I’m Back

A lot’s happened in the last year.

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All smiles while cooling off after the Bighorn Mountain 50K in June 2014

I’d had this bottle of beer that had been sitting in my refrigerator for over a year.

I didn’t know if it was a great beer, or if it was a crap beer; I had no idea, because I hadn’t touched it aside from moving it to a new refrigerator on 2 different occasions. It was a solitary 12-oz bottle of a Grand Cru ale called “The Beast,” an 18.0% ABV (!!) ass-kicker from Avery Brewing that I’d been saving for a special occasion that never came; a reward for something that I never quite achieved. I bought the beer in 2013, and when I moved into 2 different apartments in Chicago during Fall 2014, the last thing I packed up from my old apartment each time was this lonely little bottle of The Beast. It would exist in a non-refrigerated state for no more than 20-30 minutes, or however long it took to drive from my old apartment to the new apartment, before being one of the first things that I unpacked. It would sit at the back of the fridge, just waiting for that special occasion…

I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s quickly rewind:

In late 2013 I encountered a bit of writer’s block, or maybe just a lack of motivation (take your pick), and I found myself running races faster than I could process and recap them to my satisfaction. With more races on the horizon, I told myself that I needed to catch the f*ck up on my recaps if I wanted to keep writing this blog. I found myself looking for some sort of external motivation, and on a lark I purchased a disproportionately-expensive single bottle of beer from my local Binny’s, deciding that this would be my treat to myself once I had gotten all caught up. The Beast went into my refrigerator, and I got to work. I banged out a stupidly-long recap about a 50-mile ultramarathon that I’d completed in August 2013, and one day later, while on a flight to Seattle, I made good on penning the recap of a follow-up 50K that I raced in September 2013. All that remained was to recap my upcoming weekend marathon double in Leavenworth, WA & Portland, OR (recapped lovingly by friend-of-the-blog Dan Solera here and here), and I’d be home free.

Until I wasn’t.

On October 5th, 2013, I fucked up my knee running the Leavenworth Oktoberfest Marathon. Instead of resting, the very next morning I ran the Portland Marathon anyway (on said fucked-up-knee), which went just about how you’d expect. I finished the Portland Marathon, but it came at a heavy price. With my pain now exponentially worsened, I didn’t feel much like documenting my “triumphant” marathon double after that, and my knee refused to heal over the course of the next month. I limped along with daily jogs for the next 5 weeks after Portland, but on 11/16/2013, I called it quits on my daily beer-and-a-mile streak. On November 16th, I stopped running.

This was no small decision for me: from March 27th, 2012 through November 15th, 2013, I ran at least 1 mile and drank at least 1 beer for 599 days in a row. On Day #600 — 2,112 miles, 338 hours of running time, and 782 unique beers later — I finally rested. I still remember the feeling of relief when I woke up on November 17th, 2013, and processed the fact that my streak was over; there was no sadness, no disappointment, and no regret. That had always been the biggest question for me — how would I feel when it was all over? — but  I suffered no pangs of remorse or second-guessing. My legs and my liver needed a break. In accordance with a public promise that I posted in my old ‘About Me’ section back in March 2012 (“The day that my streak ends is the day that this blog dies, never to be heard from again”), I stopped updating this site, which had seemingly served its purpose and run its course. This blog was dead.

For a long time, life went on as usual. With lots of rest, rehab, and cross-training, my knee got better. I ran from time to time, but I mostly delighted in kicking my feet up and not doing anything. I gradually started running longer distances again, eventually leading to a pain-free Big Sur Marathon experience in April 2014, and I steadily built up my weekly mileage from there. And that was good enough for me. But then, after a break of I-don’t-even-know-how-many months, I found myself…missing the writing.

See, while I’d stopped writing during my period of self-exile, and for the most part had also stopped commenting on others’ posts (had to go COLD TURKEY, mates), I still kept tabs on the adventures of Dan and Jeff and Mike and Danielle and Glenn and Rachel, among others. It’s not like I’d stopped running altogether — between November 2013 and November 2014, I completed 3 marathons, 3 ultramarathons, and 1 Olympic-distance triathlon (NBD) — but I found myself missing out on that sense of being involved in the community, man. Before that time that Glenn didn’t kill us in Louisville (thanks again, Glenn!), which finally put a face and a handshake to one of the personalities that I’d been following, writing and reading about each other’s experience(s) was all that connected us. By giving up writing, then, was I still a part of the community? Was I still connected?

Friends Dan, Betty, the race director whose name escapes me, myself, and Matt after the Kettle Moraine 50K. Note that we did NOT run the 100-miler, I'm not quite that insane...yet

Friends Dan (NOT Solera), Betty, the race director whose name escapes me, myself, and Matt after the Kettle Moraine 50K in June 2014. Note that we did NOT run the 100-miler, despite the sign behind us. I’m not quite that insane…yet

It turns out that writing this blog had done me a lot of good between March 2012 and October 2013. Maintaining this space had introduced me to new friends, taken me across the country to places I’d never seen, and opened my eyes to whole new perspectives on running. If I’d never met Jeff Lung of therunfactory.com, I don’t think I ever would have contemplated running an ultramarathon, much less formulated plans to run 2 separate 50-milers in 2015. And in one of those sliding-doors moments, if I’d never run my disastrous 2011 Austin half-marathon with my good mate Dan Solera, I may never have given a shit about trying to get better at running in the first place. This run-blogging community has had a net positive impact on me, and I don’t think that I’m ready to walk away for good just yet.

So I know I originally said that I’ve give up the game if I ever broke my daily beer/mile streak, but fuck it, I’m back. I’ve got my legs back (sub-4 hour finishes in the 2014 Berlin & New York Marathon(s), followed by a 20:24 finish (156th out of 7,765 finishers) in a recent 5K turkey trot), and I don’t think I ever lost that touch of narcissism that allows me to talk about myself for thousands of words at a time. So if you’re okay with it, then I’m okay with it, and I’m back.

Chillin' the most in front of the Reichstag with Mike Sohaskey of raceraves.com after the 2014 Berlin Marathon

Chillin’ the most in front of the Reichstag with Mike Sohaskey, of raceraves.com fame, after the 2014 Berlin Marathon

THAT SAID, here are some key changes that you’ll be seeing to this blog:

  • I will no longer running and drinking every day. This is the big one, and this change is very necessary. If I so much as hint that I’m thinking about streaking again, I’ll pay for your flight to Chicago to come punch me in the nuts.
  • I’m bringing back Outdoor Speed Day. I only did it 4 times before, but Outdoor Speed Day was fun as hell and I miss it. On the last day of every month, I’ll run a mile outdoors and chug a beer outdoors, as fast as I can, no matter the conditions.
  • I’m going to keep my race recaps to fewer than 850,000 words. I’m going to try, anyway. I think I’m only at, like, 1100 so far in this entry. This is what progress looks like.
  • I’m now coming to you from idrankformiles.com. Do you feel how CLEAN this URL looks now, without that extra “.wordpress” smushed in the middle there? Damn, I sure do. That is a TIDY URL, friends. Take my $18/year, WordPress, and don’t spend it all in one place.

That, and I’ll probably be talking about beer more. We all good on that? Fannntastic.

You may recall that at the beginning of this entry, I was blathering on about a bottle of beer that had sat, impotently, in my refrigerator for the better part of a year and a half. Why did I bring that up? Well, shortly after I decided that I would be bringing back this blog, I felt that the time had come to bury the demons of injuries past once and for all, and finally enjoy what I’d been holding on to for so long. I recently brought that beer to a party and drank it as my 1,000th unique check-in on Untappd, and it was DELICIOUS.

The Beast poured a deep brownish-ruby color (I’ve really never seen anything like it in a beer before, it was pretty cool), and tasted of dark fruit, brown sugar, and all sorts of other delicious things while somehow not being overbearing or tasting overly alcoholic…and again, this beer was 36-proof. The experience of sipping on this particular sizzurp was undoubtedly colored favorably by a sentimental aspect, but in this moment, it was damn near the perfect beer.

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Pay no attention to the dishes in the sink. This was a party, and food was being made. Focus on the BEER

After I drank the beer that had taken up residency in my refrigerator for over 3% of my life (WEIRD TO THINK ABOUT IT LIKE THAT, BY THE WAY), I had to ask myself, why did I wait so long?

There’s certainly a forced metaphor that could be found somewhere in here, in that the beer may have tasted completely different if I’d drank it a year ago and not allowed it to further age in the bottle. Patience is a virtue, good things come to those who wait, haste makes waste, etc., etc. I’m not going to try and take away any PROFOUND life lessons from how good a beer tasted, though, because that would be dumb and stupid (because beer)…man, I’m just happy to be back, and I hope you’ll continue to follow me on this trip.

My next race is The Huff 50K in Albion, IN on 12/20/2014 — I’ll see you on the trails, and if not out on a course somewhere, then save a seat for me at the bar!

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SIMBA.

 

Posted in Otter Fodder | 5 Comments

Day #537 — The North Face Endurance Challenge 50K (Eagle, WI — 9/14/2013)

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The perfect dirt tan! Ultramarathons are glamorous.

At some point, I owed it to myself to find out if trail-running is something that I really love, or if it’s something that I’ve just been doing.

I ran a 50K in Wisconsin back in May, and I had a blast; I was buoyed by an unreal sense of accomplishment (and maybe just a smidge of vanity) after running further than I’d ever run before. Months later, some friends and I then drove up to Michigan for a 50-mile race back in August, and the runner’s high that I felt during those 12-ish hours out in the woods was even more intense. I left Michigan convinced that I was ready for a life of trails. I found within me an urge to go full-on Henry David Thoreau, ready to live deliberately and front only the essential facts of life and put to rout all that was not life and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

Hold on a second, I stopped to ask. Aren’t you getting a little ahead of yourself?

In each of these races, I’d undertaken and lived through something that I considered to be bold and new, which is a powerful emotional stimulant. What’s more, I’d had the good fortune of having good friends at my side for each of these journeys, which served to anchor those experiences in an extra layer of kinship. There is something inherently exciting in all that newness — but was I hooked on the experience itself, or was I simply drawn to the camaraderie and the raw anticipation of flinging myself into the unknown?

Immediately following the NCR 50-miler, I decided to find out. Once I could say with confidence that I’d suffered no lasting injuries from the run, I registered for The North Face Endurance Challenge 50K, taking place 3 weeks later in Eagle, WI. The North Face 50K was to be held in the same gorgeous Kettle Moraine State Forest that played host to the Ice Age 50K that I ran in May, which definitely factored into my decision to sign up. The race would cover different sections of trails within the Kettle Moraine forest than the Ice Age 50K, but I wanted to see if I could recapture something close to the vibe that I felt back in May 2013.

For this race, it would be just me — no friends, no family, and no support network to either gain strength from or fall back on. I’d already run 2 races of 50K or longer, so aside from a new course, this wouldn’t be anything I hadn’t done before. No, this would be an experiment to see just how much I enjoyed being out there. Just me, a couple hundred other idiots, and 30+ miles of trails somewhere in the forest that I’d first fallen in love with 4 months earlier.

Did I really love running trails, or was this all just a distraction until some other newness caught my eye? I figured that after another 50K, I might have my answer.

PRERACE

My teeth chattered as I left my car before sunrise, and even my windproof Gore-TEX jacket couldn’t keep a chill from entering my bones. I was scarcely 50 miles north of the Illinois-Wisconsin border, smack in the middle of September in the Midwest, but the overnight low had somehow dipped into the upper-30s.

I’d arrived at the parking lot 45 minutes before the start of the 50K, still needing to pick up my race packet. I walked toward a clearing where the organizers had set up a number of merchandise stands, sponsor booths, and open fire pits in full blaze. The process of picking up my race materials took all of 45 seconds, after which I scurried back to the relative warmth of my car. I knew that the temperature would climb into the 60s and 70s by the time I finished this damn thing, but now I was trying to figure out if I needed to wear gloves and a jacket for the opening miles.

Pre-race. That group of runners are huddled around a fire

Pre-race. Those runners there are all huddled around a fire

I eventually reasoned that I would surely warm up once I started running, and 15 minutes before the race’s 7am start, I left the car for good. I was clad in a sleeveless North Face running shirt and Brooks shorts, with Salomon trail gaiters strapped over my Brooks Cascadia trail-running shoes to keep out debris. I buckled up my Mountain Hardware running vest (loaded with a 1.5L Camelbak drinking reservoir), donned my Nike running hat, and I pushed a button on my GPS-enabled Motorola MOTOACTV running watch to acquire satellite-lock. I sprayed sunscreen over my bare arms, and I coated my chest and the inside of my thighs with Body Glide.

I chuckled a bit as I thought about how much gear I required just to “get back in touch with nature.” I don’t know if Caballo Blanco would have liked me or not.

I spent these last few minutes looking around at my fellow inhabitants of this communal outdoor insane asylum, with whom I would be sharing these trails over the course of the next 4-7 hours. We all had a bit of a screw loose just to be standing here. It dawned on me that I was about to run the distance from my apartment in Chicago to my parents’ house in Naperville, only with a lot more hills added in for “fun.”

This is Dean. Dean runs far sometimes and is very wealthy.

This is Dean. Dean runs far sometimes and is very wealthy.

From out of nowhere, Dean Karnazes appeared with a microphone to speak some words of inspiration to the crowd. I don’t remember exactly what he said, but he made me feel like running 30+ miles and then maybe buying some North Face apparel would be a good idea, so I’d say he probably earned his appearance fee.

As the starter’s horn sounded at 7am and we got underway, I noticed Dean handing out high-fives to anyone running past him on the right side of the starting chute. Regrettably, I was lined up on the left. I found myself strangely wanting a high five from this man, if only to touch Greatness for one fleeting moment. Yet, outweighing that urge was an even stronger desire to not be a fucking tool that sprinted across the flow of the crowd just to swap dead skin cells with a guy I didn’t know, and so I stayed on my left side of the chute like a good little ultrarunner. Besides, I’d once high-fived Scott Jurek back in 2012 – surely that would be good enough to get me through this race, right? Does inspiration drawn from high fives have a shelf life?

THE RACE

Weirdly enough, the race started and ended with a about a half-mile of road running. We ran along the side of a 2-lane highway for about 5 minutes, and then crossed the road to enter the woods. We were greeted by a hill of some steepness as we entered, and the trail running began in earnest.

The trail was wide, with ample tree coverage overhead, and the terrain flattened out considerably after the opening hill. We came across some mild rollers here and there, but for these opening miles, I didn’t come across any hills that made me stop to walk more than 5-10 seconds at a stretch. I was trying to play it a bit conservative in light of the 50-miler I’d run 3 weeks earlier, but I still couldn’t help but goose the throttle a bit on the flats and downhills. It felt good to be out here.

I suppose that one day I’ll have to learn how to run ultramarathons without having a conversational partner (or partners) to keep me engaged, but this apparently wasn’t going to be that day. About 2-3 miles in, I had a brief exchange with 2 women near me named Melissa and Stephanie, and just like that, I had friends to run with for the next 20 and 27 miles, respectively.

That's Stephanie on the left (in Pink) and Melissa on the right. I call this picture, "Blurry."

That’s Stephanie on the left (in Pink) and Melissa on the right. I call this picture, “Blurry.”

Melissa is a 31-year-old travel enthusiast from Florida who has recently thrown herself into the challenge of running a marathon (or longer) in all 50 states; she’d been dragged up to this 50K in Wisconsin by her friend Mark, a man in his 60s who managed to place 3rd in his age group. Mark convinced Melissa to run this race by downplaying the difficulty of the distance, saying that a 50K would be “no big deal, because you don’t take the beating on trails that you would on a road.” My other new Facebook friend Stephanie (you’re damn right we’re at that point in our friendship) is a e-commerce designer from Neenah, WI, who had set out to run her first-ever ultramarathon. Melissa was gregarious and talkative, while Stephanie was a cheery ball of nerves full of optimism, but a ball of nerves nonetheless. Both of them could more than hold their own on the trails, though, and I found them to be excellent company.

I was struck by how runnable the course was; I wouldn’t go so far as to call it easy terrain, but it didn’t feel like anything approaching the Ice Age trail races. Our first 11 miles were all run somewhere in the high 9:00s or low 10:00s, with the lone exception being a mile where we stopped for about a minute to take aid. I definitely felt myself holding back, but had I been training/tapering specifically for this race, it could have been a monster PR.

It was a really pretty trail

This picture is typical of about 60% of the course — flat, shaded double-track

I was running with a hydration pack because the aid stations were all 5-7 miles apart, but I’m sure I would have been fine if I’d just carried a water bottle. The aid stations were all well-stocked with typical ultrarunning food such as PB & J sandwiches, pretzels, potatoes, M&M candies, trail mix, chips, water, Gatorade, etc., and I never found myself wanting for anything.

After give-or-take 10 miles of running through flat woods, we burst into a clearing, where we would log some significant miles running through flat prairie. We didn’t have the benefit of shade overhead, but I found that without the distraction of watching out for roots underfoot, we could really log some fast miles:

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A fairly typical section of prairie

Melissa and I chatted constantly, carrying on a conversation throughout practically the entire first 20 miles of the race. Stephanie was running strong alongside us, and she mentioned on more than one occasion that she was happy to have people there to take her mind off of the running. We were all on the same page — I was just as happy to have the company as they were. It’s possible that I could have sped up a bit and gone off on my own, but if that meant leaving my present company just to shave off a few minutes over the last half of the course, then the juice wouldn’t have been worth the squeeze. I didn’t come into this race with hopes of setting a new PR in the distance, although after 15 miles, it looked like I might do so despite myself.

The course stayed pancake-flat until we hit Mile 17, and the next 3 miles were quite hilly and undulating. This finally felt like Ice Age. I felt good enough to bomb some of the downhills, and I even ran up front on my own for extended stretches, but I took care to never get *too* far in front of Stephanie and Melissa. This brings me to one of those little things that I love about the distance-running community in general: sure, everyone running a race is technically in it for themselves, but you can’t help but bond with the people around you as the miles pile up. I certainly didn’t owe anything to those I was running with, but I wanted to do whatever I could to help them get through the race, anyway.

And whether Stephanie or Melissa knew it or not, they were doing the same thing — I’m not sure what my race experience would have been like if I hadn’t been running with them, but it probably would have been a little suckier.

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Damn straight it’s a pretty course.

As we passed through the aid station at Mile 22, though, I decided that I needed to make a break for it. Not even the awesome volunteers wearing tracksuits and blaring early-90s hip-hop from their boomboxes could take my mind off the fact that my quads were starting to burn a little more than they should at this point of a 50K, and I knew that I needed to get off my feet. It’s probably true that I hadn’t entirely recovered from the punishment I subjected my body to just 3 weeks earlier, and I’d been running for a long time by this point of the race (“Duh,” you might be thinking right now, “It’s an ultramarathon, you fucking idiot.” Your point is taken, but you didn’t have to be so vulgar about it). I told Stephanie and Melissa that I was going to pick up the tempo a bit and try and go off on my own; Stephanie was able to stay with me, but that was the last that I saw of Melissa until the finish line.

Over the course of the final 9 miles, it felt kind of great to pass people who had conspicuously passed me 8, 10, or even 15 miles earlier in the race. If you’re going to be the hare instead of the tortoise, then you’d better have trained for it. No, I don’t care if that sounded petty.

Somewhere around Mile 24-25, the trail turned to sand. I’m not sure what all this sand was doing there, or even how it was even formed this deep in the woods over what must have been centuries of weathering, I just know that I didn’t like it. At all. Chalk it up as another learning experience; I didn’t know that there could be long stretches of trail-sand in the middle of a state forest, and now I do. And damn, how I wished in that moment that I had trained myself for it.

The next 4-5 miles consisted mostly of sandy uphills and downhills, and as much as I tried to stay to the side of the trail, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was running on the beach. I openly cursed the course (which is SO not ultra), and I mean that I cursed the trail literally — I was serving up a blue streak of Fucks, Shits, and Goddamns as Stephanie laughed at my abrupt transformation from the happy-go-lucky persona that I’d been projecting for the first 75% of the race.

Uphill sand is THE WORST KIND OF SAND

Uphill sand is THE WORST KIND OF SAND. I know it kind of looks like dirt here, and this part even looks kind of flat…I know this. But trust me, it was uphill and it was sandy and it was so dumb. I’m such a wimp.

I looked at my watch somewhere around Mile 27, and by that point it was pretty clear that I would finish in under 6 hours. Given that I was only 3 weeks removed from running 50 miles, breaking 6 hours in the 50K and setting a new PR in the process would feel pretty damn good.

I saw a horse, and I took a picture of said horse.

I saw a horse, and I then took a picture of said horse.

After yo-yo’ing with Stephanie for a bit (neither of us could seem to keep a consistent pace past Mile 27), I finally broke free and clear on my own just past Mile 29. There was an extended stretch of downhill trail waiting for me, and even though my quads were legitimately fried, I couldn’t help but attack them with what little strength I had left. I recognized this long downhill as being the same uphill that we climbed at the very beginning of the race, right after we entered the woods, and I knew that the finish line couldn’t be more than a mile away.

I logged my 31st mile, the flattest mile of the entire course, in a 9:16 split. I let my tongue hang out as I crossed the finish line in 5:48:45, good for a 21+ minute PR in the 50K distance. While I didn’t come remotely close to an age-group award like the kind I “won” at Ice Age, my time was good enough 105th out of 232 finishers.

I needed a beer.

POST RACE

Stephanie, myself, and Melissa.

Stephanie, myself, and Melissa.

After picking up my North Face race shirt and Smartwool socks after the race, I dumped all my gear in the car and waddled back to the post-race party. I loaded up on BBQ pulled pork and some salad, and I jumped in the beer line just as Melissa was grabbing a beer herself. I hadn’t seen her since Mile 22, but she finished only about 10-15 minutes behind me. She was in great spirits, and we sought out Stephanie to shoot the shit one last time before going our separate ways. I hope to run into both of them again some day; crazier things have definitely happened.

There was only one small matter left to resolve — I stunk. I smelled like a guy who had just run 30+ miles, and I had nowhere to shower before driving back to Chicago. Fortunately, a convenient solution lay just 200 yards away, in the form of Ottawa Lake:

No shower? No problem

No shower? No problem

I stripped away everything except my running shorts, and for the first time in my short ultrarunning career, I got to experience that most “ultra” of post-race experiences: a cleansing dip in a nearby lake. The water was balls-shrinkingly frigid at first (I DO NOT APOLOGIZE FOR THAT PHRASING), but the cool water felt like heaven once I was fully submerged. I stayed in that lake for a good 10-15 minutes, trying to de-stink myself as best I could without the aid of soap or shampoo. It felt primitive, carnal, and wonderfully low-tech.

My bath in the lake didn’t get me as clean as a hot shower at a hotel could have, but I felt as spiritually refreshed as I have in a long time.

FINAL THOUGHTS

So yeah, I’m in. I’m all-in on trail running. The trailier, the better, I say! (That’s a new word I just made up, by the way — feel free to use it in your own everyday lives). Give me all the trails.

I really liked this race on the whole, although all of the latter miles of sandy trail will probably be enough to keep me from coming back in the future. The sandy terrain wasn’t bad, it was just different; more to the point, it was something that I just wasn’t trained for.

The North Face puts on these Endurance Challenge races all over the country, with distances ranging from 5Ks to 50- and 100-mile ultramarathons (And this Wisconsin race, it should be noted, also had a 50-mile race as part of the weekend of events. I definitely wasn’t the biggest badass out on the trails). When I signed up for this race, a part of me was worried that I might be signing up for some overproduced corporate event. Those fears weren’t exactly abated when the race organizers trotted out Mssr. Karnazes, the world’s most corporate ultramarathoner, to fire up the crowd. But once we started running, it felt just the same as any other trail race I’ve run, which is a great thing. I was nervous that The North Face Endurance Challenge series might just be Competitor Group/”Rock ‘n’ Roll” equivalent of trail running, but I’m happy to report that they stayed true to what I believe lies at the core of trail running: good trails, great vibes, and a jovial post-race atmosphere.

I now know what I need to do next, and that is to shed the crutch of conversation during these long runs. I’m a pretty social person out on the course, much like a modern-day Emil Zatopek (just without all of that annoying “talent” to bog me down), but pretty soon I want/need to see what I can really do out there. It was Zatopek who said, “It’s at the borders of pain and suffering that the men are separated from the boys,” and I think I’m ready to train for that next step up. The desire is there, of that I have no doubt; now comes the tricky part of channeling that desire and actually putting it into practice.

I had questions coming into this race, and I’m happy to say that I ran away with the answers I was looking for.

Posted in Race Reports | 2 Comments

Day #516 — The North Country Run 50-Mile Ultramarathon (Wellston, MI — 8/24/2013)

50 miles to go -- let's do this

Okay guys, 50 miles to go — let’s do this. That’s Dan, myself, Chris, and Jay

What started out as a silly quest for a large disc of medal eventually morphed into the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. My 1st attempt at the 50-mile distance was 13 months in the making, which seems fitting for such a daunting undertaking. 13 months of planning, training, experimenting, and dreaming all led to this.

At the time that I made the decision to run the 2013 North Country Run 50-miler, I’d run exactly one sub-4 hour marathon.

I don’t even like to drive 50 miles.

And yet, on the morning of August 24th, 2013, I lined up with a couple hundred other certifiable lunatics, ready to run more mileage in one day than I typically run in a full week. Flanked by friends on all sides, though, it didn’t seem quite as tough as it first sounded last July. Hell, in addition to Dan Solera (a recurring character in this blog) at my side, two friends had flown in from opposite sides of the country just for the privilege of running this race.

As we took our first step, I couldn’t help but think to myself: This all better have been worth it.

BACKGROUND

A very specific convergence of events in July 2012 led me to the North Country Run 50; had they happened at any other time or in any other order, I’m not sure that I would stand before you today as an ultramarathoner.

On or around July 6th, 2012, I read this epic race report from Jeff Lung’s excellent Run Factory blog, which recapped his first 50-miler that he’d run in May 2012. Upon completing my first reading of that entry (and I would return many times), I left the following comment on his post: “I think the best compliment that I can give you about this particular entry is that as it was reading it, I kept flipping between really, *really* wanting to run a 50-miler, and then NEVER WANTING TO RUN ONE EVER EVER EVER.

Hold that thought.

11 short days later, on July 17th, 2012, my good friend Dan Solera told me about a comparatively small-ish trail race in northern Michigan that gives out huge finisher’s medals along with tons of race SWAG to all participants. The race he was talking about was the North Country Run, which plays host to half-marathon, full marathon, and 50-mile ultramarathon race distances. While Dan was eyeing the half-marathon distance, I half-jokingly wrote him that the 50-mile ultra sounded, “weirdly intriguing to me,” because “it would give me a full year to train…but I have no idea how I would crew it.”

Hold that thought.

The very next day, on July 18th, 2012, I penned the following email to Dan, with the subject line reading “North Country Run Ultra Ultra Ultra”:

I’m-a do it in 2013. I’m doing it. I’ve digested all information that’s available on the North Country Run’s website, and with the course being 2 closed loops of 25 miles and the aid stations coming every 4-ish miles, it’s something that I can navigate with a light running backpack and drop bags rather than requiring someone to crew me for the full race. There is always the possibility that I may change my mind in the next month and a half leading up to when registration opens for 2013, but right now I intend to be one of the first ones registered so that I can get my bonus jacket, running shorts, and hand towel in addition to the running shirt & backpack SWAG.

I stayed up late last night thinking about this — I really, really want to do this, to the point where I would shape the majority of my 2013 training around preparing myself for this 50-miler. The race is 13 months away, and with the strides in the last 13 months alone, I think I can do it. The biggest benefit so far of my Chicago Marathon training program hasn’t necessarily been the physical gains, but it’s shown me how to follow a schedule and a training regimen.

I’m-a do it.

Otter

It was that simple to me. And within half a day, Dan had come around to the idea of running the 50-mile distance instead of the half marathon with surprising exuberance, and that was that. We made a pact to do whatever we had to do over the next year in order to toe that starting line in a position to realistically run 50 miles at once.

For the next year, Dan and I trained. We experimented with our nutrition, we joined a local ultra-running club, and we ran lots of trails. We entered a shitty local 25K trail race, and graduated to an impeccably-operated 50K amongst the trails of Wisconsin (you can read more about our overall ultra training methods in that post, if you’d like). I got really good at running double-digit mileage after a full meal; Dan got to the point where he could run 30 miles one day and follow it up with 20 more miles the next day, no problem.

Far away from the forests of Michigan, here's Jay and I at the top of a mountain at the end of the Berry Picker Trail run in Vail in early August

Far away from the forests of Michigan, here’s Jay and I at the top of a mountain at the end of the Berry Picker Trail run in Vail in early August

Very early on after Dan and I had decided to commit to NCR, our friend Marla jumped at the chance to run the half marathon distance. Our insane (in a good way) veteran ultramarathoning friend Jay decided that he’d fly out from Colorado to run this race, too, as a “tune-up” to a longer ultramarathon that he’d be running in the coming months. Jay and I had just run a vertical 5K out in Vail, CO about 3 weeks prior (2,000+ feet of elevation gain over 3.4 miles), which he had run with me less than 24 hours after running a mountainous 50K in Steamboat. I say again, Jay is insane. Dan’s wife Stephanie came along as well, to watch and crew for us dumbasses, and so we had the reassurance of someone kinda/sorta watching over us. Sometime in December, my friend Chris from Washington, DC decided that this seemed like a good thing to do, and he signed up for the 50-miler after putting precious little thought into it. A lot of his training leading up to the NCR 50 involved speedwork with Marines at dawn near Capital Hill, and Chris showed up in Michigan in the best shape I’d seen him in years.

50-mile starters, plus Marla

50-mile starters, plus Marla

In the days leading up to the race, the North Country Run’s Facebook page was very active. The RDs provided insight on the expected weather, the amount of water being trucked in, the different types of food that would be out on the course and then waiting for everyone at the finish line, and a variety of other topics. They posted pictures of different portions of the course, talked about the physical process of minting the medals, and overall they did a pretty good job of keeping runners engaged. When temperatures looked like they’d be reaching the high-70s/low-80s on race day, the RDs announced via social media that they’d be bringing in 300 more gallons of water than they’d brought the year before.

I slept surprisingly well the night before the race. The following morning we made the 30-minute drive from our hotel to the woods of Manistee National Forest, where the race was being held, and we picked up our packets with minimal fuss. After what seemed like an eternity, with Steph and Marla cheering from the sidelines, we finally toed the line and got ready to run further than 3 out of the 4 of us had ever run in our lives.

For my first 50-mile ultramarathon, I wore a shirt from the 2013 Shamrock Shuffle 8K, because that seemed funny to me.

MILES 1-6:  An Ideal Beginning

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Small screenshot of the 2013 50-mile ultra course, which starts with a small 1.2-mile loop before runners embark on the larger loop

The 50-mile course was structured into 2 big 25-mile “loops,” with each loop consisting of a smaller 1.2-mile loop to begin with followed by a roughly 23.8-mile larger loop that would bring runners back through the Start/Finish area. This was convenient in that it allowed ultra runners to seamlessly drop down to running “just” the 26.2-mile full marathon distance if anyone wasn’t feeling up to the full 50 miles at the end of their first loop, as all they’d need to do is run the small 1.2-mile loop again after their first big loop (25 + 1.2 = 26.2). However, one could also view this setup as a mental hindrance, because…well, it made it so damn easy to bail on running 50 miles.

That's me in the green and Dan in the red, coming through the Start/Finish area after our first small 1.2-mile loop

That’s me in the green and Dan in the red, coming through the Start/Finish area after our first small 1.2-mile loop

At the start, Jay immediately took off, which was to be expected — he’s just really good at running really far on trails. This left Dan, Chris, and myself to stick by each other for the next however many miles. In stark contrast to the Ice Age 50K that I ran back in May, the opening miles of this course were reasonably flat, and only a steady 1/4-mile uphill stretch somewhere between Miles 2-3 forced us into an extended hike break. The 3 of us decided beforehand that something close to a 9:1 run:walk ratio would be the best way to get through the race, and because Dan frequently remembered to take this scheduled walk break before Chris and I looked at our watches, that allowed me the singularly unique experience of being in front of Dan in a race for once in my life.

We came to Aid Station #1 (AS #1) just before the 5-mile mark, which was stocked with PB&J sandwiches, blueberries, watermelon, pineapple, snack mix, Gatorade, ramen noodles, and a host of other typical ultrarunning fare. This would be a recurring them throughout the race — all the aid stations were only about 3-5 miles apart, and each had a veritable smorgasbord of food options to pick and choose from.

Myself and Chris, somewhere around Mile 3 or 4

Myself and Chris, somewhere around Mile 3 or 4 (picture courtesy of Dan Solera)

A mile or so later, we reached the beginning of what looked to be an extended downhill stretch. Dan grinned back at Chris and myself and devilishly proposed, “Are you gentlemen ready to FLY?” Chris and I wanted no part of taking flight while still staring down the barrel of another 43-45 miles, so we waved Dan on ahead, and that was that. Within just a minute or two, Dan’s bright red sleeveless shirt was out of sight, and our running party was down to 2.

“Man, that guy really took off,” mentioned someone behind us.

“Yeah,” I replied. “For his sake, I hope we don’t see him again until the end.”

MILES 6-14:  More of the Same, Please!

The trail frequently changed shape, with shaded hard-pack single track giving way to sun-soaked sandy washes, which in turn gave way to eerily-quiet thatches of stately tall pines, which would then in turn give way to some sort of other breathtaking scenery. At times, it felt like Chris and I were the only ones in all the forest, and various long stretches passed with no other runners in sight.

Photo courtesy of Dan Solera -- the course really was beautiful

Photo courtesy of Dan Solera — the course really was beautiful

The trail remained mostly flat, though, which was promising. With many miles still to go, Chris and I amused ourselves with movie references and talks of current events or politics, and we’d chat with any other runners that we came across. We made an embarrassing amount of Lord of the Rings references, but you talk about whatever you can think of to make the hours pass. We were content to run in file behind slower runners, or allow seemingly-evenly-skilled runners to pass us; we knew that we still had a long way to run, and we weren’t in a hurry.

To be completely honest, I’m not sure that either of us were very confident that we’d finish, and so our strategy was cautious to a fault. Our sole goal for the first 25-mile loop was not to burn out, and dammit, we were going to stick to that plan.

Chris is visibly excited about the lack of hills so far (picture courtesy of Dan Solera)

Chris is visibly excited about the lack of hills so far (picture courtesy of Dan Solera)

We passed through AS #2 with minimal standing time, stopping just long enough to shake the legs out and grab some food & liquids. Chris was running the opening 14 miles without a water bottle; he’d packed a bottle in his drop bag that would be waiting for him at AS #4 (Mile 14), but a summer of training in the DC heat had prepared him well to go many miles before needing water. Cool temps at the start of the race would prove this strategy to be a prudent one, but as the sun rose, the temperatures rose correspondingly. Within a couple hours of starting the race, temperatures had already crept into the 60s and 70s.

Between AS #2 (7.57 miles) and AS #3 (10.86 miles), we were diverted slightly off-course by a volunteer who was warning everyone of some nefarious goings-on up ahead that required a minor re-route:

“Sorry about this, everyone, but there are HORNETS ahead!! Stay to the left, and follow the flags! Sorry about this!” he cried. The dude literally apologized, twice, for saving our lives.

“No worries, man, you just saved us from being stung by hornets. No apologies necessary,” I said back to him.

The trail’s elevation profile remained delightfully even-keeled, and we passed through Aid Station #3 without incident. Both Chris and myself were feeling great, and we arrived at Aid Station #4 (14.13 miles) less than 3 hours after we started the race.

MILES 14-25: Why Hello, Hills

Myself and Chris upon reaching AS #4 the first time through

Myself and Chris upon reaching AS #4 the first time through. Chris isn’t taller than me, and so this picture confuses me.

There was one place to leave a drop bag out on course, and that was at Aid Station #4, which came at Mile 14.13 on the first loop and Mile 39.25 on the 2nd loop. In more sparsely-supported races, a well-stocked drop bag can be the difference between finishing or DNF’ing, but the North Country Run aid stations were so well-supplied that our drop bags were scarcely required.

Chris fetched his water bottle from his bag, and I chowed down a CLIF bar and a few Stinger waffles that I’d packed. I’d packed a goddamned picnic in my backpack, but I didn’t find myself wanting for nutrition. Chris and I lingered at AS #4 for a few minutes and chatted with volunteers, spectators, and other runners, and then we set out to tackle the final 10 miles of the first loop.

The topography changed immediately.

Photo courtesy of Dan Solera

Photo courtesy of Dan Solera. That would be someone power-hiking a typical uphill.

Whereas the first 15 miles were reasonably flat and fast, the final 10 miles of the loop were decidedly of the “rolling” variety. We were forced to power-hike up some steep inclines, and the corresponding steep declines required us to carefully descend, watching out for stray roots and trying not to punish our quads too much, too quickly. This stretch of the course finally reminded me of the Ice Age 50K course at Kettle Moraine. These hills didn’t feel terribly difficult (yet), but Chris and I openly wondered how they would feel on the 2nd loop.

Somewhere between Miles 18-20 (they all run together after a while), we noticed that we’d picked up a friend who had been running near us, and we formally introduced ourselves to Joe. Joe was the veteran of one or two 50-milers, as well as a 100K and a 100-miler, and he was excellent company for the miles that followed. He was around our age, and despite his considerable ultrarunning experience, Joe never once tried to push the pace or do anything that might have disrupted the cadence that Chris and I had developed. We hiked the uphills, we lightly jogged the downhills, and we cruised the flats. Before I knew it, we’d gone through Aid Stations #5 and #6. Shortly after AS #7 and one final uphill climb, we came across the following simple bench and breathtaking view:

Less than a mile from the Start/Finish area

Less than a mile from the Start/Finish area

One last 1/2-mile downhill stretch would take us back to the Start/Finish area. I hadn’t mentioned it to my running companions, but over the past 5-6 miles, I’d been seriously considering dropping down to the full marathon distance. My legs hadn’t felt quite right ever since climbing Longs Peak out in Colorado two weeks earlier, and I wasn’t sure how I’d be able to run another 25-30 miles once I started having second thoughts.

This view at Mile 24(ish) rejuvenated me, though, as well as the knowledge that the first 14-15 miles of my second loop would be reasonably flat. I still felt fine running on flat trail at this point, and I knew that if I could make it all the way to the hilly section of the 2nd loop, then I could will myself through the final 10 miles of the race.

And so with the crowd cheering and the music blaring, the 3 of us arrived back at the Start/Finish area after running the first 25 miles. We each ran our little 1.2-mile small loop to get that out of the way, and after running roughly 26.2 miles, we all stopped to regroup and refuel.

It felt great to be more than halfway done.

MILE 26.2 — START/FINISH AREA INTERMISSION aka EAT ALL THE THINGS

After knocking out that small loop, I stopped to take a long reprieve before running the final 23.8 miles. Marla was waiting for us after finishing her half-marathon hours earlier, placing 4th in her age group, and Steph looked excited to have some company to interact with. Joe stopped to talk to his parents, who had driven up to watch him run, and we all took a picture together. [Ed. Note — Joe, if you’re somehow reading this, send me that picture!]

I then turned my attention to some food and my friends..

“How far ahead is Dan?” I asked Steph, in-between wolfing down bites of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. “He left us around Mile 6.”

“He’s about 15 minutes ahead of you guys,” she replied.

Really? Damn. I thought back to where Dan had left us, and with the amount of time that Chris and I had spent at some of the aid stations, I’d assumed that he would be further ahead than that.

“He said that his knee started giving him problems around Mile 14 or 15,” Steph continued, “so he’s trying to take it easy.”

Shit.

I tried to take my mind off of it and get on with my business of preparing myself for the last half of the race. I wish I could say that I used this time wisely, but just about the only thing that I did right at the Start/Finish aid station was successfully use the bathroom. Since I’m a 29-year-old adult, this is not particularly impressive.

I did completely forget/neglect to do all of the following, though:

  • Change my shoes (my right shoe was squeaking, which was weird)
  • Change my socks
  • Reapply sunscreen
  • Reapply bug spray
  • Reapply Body Glide
  • Reapply deodorant
  • Ditch my running pack/vest

I didn’t realize any of this, of course, until Chris, Joe, and I had started running again and were about a half-mile away from the Start/Finish area.

Oh well.

MILES 26.2-32: The Last of the Good Times

The 3 of us picked up right where we’d left off before hitting the halfway point, easing right back into a comfortable running pace. I set the pace up front while Joe and Chris interchanged positions behind me, and we came to AS #1 at Mile 29.77 in what seemed like no time at all. A particularly awesome white-haired volunteer clad in overalls tried to send us away with several cups of blueberries, but we’d already eaten our fill.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but I’d been setting the pace up front for just about the last 15 miles. When Joe asked if I would be okay with him taking the lead for a change, I gladly obliged.

This would prove to be a mistake.

As I mentioned before, Joe is a seasoned ultramarathoner, and that experience gave him strength to run stretches of trail where Chris and I normally would have walked.

It was around the 50K mark where I started having problems. Joe was running the uphill stretches without issue, and Chris was gamely keeping up with him, but I wasn’t able to keep up with the pace. Where they ran the uphills, I had to walk. My legs felt more or less okay, but I was just so damn hot. Every time I started running, I felt like I was overheating, and I would have to stop every few hundred yards.

After 10-15 minutes of this starting and stopping, I tried to wave Joe and Chris ahead. We’d all been running 30+ miles by this point, and I didn’t want to hurt their chances of finishing by slowing them down. Joe must be just about the nicest guy ever, because it took another 5 minutes of walking protestations on my part to convince him that I wasn’t going to be rebounding anytime soon. With a hangdog look on his face, Joe bade one final farewell, and then proceeded to take off on an uphill stretch as if he were floating.

I tried to convince Chris to go ahead with Joe, but he wasn’t having any part of it; he was resolved to stay with me until Aid Station #2 about a mile up ahead, and there was no room for arguing.

MILES 32-36: My Personal Hell

We made it to Aid Station #2 at Mile 32.7, and I immediately staggered over to a sponge sitting in a bucket of ice-water and proceeded to douse my back with cold, cold water. It felt downright orgasmic.

It was here where I finally convinced Chris to go on without me. I told him that if I was going to finish this fucking thing, then I had to run my own race. I assured him that I still had my wits about me, and that if I needed to call it quits, I could at least make it to AS #4 to pick up my drop bag and hitch a ride back to the Start/Finish area. Chris went on ahead, and I was left trying to figure out how the hell I was going to slog through another 17 miles.

By myself.

The next 3-4 miles where among the toughest miles I’ve ever run, because I just couldn’t do it. I would try to run, but within 30 seconds I would feel like shit and have to walk again.

I looked at my watch and reassured myself that even if I walked the entire remaining 16-17 miles, I would still finish under the 14-hour cut-off….but was it worth it? I thought about my friends waiting for me back at the Start/Finish area; what would they think if they had to wait until 9:00pm just for me to finish? I wished there was a way to get through to them, but even if I could borrow a volunteer’s phone, I didn’t know anyone’s cell phone number by heart. I had stupidly left my phone in the car instead of packing it in my drop bag.

My body felt like it was shutting down. On top of that, I had no way of telling my friends how slow I was running, and I felt like a dick.

It took me damn near an hour to make it the 3 miles from AS #2 to AS #3. People were constantly passing me, and if anything, my condition was deteriorating.

MILES 36-39.25: REJUVENATION!

I mustered up a pathetic jog as I came within sight of Aid Station #3. A cheery volunteer asked me how I was doing, and I replied honestly: “I’m in good spirits, but I wish my legs would cooperate a little more!” This had become my canned response to anyone who asked me how I felt over the previous 3-4 miles: Well, I wish my legs were doing what I wanted them to, but at least I’m in good spirits!

I’d had no one to talk to for the last 90 minutes, so I was happy to interact with the volunteers for a bit. I explained to a kindhearted woman named Joanie that I was pretty sure I could finish, but it was going to take me a lot longer than I originally thought, and I was despairing at not being able to pass word to my friends waiting for me. It was then that she had a brilliant idea:

“Wait a minute,” she said, “you have a Facebook account, right?”

Yes. Yes I have a Facebook account.

“Well, I’m somehow the only one getting cell reception out here,” Joanie continued, “So how about you sign into Facebook on my phone, and then you can send a message to one of your friends. Would that work?”

JOANIE, I COULD KISS YOU.

I had already chugged down 2 cups of broth when she handed me her phone. Damn, that broth tasted good. I signed in to Facebook and sent Steph the following message: “Otter here — messaging from a volunteer’s phone. I’m at mile 36, it’s not going great, but I’ll finish. ETA is 8-8:30p, it’s going to take me about 13-13.5 hours to finish at this pace. Feel free to come back around 9 to pick me up if people want to go shower. Otter OUT.”

Upon confirmation that the message had gone through, I beamed my first smile in at least 2 hours. Knowing that my friends wouldn’t be waiting aimlessly was a weight off of my shoulders, and… you know what, though, that broth tasted REALLY good. I reached out for another cup, and drank it down. And another. I’d never drank anything as delicious as that broth.

I realize now that my sodium levels were very low at this point, perhaps even dangerously so. There’s no other way to phrase it: drinking that broth, in combination with the other food I ate at the aid station, brought me back to life. As I got ready to leave, Joanie asked me for my name. When I told her that my name is Dan, her eyes went wide as she did a double-take. “You had 2 friends who asked me to check on you when you came through! They were worried about you!” she said, “But you were so talkative when you came in, I didn’t think you were the guy they were talking about. I’m glad to see that you’re feeling better!”

And I was okay. As I left Aid Station #3, I was shocked to find that I could actually RUN. I couldn’t stop smiling…for the time being.

I ran all the way to AS #4, where I would find my drop bag and a disheartening surprise.

MILE 39.25 — Devastation

Upon trucking into Aid Station #4 at Mile 39.25, a familiar voice stood out from the voices of the volunteers cheering me into the aid station. Was that….shit, was that Dan?

Dammit.

Dammit.

What in the ever-living fuck was Dan doing here, just chilling on a camp chair, cheering me on?

As a flurry of possible explanations shot through my mind in rapid succession, my complexion went pale as my gaze fixated on the ice pack sitting atop his knee.

Shit.

“Hey, what happened to you?” I asked, but I already the answer as the words left my mouth. Dan had been fighting some knee pain in the week or two leading up the NCR 50, and while he’d started out well enough, it had finally caught up to him. He knew that the hilliest portion of the course was yet to come, and with double-digit mileage still to run, he’d prudently decided to pull out of the race with 10 miles to go in order to save his long-term health.

I tried to hide my disappointment, but I knew I wasn’t doing a very good job of it. More than anyone else, I knew how much Dan wanted this, and I burned with the knowledge that I wouldn’t have been standing there in that moment if he hadn’t lit a fire underneath me in the first place.

To his credit, though, Dan was effervescent and jocular as he asked me how I was feeling. I told him what I’d gone through, and I felt a pang of guilt when I told him how I’d recovered well over the last 3 miles and was looking forward to finishing. It was at this time he started asking for a phone so that he could call Steph, and I told him to send word that I’d gotten my second wind and would hopefully be finishing in around 12 hours of total running time.

I exchanged one last fist bump with my friend, and readied myself for the last 10 miles.

MILES 39.25-50: Closing it Out

Right before I left Dan at the aid station, he asked me if I’d tripped and fell yet. He had fallen earlier, and he wanted to know if I’d felt the same joy. “No,” I said, “but I’m sure that it’s coming.”

Less than 2 miles after leaving Dan and the rest of AS #4, I finally fell. HARD. It happened during stretch where I was looking up and around me to soak in the beauty of the surrounding forest as the sunlight hit it just so, and I didn’t notice a nefarious tree stump jutting in from the side of the trail. I clipped it with my left foot, and with absolutely no one else around me, I involuntarily shouted “THERE IT IS!” before I even hit the ground.

My momentum caused me to somehow do a half-barrel roll in midair, and I crashed down on my right side. I hit the ground with enough force to explode one of the GU packets that I’d stashed in the pocket of my shorts. I laid there for a bit, and once I had my breath back, I couldn’t help but start laughing. I sat to assess the damage and was happy to find that I’d only suffered a few scrapes, along with perhaps just a bit of wounded pride. I got back on my feet, dusted myself off, and continued to run.

I soon found myself passing people — over the final 14 miles of the race, in fact, I was passed by no one.

I was able to power-hike the uphills easily enough, but the downhill stretches soon became excruciating as my quadriceps gradually but markedly began to fail me. Still, I was somehow glad just to be out there. The pain reminded me that I was alive and doing what I loved to do.

I started counting down aid stations. 3 to go … 2 to go … only 1 more to go! I let out a guttural yell once the final aid station at Mile 49 came into view. I’d been running about 11.5 hours, and the appearance of this aid station confirmed that I would finish in less than half a day. That somehow felt important.

I grabbed a swig of water and some watermelon, and headed out to climb that final hill one last time.

This view looked even cooler on the 2nd time through.

This view looked even cooler on the 2nd time through. I’M ON TOP OF THE WOOOORRRRLD

I stopped at the top of that hill and debated sitting down on the bench. However, I worried that if I sat down, then I might never get up. With the finish line so close, all I wanted to do was be done. And I had decided exactly how I would cross the finish line.

As I came down to the finish, Mssr. Solera took the following sequence of pictures — the first one is me coming into view:

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Then comes me giving high-fives to the volunteers:

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Making that final turn:

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The end is in sight:

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And then finally, THE BERNIE:

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Now, for those of you who don’t know what The Bernie is, it’s a dance move in which you carry yourself like the (deceased) title character from Weekend At Bernie’s. See below:

Since I felt dead on my feet, I felt like this was an appropriate way to finish. And so 11 hours, 40 minutes, and 12.21 seconds after I started, I had finally finished my first 50-mile ultramarathon.

POSTRACE

I’ve come to learn that there is always a more extreme race happening somewhere else in the country at any given moment, but still, I could scarcely believe what I’d done.

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Chris (ultra), Marla (half marathon), Jay (ultra), and myself (ultra)

As the initial high-fives and back-slaps were exchanged, I was a ball of energy, bouncing around the finish area and actually running to retrieve my gear bags from the bag drop area. I grabbed a burger and a post-race beer, but as the adrenaline wore off, pretty soon I was looking like this:

Neither Chris nor myself remember this picture being taken, but it wasn't pretty

Neither Chris nor myself remember this picture being taken, but it wasn’t pretty

I was spent.

Our group lingered a bit longer at the post-race party, where they had plenty of beer and food, but I could sense that everyone else was eager for a hot shower and a change of clean clothes. One day, I will be the fast(ish) guy that finishes before everyone else, the guy who gets to enjoy the post-race party for hours on end as he waits for his friends to finish…but today was not that day.

We picked up beer and ordered pizza on the way back to our hotel, and the subsequent mauling of 3 large pizzas at the hands of ultramarathoners was unlike anything I’ve ever seen. After the carnage died down, I believe that every last one of us was in bed before midnight. After an unbelievably long day, it was finally time to rest.

FINAL THOUGHTS

I can’t say enough good things about the North Country Run — it was a really incredible event. The course was beautiful and presented just the right amount of challenge (in my opinion), the organization of the event was on point, and the aid stations came as frequently as you’ll ever seen in an ultramarathon. I wouldn’t have minded some cooler temperatures, but with the race being in mid-Michigan in August, it could have been a LOT worse than a high of 80 degrees.

As tempting as it sounds, I know I won’t be back to run the North Country Run in 2014. No, much like running the Chicago Marathon in 2012, I had such an enjoyable weekend that I need to let some years pass before I come back, simply because it will be tough to live up to this memory. The race sells out earlier every year, and I want to give some other people the chance to run such a well-planned race. Dan mentioned in his recap that I’ll be running another ultramarathon sooner than I think, and he’s not wrong — if running is a religion of sorts, then trails are my church.

In my heart of hearts, I do think that Dan will try another 50-miler at some point, even if he doesn’t know it yet. I’m not willing to even venture a guess as to what decade in which that might take place, but I think it’ll happen; it might be next year, or it might be when we’re in our 50s. I’ve told him that when he tries the distance again, I’ll be there. His goal remains to run a half- or full marathon in all 50 states, and there are still a lot of those trips left to make.

Jay will be back running ultras sooner rather than later. Hell, he may be in the middle of running a 50K or a 50-miler as you’re reading this. Jay is insane, and that’s why we love Jay.

I’m comfortable in saying that Chris isn’t exactly scouring the Internet to look up the next 50-miler in the DC area, but he’s expressed an interest in running more trails, and I think he could be convinced to do another ultra somewhere down the road. He’ll be focusing his efforts more on half- and full-marathons in the near future, but I’ve already planted the seed of running the JFK 50-miler next November.

As for me, I’m not sure how it took the better part of 30 years to get me out running trails, but I’m not planning on leaving anytime soon. I don’t know if I’ll ever graduate to running a 100K or (dear God) 100 *miles*, but based on this experience, I hope to incorporate more ultramarathons into the rest of my 2013/2014 race calendar.

I’ve got a shit-ton more to learn about trail-running, but I can’t wait to get back in the classroom.

Posted in Race Reports | 5 Comments

Day #482 — The Chicago Rock ‘n’ Roll Half Marathon (Chicago, IL — 7/21/2013)

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Well, this is happening

I have a short list of races that have chewed me up and utterly destroyed me. They are as follows:

The 2007 Bayshore Marathon (Traverse City, MI); the 2008 Distance Classic Half Marathon (Chicago, IL); the 2010 & 2011 Shamrock Shuffle 8K(s) (Chicago, IL); the 2010 Rock ‘n’ Roll Half Marathon (Chicago, IL — formerly known as the Distance Classic, before the race was bought out by Competitor Group); the 2011 LIVESTRONG Half Marathon (Austin, TX); the 2011 Steamboat Classic 15K (Peoria, IL); and the 2011 Air Force Marathon (Dayton, OH). As long as I live, I will never forget any of those races, try as I might.

The races varied in lengths, from less than 5 miles all the way up to a full marathon, but the one thing that they had in common is that I was hugely embarrassed by my performance(s) in all of them. Some of those results served to inspire me (the Austin Disaster of 2011 is why I started really running again in the first place), while others just tore me down without seeming to serve any real purpose. With so many of those failures stacking up in 2011, though, I wanted to do something about it.

Beginning in 2012, I started an unofficial “Revenge Tour,” with the goal being to banish some of my demons of those past races. It started when I ran the 2012 LIVESTRONG Half Marathon 30+ minutes faster than I had in 2011, qualifying for a seeded start corral in the Chicago Marathon in the process. 3 months later, in Traverse City, I avenged my 5:47-ish Bayshore Marathon death march in 2007 by running my first sub-4 hour marathon. Less than a month later, I bettered my Steamboat Classic 15K time by almost a full minute per mile, running the whole way on a hilly course and feeling great at the end. In 2013, I finally ran the Shamrock Shuffle in less than 40 minutes, shattering my 8K PR by running a 33:21. If revenge is a dish best served cold, then lately I’ve been the Schwan’s man.

Back in December 2012, I received an email with a discount code to settle the score with another old foe: the Chicago Rock ‘n’ Roll Half Marathon, a course/race which had kicked my ass twice (both as the “Distance Classic” and the Rock ‘n Roll Half). This true early bird pricing meant that I could register for less than $70 *after* fees, and so I signed up on a lark and penciled the date in for July 21st, 2013, hoping that I would still be healthy when the summer rolled around. I don’t particularly care for Rock ‘n’ Roll events — I think that they’re generic, overpriced, and I don’t like that they buy out local races and then smatter their corporate-ness all over the race…but in this case, the price was too good to pass up.

Having suffered no substantial injuries by the time mid-July was upon me, I steeled my resolve to cross one more race off of my Revenge Tour’s hit list.

RACE WEEKEND

Carnage.

The scene from about 12 hours before the start of the race

My old roommate Ben decided to drive in from Ohio to run the race as well, and he would be sleeping on a couch at my apartment for the weekend. This reunion was trouble for both of us right from the start. Ben got into town around 6pm on Friday, and after a subsequent 8 hours of never seeing the bottom of a pint glass, we finally left the last pub around 2am to get some sleep. This was all on Friday, though — we figured one big night would be okay, so long as we went easy on Saturday.

We did not go easy on Saturday. Let me present the following 2 related facts:

  1. There was a Jason Aldean concert at Wrigley Field on that Saturday night, which is just a ¼-mile north of where I live.
  2. I happen to live right across the street from a country bar.

Sometime after Ben and I had each ordered our 4th 40-oz beer apiece at the Houndstooth Saloon, we had something that comes close to the following discussion:

It was a lot of beer

It was a lot of beer

Me:  “This … this got out of hand. We should probably call it quits after our waitress brings us our last, uh, 40. You realize that’s 3 and one-third beers per 40-0z bottle, right?”

Ben:  “WOOOOOO CARB-LOADING!!”

Me:  “Well yeah, but, we’re racing 13.1 miles tomorrow, and we’re each drinking more than 13.1 beers today. In one sitting. That girl over there is a nurse, and she told me that she thinks we’re idiots.”

Ben:  “She likes me better anyway, and you worry too much.”

We somehow woke up the next morning by 4:45am, because the race started at 6:30 and we’d scheduled a cab coming to pick us up at 5:15am. In the morning.

“Dude…I don’t feel so great this morning,” Ben groaned. Funny, that.

20130721_054254We picked up our friend Kat on the way, checked our bags at Gear Check, and tried to relax a bit before the race started. I felt more or less okay at 6am, but I was certain that my tune would change after an hour or so of hard running. It was early enough that my hangover hadn’t really even had a chance to kick in.

I badly, badly wanted to exact revenge upon this specific race, but I hadn’t exactly set myself up for success.

I have nowhere else to put this photo, so I'm going to stick it here -- I've never been the first one to use a port-o-potty, until the morning of the Rock 'n' Roll Half Marathon. It was glorious.

I have nowhere else to put this photo, so I’m going to stick it here — I’ve never been the first one to use a port-o-potty, until the morning of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Half Marathon. It was glorious.

THE RACE

Based on the 07:02/mile pace I’d run at the Soldier Field 10-miler in May, I lined up with the 07:15 pace group for the Rock ‘n’ Roll half, hoping to break 1:35 if the stars aligned. In reality, I would have been delighted with anything starting with a 1:3_, but I felt like aiming high.

One thing conspiring against me, though, aside from the 13.33333 beers I’d drank the night before, was the weather — even though the race started at 6:30am, it was still July in Chicago. The temperatures would hit the high 70s & low 80s sooner rather than later, and I wasn’t looking forward to it.

As the clock turned to 6:31 and we runners were released from our holding pen, I was startled by the speed at which our pacers started. It felt way faster than a 07:15/mile pace,  but I didn’t feel like I was in a position to pipe up.

Jesus-Christ-riding-a-velociraptor, I thought to myself, am I THAT hungover?! How am I already wheezing after running a 07:15/mile clip for only half a mile?

No, the pacers provided by Chicago Endurance Sports were just bad at their job. We hit the first mile marker in a time of 06:50; for those of you that went to a state school like myself and need help with the math, that’s damn near half-a-minute faster per mile than we were aiming for.

“Sorry about that! Got a little excited and pumped up on adrenaline!” cried out a mustachioed pacer, who had apparently forgotten that many people run with pace groups specifically to avoid burning out too early. After this semi-apology, though, he didn’t slow down one bit. Thankfully, we had another pacer running with the group as well, a perturbed-looking Australian who sped up and grabbed the other pacer by the arm to reel him in.

“7:15 pace group, stick with me!” shouted our Aussie protagonist at Mile 2, as his Broke-Ass Magnum P.I. Sidekick (or “BAMPIS,” for short) continued to gallop and range about 20 feet in front of the group. Several of us behind the Aussie pacer exchanged bemused glances – I hadn’t ever seen this type of friction between pacers before. Because, you know…why would there ever be friction between pacers? The pacer’s responsibility is to run at a steady, pre-determinted pace, a pace that’s normally much slower than what they’re capable of running. Big races like Rock ‘n’ Roll events often have multiple pacers per pace group, in case one of the pacers twists and ankle or develops some random cramping and has to drop out, but usually the pacers can at least agree on how fast they’re supposed to be running. Not these two, though.

The course itself was pretty great for these opening miles, running over the Chicago River and through the man-made canyons of wrought-iron and steel buildings that surrounded us on each side as we raced through downtown Chicago. The crowd support wasn’t anything like what you’d see during the Chicago Marathon, but a big crowd had still turned out for the race, and most of the course was lined with cheering spectators to keep everyone chugging along.

In the lime green, this is what I looked like around Mile 4 or 5

In the lime green, this is what I looked like around Mile 4 or 5

I felt good, but not great. Perhaps this was to be expected – I’d never, ever started a half marathon this fast, and my pre-race carb-loading strategy had been…well, let’s call it “unconventional.” At Mile 4, though, my concerns turned toward the Aussie pacer that was actually running at a 07:15/mile pace. He was sweating profusely, breathing heavy, and leaning forward a little too much to go unmentioned.

“Hey man, I don’t mean to offend you, but I have to ask…are you feeling all right?” I asked him.

“Yeah mate, I’m fine,” he responded, in delightfully stereotypical fashion.

“Okay, I’ll take your word for it.”

We ran our 5th mile at a 07:25 clip, and I decided that he was being a little misleading about how good he was really feeling. I ran ahead to try and catch up with BAMPIS, who seemed to be running at a more reasonable pace now. I never saw the Aussie pacer again, confirming my suspicions that he was struggling more than he was letting on. I hope he ended up okay (I have literally no idea what happened to him), and I hope he was responsible enough to tell the people running alongside him that he was dropping down/out.

Somewhere between Mile 6 and Mile 7, as the course emerged from the shaded urban canyon and onto Michigan Avenue in front of a throng of spectators, I had a decision to make. Should I keep pressing, I asked myself, or should I dial it back to make sure that I finish without hating my life? At this point, I was still on pace to run a 1:35…but it wasn’t a sure thing. Conversely, I knew that even if I scaled back, I would still probably break that 1:40 threshold and get this race’s monkey off my back.

As I turned onto Michigan Avenue and felt the full brunt of the rising sun for the first time all morning, my decision was made for me. I could still feasibly record a new PR, but maintaining this pace was out of the question. I decided to let BAMPIS and the rest of the gang scamper ahead without me, and I eased my foot off the throttle.

Once I made the decision to dial it back, the race became much simpler, if maybe a little less exciting. I did the math early and realized that so long as I kept an 08:00/mile pace or better (which felt more than comfortable at this stage), I would set a new PR. It then became a matter of passing the time and keeping myself entertained, which wouldn’t prove easy.

Once the course turned on Michigan, I continued on that trajectory for damn near 3 miles. There were no turns, and no spectators. The sun was out and the crowds had disappeared, because nobody watches a half-marathon that far south on Michigan, and for a spell I became lost in my own mind. I don’t remember what questions I asked myself, I only know that I didn’t have any of the answers. (Ed. Note: As I type this, that last sentence doesn’t make any sense whatsoever, but in the moment I swear it was absolute fact).

I was annoyed that each step south took me further away from the Start/Finish area. Yeah, I knew that I would end up running a USATF-certified 13.1 miles when it was all over, but there was something mentally-defeating about continually running away from where I wanted to be at the end. Shortly before or after the 10-mile mark, I was grateful that the course started bending east, if only to inject a little variety.

As the course turned toward McCormick Place, I groaned; every downtown Chicago race along the lake runs through the tunnel underneath McCormick place at some point, a 1/4-mile stretch where it is always muggy, dimly lit, and thoroughly unenjoyable. As I approached the McCormick Place underbelly this time, though, I was surprised to see rows upon rows of flashing lights and strobes set up to welcome the runners. There was a DJ at the entrance, and the lights and speakers extended more than halfway down the foreboding McCormick tunnel, transforming a normally dark & mundane strip of pavement into something that was actually interesting. I have to tip my cap to the folks who organized the race for that.

Over the last 2 miles, I yo-yo’d with a girl who dominated all of the mild uphill stretches, but seemed to run out of gas at the crest of each (very) mild peak. I only mention this because she was exceedingly attractive, which is why I noticed her in the first place, and her existence was somewhat noteworthy. I didn’t say it was a good story.

As we roared up Columbus Avenue with the finish line in sight, I knew that a PR was certain, and I found a new gear that I was positive I didn’t possess at this point in the race. I blew past a number of runners who probably didn’t get blackout-drunk the night before, and I crossed the finish line in a time of 1:37:35. I’d broken my previous PR by more than 3 minutes, and I couldn’t have been more shocked to have done so as I was in that moment.

Ben and myself, sometime post-race

Ben and myself, sometime post-race

POST-RACE

After I picked up my bag from Gear Check, I saw a text message from Ben on my phone – he’d somehow run sub-1:30 in his hungover state, which was good for a monster PR for him as well. When I found him lying next to a curb off of Columbus Drive, though, he looked like he was knocking on death’s door; he didn’t look so hot for a man who had just run faster than he’d ever run before.

We sat in silence for a while. Whenever either of us undertook the struggle to form words, it was brief. I’d mention how I felt like shit, he would say the same. I’d look at him side-eyed and say, “Did we really just do that?” Ben couldn’t even bring himself to laugh. I truly believe that he wanted to die.

Post-race

Post-race

We waited for our friend Kat to finish and then we headed over to the post-race party for our one free MICHELOB ULTRA, which might be the most Rock-n-Roll-Half-Marathon thing ever. There was a band playing, and they were good, but all I wanted to do after drinking my water Michelob Ultra was go home and take a nap. And eventually I did, and it was glorious.

…And then I woke up, learned that some friends were out at the bar, and I started it up all over again.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Sadly, I learned all the wrong lessons from my pre-race transgressions — I didn’t do a damn thing by the book, but my overall level of fitness has fortunately improved enough that I was able to overcome my shambolic carb-loading strategy enough to set a new PR. With cooler temperatures and a clearer head, I feel confident that I can dip below 1:35 sooner rather than later.

Right now, though, I couldn’t care less about how much faster I could have run, I just know how fast I did run. I came into the race looking to banish a demon borne from multiple bad experiences with this course, and I did just that. I’m not exactly tripping over myself in a rush to sign up for another Rock ‘n’ Roll event, but this race definitely exceeded my (admittedly low) expectations.

Now, if I can just get myself to focus on some dedicated speedwork, I might be able to go as low as…

Posted in Drankin' Reports, Race Reports | 1 Comment

Day #453 — Grandma’s Marathon (Duluth, MN — 6/22/2013)

I'm the guy with the medal and the tremendous beard

I’m the handsome devil with the medal and the resplendent beard. On the far right in Jon VanDanacker, who won the Men’s 50+ division

Growing up, before I’d even run 5 miles in one stretch, Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth had a special meaning to me.

My biggest running influence has always been my Uncle Craig, who married into the family about 20 years ago when he got hitched to my Aunt Helen. His running credentials are impressive: he holds a marathon PR around 2:33, and Athlinks.com credits him with at least 7 sub-3:00 marathons going only back to 1996, which is 3 years after he ran that 2:33 PR in 1993. He says he’s run more sub-3:00 marathons than that, which aren’t listed, and I believe him. At age 39, Craig Yotter ran the 2000 Twin Cities Marathon in 2:39:49. Dude is faaaast.

Back in junior high, when the longest run of my life was still just a 5K, Uncle Craig was throwing down full marathons at a 6:00/mile pace. Whenever I had a running question that my cross-country coach couldn’t answer to my satisfaction, I would wait until the next extended family gathering at Easter, Thanksgiving, or Christmas, where I could ask The Man himself for his take on things.

Uncle Craig made his bones as a distance runner at Grandma’s and the Twin Cities Marathon, and he passed down fond memories of each race to me, but talking about Grandma’s Marathon always brought out that extra twinkle in his eye. He used to joke that if I ever thought about running a marathon (Ha! What a nut, right?), then Grandma’s Marathon would be the ideal place to make my debut. I’ve gone on to run other marathons elsewhere, but for as long as Uncle Craig and the rest of his family have lived in Minnesota, Grandma’s Marathon has always been in the back of my mind…

…and then, at a family gathering during the 2012 holiday season, I convinced him to sign up and go back. My Grandma’s Marathon dream would be fulfilled in 2013.

RACE WEEKEND

Sadly, Uncle Craig doesn’t run all that much anymore, due to a health condition that he describes as, “old and fat.” C-Bone hasn’t run a full marathon since he ran 3:14:49 at the Mount Rushmore Marathon in 2006 at the age of 45, so he would “only” agree to register for the 2013 Gary Bjorklund Half Marathon that weekend (the Gary Bjorklund half starts at the halfway point of the Grandma’s Marathon course, and it gets underway about an hour before the start of the full marathon).

However, he then skipped the 5-6 months of training that some would argue to be important. With a heavy heart but a clear conscience, Uncle Craig decided about a month before the race that he wouldn’t be running, but he would still be in Duluth in a supporting capacity.

Uncle Craig picked me up from the Minneapolis airport on the Friday morning before the race, and we set our compass for Silver Bay, MN, where we would be staying for the weekend at his college friend Cathy’s lake house. On the way, we picked up Masters Division ace John VanDanacker, one of Uncle Craig’s running buddies from college. John would go on to win his age division in Gary Bjorklund Half Marathon the next day with a time of 1:16:24, because fuck him, that’s why.

Thrilling expo shot in Duluth

Thrilling expo shot in Duluth

Before making it all the way up to Silver Bay, we stopped through Duluth to pick up our packets and enjoy a beer at the original Grandma’s Restaurant, the marathon’s namesake. The marathon got its name when the Grandma’s Restaurant became the race’s first major sponsor when it was founded in 1977, and while the level of sponsorship with the restaurant has changed since then, the race hasn’t changed its name in 30+ years. John told me that Grandma’s Restaurant used to be a bordello at the turn of the century, and I believe him.

GRANDMA'S!!!

GRANDMA’S!!!

With packet pickup and my daily beer out of the way, we drove the final miles to Silver Bay to meet Cathy at the lake house, where I then went to sleep the earliest I’ve ever turned in the night before a race.

PRERACE

Thankfully I was staying with someone who knew what time I needed to wake up, because in my groggy state the night before, I had set my alarm to go off in the afternoon instead of the morning. A polite knock from Cathy at 5:20am aroused me from my deep slumber, and within 15 minutes, Cathy and I were on the road from Silver Bay down to Two Harbors, MN in advance of the marathon’s 7:30am start time. Uncle Craig and John had left the house an hour earlier to get John to the starting line in time for the 6:30am start time of the half (yuck), and so if I didn’t have Cathy, I would have missed the race entirely.

The walk from the bus to the start area

The walk from the bus to the start area

Cathy dropped me off at a supermarket parking lot where I could board one of the race buses, which would shuttle us runners the remaining distance from the town of Two Harbors to the (closed-off) starting line a few miles down the road. Upon arrival, I hopped off the bus and was greeted with one of the most beautiful sights mine eyes have ever seen – seemingly hundreds of port-o-potties awaited the arriving runners, their white roofs shimmering in the early-morning sunlight like beacons of individual freedom and comfort. After taking care of business, I dropped off my gear check bag and made my way to the start corral, to find my friend Regan and everyone else running along with the 3:25 pace group**.

(**More on that pacing “strategy” below)

Port-o-Johns everywhere!

Port-o-Johns everywhere!

I don’t really remember a horn sounding or a gun going off, but shortly after 7:30am, as a parked locomotive next to us blared its whistle, we took off. It was on!

**AUTHOR’S ASIDE — I’m going to level with you, my “strategy” for running this marathon was pretty damn shambly. With zero marathon-specific training under my belt, since my training all spring had been geared toward a 50K trail ultramarathon in May, I decided to pace myself for a 3:25 for as long as I could, just to see what happened. It feels important to mention that my PR going into this race was in the 3:42-range. What could go wrong?

THE RACE

For a race that ends in small-town Duluth (population: 86,265) and starts in even podunkier Two Harbors (population: 3,745), I’ll admit that I was surprised by the congested feel of the start of the marathon. There were a lot of people packed into a small start area, which largely had to do with the fact that this point-to-point marathon runs along a 2-way highway for the majority of the race, including the starting line. There wasn’t much room to move around, but Regan and I kept our 3:25 pacer in our sights, and the congestion eased shortly past the first aid station.

The opening miles passed quickly; or, at least, as quickly as the opening miles of a marathon can pass. This was partly because I had Regan to talk to, but the pace itself also had something to do with it – I was running faster than I’d ever run before in a marathon. I was certain that I would NOT be able to keep up this pace for the whole race, but with somewhat-realistic hopes of finishing in the 3:30-3:35 range, I figured it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world to bank a little time before dropping back to a more reasonable pace.

(Yes, I realize that it rarely works that way — after all, when was the last time you heard a coach say “For your best race, go out and run the first half of your race about 45 seconds/mile faster than you think you’ll finish it,” anyway? Never. But, it seemed like an okay idea at the time.)

For the first 8 miles, Regan and I ranged just ahead of the 3:25 pace group, which was a large bunch of 25-30 runners tucked in behind the official pacer. We had a light tailwind for virtually the entire race, but there were times when the wind would change directions and come at us from the front or the side. This initial course took us through rolling countryside, with very little spectator support, and I’m sure the scenery would have been lovelier under non-marathoning circumstances.

It was after about 8 miles that I told Regan that I was going to drop back and tuck in behind the pace group peloton so as to avoid the headwinds completely, and I assumed he would follow suit. Instead, he gave me a thumbs-up and effortlessly upped his pace; within seconds, he had opened up a large gap on the chasing back. I hope I don’t see you again this race, friend, I thought to myself as he sped away. This was Regan’s first full marathon, and he was killing it.

The weather was ideal for running, 50-degrees and overcast, but the low clouds and fog in places obscured the views of the rolling, rural countryside on either side of the road. I was able to catch glimpses of Lake Superior here and there, but for the most part my gaze remained ever-forward. It felt like I was flying, but this also concerned me.

I crossed the halfway timing mat in 1:41:56, which would have been good enough for my 2nd-fastest half-marathon ever if those first 13.1 miles were a standalone race. This was a problem. It was around this point that my legs first started to rebel, and while I resolved to stay with the 3:25 pacer for as long as I could, I knew that sooner or later I would need to drop back if I wanted to avoid a repeat of my crazy bonk at the Martian Marathon back in April.

That breaking point came at the aid station just past Mile 15, when I simply couldn’t carry on at a sub-8:00/mile pace anymore. Without a word, I waved goodbye to my pace group and took a long, leisurely walk break as I collected my Powerade, water, and ice-water sponge at the aid station. (BONUS: I counted at least 5 aid stations after Mile 13 that had ice-water sponges available, and there may have been more. It wasn’t hot out, but I loved the planning. Good looks, Grandma’s Marathon. I see you.) This prolonged rest break felt incredible, and I threw my head back and smiled when I decided that I wouldn’t try to catch up to the 3:25 group. Maybe I could have caught them, maybe not…but the important thing was that I didn’t want to find out.

It was here where I turned off the visual display on my GPS watch, content to let it run in the background without actually looking at my pace & distance. I focused on running at a comfortable pace, not caring about time anymore. And it felt great.

Making the conscious decision to reel in my pace before my legs were completely wasted was the best decision I could have made, and it’s the reason that I was able to run all the way to the finish line.

The beard. My god.

The beard, which I hadn’t shaved since the Ice Age 50K. My God.

The course continued a series of lazy, gradual ascents & descents as the miles rolled on. I had some more views of Lake Superior on my left at times, but the soupy fog continued to limit visibility to just a few hundred feet, if that. As we runners steamed into the outskirts of Duluth somewhere around Mile 19, crowds appeared out of nowhere to lend their full voice in support of the race. This was actually a bit startling, as I’d grown accustomed to running in silence, hearing nothing but my own breathing and the pitter-patter of footsteps around me.

One particularly bubbly girl, amidst a crowd of boozy college-age spectators, pointed straight at me and shouted, “SHOW ME YOUR BOOBS!!!” I laughed and began to oblige her request, and then I looked down and saw that my left nipple was bleeding through my shirt.

Oh.

I grabbed a large handful of petroleum jelly at the Mile 20 aid station and slathered up both halves of my chest, all the while cursing the fact that evolution had not yet robbed men of our nipples. Why do I need nipples? What purpose do nipples serve on men, other than to be pierced if some guy wants to let everyone know that nothing is out of play psychologically? Anyway, I digress.

Thankfully, the petroleum jelly did the trick, and I was able to run the rest of the race (mostly) pain-free. Perhaps more importantly, I was keeping up my pace: the mile where I stopped to apply petroleum jelly was the only mile of my marathon that took more than 9 minutes, and I was able to keep the pace in the low-to-mid-8s for the rest of the way. Somehow, my pre-race strategy was actually working. Running sub-3:30 was no longer in play, but going sub-3:35 was a real possibility. EXCITING.

At Mile 21, some gracious bros offered me my choice of Miller Lite, Bud Heavy (WHY?!), or Coors Light, and I slowed down to grab a Silver Bullet before continuing my journey. Every marathon PR that I’ve set since Fall 2011 has involved drinking some beer during the race, and I wasn’t about to jeopardize that streak. I had promised my Uncle Craig that I wouldn’t drink a FULL beer during the race if offered one (yes, he asked), but I sucked down a good 2/3 of the can before dumping the rest and tossing it in a trash can.

Photo taken by Uncle Craig, who I didn't notice at all during the race

Photo taken by Uncle Craig, who I didn’t notice at all during the race

Uncle Craig had warned me to watch out for Lemondrop Hill shortly after Mile 22, which is the only extended uphill stretch of note during the entire marathon. To put it in perspective to fellow Chicagoans, Lemondrop Hill is of about the same length and incline as “Mount Roosevelt” at the end of the Chicago Marathon; it’s nothing too crazy, but it feels steeper and longer than it really is, simply because you’ve been running on flat terrain for so long.

As I reached the base of Lemondrop Hill, though, “Written In the Stars” by Tinie Tempah began blaring from a nearby DJ station, and it was game on. With one of the great workout songs reverberating around me, I OWNED Lemondrop Hill. I dare you to try to listen to this song and this beat and not want to run through a brick wall:

As I reached the top of Lemondrop Hill, I allowed myself a small fist-pump before putting my game face back on. I had 3-4 miles to go, and in my mind, I was home-free.

Somewhere around Mile 23 or 24, we entered downtown Duluth and started running over cobblestone streets. Cobblestone. Whoever decided that it was a good idea to run the final 3 miles of a popular marathon over cobblestones should be drawn and quartered. I thought my legs were aching before I hit this stretch, but they cried out in pain as I ran over these thousands of tiny, uniquely-shaped bricks. For shame, Grandma’s Marathon — you’re better than that.

But the crowds were out in force now, and I’m a vain bastard who feeds off of that shit, so the consistent cheering and attention made things feel a whole lot easier. After a final mile that included AT LEAST 90-95 twists and turns which made you think that the finish line was juuuust around the next corner, I finally crossed the line with a chip time of 3:33:26. With a light rain falling around me, I had shaved 8 minutes & 8 seconds off of my previous marathon PR.

Can YOU spot the bloody nipple?

Can YOU spot the bloody nipple?

As I tried to wipe a combination of sweat and light mist off of my face, I made a mental note that it was time to get rid of that horrendous beard. As I picked up my marathon finisher’s shirt, which they only gave out AFTER the race (I liked that part), I made my way to the finish line party to rejoin Uncle Craig, Cathy, and John, and bask in my PR glory.

POST-RACE

I seriously enjoy this picture

I seriously enjoy this picture

I’ll be blunt and up front — Grandma’s Marathon knows how to throw a post-race party. The weather was legitimately cold by this point (I think I would have died without my jacket), but it was warmer inside the tent where the band was playing, and thankfully we were never in danger of running out of beer.

Inside the post-race tent

Inside the post-race tent

As the band played on, and as Uncle Craig was busy making sure that I never saw the bottom of my glass, a table next to us starting stacking all of their empty cups. It was strangely riveting to see how high they could go:

20130622_115715

After a minimum of one beer too many, we finally left to drive back north to Silver Bay. After a wonderful power nap, I woke up to join Uncle Craig, John, and Cathy again for some pizza and beer as we all watched the Twins game.

The next morning, as I went for a short 2-3 mile shake-out run with John and Uncle Craig, I heard the words from my uncle that I’d been waiting to hear all weekend:

“You know…I think I could do this next year.”

To that, I say BRING IT ON!

Me and The Man. And my bear.

Me and The Man.

Posted in Race Reports | 5 Comments

Day #411 — The Ice Age 50K (La Grange, WI — 5/11/2013)

IMG_1497

I'm just gonna leave this here, at the top, to lend a bit of belated credibility to this post.

I’m just gonna leave this here, at the top, to lend a bit of belated credibility to this post.

Author’s Note: Hand on heart, I thought that I’d published this entry about a month ago. But then I, uh, apparently didn’t. This blog is in f**king shambles.

20 minutes before I was set to run further than I’d ever run in my life, I briefly panicked. I’d slept like shit the night before. I felt like I hadn’t run enough trails as part of my training. The final 40% of my longest long run leading up to this race, the Martian Marathon in mid-April, was a disaster. When Dan Solera (a recurring character in this blog) and I had come up to Wisconsin to run these same trails 2 weeks earlier, to familiarize ourselves with the course, I’d hit a wall after 14 miles and had to stagger back to the parking lot. And on this day, it was raining. This was going to suck.

What would the trail conditions be like? How would I hold up during such a long race, on a technical course? What the hell was I doing here?

And then, 5 minutes before the 8:15am start time, the sun came out. It’s amazing what a little sunlight breaking through an inexhaustible dreariness can do to your disposition, and the cloud over my brow seemed to dissipate along with the clouds in the sky. With Dan on one side of me and Jeff on the other (more on him in a bit), I was standing next to the 2 people who were the reason I was here in the first place — that was good company to be among. Dan’s father-in-law Steve, the man responsible for lighting a fire under Dan’s fledgling running career in the first place, was standing about 20 feet away. I had friends out on the course already, who had started the Ice Age’s 50-mile race 2 hours earlier, and another friend would be starting the Ice Age half marathon about an hour after we got underway.

As I looked up at the clearing sky, I was surrounded by people who were so stoked to be out here running that they were openly applauding the sun as it finally peeked out from behind the clouds. I had my health, I had my friends, and a gorgeous course beckoned out to be trod upon.

In the middle of this kind of company, on this kind of day, how could I be anything other than EXCITED??

I gradually stopped feeling nervous; instead, I felt fortunate. And with the starter’s signal, I took my first step forward into the great unknown, with a goofy smile on my face.

BACKGROUND

Myself and Dan

Myself and Dan, pre-race

Over the past several months, Dan and I had/have been structuring our training with one eye on the North Country Run 50-miler on August 24th, 2013 near Wellston, MI. This has been a massive undertaking for both of us, respectively; prior to May 2013, neither of us had ever run any distance further than a marathon. In addition to upping the mileage we ran on trails and linking up with a local ultra running club called New Leaf, Dan suggested back in November that it might be a good idea to try a 50K trail run in May or June as a “warm-up” for the 50 miles we’d be running in August. I agreed, and it turned out that Dan already had a race hand-picked for the occasion — the Ice Age 50K near La Grange, WI.

We decided that this race would be perfect for a number of reasons: the race is close (enough) to Chicago that we could drive up after work; the course would be fairly technical, or at least more difficult than what we’ll encounter in Michigan; we would know a number of other people there; by all accounts, the course would be beautiful; and, at least for me, this course would have a special personal meaning. I’ve linked to this post several times in previous entries, but it’s Jeff Lung’s seminal post about his first 50-miler that made me want to run a 50-miler of my own….and his maiden run at that distance happened to come at Ice Age.

The stars were aligned for this one, and I couldn’t sign up fast enough when registration opened on December 15th. The 50K sold out in less than 48 hours, but Dan and I both got in, along with Jeff. Now all we had to do was train for the damn thing.

RACE MORNING

Race-day outfit

Race-day outfit

Though I slept fitfully the night before the race at the Super 8 in nearby Delavan, WI, at least I got some meaningful sleep. Dan and his aforementioned father-in-law Steve, however, rolled in sometime after midnight after bro’ing out at a performance of Oklahoma! at the Lyric Opera of Chicago earlier on Friday, and Dan got maybe 4 hours of sleep if he was lucky. We woke early and drove the 30 minutes from our hotel to the race’s starting line, as anticipation gnawed at my gut.

We arrived at the starting area just in time to see some of the 50-miler runners coming through the first aid station, including our friends Siamak and Paul, who Dan and I had run with regularly on Wednesday evenings. At this point, they were less than 10 miles into their race; I couldn’t fathom how far they had left to run, although that’s a reality that I will have to confront myself in a few months’ time.

Here are Dan and Steve trying to figure out what to do with Dan's drop bag. I'm including this picture here because somehow, some way, this is the only picture that either Dan or I have of Steve from race-day

Here are Dan and Steve trying to figure out what to do with Dan’s drop bag. I’m including this picture here because somehow, some way, this is the only picture that either Dan or I have of Steve from race-day

As Dan and I coped with our pre-race jitters in our own ways, Steve was surprisingly busy being a social butterfly, bumping into people that he’d run with in Wisconsin many years prior. In a way, this helped settle my nerves — Steve’s easygoing nature on race morning was infectious, and it only helped me to be around people who seemed so at ease.

We found Jeff shortly before the race, and we also unexpectedly bumped into my friend Beth just 10 minutes before the race; I’d run with her as part of a larger group just about every other weekend during the winter months, and I’d completely forgotten that she was running the Ice Age 50K as well. I was VERY relieved to see her — I knew that Dan and Jeff would likely be running well ahead of me, so it was nice to have someone to run alongside after those gazelles galloped ahead.

Jeff, Dan, and myself just before the race

Jeff, Dan, and myself just before the race

The rain stopped a few minutes before the race, the sun came out, and we were underway!

The Race

The 50k race was split into 3 sections, each section with its own unique characteristics and difficulties — the race started with a roughly 13-mile out-and-back to Horseriders Camp, after which each runner would complete two 9-mile Nordic loops.

Miles 1-13: The Out-and-Back to/from Horseriders Camp

The initial 13-mile out-and-back to Horseriders Camp starts out innocuously enough, and for runners who haven’t run the trail before, it can even lull you into a false sense of security. However, this would be the most technical stretch of the 50K course, with runners dodging rocks, roots, & downed branches while scrambling up and down steep gradients. Yet, the first 2-3 miles betrayed no such hardships ahead. Fortunately, Dan and I had driven up 2 weeks prior to scout this section of the course during a 19-mile training run, and we were (mostly) ready for it.

With Dan on one side of me and Elizabeth on the other, we set off at around a 09:00/mile splits on the opening flats — the pace was a little quicker than I was wanting, but everything was just so damn exciting. 2 weeks ago, the surrounding forest had been brown and dead; but now, after warm temperatures and steady rainfall had hit the area consistently over a 10-day period, the Kettle Moraine State Forest was truly in bloom. A lush, green canopy provided shade overhead, and a panorama of newly-born flowers and freshly-sprouted ground vegetation greeted us at every twist in the trail. I couldn’t believe just how LUSH everything looked, which was in stark contrast to what we saw just 14 days earlier.

The opening mile of rolling, “typical” trail soon gave way to a long, smooth stretch of trail surrounded by tall pines, which towered above us in regal elegance as we ran over the soft pine needles that they sought fit to discard from their branches however many seasons ago. In this moment, everything else ceased to exist except myself and the course. Dan, Beth, the other runners around us…everyone else melted away.

This is so cool, I said under my breath, to no one in particular.

I'm not shown in this picture that I lifed from the Ice Age 50's Facebook page, but these are the tall pines that we ran through. So. Effing. Cool.

I’m not shown in this picture that I lifted from the Ice Age 50’s Facebook page, but these are the tall pines that we ran through. So. Effing. Cool.

A mile later, my reverie was brought to a gradual halt by a slow climb that signaled the start of the technical section of this out-and-back section. The tall pines bade us goodbye, and I half-wondered if I had somehow teleported to this section of the course; it was as if the previous 3 miles simply hadn’t happened, such was my dreamy meditative state through which I had covered the distance. Now, though, now was the real start of the race for me.

2 weeks earlier, this stretch of trail had destroyed me – I’d been fine on the way out during that training run, but my legs were wasted on the return back. Knowing now what I didn’t know then, though, I attacked the hills in a much more controlled manner. 2 weeks earlier, I stubbornly jogged the uphills and gleefully bombed the downhills; on this day, I power-hiked the uphills and carefully controlled my momentum when running downhill. Yes, it felt a bit slow at times, but I wanted to make sure that I had legs left for the last 18 miles.

This is the same stretch of trail, only this photo is from July 2013 (when I went back to run again)

This is the same stretch of trail, only this photo is from July 2013 (when I went back to run again)

Beth and I seemed content with this fairly conservative strategy through these opening miles, since we both shared a similar goal of just wanting to finish the 50 kilometers while still feeling good. Dan, however, was starting to exhibit a few familiar signs that I’ve grown to learn are indicators that he was ready to go on ahead at a faster pace. He had gamely hung with us for these opening miles with zero complaint or prodding, but his demeanor hinted at a desire to do more, and to do it faster. He conspicuously stopped talking; I noticed him taking slightly more difficult/challenging routes up hills, perhaps subconsciously; he jogged slowly at the top of hills waiting for Beth and I to arrive, almost jogging in place at times. In short, he seemed bored.

Dan is too nice to tell anyone that they’re not fast enough for him, because that’s not in his nature. Still, like a powerful husky that has too much energy to be contained in a suburban backyard, I could tell that he needed to be set free, for his own good. And so when Beth stepped off to the side of the trail on a downhill portion to re-tie her shoe, I stepped off of the trail as well and watched Dan bomb downhill with vim and vigor, as he extended the distance between us with each leggy stride. Within 30 seconds, he was gone from view. No “Goodbye,” no “See you later,” no nothing. And like Ben Affleck in Good Will Hunting, I knew that he would be better off on his own.

Aside from the Grand Teton Marathon that I ran in September 2012, the next 8-10 miles would be the most technical race miles that I’ve ever run. We ran uphill, we ran downhill, and we ran seemingly nothing in between. The uphill portions were power-hiked, and the downhill portions were cautiously descended. These miles were all run on single-track trail, and while I think that Beth and I could have passed the runners in front of us if we were on a trail that had room to maneuver, the fact that I was forced to run conservatively probably saved my legs for the later miles.

About a mile before we hit the turnaround at Horseriders Camp, Beth and I heard a commotion in front of us. Some runner on his way back from Horseriders was whooping and hollering and congratulating everyone for being out on the course; as that runner came closer, I laughed when I realized it was Jeff. As soon as Jeff recognized me, his eyes widened as he shouted encouragement in my direction, and then he duly focused his attention on any and all runners behind me.

In the most well-meaning way that I can phrase this, Jeff reminded me of Oprah in that moment (of all people), as he bombed downhill and told everyone how great they were: “Annnnd YOU GET A PR….AND YOU GET A PR….AND YOU GET A PR!!!”

Shortly after seeing Jeff, we saw Dan come down the trail, who had put considerable distance between us. He looked strong as he made his return trip from the Horseriders Camp turnaround, and as we passed him, I mentally registered that I probably wouldn’t see my friend again until I finished.

That's me in the green

That’s me in the green

Beth and I took about a 5-minute break at the Horseriders Camp aid station, where I ate the most delicious peanut butter & jelly sandwich I’d ever had in my life. I remember telling the exuberant volunteers, “You know, I’m not even that tired, but this sandwich is incredible.” After scarfing down some M&M’s and drinking some Heed beverage, Beth and I made the 6.5-mile return trip to the start/finish area without incident, where we stopped to refuel before beginning the next section of the race.

MILES 13-22 — The 1st Nordic Loop

This is the beginning of the Nordic Loop -- this photo is from July 2013 (I added it after the original posting)

This is the beginning of the Nordic Loop — this photo is from July 2013 (I added it after the original posting)

I saw Steve standing there as I came back from the initial out-and-back section, and once I asked him, he told me that Dan was about 20-25 minutes ahead of me after only 13 miles. Rather than being deflated, I was elated — I wasn’t competing directly with Dan, so it was great to hear he was doing so well.

After an unfortunately lengthy bathroom break (remember, aspiring ultra-runners — what goes in must come out), Beth and I began the first of our two 9-mile Nordic Loops. The initial 3 miles of this 9-mile stretch would be far and away the easiest terrain we encountered on the course; it was largely a flat, fast, grassy stretch that would lend itself well to cross-country skiing in the winter. Beth and I talked about a variety of topics, including but not restricted to life, aspirations, relationships past and future, and occasionally we’d even talk about the race that we were running. All in all, it was enjoyable conversation that kept my mind off of the miles that were passing underfoot.

After about 3 miles, we countered the steepest portions of the entire 50K course, a 2-3 mile stretch of uphill and corresponding downhill jaunts. Running the uphills was simply out of the question, and so we were reduced to power-hiking at best; the downhills proved just as treacherously steep, and so we couldn’t bomb the downhills with aplomb. After this grueling middle stretch, though, we were greeted with a reasonably flat 2-3 mile stretch leading back to the start/finish area, where we would refuel before starting our final Nordic Loop.

Another photo where I'm not pictured, but I want to really hammer home how beautiful this course was

Another photo where I’m not pictured, but I want to really hammer home how beautiful this course was

Somewhere in this final flat stretch, I experienced a rare moment of comedic relief. We passed a stately gentleman who was out for a hike, and I wished him a hearty “Good morning!” as I ran past. The hiker laughed and replied, “Son, it hasn’t been ‘morning’ for 7 minutes now, you should really check your watch.” Sure enough, the time on my watch read 12:07 — it had been a long time since I’d started a race in the morning and ended in the afternoon.

As Beth and I strode into the start/finish area again after our first 9-mile Nordic Loop, I saw Steve again. Before he could say anything, I told him how great I was feeling, and how I was running exactly the race that I wanted to run. I then asked him how Dan was doing, and Steve told me that Dan was damn near an HOUR ahead of me at this point — he had somehow gained 20-30 minutes on me over the course of those middle 9 miles. It beggared belief, but I was in awe of his performance — he had set out to kill it, and he was doing it.

Beth, however, was at a crossroads. She’d been saying for a few miles now that she would probably have to cut me loose for the last Nordic Loop, and when I (gently) advised her that I was ready to head out for the last 9-mile loop, she gave me a hug and told me that I should go on without her. I say here with confidence that my first 22 miles wouldn’t have been nearly as enjoyable without her running at my side, to the point where I legitimately owe her a debt of gratitude. I reluctantly set out on my own, ready to tackle the final 9 miles. With 70% of the race behind me, I felt oddly great.

This is Beth. Beth is a tough chick.

This is Beth. Beth is a tough chick.

MILES 22-31 — The final Nordic Loop

As I set out on my own for the last Nordic Loop, it felt weirdly like a brand-new race. I had been running with friends, chatting, and talking for the previous 22-ish miles, and so this was the first time where I was well and truly alone. I found myself with the opportunity to really think for the first time all race, and my mind re-melded with the course like it did during the first 2 miles. Plain and simple, I was in the zone.

My conservative strategy for the opening 22 miles paid dividends during this last loop, as I passed runner after runner. Up to this point, I survived mostly on GU gels, Stinger waffles, and low-calorie Gatorade packets that I mixed into my water bottle; that said, my own aid wouldn’t have been sufficient for the full course, and my favorite aid station on the course was the one that appeared at Miles 18.3/27.2 on the Nordic Loop. The combination of Oreos & ginger ale I found there quelled my stomach each time I passed through, and the energy of the volunteers there pushed me along when I was starting to doubt myself.

It was right after I passed this aid station on my 2nd time through, after I’d run 27+ miles, that I allowed myself to think that I had this 50K in the bag. My legs didn’t feel *great*, but they felt good enough — I’d already run further than I ever had before, but I knew that I could make it at least another 4 miles.

With about a 1/2-mile to go, I decided to push it and see how much I had left, and I was slightly embarrassed to see that I had plenty left in the the tank. I finished my 2nd Nordic Loop in almost exactly the same time that it took me to run my 1st loop, with practically no drop-off.

As the cowbells grew louder and I crested that final hill, I saw the crowd cheering, and I started to look for familiar faces. One jumped out immediately, and quite literally, at that: Jeff was going bonkers as I neared the finish line. To this day, I don’t know how he had that much energy after he’d run a 50K himself, but with his shouts of encouragement bellowing around me, I crossed the timing mat in a net time of 6:10:38. I’ve somehow blacked out a lot of that final 200-meter sprint, but I remember that I finished grinning ear-to-ear, just like I’d started the race.

Upon finishing, I laughed when I was handed my “finisher’s medal” in the form of a rinky-dink keychain. Ah, ultrarunning!

POST-RACE

"Congratulations, you just ran 30+ miles on tough trails! Here's a keychain"

“Congratulations, you just ran 30+ miles on tough trails! Here’s a keychain”

It was shortly after I finished that I found Dan, who looked rather dead on his feet. He offered a wan smile and gave me a slap on the back, but he quickly confessed that his stomach was performing somersaults. In response, I quickly banged out a set of 10 clap push-ups to let him know that I could keep going, but I decided not to rub it in any further. After all, Dan had smoked me by almost a full hour (his official time was 5:16:45), so I didn’t really have any room for bragging.

I love races in Wisconsin

I love races in Wisconsin

After grabbing some food and a quick beer from one of AT LEAST 5 kegs in plain sight, we went back to the hotel to shower and change. Dan and Steve then headed south back to Illinois, and I returned back to the start/finish area to cheer on all the runners finishing the 50-mile event.

Here's Siamak chugging across the line at the end of his 50-mile race

Here’s Siamak chugging across the line at the end of his 50-mile race

I had debated calling it a day and just staying at the hotel instead to rest, but I’m really, really glad that I came back to watch people finish. As the clocked ticked ever-nearer to the 12-hour cut-off for the 50-mile race, it was inspiring to see so many spectators physically losing their shit while cheering for complete strangers to make it into the finish. We saw Paul from the New Leaf ultrarunners’ club come charging up that final hill to finish about 13 minutes before the cut-off, and the highlight of the day was watching 2 people I didn’t know come sprinting across the finish line with less than 20 seconds remaining before the cut-off. It was a wildly supportive environment, and one that I’m glad I got to be a part of.

FINAL THOUGHTS

So, this happened

So, this happened

I went into the day feeling extremely nervous, and I came out of the experience feeling tremendously grateful that I had the chance to run in such a great race. My support system all came through for me in their own ways: Dan, Jeff, Beth, and Steve all had a part to play in getting me through the 50K, and my experience would have suffered if any of that group had taken the day off to sit at home instead. I truly loved every fucking minute of that race, and I’d run it again at the drop of a hat. The course, aid stations, and overall organization of the Ice Age 50K were all superb.

Later that night, as I was resting at my hotel room, I ventured to look at the results, and….wait, what?!

Baaaahahaha

Baaaaaaaahahaha!

By virtue of having only 6 people in my age group, and then beating 3 of them, I had won an age group award in my first ultramarathon. Ultra-running is not a young man’s game, and I had benefited from being a member of the most sparsely-represented demographic in the field. By comparison, Dan ran a 5:16:45, which placed him a very respectable 9th out of 24 people in his 30-39 age group; if I had been just 1 year older on race day, I would have placed 16th in that division.

As my dad is fond of saying, sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good. And I’m definitely not returning my trophy.

Posted in Race Reports | 7 Comments

Day #383 — The Martian Marathon (Dearborn, MI — 4/13/2013)

IMG_1482

The thing about history, in general, is that so much depends on perspective. The 4th of July isn’t celebrated ardently by natives of London, dinosaurs may or may not have existed depending on your interpretation of the Bible (pro tip: they existed), and I imagine that a completely different version of the Korean War is being taught in the classrooms of Pyongyang. History is really just a collection of stories told from different perspectives, and who’s to say that the perspective you’re reading is the most accurate & reliable depiction of events?

This next bit is a BIG jump from talking about war and religion, but race recaps really aren’t all that different in that regard. Every runner has their own different reason for running a certain race, and those unique, individual motivations will serve to bend the arc of each runner’s race narrative. The fastest runners may choose to focus on physical qualities of the course such as its layout, its elevation profile, or the frequency/quality of aid stations; the more easygoing/recreational runners may spend more time writing about the race’s expo, the crowd support, the scenery, and some of the other race details that the speed freaks may overlook. Perspective is everything.

The whole tone of a race recap will depend on what the writer wanted to get out of the race, and how actual events matched those expectations. Depending on whose write-up you read, and if the respective authors have done a good job bringing you into their world, you may ask yourself if you’re really reading about two entirely different races.

And then, every so often, you’ll read a write-up that’s so devoid of anything in common with what others have written about the race, that you’ll wonder if the author even ran the race at all.

Unfortunately, this is that kind of recap, because that’s what happens when you show up to the starting line 40 minutes late.

Let’s get into it, shall we?

BACKGROUND/PRE-RACE — Motivations and Misreads

I registered to run the 2013 Martian Marathon in an effort to receive guaranteed entry into the 2014 Chevron Houston Marathon, a marathon that lets runners skip its lottery-style registration if they’ve achieved a certain qualifying time. When early registration opened last year (in May 2012) for the 2013 Houston Marathon, that qualifying standard was a 4-hour marathon, and the qualifying race had to have been run in January 2012 or later. That meant that runners only had a 5-month window in which to run a sub-4 hour marathon; for example, a 3:40 marathon run on December 31st, 2011 wouldn’t have counted for anything. I had no reason to believe that anything would change for the following year’s marathon, and you might start to see where I’m going with this.

When I registered for the 2013 Martian Marathon in February 2013, I believed that I needed to run a sub-4 hour marathon sometime after January 1st, 2013. But then sometime after I signed up, the good folks at the Houston Marathon announced that qualifying times for the 2014 event could date back all the way to January 2012, and the time could come from a 10K, a half-marathon, OR a marathon…all of a sudden, I found myself with EIGHT different races from 2012-13 that I could use as a qualifying time. Hooray! But also, well, shit.

Simply put, I had no practical reason to run the Martian Marathon anymore…but the race already had my money.

Not wanting to waste a registration fee, I decided to go ahead and run the marathon anyway. It would be good to try and run a fast-ish marathon again after my 5-1/2 hour slugfest last October, and my college friend Michelle had offered up a couch at her apartment in nearby Ferndale, MI for the weekend. The race was being run on a Saturday, so I left Chicago around lunchtime on Friday and pointed my compass in the direction of Detroit.

Race Expo

ALIENS!

The lively & efficient race expo featured more inflatable Martians in one place than I’ll ever see again in my life (probably?), and packet pickup took all of about 5 minutes. After dinner on Friday night, I went to sleep weirdly early for me, because I had BIG plans for the next day…with no pressure of having to run a qualifying time to get into Houston, I resolved to instead go balls-to-the-walls and pace myself for my fastest marathon ever, mostly because I couldn’t think of a good reason not to.

As I was falling asleep, I read an update from on the race’s Facebook age that the out-and-back marathon course was being changed to a 13.1-mile double-loop because of flooding on part of the course, but that we shouldn’t worry, because this new course would still be USATF-certified. That’s right, the backup course would be USATF-certified for anyone trying to qualify for Boston (or Houston!), because the Martian Marathon directors are awesome.

The next morning, though, everything went to shit for me, which brings us to a new segment tentatively called “How Not to Race a Marathon.”

NOW PRESENTING: HOW NOT TO RACE A MARATHON

  1. Show up to the starting line about 40 minutes late, preferably because of a stupid, completely avoidable reason. Like….oh, I don’t know, maybe you forgot your bib on your friend’s coffee table, along with the attached timing chip. This is a REALLY great idea if your friend lives 30 minutes away from the race you’re running, and you don’t realize that you forgot your bib until you’re parking near the starting line. Nothing prepares you to run your best race like turning a 30-minute drive into a frenzied hour-and-a-half back-and-forth debacle, amiright?
  2. Don’t stretch beforehand, even when the weather is in the 30s. This will mostly be because you’re arriving late and don’t even think about stretching, but don’t worry, stretching is for pussies. You’ll probably pull a muscle at some point in the race, but who cares?
  3. Park really far away from the starting line, too — at least a mile, if you can manage it, especially when you know that you’ll probably be running to the starting line. Marathons are cool, but do you know what’s cooler? UNOFFICIAL ULTRAMARATHONS.
  4. THE NIGHT BEFORE THE RACE — if you have back problems, accept your friend’s offer of a couch, and don’t bother to bring an air mattress. Don’t even consider the possibility that the couch may not be long enough for you, or that it may have a specific sag right in the small of your back that probably wouldn’t be a problem for anyone under 5’10”. Wake up with an achy back and a strained groin, weirdly enough. Scold yourself often on the drive to the starting line (which, again, is now 3 times as long as it should be!), and spend lots of time wondering how you pulled a groin while sleeping.
  5. Go out too fast. Like, way too fast. Allow yourself to instinctively speed up once the 10K leaders start passing you, whose race started 5 minutes after you crossed the starting line to run your stupid marathon all by yourself, you dumb shit.
  6. When the time comes, bonk and hit the wall with such force that you wake up a small child in Asia. If possible, do this before Mile 17, so that you know you still have 15K to run with a failing body.
  7. I don’t know, maybe roll an ankle, too? You might as well.

Okay, that was both fun and cathartic. Now, back to your regularly-scheduled race recap:

THE “WHOOPS-I-FORGOT-MY-BIB” SHITSTORM OF EARLY APRIL 13TH, 2013

Losin' Myself on the drive from Dearborn back to Ferndale

Losin’ Myself on the drive from Dearborn back to Ferndale

As you may have been able to determine from that previous section, I drove all the way from Ferndale to Dearborn before I realized that I left my race bib on the coffee table. What ensued was a panicked 30-minute drive back to Michelle’s apartment, during which I asked myself more than once if I really wanted to run this marathon, followed by another 30-minute return to Dearborn. By the time I arrived back in Dearborn, the downtown area was packed with runners, with traffic moving at a crawl. After an excruciating search for parking, I finally parked about a mile away from the starting line.

I ran straight from my car to the starting line, eschewing gear check, and I despairingly asked a volunteer if she could kindly tell me if the revised marathon course started with a left turn or a right turn after the initial straightaway. The marathon started at 7:15am, and I crossed the timing mats at the starting line at 7:55am, just minutes before the scheduled 8:00am start of the 5K & 10K races.

THE ACTUAL RACE ITSELF

I started the 2013 Martian solo time trial from hell Marathon the same way that I would eventually end it — all by myself.

The modified course started out running alongside a nice-looking golf course, at the end of which I asked a police officer if I was supposed to turn right or left (I turned right). This must be how the Kenyans feel,” I told a bewildered volunteer at the first aid station I reached, “because there is just NOBODY around me.” Everybody loves joking about how fast Kenyans are. I decided to pace myself for a 3:30 marathon with level 08:00/mile splits (my previous marathon PR being 3:41:34), and with no one else near me, I found myself paying extra attention to my GPS watch to stay on target. Despite pacing myself for an 11+ minute PR, I couldn’t help but think that if I ran just a little faster, I might catch up with some of the walkers a little earlier…

Running a race all by yourself sucks. Being in last place sucks.

But do you know who loves cheering for the guy in last place? EVERYONE. There weren’t a lot of spectators out on the course, but every last one of them had a kind word for me as I ran by with a sheepish grin. I was running fast enough that everyone knew that something must have happened for me to be running alone in the back of the pack, but I wasn’t running fast enough for anyone to think that I was leading the race and on my 2nd lap. More than a few spectators joked that they were pretty sure I was winning, anyway, and as I had no one running around me (have I mentioned that yet?!), I was grateful for pretty much any interaction that I could get.

After I banked a few sub-8:00 miles to start things off, the course took a turn into a neighborhood, where I was relieved to find the course well-marked by cones, signs, and chalk arrows. As I ran into the neighborhood, I came across some other runners coming out of the neighborhood, which gave me some encouragement that I would soon be running among a crowd soon enough. The concrete roads of these neighborhood streets weren’t doing my calves & back any favors, but the course was very flat and undoubtedly fast.

It was somewhere between Miles 6 & 7 where I caught up to the first marathon walkers, and by the end of Mile 7, I’d reeled in another half-dozen more. It was around this point were some girls who looked a little too young to be saying these things told me that I was the cutest marathoner they’d seen all day, and since they had seen LITERALLY EVERYONE ELSE WHO WAS RUNNING THE MARATHON (except the 6 people now behind me), I decided that this was a genuine compliment and they were in no way saying it just because I happened to be the one person running in front of them at that very moment.

The miles dragged on, I passed more walkers, and I was able to keep a consistent pace hovering just under an 08:00/mile average. Before long, I was passing some people who were actually running, and this was an immeasurable boost to the ol’ morale.

Mile 11 took us through a nice wooded area, which provided a refreshing change of scenery from the neighborhood streets and highways I’d been running along up to that point. The only drawback of this section was that it ran near UM-Dearborn’s campus, where an alumni club was playing “Hail To the Victors” on a stereo like we were running on the University of Michigan’s main Ann Arbor campus and not U-of-M Junior. I am nothing if not a respectful Michigan State alum, so I outwardly flashed a big smile while mentally flipping them all the middle finger in my mind, and I pressed on toward the end of my first loop.

I hit the 13.1 mile mark in almost exactly 1:45, which would have put me on pace for my 3:30 goal if I could just keep it up…and then I started my 2nd loop.

I’ve learned that I do not like double-loop courses.

Passing all of the sights I’d already seen once before sapped both my physical energy and my hitherto indomitable spirit, and I found myself taking a l-o-o-o-o-ng walk break at the first aid station just past the golf course. Somewhere between Miles 16 & 17, I hit what felt like The Wall. It was way too early for The Wall.

The tightness began in my upper back — not my quads, hamstrings, calves, or arches, but my upper back. After stopping to stretch and take a minute’s walk break, I started running again, and was pleased to discover that this was apparently just a mini-wall; the stretching and the walk break seemed to do the trick. I was running sub-9:00 miles again, but it wouldn’t last for long. Soon enough, my splits turned to 9:25, 9:04, and 9:28, and it was with my first 10:00+ split of 10:23 in the 24th mile when I finally accepted that a new PR was probably slipping away.

After logging a labored 11:04 split in the 25th mile, I was able to at least muster the energy for a somewhat-dignified jog across the finish line. For the first time in my life, nobody  had passed me during a race, and I staggered across the finish line with a final time of 3:49:00. My final 3 miles were all run at slower than a 10:00/mile pace, but my opening half-marathon split ensured that I would be walking away from the Martian Marathon having run my 2nd-fastest marathon ever.

If I had needed a sub-4 hour qualifying time for Houston, well, I had it in the end…along with some pretty damn sweet bling:

This race bib is epic -- how did I drive to the starting line without it?

This race bib is epic — how did I drive to the starting line without it?

POST-RACE

When I say that I “staggered” across the finish line, I mean that in the literal sense of the word. I finished shortly before the start of the Kids’ Marathon (PLEASE CLICK ON THAT LINK, it is an awesome initiative but just too lengthy to get into here), and while I received a moral boost when I was given one of the coolest marathons I’ve ever laid eyes upon, the death march back to my car reminded me just how stupid it was to have gone out that fast. Every step brought strange new pain, and once back at the car, I finally allowed myself a good post-race stretch in the parking lot.

I was thankful that the race was on a Saturday (as opposed to a Sunday), because I’m not sure if I could have handled a 4-1/2 hour drive back to Chicago immediately after the race. Michelle treated me to a glorious burger and several local craft beers, after which I took one of the most satisfying naps of my life on the same couch that felt so uncomfortable the night before.

Delicious burgers can cure a lot of ills

Delicious burgers can cure a lot of ills

FINAL THOUGHTS, or “A LESSON IN HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE”

After all that, perhaps you can now understand why I chose to begin this entry with a quick word about historical perspective — for better or for worse, I don’t think this race recap will resemble anything else you read about the 2013 Martian Marathon. I’m not disappointed that I failed to PR, but I do rue the fact that I put myself in a position where I couldn’t properly enjoy and soak in all of the great things this race had to offer.

Instead of spending many words lavishing praise on the race directors for somehow still holding a marathon in the face of historic flooding, that bit was instead relegated to a footnote in my story about how I can’t properly pack a race bag. And that’s not fair to the race, but it was no more than I deserved.

So, all snark aside, let me take this moment to lavish praise upon the people behind the Martian Marathon.

They could have canceled the race, but they figured out a way to make it work. They could have told me to fuck off when I showed up to the starting line 40 minutes late, but they let me run the race and record an official finishing time. They could have tried to just make money with this race, but they instead chose to involve the entire community and put on an event that the city of Dearborn could genuinely, legitimately be proud of.

More than anything, that’s what I’ll remember about the 2013 Martian Marathon — not what could have been, but what actually was.

There will be other marathons, but I’m glad that I ran this one.

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