Last Saturday / Sunday morning I ran the nighttime OSS CIA 50 for the second time. Last year Connor was only four months old, so this was a perfect way to get in a tough race without taking away from much family time. The race was harder than I expected with some serious heat and the overnight running. I got beat up by the course but was happy to hang on for 10:33 and 3rd place.
I really like the race and how it was run, and I was excited to come back this year. My taper was pretty minimal with the focus on UTMB. 2 weeks out I ran 90 miles with 16K climbing, and the week before was 50 miles. So I didn’t have many expectations going in and mostly just wanted to finish feeling strong (probably a good mentality for all ultras!). I figured breaking my time from last year would be excellent, and sub 10 would be ideal.
This year was hot but not as bad as last year. It was about 85 at the start with lows in the low 70s, though it stayed fairly humid overnight. It was good catching up with folks at the start, including the race director, who I had the pleasure of running with in the Shenandoahs a few weeks before. After putzing around for a bit, we were off into woods at 7pm!
When we hit the South Valley Trail 2 miles in, I found myself in second despite Jen’s sage advice to not be an idiot and go out too fast. I was running way faster than last year but felt comfortable on the somewhat technical trail that meanders along the creek. I again really enjoyed this section with the water running nearby and the fading sunlight. I could tell my climbing legs weren’t 100%, probably due to the big vertical weeks and short taper, but I wasn’t too worried. I then started fading and feeling a bit weak and realized I was sweating a lot and that it was still quite hot out. I caught my mistake way earlier than last year and started to really up the hydration and get in some calories.
I was already feeling better when I hit Mawavi Road and got there WAY faster than last year in low 9s. I cruised along the next section towards Oak Ridge feeling pretty good and trying to up the hydration. I felt like the pace might be a bit hot, but I still felt in control and figured it wasn’t the worst to get in the miles during daylight (famous last words?). I resolved to focus on cooling off in the Oak Ridge aid station and then taking it slow in the Farm to Forest loop too keep things in check.
Last year I had to turn on the headlamp 1-2 miles before Oak Ridge, but I made it well into the loop until turning it on this year. I had resolved to go slower here but was feeling pretty great after some ice water over my head at the aid station and some food, so I cranked along through this section.
Before I realized it I was back at Oak Ridge and repeated the cooling down and calorie intake. I again resolved to slow down and keep things in check, but I just felt really good and kept rolling along. I was still under 9:45 pace and have a blast running through the night.
As I approached the Burma Road turnaround, I was really curious how far ahead first would be. But with all of the early starters on the course, I couldn’t actually tell where he was. I did know that 3rd place was right behind me with 4th not far back, so I was trying to make good time while not getting caught up early in the race. Nick, a super nice guy who ran the race last year, set up an aid station at the turnaround that hadn’t been there in prior years, which was awesome. I refilled my bottles and stuffed ice in my hat.
After a bit on the road, I was on the North Valley single track trail. The full moon was out at this point, and it was a beautiful night in the woods. I was still really pleased with the time I was making and was having a great time. I focused on the hydration and calories and before long was making the climb back up to the end of loop 1.
I was pumped to get there in 4:15 (9:45 pace), which I think was about 45 minutes faster than last year. I felt awesome at this point and was able to quickly get in and out thanks to the fantastic aid station volunteers. Someone hooked me up with a grilled cheese, and Q filled up my bottles with Coke. After having 3rd place on my tail for a marathon, I tried to move through quickly to get some solo time out on the trail and put some distance between us.
I felt like I’d been running really well for a while and was curious how far ahead 1st place was. After running loop 1 so fast, I also started doing some mental math and realized I might have an outside shot at at breaking 9 hours if the stars aligned. I tried to stay smooth and in control though, as there was still plenty that could go way wrong.
After a few miles on the South Valley trail, I decided it was time to pop in some Hamilton for some mental distraction. Nothing like some hip hop and American Revolution while running in the middle of the night through the woods on the OSS CIA training grounds! After the long stretch of single track, I made it to Mawavi road at mile 34 and for the first time in the race decided to ask about the gap to first. They gave me that “maybe you’ve been running too long in the middle of the night, son” look and told me that I was in fact in the lead. Apparently the guy in front had an ankle problem and had to drop, which is a bummer as he was a really nice guy and a strong runner. Heal up Justin and hope to see you back on the trails soon! Now I was running out in front, presumably with 2nd and 3rd close on my heels.
I hit Oak Ridge and felt like a machine at this point. I was nailing the fueling and hydration. My pace was staying solid, and I felt VERY good for being 37 miles deep. My average pace was just a bit over 10 minute miles now, and by my calculation I’d need to average somewhere around 10:20 to break 9 hours. I could easily still have a big slowdown over the next 15 miles, so there was lots of work to do.
I cranked through Farms to Forest and knew I had about 6 miles of easier trail and fire road before the last big push. I tried to just maintain pace here and save energy for a last big push. I got to the Burma Road turnaround and knew this would be the moment of truth. You have about a mile before the turnoff onto North Valley, so you can easily tell who is close to you at this point. I’d put up a big gap as no one came through, meaning I had at least a 2 mile lead with 7 miles left.
I kept expecting to slow down significantly, but I just felt so good and so strong. As I hit the climb up Pyrite Mine Road, I knew that sub 9 was in the bag. I hauled ass down North Orenda Road and then had just the 2 miles or so uphill to the finish from the creek.
I felt like money and cranked into the finish in 8:52. The poor RD Alex had just gotten a chance to catch a quick nap, hoping the finisher would come in around 4:30. My 3:52 arrival woke him up from his slumber. Sorry Alex! I was blown away by finishing an hour and forty minutes faster than last year. Last year was hotter, but that improvement was beyond my wildest dreams. I felt just so good all throughout. I need to maintain a healthy sense of fear, but I do feel like I’m on a good track for UTMB and the hard work is paying off. Each race this year has been better than the last. I do still have 2.5 months, so I need to make sure I don’t peak too early or overtrain.
Recovery has been really good so far, and I plan to hop back into training soon. I really like this race, and Alex and the volunteers do an incredible job. I’m not so sure about returning to a race that went so well where I feel like I can only go downhill. But I truly hope I can return next year to either run (slower) or volunteer.
Finally, congrats to Sheila who finished 3rd overall and smashed the women’s record by 41 minutes. Crazy impressive!