Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Cutthroat Classic (Sam's version)

Stephen Mitchell: Cutthroat Classic 2012
Never the prettiest runner, here I am just cresting the top of the climb
This past weekend was the Cutthroat Classic, a trail race crossing over the Pacific Crest in the North Cascades, about a half hour from Mazama and home. The race itself is 11+ miles in length, half-up and half-downhill. The field is always an interesting mix of skiers and runners, and usually ends up as a mad dash to the top by the skiers in an attempt to maintain a lead on the heavily-switchbacked, steep five mile descent to the finish (we have never professed to be good downhill runners). I've been doing this race since its inception in 2001, when I was a junior in high school. Those first few years were rough; I had exertional posterior compartment syndrome for a few years in my late teens and so every time I raced the Cutthroat, my lower legs would go numb along with my feet, and the downhill would be a blind thumping where I would turn my ankle at least a dozen times. Not the best introduction to trail races, especially at a time when I largely despised running, anyway.

This year's race, like so many other years, started on a nice cool morning at Rainy Pass, about 4800'. The start line is right off Highway 20 and there is a 1/2 mile lead-in to the trail on road that allows for some shake-up. Without fail, as happens every year, some runner from Seattle thinks they're gonna smoke the whole field (along with those damned skiers and their huge thighs) and takes off at a breakneck pace. And, like clockwork, about 1/2 mile onto the trail (which begins in a steady climb and remains so until the Pass), they drop off pace and get swallowed. I was sitting in fifth position, enjoying the pace and waiting for MOD teammate Brian Gregg to make a break which would surely shatter the field. As expected, the early-wonder leader dropped off and we passed by him, and shortly thereafter Brian made a surge. Another guy went with him and a third got stuck in the middle. I was positioned behind Marcell McArthur, a previous winner of the race and a really solid runner; he was waiting behind the guy who blew up a few minutes before. We watched as the break took off and Brian's lead increased; I finally yelled (politely) at the guy holding us up that he'd better either catch the break or pull over, which he did (pull over). Marcell and I then took off and fought to chew up the gap between us and the lead. It wasn't to be, and I then passed Marcell and chased after the guy hanging out in no-man's land. I caught him at the first creek crossing, where he was daintily tip-toeing over the rocks. I splashed by him in the deepest part of the creek and pulled into third, where I would remain for the rest of the race.

From then on it was a solo effort; Marcell got by that guy as well and stayed about 50 seconds off me through the finish. I knew I could stay ahead of him on the climb but was convinced that he would eat up the gap through the downhill, on which I'm a complete duffer. When I hit the pass, Alan Watson (sitting on top and yelling encouragement) told me I had about 45 seconds on Marcell. I let fly on the downhill; I've run the course so many times I know exactly how many switchbacks there are and what they look like. I wanted to maintain my gap until the bottom of the descent, where there still remained a 1.5 mile flat trail push to the finish. I thought that if I could hold him off until then, I could put in a surge to stay ahead. To my surprise my legs felt better than expected on the downhill and I held my lead on Marcell. I never saw a glimmer from Brian and the second-place runner; they were probably 3-4 minutes ahead by that point. I only sought to keep my little oasis of safety as I galumphed down the trail.

As I hit the flats I really opened it up and tried to remember all the running technique that Alison has taught me over the last few years. Hips forward, fast cadence, footstrike on the balls of the feet. I had a massive blister which I could already feel enlarging on my heel so I was just as happy to keep the load off that part of my foot. As I hit the last turn before the finish I knew I'd hold my position and charged the bridge over Cutthroat Creek that lay 100m before the line, enjoying the cheers of the crowd. My time was 1:18:21, over three minutes faster than last year.

The last five years I've used the Cutthroat as a mid-summer fitness marker, a way to gauge the progress of training and aerobic conditioning on the eve of fall and real specific preparation for the racing season. Since 2008 I've happily and consistently dropped my times in the race; I started in 2008 at a time of 1:25:31, over seven minutes slower than last Saturday. What this shows for me is a dramatic improvement in aerobic conditioning; we don't attempt to peak or taper at all for this race, but instead place it in the midst of regular training. What this meant for last week is that we had a hard muscular endurance/speed workout on Monday, an aerobic endurance track workout on Thursday, and the race on Saturday. Both Brian and I felt strong; Brian's tremendous aerobic system propelled him to the win and a new course record of 1:12:41 (or something); five-plus minutes ahead of my third place finish. Both of us, along with Scott, are quite excited at what this suggests about our prep for the season. And to think, we haven't even begun the specific phase of training yet!

Also, in her third race as a Naney, Alison notched an overall women's victory and personal best time of 1:29:51; clearly her speed and power training is also paying off. She's pretty psyched; her big goal race of the year is a 50-miler in San Francisco in December, and all signs point to a great finish there, as well.

Stephen Mitchell: Cutthroat Classic 2012
Overall podium - Brian getting some new dinnerware
Thanks to Steve Mitchell (www.mitchellimage.com) for the great photos.

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