I am always so glad for Squirrel Day. Squirrel was my first official half marathon, my first trail race of any distance above 5K, and the first race that, that first time, as I broke out of the trees toward the top of the 1500’+ first climb, nearly brought me to tears with the sunrise dusting all the grasses gold. Even now, even after the near-transcendental Quad Rock 50 and Never Summer 100K, Gnar Runners’ Black Squirrel Trail Half Marathon might well be my favorite of the year.
This year, it would be my fourth finish, as well as my first time running Squirrel as part of the four-race Gnar Slam — and as a result, my first time running Squirrel after a year heavily (and perhaps near-exclusively) focused on endurance, not speed.
After successfully completing the first two races in the Gnar Slam, the Quad Rock 50-miler and the Never Summer 100K, I needed to shift focus from endurance (and endless hills) to speed (and even some valley running). Just like after Quad Rock, I took a full week off running after Never Summer, trading out my running days for bicycling days. In planning my training course for Black Squirrel, I eliminated back-to-back weekend runs and returned to my more usual pattern of running Tu/Th/Sa, cross-training M/W, and resting/yoga/bicycling F/Su.
I also stepped away from the Gnar Runners’ free training plan for Quad Rock, which worked great for QR and which I modified for Never Summer, and built out my training plan using my well-loved Run Less, Run Faster by Runners’ World. (I am not invested in minimizing running time or in setting speed records, but I like how this text uses a 3-run-a-week program for racing goals up to 50K, and it’s carried me to Squirrel and Sky PRs in past years, 3 years strong now.) I used Run Less, Run Faster’s Marathon Training Plan to design a plan that would carry me from post-Never Summer, through Black Squirrel, and to the last race of the Gnar Slam: the Blue Sky Trail Marathon in October. This plan cut back my mileage, but increased the speed/exertion. In essence, my runs became: Tuesday—Speedwork, Thursday—Tempo, Saturday—Long Run.
So, out went all those wonderful but slow treadmill ladder programs that helped me finish QR50 and NS100. Now, while I would start my Tuesday (still treadmill) run with a 20-minute ladder and would then set the treadmill to 6% incline for the remainder of the workout, the majority of my run time would be the intervals prescribed by the book. For example, three Tuesdays before Black Squirrel, Tuesday was: 20min ladder + (2 x 1600m [with a 60-second recovery interval after each 1600] + 2 x 800m [with 60-second recovery intervals]) + 10-20min brisk but easy run cooldown. It never failed to surprise me how thoroughly I believed I may die during an interval, nor how much I could perspire and how tired I could be at the end of a “just 7-8 mile” workout.
This focus on speed carried over to my Thursday tempo runs, which often followed a miniature Black Squirrel route of two up-and-down laps of a local hill, followed by a valley loop in an adjacent natural area. While these runs were longer than prescribed (usually 10-11 miles, instead of the book’s 5-8), I would obey the book’s command to start these runs, usually, with 1 mile easy, but then, instead of 4 tempo miles, I’d do 9-10. I could barely tolerate going from 70+ miles weeks for the majority of the year to 30-40 mile weeks. I needed more miles somewhere.
Because speed was also a factor for the Saturday long runs, I followed the distance guidelines by the book, so I could achieve the speed goals for these runs, which were 15-20 miles — shorter than what I had grown used to (and love), but faster, and it was rewarding to see my long run pace tick down from, oh, 13-15min/mi to about 10min/mi.
2) Course Practice
The benefit of on-course practice became apparent to me for Quad Rock, where I came to the race after 4-5 months of running that very course on those very trails. Never Summer also reminded me of this benefit. It was a huge advantage to have run the first 18 miles, as well as 10-15 in the middle and the final 6-8. While distance was not a factor for Squirrel, this race had technical footing, especially the 1500’ descent, and I always worried about a slight miss-step and keeling off into the bushes (or being crushed to jelly by runners seething at my heels). So, while I had been running some of the Squirrel course since January (as parts overlapped with the Quad Rock course), I went out to run segments of the course, ending 2.5 weeks before the race with a “test run” of the full course to get a sense of my pace and practice key transitions from the flat start to the steep climb, that tricky descent, and then the rolling valley miles to the finish.
3) Tapering… Somewhat
I have so much to learn about running, and tapering is one of my largest opportunities for growth. For the previous three Squirrels, I did a fairly robust 2-week taper, with my last long run one week pre-race of 8-10 miles. Coming to Squirrel this year, after focusing on longer-distance races, as well as wanting to keep the momentum high for Blue Sky in October, I took a reduced-taper approach. My training followed a full building cycle for weeks 2-4 pre-race (Saturdays, for example, went 15mi, 18mi, 22mi, averaging about 190ft/mi vertical gain each week), and in the week prior to race week, I maintained intensity but followed typical recovery week volume (Saturday back to 15mi). On race week, I rapidly cut volume (Thursday was just 5mi, instead of my typical 10), so I would come to Squirrel fresh and itchy, but not rusty or sluggish.
Race day came bright and early (well, dark and early with that 3:30am wake-up), with calm skies and a race temperature of 50-75 degrees. We arrived early, got situated near the start/finish line, and with about 15 minutes to go before the race start, I did an easy warm-up trot with some acceleration strides toward the end, to loosen up and increase my heartrate. Contrary to Quad Rock or Never Summer, I lined up toward the front of the queue (maybe at the back of the first 25%), knowing placement by the end of the flat first mile would be key when the dirt road turned to steep singletrack. And we were off!
I kept a strong pace for that first mile, able to chat briefly with a strong fellow Gnar Slammer as he passed by. We quickly turned onto the singletrack and began climbing. Several people slowed to walk, and I trot by them, knowing (from course familiarity!) that my real walking time wasn’t until we crossed the Timber Bridge, if ever. Almost immediately after the first surge around the walkers, I felt much more room than I had in prior Squirrels — there was no one right in front of me or right on my heels, and while there were runners around me, I was not boxed in.
After crossing the Timber Bridge, the steep uphill began, and I found myself behind a woman who kept trotting up the hill. I followed her, working to keep up with her, but also giving myself freedom (helped by no one right behind me) to hike small stretches to give myself that ‘recovery interval’ I had grown to love during my Tuesday speedwork sessions. Up up, switchback, up up, switchback, we stayed together with her leading, and we were at the top!
No stopping at the aid stations this race — I barreled on into the short downhill before the final climb, surprised to see the strong fellow Slammer up ahead and to follow him up that last climb (also when I took my only fuel of the race, at about 0:50 in), before he disappeared over the ridge.
Now it was time for that descent — what they call a “bomber descent” on the race website, and what gives me the most fear about the whole Squirrel experience. But here we went, I kept my head up and my steps short and quick, and while I was passed by a couple runners, it was nothing like the flood of passing runners for my three prior Squirrels (and, before the end of the descent, I passed one of the two who passed me). About 1500’ vertical loss in 20 minutes complete! But no time to rest — running by the next aid station without stopping, without even looking at the spread of treats, it was on to the rolling valley trails for the race’s final 5-6 miles.
From practicing on the course, I knew the southbound valley segment was mostly rolling downhill, and a quicker pace would be easier, but the northbound valley rolled uphill (to pass by that last aid station again), before a mostly net-zero roll on north to the finish, so I needed to save some energy for the middle third of the valley distance. But the sun was out, the hills were largely done (and that tricky descent too!) and I felt strong, so I extended my pace, passing several runners while keeping my breathing energetic but easy (out for 3-4 steps, in for 2-3 steps). I was on track to at least match last year’s time of 2:05, but I would surely like a new PR.
At last, even quicker than expected, the northward turn arrived, and, just as I felt in training, the trail suddenly seemed longer, steeper, slower. I was tempted to slow. But I kept focusing on my breathing, and on the runner ahead of me, then a ‘recovery interval,’ then the runner ahead of them, moving up the field, at last passing the final aid, and now, with about 2 miles to go, really trying to accelerate (while holding something in reserve for that last never-ending mile).
It was a treat to be much more familiar with Lory State Park for this Squirrel, because I could tick off checkpoints as I passed — Arthur’s Rock trailhead so 2.5 miles to go, Eltuck lot so under 2.0 miles, there’s Homestead and there’s Wells Gulch, and while this mile knowledge could have been a burden (I’m just now under 2 miles? I’ve been running this valley FOREVER already…), the familiarity was reassuring, and helped me wait to zoom until I knew I was 1-1.5 miles out from the finish. And suddenly, here was the woman I followed up Timber! We exchanged hurrahs as I went by, here were some other folks ahead in the distance going up Timber, looking strong all now off I go, my breathing is increasing to out for 2 steps in for 1 step, getting close to breaking into 1-1, but I hear my partner drumming at the finish, I see the finish crowd, I break onto the dirt road and head down to the finish chute, my vision is starting to darken around the edges and I’m definitely in a 1-1 pattern now, but here’s the line and A New PR! 2:00!
I reel around joyously — after breaking my 2017 PR by 5 minutes in 2018, I break another full 5 minutes off in 2019 — and find my partner at the top of the chute to cheer in a number of fellow Slammers and on-course comrades. And one of the best parts? Unlike Quad Rock, where I wanted to just drink ginger ale and lay down after finishing, or Never Summer, where I had to lay down and barely ate some pretzels before falling asleep, I was hungry within 15 minutes of finishing Squirrel… and Gnar hosts a full vegan and non-vegan breakfast buffet. YES.
What a tremendous help the Tuesday speedwork sessions were. While I might have set a new PR without them, the consistent speed training helped me get familiar and comfortable with higher heartrates and breathing patterns, helped me recover quicker from high intensity intervals, and, I think, made it a quicker recovery time post-race to facilitate all those pancakes. These are all valuable benefits of speedwork. I may well have to engage this element from the start next year.
2) Recovery Intervals
While I never was running full-tilt in Never Summer, I rarely (if ever, to be honest) gave myself permission to ease up into full-easy pace for the whole 64 miles, because I was concerned about lightning (in the first third), wanting to make it past the scary cows before dark (in the middle third), and just wanting the whole long night to be over before I got et by a moose or sank over my eyeballs in mud (in the last third). The speedwork for Squirrel showed me, though, how powerful even a 60-second ‘recovery interval’ could be in refreshing body and mind for the next push, and I think if I had given myself such quick intervals in Never Summer, the experience (and maybe my time) would have improved. So, for Squirrel, I gave myself intentional recovery intervals going up the big climbs, then in the valley, just to take a break from Go-Go-Go and gather myself for the next segment, and it was a tremendous help. I’m definitely keeping this.
A lesson for Squirrel, but I’m not sure about longer races — I felt much better lining up to start, running, and post-race having not done a full 3-week slow taper. For both Quad Rock and Never Summer, and particularly for the latter, the 3 full weeks of taper left me feeling sluggish, rusty, and itchy but not always in a powerful Let’s GO Run NOW kind of way. Organizing my Squirrel approach by placing it after a recovery week (in my typical 3-week build followed by 1-week recovery), then tapering intensely for race week, worked well. Just like in past years, I followed Squirrel by taking one run-day off, then running easier for the rest of that week, and I felt like this trajectory prepared me better both for the race and to pick right back up training after.
What a race. This one might still be my favorite, or at least among my very top favorites ever. And now that I have four consecutive Squirrels, and a full set of four fine Squirrel pint glasses, I think I might have to go 5 for 5 next year…
Next race: the final race of the Gnar Slam — the Blue Sky Trail Marathon, 19 October 2019, Fort Collins, Colorado!