Surf the Murph 25K: The year I went hunting

This report is nearly bereft of race photos, not because it wasn’t a beautiful day; it was, in fact, the most perfect day I’ve ever experienced at Murphy-Hanrehan.

No, there are no photos because I did something I’ve never done before. I set out with the 100% certainty that I was going to PR, and I was going to do it by a landslide.

The background

In September, my husband and I did some crewing and pacing gigs out west. We spent a week and a half at altitude, some of it over 9000′, and when we came home, I wasn’t terribly surprised to discover that my heart rate had dropped significantly while running.

What did surprise me was that it didn’t change. Weeks passed, and I started to think that I turned a corner in my fitness. With this apparent newfound level of ability, I started to get very, very excited for this race.

The race

I do Surf the Murph every year. It was my first 50K in 2015, and when I attempted the 50K again the following year, my heart just wasn’t in it and I retired after 25K. I’ve been back every year to do the 25K ever since. (The race report for 2018 is here.)

The trails at Murphy-Hanrehan can be extremely muddy – in 2017, there was hardly a dry patch over the entire 16.7-mile loop. This year, conditions were exceptional, and the day was forecast to be simply perfect, with temperatures ranging from 50-62 degrees during my race. Overnight, the forecast shifted, bringing light drizzle at race start, which I absolutely love.

If I was gonna crush a PR, this was going to be the day. I decided, rather arbitrarily, that I would run 3:49:30. Last year’s huge PR was a few cruel seconds over four hours, and I wasn’t going to allow that to happen again.

3:49:30. I could totally do it. Right?

With little fanfare – as usual for this race – the 25K runners were set loose on the course under a light rain. Footing was as good as the rumors said, with the first several wooded miles being damp but not slippery. The steep hills were tough, and I kept an eye on my heart rate. Surely it would be improved over last year, with all my gains!

It wasn’t. Not at all. According to my watch, my heart rate was already edging toward 10K territory as my first mile was considerably slower than year. I fretted over my heart rate as I slowed even more, until finally, I did what any good racer would do.

I decided my HRM was completely wrong and didn’t look at it again. (I mean, it was a definite possibility….)

Miles 2-4 on this course have some fairly aggressive hills, and I buckled in for the fun. Hiking firmly, aggressively, I dug in. 3:49:30.

My nutrition plan was the same here as my last two races: Huma gels, pickle juice, and water carried in my vest, supplemented only by tasty drinks from aid stations. I had my first Huma around mile 3 as I ran through the first aid station with only a wave and a “Thank you” called out to the volunteers.

Huma #2 came around mile 5.5 as I ran toward the Horse Camp, aid station 2/4. Now past the hills of the northern wooded section, there should be nothing stopping me from running but my own will.

Into and out of Horse Camp for the first time, pausing only for a few seconds to grab a ginger ale. From there, it would be only about 4 miles to the next station on some of the flattest terrain the course had to offer, and I turned out some solidly quick miles here. Another Huma around mile 8.5, with a few sips of pickle juice for variety amid all the plain water.

The third aid station, Natchez, caught me by surprise this time around. I’d been keeping my head down, focused on the task at hand, and I was there before I realized it. The volunteers jumped to welcome me, reaching out for any bottles I might have needed filled, but I waved them away with my thanks. I spotted my first Mountain Dew of the day and slammed a glass, followed by ginger ale, and trotted out.

At this point in the race, any race, I typically start to fade. My body is still functioning well enough, but I decide that things are getting hard and maybe my goals don’t really matter. So the night prior, I had written some times on my hand in permanent marker. I wanted to be to the aid stations at 40 minutes, 1:15, 2:15, and 2:50 respectively. These were ambitious, but just a little. By just a minute or three, enough to discourage me from throwing in the towel.

After 10 miles, I was a bit behind these numbers, but I knew that meant I was still ahead of last year’s pace. I didn’t know if 3:49:30 was still possible – or if it was ever possible – but I reassured myself that I shouldn’t put too much stock in my last minute math skills.

Between Natchez and the second pass through Horse Camp, there was some mud. Thick, oozing mud that sucked and plopped and stuck heavily to everything. It wasn’t enough to be demoralizing, just enough to remind us that we were indeed still at Murphy-Hanrehan, and by the way, tie your shoes tighter next time.

This stretch along the prairie into Horse Camp has the gentlest of rolling hills, shallow enough that you should run them but just big enough that they begin to feel like a chore. I snuck a few walk breaks, but for the most part, it was running all the way.

Horse Camp was a welcome sight; I was starting to flag, despite staying on track with eating my Humas every 2-3 miles and sipping pickle juice. I was excited for more caffeine, and here I took a glass of Coke, followed by another ginger ale. My stomach was starting to feel a little full – I’d been taking on fluids for three hours and hadn’t peed, which isn’t super unusual for my runs, but still. Not my favorite sensation.

I remembered to check my watch as I dashed out of Horse Camp, seeing 2:57 displayed. Seven minutes felt like an awful lot to be behind, but I reminded myself that these estimates were based on previous efforts there. If I could stay strong in the last 4 miles – when I’d historically given in and spent too much time hiking – I’d make up a load of time. If.

There was no calculus here. Just some slapdash mathematical wishing.

Out of Horse Camp came the singletrack descent to and ascent from the beaver dam, and I was discouraged to see my slowest mile so far. Here it goes, I sighed. But this year, rather than let it fester, I dug. When the singletrack gave way to the familiar hilly doubletrack of the northern section of the park, I pulled out my phone and cued up my race mix. If I couldn’t keep myself going through force of will, I’d do it through carefully curated thumpy club music.

And it happened. These vulgar, inappropriate anthems dragged me up hills, hiking hard, and pushed me to run when I didn’t want to. My body felt spent, my breath reduced to panting if I wasn’t paying attention. I resigned myself to feeling like garbage – which, I reminded myself, was exactly how I should have felt with only a few miles to go.

The hills seemed to go on forever, smaller than those at the beginning but every bit as relentless, until they suddenly gave way. I passed by the wood pile, the familiar landmark delineating that there was only a mile to go. Perhaps a half mile later, I came across two good friends, one of them serving as a course photographer. I grinned widely, calling out to them, and yelled “I’m gonna set a 10-minute PR!” as I ran by. They cheered, and to my ears, it was like the roar of an entire stadium.

Photo credit: Mike Wheeler

Minutes later, I passed another photographer, and shortly after, a couple out for a walk. I knew that had to be it; the finish must be just around the corner.

And there it was, the gentle, unkind hill to the finish line. I glanced at my watch, and it displayed a cold 3:49 and change.

I was almost there.

I crossed the line at 3:50:16 on my watch, a full ten minutes ahead of last year’s official time. It’ll be a day or two before the official results are out, but to say that I’m pleased would be a gross understatement. This was huge.

Some might read through this and say it was all about mindset. I rankle at that thought. Yes, I believed I was going to PR today. By a bunch. But mindset isn’t magic. You can believe in yourself all you want, but unless you do the thing that needs to be done, it doesn’t matter.

Yesterday, I did the thing.

And so that’s that. The perfect run on the perfect day.

The numbers

Elapsed time: 3:50:16
Average pace: 13:50/mi
Average heart rate: 175 (yikes…!)
Fastest mile: 12:17 – the very last one
Slowest mile: 15:30 – mile 14, muddy singletrack over the beaver dam

From 2018, the biggest change was time spent in aid stations. I shaved four minutes off my running and a huge SIX minutes off my dawdling time. I ate six Huma gels, drank about half a liter of water, consumed several ounces of pickle juice, and had an assortment of carbonated aid station offerings.

Meanwhile, my husband ran (and finished) his first 100-mile race. He completed six laps of this same course, performing almost exactly to plan and beating his calculated goal time. He started at 1am Saturday morning, and I had the privilege of joining him for a few miles on his last loop Sunday.

It also gave me a chance to take some of the photos I didn’t take yesterday.

It was a big, amazing weekend. Now, it’s time to sleep.

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