The Breaks Ultramarathon is a 45-miler, organized by Next Opportunity Events, and has about 12,000ft of elevation gain. It starts at Breaks Interstate Park, on the border of Kentucky and Virginia, and runners do an out-and-back to and on the Pine Mountain State Scenic Trail. My main reason for doing Breaks was to see what it was about and to see what I could do on the course. Many trail runners around Louisville always talked about how tough and technical of a race it is, and I got intrigued. How bad could it be? LOL! I also do not like running/racing the 50M or 100K distance, so this distance was a bit out of my comfort zone. However, the theme for this year was to get out of my comfort zone so I would say this fit right in.
Image courtesy of Next Opportunity Events.
The build-up to Breaks 45-miler was spotty. I burnt out after the Big Turtle 50K at the end of April and had a really hard time getting going again after that race. It was probably the compounding of many factors – new job, job stress, pushing too hard at Big Turtle, the weather (heat/humidity), and biochemical issues. After struggling to regain some semblance of a steady training ramp, I finally caved and took a blood test using InsideTracker, hoping to gain some insight into if something in my body was off. The test results came back with low Vitamin D levels and borderline low on some other biomarkers. It could have been a placebo effect but, after boosting my Vit D intake for a few weeks, I started to feel like I could train somewhat steadily again. I still didn’t feel up for 4+hour long trail runs out in Jefferson Memorial Forest (JMF) but something was better than nothing.
In the weeks leading up to the race, based on my workouts, I figured I was roughly in 3:15 marathon shape. I was not quite as fit as I was in the spring (where I was closer to 3:05 marathon shape), but it will have to do. Therefore, I projected an ‘A’ goal to be around 11:30, a ‘B’ goal to be around 12 hours, and a ‘C’ goal to just finish the race. I've been aiming to target time goals at events this year, not specific finish places (like first or podium). I learnt that lesson the hard way at last year’s OPSF 50K, where I blew up in a major way, trying to hang with the front pack, only to drop out after 12 miles. By aiming for a target time, I take out the anxieties of “placing” or making bad judgment calls of racing outside of my fitness level and blowing up. I can just focus on executing my race and my place will be what it will be. After all, you can only race who shows up. Some days you may be the fastest to show up and others you won’t be. You can’t control other people’s races, only your own.
I’m not a climber, by any means, so, with 12,000ft of gain in the race, I had my work cut out for me. My long-standing strategy has always been to hike the uphills and run the flats and downhills. There wasn’t much flat-running on this course. However, I still have a bit of a competitive streak in me so I planned my overall race strategy (not knowing the exact course details), which was essentially hang on until about mile 28.5 and then attack the long downhill all the way to Carson Island Aid station at mile 34.
At the start, I hung in a small group at the front, while letting Tanner (eventual winner in 9:16) run away with the lead. There was no way I was hanging with him. As the road started on a downhill, I felt decent and opened up my stride, loving the technical descent in the dark as the road turned to rocky, ankle-turning trail. I almost wished I brought my NAO (a much brighter headlamp) with me. I crossed the river at mile 4 in 2nd place.
I was quickly passed (by Dustin) on the long climb up Pine Mountain (1800ft gain in 3 miles) and dropped to 3rd. Meh, steady as it goes. It was a long climb. I hit the Goldfish Pond Aid Station (AS) (mile 8) in 1:50, about 10 minutes ahead of my projected 2-hours, feeling a bit worked from the uphill climb but not too bad. At mile 10-11, the upper leg cramps started to hit me. That was worrisome. It was wayyyyy too early in the race for cramps and I felt like I wasn’t even working my legs that hard. Maybe I just wasn’t as conditioned as I had thought, and I hadn’t done enough uphill hiking training to get the leg strength. It had started to rain so maybe my muscles were getting cold, but I didn’t feel cold. I wasn’t quite sure what was going on. I got passed by Patrick around mile 12-14 but passed him back as we started down the Ranger Cabin descent (1000ft descent in 1.5miles). With the rain, I was trying to balance being careful on the wet, slick rock and speed. (On Strava, I was the 2nd fastest that day down that descent with Tanner – eventual winner – being the only one faster.) I quickly filled up 3 of my bottles, like I had originally planned, and left the aid station, still trying to figure out what was going on.
The short stop at Ranger Cabin seemed to help with the cramps but they came back quickly, with a vengeance, as I climbed out from the aid station. Settling into the climb, the slower pace allowed me to ponder causes and potential solutions to my predicament. As I drank some water, the cramps eased and then it hit me! I finally realized that this was like when I got dehydrated running in the 2018 Boston Marathon, with its infamous torrential downpour. Here, it was a triple whammy – it was cold, raining and I hadn’t been drinking as much as I should have, doubly because of climbing with poles occupying my hands. It hit me at the top of the climb – I only had three (3) bottles for 8 miles, and I was dehydrated. Normally, this would have been okay but, from the way I was cramping, I could tell that I was already in a big deficit.
Here is a sample list of my thoughts from miles 16.5 to 23 –
Watch an IRunFar interview with Kilian on how his 2022 racing season and UTMB race went.
Needless to say, I eventually got back to Ranger Cabin, super dehydrated and pretty empty. The descent down to the aid station was really slick from all the wet rock and my vision/mental processing speed was at a supreme low from dehydration. I downed two cups of Coke, a SIS gel, fueled up all FOUR bottles and got kicked out of the aid station. I left Ranger Cabin at 5:39 - 21 minutes ahead of my projected 6-hours for this point of the race. I think I was 6th at this point. As I hit the top of the climb out of Ranger Cabin (mile 25) (and drank an entire bottle of water in 2 miles), Ducky (as he introduced himself) passed me and I was now 7th. My goal now was to keep the heart rate low (in Z1) to catch up on hydration, electrolytes and calories and then allow my body to recover as much as possible between mile 25 and mile 28.5. We will then see how I feel at mile 28.5. Patience and calm.
Listen to an excellent talk by Dr. Stephen Seiler about Training Intensity Zones. I now use the 3-zone system.
I settled in behind Ducky, as he had done this course many times before, so I didn’t have to use mental energy navigating the trail. I let him open some distance on the uphills but would then catch up on the downhills. I knew I was trying to walk a very fine line here, balancing between maintaining a decent pace while keeping my HR low enough for my system to recover. I was already reaching the 7-hour mark without peeing once. At some point, David, a Bloomington runner, caught up to us and joined our train. Shortly after, I felt the grade change. This was the moment I have been waiting for. Have I recovered enough? We will find out. I started to open up on the downhill around mile 29. David followed but Ducky did not. We were now 5th and 6th. Just before the short climb up to Goldfish Pond aid station, I finally had my first glorious pee in 7.5 hours. Mmmm…. Pumpkin ale. Huzzah!! It was starting to get hot, as we came into Goldfish Pond, which was a remarkable contrast to me feeling cold only a couple of hours earlier. (Goldfish Pond - 7:35 (I had projected 8hrs at this point))
Mmmm, I was at IPA.
On the long, steep downhill stretch to Carson Island, I felt okay and my quads, while feeling almost like rocks, were still holding together. There were some steep sections that made me think back to some of the descents at Hardrock 100. I tried to channel my best John Kelly impression and let loose. This was my element and I started making my move. I needed to bank as much time as I could in this section because there was still a good amount of climbing left and everyone else around me was a much better climber. For context, on Strava (for whatever it’s worth), I had the 2nd fastest split of the day from Goldfish Pond to Carson Island (9th Overall time) and set the Strava Course Record (CR) on one of the short steep segments in this section. David and I caught Dustin and Patrick in this section, and I soon dropped David shortly after. I came into Carson Island in 3rd, filled up all my bottles and baggie of chips in hand. David came in (4th) as I was leaving the aid station. He is a beast.
Video of John Kelly descending from Grant Swamp Pass like a freaking BOSS!! (fast forward to 5:30) I kept replaying this scene in my head as I descended towards Carson Island. Apparently, he clocked one of the fastest splits for that descent that day.
Footage by Jeff Pelletier of the frontrunners of Hardrock 2022 coming up and bombing down the descent off Grant Swamp pass. Fast forward to 7:30 for some footage of Grant Swamp Pass.
After Carson Island, it was just a matter of pushing, riding that Z1/Z2 line, keeping cool, and keeping on top of hydration, electrolytes and calories. I took an extended dunk in the river during the river crossing to keep cool and blew through the Rat Hole aid station (9:32 - projected 10hours). The last extended climb on the River Trail was a very technical, rocky beast and I was slowing. David almost caught up to me at the top of that climb but thankfully it leveled out a bit after that. With a mile or so left to go, I downed a gel and put the hammer down, not looking back. I finished 3rd Overall in 11:08.
Thank you to Michael and Brandy at Next Opportunity Event for putting on such a lovely challenge. Tons of gratitude to all the volunteers for helping out. These races would not be possible without you. Thanks as well to all the brave fellow racers. You make the race fun.
I would say this race can hold its own against most other tough, technical 50M races. Personally, I love the course. Hard climbs and rock-hopping, steep descents. It is a gnarly but gorgeous course. Some of the views from the Pine Mountain ridge trail were stunning and I wish I had stopped to take pictures. I also do not like running/racing the 50M or 100K distance, so this distance was a bit out of my comfort zone. However, the theme for this year was to get out of my comfort zone so I would say this fit right in. I wouldn’t compare myself to Kilian but I am pretty happy about how I troubleshot my way out of a deep hole, stuck with it and came away with a podium spot. If I had not had the dehydration issues, I am confident I could do a sub-11hr run on this course and that would be pretty cool.
I would do the race again but maybe differently. Chatting with Arielle after the race, I ruminated that it would be nice to run the course at a more relaxed pace, stop to take many pictures and really soak in the gorgeous views but that is another racing style for another time.
What I did well:
1. For the most part, I kept my patience and a cool head through my very extended low stretch. Sixteen (16) miles, or 4-5hours, was a long stretch of time to be dealing with dehydration and its aftereffects. However, I stayed calm, disciplined and executed what I had planned, especially with the recovery plan.
2. Once I figured out what was going on, I knew how to troubleshoot it and work the problem.
3. Once again, my downhill-running ability came through for me and helped carry me to the podium.
What I would like to improve on:
1. My climbing ability – I just lose too much time on the uphills and I can’t gain that much time back on the downhills. A good portion of me taking the uphills a bit easier this time is attributable to me trying to keep my HR low to manage and recover from the extended dehydration. However, I still need to train to be a faster climber. Climbing is all about a power/fitness-to-weight ratio so that will be an interesting equation to solve for.
2. While I could troubleshoot the dehydration issue adequately, it still took me a while to recognize the problem and the root cause. That’s the trouble with cramps. There are just so many reasons why cramps happen but I knew this one. At Boston, I got severe adductor cramps from dehydration and, since then, when I get those types of adductor cramps, it’s almost always from dehydration. I just did not recognize it quickly enough at the time. I think I was too focused on racing and not being in tune with my body, thinking that the problem might just go away or settle to a steady state.
Trail/ultra runner, Designer, Foodie, Rock Climber, World Traveler, Triathlete, Level 1 RRCA-certified coach, NASM-Certified Personal Trainer (CPT) and Corrective Exercise Specialist (CES)