The 2012 Louisville Lovin’ The Hills 50K was slated to be the 20th Ultramarathon I’ve completed. It was also my first back in 2007. Ever since cutting my ultra teeth back then, I have been a student of race strategy. I knew that racing wasn’t just pushing at 100% until the last man is left standing. It is a game of patience and willpower and determination, to develop a game plan, study physiology, and to learn how the body operates at each distance, each course, and each event. In light of that constant desire to study the sport and to succeed and grow faster, I started writing race reports and reading race reports to recap what I could learn from each race.
Eric Grossman founded the Louisville Lovin’ The Hills 50K shortly after the start of the new millennium. Once a resident of Louisville, he moved on to Virginia shortly after starting the race and left Cynthia and Todd Heady of Headfirst Performance to run the race from there on. Since starting Lovin’ The Hills, Eric has won more races across the country than I can recollect; 50 milers, 100 milers, etc. Eric is a phenomenal runner, and lucky for us in Louisville, he continues to come back and run Lovin’ The Hills. His 2010 race report from Lovin’ The Hills is one that always stuck with me. He opened with discussing how it’s routine for him. He’d raced over 50 ultras, and probably awoken to over 500 race mornings. He had it all broken down to a science, and so it was all just standard issue, following the same chronological order that had worked in the past. He knew how many calories to eat, how to train the weeks prior, and what pace to start at, etc. His “playbook had been written.” He found himself somewhat surprised during that race far away from 1st place, chasing down some up and coming talent in the form of a very young and ferocious Scott Breeden and Keegan Rathkamp. Slowly but surely though, Eric and “primal instincts” chased down his prey, and found himself winning yet another tough Ultra. Keegan held on for second place and Scott Breeden was third. I placed fourth that year (thanks in part to Russ Goodman and Tim Barnes not running!). I was far enough back that I’m sure I wasn’t on their radars up front.
In the same vein as Grossman’s race report I knew what had to happen this year in 2012 for the LLTH50. I had to go out with Eric. Scott Breeden was back also, but now with many races under his belt and experience that would hopefully prevent him from going out too fast. I wanted to see what Scott could do with a better pacing strategy that didn’t force him to blow up at the end. About 6 months ago Eric beat me at another course of his, the Iron Mountain 50 miler. It was my first race in several months after hiking the PCT and he won it in commanding fashion. 3 weeks later, for the first ever Ultra Race of Champions 100K, I passed Eric on the final climb. It was a great feeling for me to pass someone I had been following, studying, watching for years, and finally enter a circle of athletes I had an intense drive to be a part of for all that time. Eric however, wanted payback for my strong finish at UROC, passing him with only hundreds of yards to go on a course of over 63 miles. You don’t destroy yourself to the core for 10 hours only to get passed on the final climb without taking note and wanting payback! So the stage was set for the 2012 LLTH50.
I was rather certain that the top 3 would include me, Grossman, and Breeden but I honestly didn’t know what order we would fall. I was certain though that I would definitely be willing to go through more pain than anyone out on the course, to hopefully defend my win of the 2011 Lovin’ The Hills. As far as I was concerned, this was MY race, MY course, My day. I knew Grossman and Breeden might even be stronger runners than me, but I was willing to endure more pain, and hopefully wage a smarter race strategy war to earn a repeat victory. This year held the most stacked field in the races history. Racers like Russ Goodman (repeat winner), Matt Hoyes, Mike Hermanson (a friend and extraordinary talent in the Tri scene racing his first ultra), could all push the pace out there.
The night before the race I was more anxious than most other races I’ve run lately. I had a burning hunger to win, and I knew the competition was stellar. I knew that the pain would be immense and I was ready to push the limits. My friend Ricky George has a saying that “the hay is in the barn.” I had done all of my training. The work was done. I needed to go reap what I had been sewing in my training.
Soon enough I found myself toeing the line and everyone who was said to be racing showed up in force. A quick speech by Cynthia Heady started the race and we were off as the chilly Kentucky snow splattered hills of Jefferson Memorial Forest.
Mike Hermanson (in his pink valentines candy costume) took off like a rabbit, running with the racers who were signed up for the 15 mile option. Breeden had obviously learned his lesson and was becoming a serious contender as I had anticipated. He ran with Grossman, Matt Hoyes, and me. I knew that with Breeden pacing himself well this was going to be a race for the books. I was surprised at first to see Grossman behind me, not in front of me. I was running my own pace and usually Grossman is in front of me. I didn’t like it. I wanted Grossman to start strong with me on his heels, never giving him a yard, and I wanted to run him down in the end. Ironically, In the opening miles, Grossman pondered aloud “Has this race ever come to the final climb? Has it ever been a truly close battle?” Knowing the answer as I had already contemplated the same scenario I immediately replied with a smile, “If there was ever a year that this race comes down to the final climb, THIS is the year!” I soon looked back and saw another veteran I’ve looked up to, who I was expecting great things from, Russ Goodman. We had quite a talented lot pushing the pace up front.
Coming out of the first section, (the Horine), we caught my boy, Mike Hermanson who had been in the lead for the opening 5 miles, running strong even on the steep climbs in the Horine Section. The trail however, would only get hillier and more challenging as the race progressed and we had 33 miles to run.
I ripped off my jacket coming into aid station 1 and fumbled with my GPS watch. Typical mayhem ensued as no one wants to lose time while performing the necessary task of refueling for a few quick seconds as they grab water. I entered the trails quickly again, right behind Grossman, and chatted about the surprisingly good course conditions. Snow had been in the forecast, but we only got a light dusting, and the freezing temps kept the mud frozen which was a true blessing.
Mike Hermanson was back in the lead running with power and Scott Breeden, Eric, Matt Hoyes and I all ran most of the second stretch together. I had a chance to catch up on Matt’s past year and talked with Breeden a bit about Leadville. The pace settled slightly, and I was glad we had found a rhythm. That rhythm was obviously a recovery effort for Eric, because around mile 13ish, coming out of Yost climbing to the Yost Ridge connector trail and then running back down to the visitor center at mile 16, Eric had had enough of it, he lit out on a mission, passing Hoyes and Breeden and I. I quickly followed in pursuit and vowed to not give him an inch. True, my effort was higher than I would have liked, but I vowed to live like Eric and possibly die like Eric this race I just had to outlast him. I was going to be glued to him. I had faith in his ability to beat all others, and I knew we were very close in capacity to endure pain, etc. I had to stay with Eric, even if it meant starting a hard effort before I wanted to.
After quick pursuit and running side by side with Grossman I enlightened him to the fact we had come out of the first 6 miles 3 minutes faster than I did last year, and we had now just run the second 9 miles 7 minutes faster than I had last year. I’m sure this didn’t mean squat to Eric, but to me it meant everything. I wanted badly to break 5 hours this year. It was the longest course in the race’s history, by miles, not just yards, and also the most challenging. Last year I won in 5 hours and 9 minutes and this year I wanted 5 hours flat even with some additions that added a few tenths of a mile over last year. Upon hearing the news that we were beating last year’s splits, Grossman informed me, “You’re in the big leagues now Shellhamer!” It was this kind of repartee that fueled us, or at least me. I really enjoy his dry wit and it is fun to be able to trash talk a little! Usually us trail runners are so mellow and chilled out I’m scared a little friendly bullying might come off the wrong way. Fortunately with Eric, you know he’s game to dish and receive a little friendly verbal assailing in good taste.
In the opening miles of the Siltstone, it was Grossman and Breeden and I, chasing down Hermanson. The three of us traded spots several times until Grossman decided to lead the attack. We caught Hermanson in his first Ultra attempt about a mile and a half into the Siltstone as Eric led a charge down a long decent on tight technical singletrack trail and I quickly followed suit. We passed Mike and exchanged greetings, and quickly began the long climb up after Bearcamp road. Breeden reclaimed his second place from me, as Eric and I had been in first and second spots, and those two led up to the Siltstone ridge. I let them lead the climb and set the pace as I was confident in my speed once reaching the long ridgeline. I didn’t want to expend so much energy on the long climb and lose speed on the ridge. Eric must have had the same plan, because even though he led us up the climb, he started to fly on the ridgeline of several miles. I passed Breeden once I noticed Eric gaining ground and I had confidence I could follow, especially on a trail I knew so well. I noticed this would be a theme throughout. Eric was doing EXACTLY what I would do in his situation. Eric wins because he is a trained machine, but also because he races smart.
About mile 21 or 22, Eric and I were shoulder to shoulder, running to the Aid station at Scott’s Gap. I was floored to see that we had just run a 55 minute Siltstone, a split good enough to maybe win the Siltstone half-marathon and we were holding that in a 33 mile slugfest. Breeden caught us going into Scott’s gap. My crew, Stephanie, looked thrilled to see us at the Aid Station ahead of schedule, and I yelled something to the effect of, “I’ve got to run it hard, when this old man is breathing down my neck!”…like I said, I enjoy the banter.
In coy disguise, Eric handed me some bait which I disregarded immediately, suggesting that upon Scott’s Gap, “The race starts here boys! Get in front Shellhamer, let’s see what you can do!” As mentioned previously, Eric was doing exactly what I would have done. Anyone who pushes a hard Scott’s Gap will be toast and easy game later on. MY game however, was to run a slow and conservative recovery effort through the challenging Scott’s Gap loop, and then start my race upon getting back on the Siltstone and run it home for the last 10 miles. I would have handed Eric the same bait. I knew that he was planning the same strategy because he didn’t pass me in Scott’s Gap, and I wasn’t setting any speed records there. We did, however, lose Breeden and his pacer, Beau, once and for all.
It’s always great getting back on the Siltstone for the run to the finish line, as you get to see the others heading out to Scott’s Gap. This year was particularly special for me in that I was leading the race with Grossman behind me ever since Scott’s Gap. I felt like I was crawling, but we nailed a one hour Siltstone back to the visitor center for a 1:55 Siltstone, (of course there was a 34 minute Scott’s Gap loop in the middle of the Siltstone). Regardless, 1:55 on the Siltstone is flying, and like Eric said, it was the big leagues.
If I was Eric and I thought I was stronger, I would have planted myself right behind me, Troy, until the final 2 mile climb. That’s exactly what he did. I think he respected me enough that he didn’t want to get in front and set a harder pace that would leave him tired for the final climb where I could attack and pass. Instead, he let me lead the race for the final 10 miles, and we decided upon a showdown on the last climb. That being said, I was maintaining the exact pace I wanted to. One thing I pride myself on is running the exact pace and race I want to, and although I know it sounds contradictory since earlier in the race I followed Eric in some early hard efforts, I knew it wouldn’t hurt my end objective, and in the end, it was me and Eric, just like I wanted it. I was hoping that the one hour return on Siltstone would have left Eric a little battered and shot, and I had confidence in my ability to finish strong. I always disregard pain and emotion and bury myself in the end.
We passed the Aid Station and I threw Stephanie my bottle to be unfettered by anything unnecessary. I think the workers knew this would be quite the battle. Two miles, all uphill, remained.
It had come true. The race had come down to the final climb. Eric came shoulder to shoulder with me at the start of it, and we shared a common statement about how bad this was going to hurt, knowing how much pain the other was willing to endure for victory.
Eric leapt out and commanded a lead, and I dug deep. I pushed with everything, but couldn’t close the gap. My friend, Jeremy Brown followed and watched it unfold. I was glad to have him out there. I gave it everything I had but couldn’t close that gap he opened in the first hundred yards of the climb. I was willing to do anything! I was willing to suffer immensely, but I couldn’t close the gap! I couldn’t make it hurt enough! I would have done anything! Why couldn’t I catch him?! I knew there a lapse in the climb near the middle. I hoped Eric would crack. I didn’t give up. Upon reaching the lake in the middle of the climb, I fought hard to gain ground, Eric was still where he was, I couldn’t push hard enough, I tried and tried, I would have done anything, endured any amount of pain, PUSH! PUSH! Why am not closing this GAP!? Why can’t I hurt more?!?!
I heard the cheers. Eric was crossing my finish in first. I finished ONE minute later. ONE MINUTE on a course of 33 miles. That’s ridiculous. I beat my goal my 13 minutes, and beat last year’s time by 22 minutes. The end result of the race is nearly astounding; I never imagined I was capable of running that course in 4 hours and 47 minutes. I didn’t crack. I ran strong throughout. I ran EXACTLY as I wanted to, and faulted not one iota. Eric was stronger, and waged a wise battle for the win. I finished strong, very strong, but Eric was amazing. To run an entire race within feet of another is rare, exceptionally rare. To be so close to such an accomplished, renowned runner in and of itself is good, but what is great, is when you know you ran literally the best race of your life, your best performance to date, which is what I did. I am proud.
Breeden came in third, with Matt Hoyes in fourth after passing Hermanson.
After the race, we all chatted about our day and our upcoming plans in the renovated house which is perched atop the lookout in the Horine Section, enjoying the best part of the day, which is eating all of Cynthia Heady’s marvelous soups and stews.
Coming up is the LBL 50 miler for me in three weeks, followed by the Umstead 100 miler three weeks later. A busy spring schedule full of fun times and great camaraderie.