several are trained by professional coaches for this race. We still haven’t had a Pinellas resident win this race and I would love to be the first. So my goal for this race was to run 33 miles, perhaps 36 if e everything went well but I wasn’t going to push it, I wanted to save myself for the goal race. I saw Michael Stork at the start line, he’s the race director for the PTC and ran a 2:47 Houston marathon this year. He finished behind me in second place 2 years ago and his marathon time is almost 30 minutes better so I knew he would be going for the win along with a few other regulars. For me it was to see what I was capable of, even though I had trained hard I hadn’t done any speed work and wasn’t sure what I was capable of. I was pretty sure I could do 33 miles as I ran a 50K (31 miles) in Miami 3 weeks earlier in 5:23, so the 36 may have been a stretch goal for me.

I lined up at the front, with over 100 runners for the 6am start. My goal to go out about an 8:30 pace for the first few miles and let the faster runners go. 2 years ago when I won it I set off at a 7:40 pace and ran sub 8’s for 3 hours or so, I knew today I probably wasn’t at that level. The gun went off and I set off, as we get to the first corner and then hand a sharp right, I expected to have several runners ahead of me but to my surprise I was a few yards ahead of everyone and they were content to hang behind me at my 8:30 pace. I kept going, not pushing it knowing it was a long race and humid but at the half way turn of the 3 mile loop I was still leading and could now see who was in the lead pack of about 7 others within 25 yards of me, with Michael in second place running alongside another younger runner.

I got to the start/finish line and quickly grabbed my hand held water bottle full of Tailwind. I started the race fasted, having had my now usual pre-race evening meal the night before of Steak covered in butter and a couple of vegetables. This flow went on for the next 3 laps, with me out in front and the lead group not far behind. On the fourth lap the chase group started to spread out with just Michael about 50 yards behind when I can in to complete lap four and change my bottle. He was carrying more fluids than I was and didn’t need to come in so he left ahead of me but I caught up to him before the corner and resumed the lead.

Tony selfie looking back at me with Michael right behind.

As I came in to the end of the 5th lap I was again about 50 yards ahead, grabbed another hand held and started to head out. Tony who had just completed his 4th lap asked if he could tag along, I said fine and off we went. I was now running a little faster at an 8:15 pace but felt good, I didn’t expect Tony to be able to keep up for too long as we chatted turning the corner. We were talking about Michael and how he wouldn’t be to far behind when I heard his footsteps and glanced behind to see him tucked in behind me. I was surprised as I thought I had a slightly larger lead. Tony and I continued to chat and as we turned at the half point it was only then he noticed Michael. We continued and passed Thune who was also 1 lap behind us at that point as he shouted to Tony ‘how are you up there with those 2?’. Tony replied ‘he was just hanging in’ and Thune decided to join us. I was really surprised as these 2 runners still had over 4 hours of running ahead of them and yet they were running along side us and enjoying the ride. Tony took a quick selfie with us as we were coming in to complete lap 5. For this this was the most enjoyable lap of the day, it was fun to run with the 2 of them and have Michael still chasing me as the pace quickened to 8:00.

We left them at the aid station and Michael left just ahead of me, it was my turn now to just tuck in behind him which I did for the entire lap. We left the same way to start lap 7, Michael is always quicker than me at the sharp turns, perhaps because of my hip, but I quickly caught up to him. I noticed his arms drop a little as he rolled his shoulders and I knew he was tired. I made my move and passed him, pushing the pace a little and he wasn’t able to respond. I saw him further behind as I made the half way turn and by the time I came in to the finish area, grabbed my bottle, a granola bar and headed out. When I made the turn and back out along the water I looked over to the other path and couldn’t see him at all. The pace started to slow a little as my legs tired and it got hotter, but I was still feeling okay, but I knew the next couple of laps is where my cramping usually starts and he wouldn’t be too far behind to challenge me.

I came in to end the 8th loop and had to refill my bottles, so this was a longer turnaround for me, I drank some water and took a salt capsule and some pickle juice. I headed out again and couldn’t see anyone ahead of me but knew I had been there for 3-4 minutes. It was on this lap just after the first hard turn I felt my right hamstring start to cramp, I stopped running and walked for a few yards while I assessed the situation. I decided that I could still run, but had to back off the pace to avoid a severe cramp, so now started to run around a 9:30 pace. I managed to hold that pace for lap 9 and decided to take a GU as I started lap 10.

On this loop my friend Tom joined me about half way round, he had come down to run a few laps with me and it was great to have him. He ran a few yards ahead of me and kept waving his hands gesturing me to keep going and keep up with him. I dug deep and pushed hard and ran through the pain, making various grunting noises now as I plodded along. As I ran past other runners I smiled as I didn’t want them to know I was hurting and just kept the pace Tom was setting. The 11th lap was a little slower at around a 10 minute pace as my heavy legs tired and each step was harder.

I know my initial goal was 33 miles, but at the 3 hour mark I was on target for a possible 42 mile race. However I knew at this time that wasn’t going to happen and as I came through the finish line to start my 12th lap I shouted over to the race director ‘2 more laps’, that would give me 39 miles. I took a second GU and finished my pickle juice and just hoped I could continue. I refilled my water but somehow forgot to pick it up as we left so Tom ran back and grabbed it for me. It’s surprising how much you forget as the race progresses. As I would come near the aid station I would think about what I needed, but more often than not forgot most of it as I rushed to get out quickly. I felt confident I could do 2 more laps as there was about an hour and 20 minutes left, but wasn’t sure if I could hold on to the lead.

During the 12 lap near the turnaround point, I saw Michael, this time he was a little further ahead of me than on the previous lap and he was running quicker than me. My mind started questioning where I was, am I still leading the race, had he passed me while I was in the aid station? I knew I had to keep going as Tom kept pulling me along but each step was a struggle. As I started to lap some of the other runners, for maybe the second or third time, I could tell I wasn’t passing them as quickly as I had done in the past. I came in to end lap 12 and knew I had 1 more lap to go with about 50 minutes left.

Race director and the winners

I could walk and still finish but knew that other could catch me so now I started to push harder and told Tom to pick the pace up. The we ran about an 9:30 pace and then an 8:30 pace. I was coming to the turn as Michael passed me on the return leg, again further ahead than last time. I shouted over to him “Michael, what alp are you on?”, he replied “Lap 12, don’t worry you’ve got it”. Relieved I kept pushing but as my watch beeped I backed off the pace a little and as we were coming to the last half mile Tom was urging me to finish strong. I was just moving at this point but as we made the file turn with just over a quarter mile to go I found that extra gear and managed to start a kick. I passed several other runners and now left Tom behind and he shouted for me to just go. I crossed the finish line exhausted but knew I had given everything.

I won the race with 39 miles, setting a new course record, beating my previous record of 37.5 on a slightly different course, with 5 other runners on 36 miles. Oddly enough, I didn’t feel as bad as I had done on other races and my hip felt pretty good. I even managed to make it to all the of the micro breweries after the race, in previous years I had been in so much pain from cramping and various aches I had to leave after 1 drink at the first bar. It was also fun talking to people who had been watching me and Michael battle it out again. This was a great confidence booster for me and now I just had to hope I could recover in time for the PTC race in 3 weeks and last another 7 miles before cramping.

I finally made it to the 3rd bar. I felt great and deserved a few beers.

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