DISCLAIMER: I thought about breaking this up into 3 different sections, but I decided that I want it all in one place. Feel free to jump around between sections, as each section has its own unnecessarily-large heading. I outlined my reasons for attempting this folly in a previous post, so for the sake of brevity, I think we can jump right into it.
For those just joining, the upshot of July 28th was this: in the span of less than 12 hours, I planned to run 3 races over 2 states, with the starting lines a combined 200+ miles apart. This is the story of the longest day of my life.
RACE #1 — THE BTN B1G 10k (7:40am start in Chicago, IL — 104th out of 2,636 finishers)
How fast should I run?
When plotting out multiple races in the same day, this is an important question. The B1g 10K was my original target race, the only race of the day in which I was hell-bent on setting a new PR, and I wanted to run well. However, with a half-marathon and a 5K still to run later on in the day, I was also aware that I may need to hold something left in my reserves to fuel me for the further 16.2 miles of racing to do after this event. I wrestled with my decision about the pace for this first race, and so I asked a number of my runner friends for their personal opinions.
There were two schools of thought to this, and the split in advice was about 50/50; half of them advised caution, while the other half gave advice along the lines of: “Screw it, this is going to be a pretty weird day anyway, so you may as well just go for it and hope it falls into place.” If you know even a little bit about how impulsive I can be regarding my running at times, then you’ll have a pretty good idea of which route I opted for. Not knowing when my next chance to run a 10K would come, I honestly think I only needed one person to give me their blessing for me to run “fast.” My afternoon races be damned, I was going to give the B1G 10K my best shot.
The race didn’t start until 7:40am, but I arrived at Soldier Field to park around 6:30am — with my tight schedule, I was paranoid about making sure I found parking near an exit. Even arriving more than a full hour before my race, I was amazed by how many people had already shown up wearing school colors. The 3 B1G Ten universities that I believe were best-represented were Illinois, Wisconsin, and Michigan State in some order, with Michigan making a strong case for inclusion as well. About half of the runners wore the B1G 10K’s official race shirt, which I will make an allowance for in this race because all the shirts were school-specific. Another 2/5 of the crowd opted to wear something else that represented their preferred school, which is the path I chose. I’d guess that only around 10% of the field weren’t wearing school colors of any kind, and it was pretty cool to see that kind of passion and school pride in abundance. It would also make me competitive beyond reason over the final mile, but we’ll get to that later.
I met up with my friend Kyle and her cousin Teresa before the race, both MSU grads who were hoping to run somewhere in the 1-hour range. This was going to be Kyle’s first attempt at running anything longer than an 8K, and I think I was more excited for her to run the race than she was. I randomly bumped into a few more Spartans and a couple Wolverines that I knew as well, and after the gun for the 5K race went off at 7:15am, we all made our way to the starting line for the 7:40am start time of the 10K.
My previous PR in the 10K was 49:11 (07:54/mile pace), but that was one year and 20-25 pounds ago. I decided before the race that I would be content with a 46:30 (07:30/mile pace), and I would be ecstatic if I could run around 45:00 (07:15/mile pace). Keeping in mind how horribly I’ve burned out over the final mile in recent 5Ks, my plan to rein myself in was to run the first 2 miles at a 07:30/mile average, and then speed up from there if I was still feeling good.
At the front of the starting queue, I came across one final friendly face (alliteration!) in the form of my friend Molly, a turbo-fast runner who has now qualified for Boston two years in a row. Molly knew my plans for the day, and she prudently preached caution, advising that it may not be the best idea to go all out. I politely nodded at her sage advise, while silently reminding myself that I’m a grown-ass man and I can do what I want. After former (and terrible) Minnesota football coach Glen Mason gave the crowd one last “stirring” pep talk, the gun sounded, and we were off!
Within a 1/4-mile, I passed former Michigan standout Dhani Jones, a 3-time All-Big Ten linebacker and 10-year NFL veteran. He was just jogging off to the side while decked out in his old U of M football jersey, but the race directors had lined him up at the front of the field. I smiled and shouted out “Go Green!” as I passed him, to which he laughed and replied, “Come on, why do you have to go and say that?” Nice guy, that Dhani Jones, and his show on the Travel Channel isn’t half bad, either. And that was one more Wolverine that would be finishing behind me.
The first mile ran through the underbelly of the McCormick Center (which every Chicago runner HATES running through), and I looked down at my watch as I hit the first mile marker — 06:55. Shit, I thought, this is too fast. I had planned to run in the 07:30s and go from there, but as soon as I found myself surrounded by all these Badgers and Hawkeyes and Hoosiers, how could I be expected to hold back? As God is my witness, I swear to you that in that moment, I carried the hopes and dreams of all of the extended Michigan State family on my shoulders, and I would NOT let them down.
Mile #2 — 07:09. Still too fast, dumbass, the voice in my head reminded me. And then just 2.3 miles into the race, I was rewarded with my first side-stitch of the day. Yes, with 20+ miles of racing still to go in the day, I was already cramping up in my first race. I dialed it back to a more reasonable pace and clocked my 3rd mile in 07:18, at which point I reached the turnaround point of the out-and-back course. The turnaround came at the southernmost part of the course, where all runners would make a sharp turn to head back north toward Soldier Field. With the way the course was set up, the southbound runners occupied one half of the path, while the northbound racers ran on the other side.
I was one of the first ten or so MSU-garbed runners to reach the turnaround (I would end as the 13th-highest Michigan State-affiliated finisher), and I soaked in my plaudits from the remaining hundreds of Spartans as I passed by them while cruising north. It must have been the first time since I ran track in high school that total strangers were cheering for me in a race for reasons other than pity, and I lost count of how many south-bound MSU runners reached across the path to give me a high five as I tore forward in the direction of Soldier Field. The cheering rejuvenated me, and I turned in a 4th mile split of 07:10. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the wheels started to come off once we cleared all of the southbound runners that were telling me how great I was, and I struggled to a 5th mile split of 07:31 — I was trending in the wrong direction.
As I walked through the second-to-last aid station, some maize-and-blue clad jackass had the temerity to yell out, “Come on Sparty, is that all you’ve got?!” as he glided past me.
Bad move, nerd.
I snapped out of my daze and decided that since I had barely over a mile to go, I would at least reel in and take down that pompous ass-hat, which I accomplished with surprising ease. As a girl wearing Michigan colors (right down to her blue & yellow calf-warmers) came into view, I decided I would take her down next. And I did. I came up on a patch of Illini runners, and they were similarly dispatched. All of the ground that I lost in the 5th mile, I gained in the 6th and then some. Cynically, I was no longer running for my own sense of accomplishment and to get a fast time, but rather I was now running to beat all these people that went to other schools. Any chance of “holding back” was well and truly out the window, and my 6th mile was my fastest mile since my too-fast opener.
One final big sprint brought me across the line in 44:31 — a new personal best by nearly 5 minutes! When I caught up with my aforementioned turbo-fast friend Molly near where they were handing out bananas, she did a double-take when she saw me — she had only crossed 32 seconds before I did.
The post-race tailgate scene was festive, and I wish I could have stayed longer. The organizers had a ton of bags/cornhole games set up, there was a QB skills competition, a field goal kick set up, and I saw a steady line of people shooting up and down the inflatable waterslide in the finish area as well. I WAS able to get a disgustingly sweaty picture with Sparty on my way out, though, so I was pretty happy about that.
Alas, I had other places to be. I snagged 4-5 bottles of Muscle Milk, and the last thing that I made sure to do was make my way over to the Finisher’s Photo area, where the organizers were thoughtful enough to have a school-specific background set up for each university. Before I left the tailgate, I made sure to take one very proud photo in front of the Michigan State background.
INTERMISSION #1 — The 96 Mile Drive to Milwaukee
I had enough time between the end of the B1G 10K and the 1pm start of the Heatbreaker Indoor Half Marathon to allow me to go home and shower, change into clean clothes, make some sandwiches, and finish packing my things for the rest of the day’s events. After a quick turnaround, I was on the road to Milwaukee by 10am.
The nearly 2-hour drive was mostly uneventful, save for a short-but-worrying stretch of highway just inside the Wisconsin border where TWO right lanes were shut down for construction. I made it to the Pettit Ice Center by 12pm, where I picked up my packet for the race that was to start in one hour. I kicked back in the heated viewers’ area and watched the finish of the previous half-marathon heat — 1 race down, 2 to go.
Race #2 — The Heatbreaker Indoor Half Marathon (Scheduled 1pm start in Milwaukee, WI — 32nd out of 100 finishers)
- Pros: Flat course, guaranteed 50-degree weather in July!
- Cons: …and that’s because it’s 47-1/2 laps on a rubber track around a hockey rink.
I initially planned to run the Heatbreaker in right around 2 hours — I didn’t want to kill my legs after the morning’s fast 10K, but I also wanted to make sure that I finished fast enough so that I had time to grab a shower at the Pettit Center after the race, before I made the 2-hour drive to Green Bay for the evening’s 5K. The cut-off to pick up my race packet from Lambeau Field in the evening was 6pm — if the race started at 1:00pm, that left me with 5 hours in which I had to run a half marathon, shower, and drive 120 miles north. Easy, right?
Well, the race didn’t start at 1:00pm.
At 1:15pm, the race still hadn’t started.
At 1:25pm, the gun finally went off. My 5 hours had been trimmed to 4-1/2.
The reason for the delay was completely legitimate, just inconvenient — I was running in the 3rd half-marathon heat of the day, and the race organizers had noticed one of the timing mats was giving off a really weak signal during the 2nd heat, to the point where it ran the risk of missing laps. With the race consisting of 47+ laps around a hockey rink complex, the runners and volunteers couldn’t be relied upon to keep an accurate count ourselves, so we were pretty dependent on the functionality of those mats. As we waited through the delay for the mats to be repositioned, it slowly dawned on me that the only way to make it to Green Bay in time for my last race would be to simply run faster.
The field in my heat was smaller than expected. The race organizers had set up 4 heats throughout the day with a cap of 125 runners per heat, which is in line with how many runner race in their Icebreaker Marathon in January, a race held at the same facility each winter that sells out within weeks. With this being the INAUGURAL Heatbreaker half, though, it seems the word didn’t quite get out. There were between 25-30 runners in my heat, and within about a minute of the starting gun going off at 1:25pm, I was running all by myself.
Within a few laps, the race settled into a predictable pattern: there were 3 or 4 extremely fast runners in my heat that would lap me every few laps, and then I would lap about twice that number every 5-7 laps or so. As far as I could tell, I was probably the 7th- or 8th-fastest person in my heat, but the leaders were still making me look like I was running in cement.
A man is left with a LOT of time alone to think during 47 lonely laps around an ice rink in a mostly-empty arena (save for 10-15 spectators watching from bleachers set up at Turn 1), and all I could think about was getting to Green Bay in time to run my last race. A chart near the starting line informed me that if I ran each lap in 2:29, then that would be enough to finish in under 2 hours, which was my original planned finishing time; with the late start, though, I deliberately pushed the pace, finishing each of my first 20 laps in around 2:12-2:15. I had dramatically told myself that every second counted, which actually wasn’t that far off.
And so the first 20 laps were pretty monotonous, until the one attractive female in my heat (I absolutely notice these things, don’t judge me) finally lapped me for the first time. She was the last person that started the race ahead of me to lap me, and she laughed at me when I told her that as she pulled level. Despite her being one lap ahead of me, our gaits had synched up fairly well by this point (I’d started pushing a faster pace after the 5th lap or so), and I decided to further increase my pace so that I could have a running buddy for at least a few laps. My pace went from 2:12-2:15 per lap down to between 2:00-2:05 per lap, an increase in speed of around 30 seconds per mile.
This girl Sheila had run the Milwaukee Brewers’ 5K Famous Racing Sausages Run/Walk earlier that morning, and she had even WON HER AGE GROUP, garnering an age-group trophy in the form of a plush stuffed version of the Polish Sausage that runs in the Sausage Race at each Brewers home game. The trophy looked like Sausage #2 from this picture, and Sheila had placed her prize on one of the bleachers at Turn 1 for all the runners to run past. It looked pretty glorious, and I wanted one immediately.
We talked a bit as we ran, and we discovered that we actually were born in the same hometown of Two Rivers, WI. I was consciously aware that this faster pace we were running meant that I would be arriving in Green Bay that much earlier, and I was grateful for Sheila putting up with my banter for the time we ran together. Like myself, this race didn’t mean all that much to her in the grand scheme of things — she was using it as just another training run for her ultimate goal of qualifying for Boston in October. I hung with Sheila for about 10 laps in all before she dusted me for good, but that meant that I at least had someone to run with for 20%+ of the race, which was an extremely welcome break from the monotony of running in circles by myself.
As I slowed to a more reasonable pace, I began to notice pain in both my right arch and the outside of my right knee, which are two areas where I never experience aches. Combined with the thin running surface, all of these long left turns were taking a gradual toll — as I pushed off juuuuust a little bit more with my right leg on each turn, I began to feel the effects about 3/5 of the way into the race. It had taken Sheila 20 laps to lap me the first time; after we stopped running together, it took her only 7 laps to catch me again.
I was hurting.
By Lap 36 (out of 47-1/2) I was gassed, until the song I requested came on over the PA system — “Kickstart My Heart” by the Crue. I am motivated by music possibly more than any other runner in history, and my pain was immediately blocked out — my next lap was my fastest of the race, running the 450-ish meters in 1:58. I was able to carry that pace through most of the final laps, and I finished with a hard sprint at the end to earn a final time of 01:45:17. Despite my hard 10K that morning, I somehow managed my 2nd-fastest half-marathon time ever.
INTERMISSION #2 — the 122-mile drive from Milwaukee to Green Bay
I spent less time at the post-race spread than I have at any race in my life — I finished my race at around 3:10pm, but I still had to shower and make the 2-hour drive to Green Bay and arrive by 6pm. A race volunteer handed me a key to shower room #9 down in the basement of the Pettit Center (they didn’t have a shared locker room open that day), which took about 5 minutes to walk to. And wouldn’t you know it, they gave me a key to the one shower room with the “Out of Order” sign on the shower.
Decision Time: it would take another 10 minutes round-trip to walk to the finish area to grab a key to a different room and then walk back, or I could just use the sink to take a “hobo shower” and try to get as clean as I could. If a girl I know isn’t above using a bathroom sink to “freshen up” after a half-marathon, than neither am I — I stuck my head under the faucet and washed my hair right in the bathroom sink, then washed the rest of my upper body as best I could. There would be a legitimate shower waiting for me at the hotel after my race in Green Bay — all I had to do was clean myself up enough so that I could tolerate my own scent in the car on my drive to Green Bay.
I departed Milwaukee just a shade before 3:30pm — as I left, I had a projected arrival time of 5:30pm at Lambeau Field if everything went right. There was no traffic to speak of, and I rolled into the Lambeau Field parking lot at exactly 5:27pm. With 33 minutes to spare, I had MADE IT!
I swear to you, I wasn’t even thinking about the final 3.1 miles that I still had to run — as soon as I picked up my race packet, I felt like I’d already finished. I called my friend Dan Solera (a recurring character in this blog) to tell him that I was standing in the atrium of Lambeau Field, actually holding my race packet, and giving every assurance that all of the challenging bits were behind me. I would just jog these last 3.1 miles, basking in the glow of what I’d accomplished this day.
But as fate would have it, there would be one last cruel twist in the tale.
Race #3 — the Packers 5K (6:30pm start in Green Bay, WI — 376th out of 5,688 finishers)
For I think the first time in my life, I was shamed into running fast.
When I registered online for the Packers 5K, I was asked to list the time of the fastest 5K that I had run in the previous 12 months. Since I had recently run the Run For the Zoo 5K in 20:07, that’s the time I put down on my online form. Little did I know, this would qualify me for the “elite” Wave 1 of the 7-wave start to the Packers 5K, where the race directors put anyone that ran a 5K at a clip faster than a 07:00/mile pac. As you can imagine, after 2-1/2 hours of running and 4 hours of driving earlier in the day, I was in no mood to run sub-07:00. No matter, I thought, I’ll just jump in with one of the slower waves and enjoy my jog.
Well, kudos to the Packers 5K for having the most diligent corral monitors that I have ever come across. I tried to enter the gate for Wave 3, and I was denied. I was denied trying to enter a slower wave, which was unheard of for me. The friendly-yet-stern volunteer told me that EVERYONE needed to line up with their assigned wave, no exceptions. I tried to explain that I had just run 2 races earlier in the day and that there was no way I could keep up with the gazelles in Wave 1, but this admirably dedicated volunteer wasn’t buying what I was selling, and I was told to go line up with my wave. Whatever, I’ll have better luck trying to jump in with Wave 2, I told myself.
I was denied entry yet again, this time by the Wave 2 gatekeeper. I pleaded my case, again, but she wasn’t having it at all. So I walked about 20 meters back and put a leg up to climb over the short fence pictured above, and another volunteer tapped me on the shoulder to (very politely) inform me that if I “insisted on jumping waves”, that I would not allowed to run at all. The security was downright awe-inspiring, if not somewhat illogical in my case. I wasn’t even mad, just impressed.
And so I begrudgingly entered the gate for Wave 1, VERY aware of just how fit and fresh everyone else looked. Of the nearly 6,000 runners in the race, only 100 or so runners had qualified for this esteemed starting position.
The gun went off, and within 2 minutes, I was running completely alone.
For the second race in a row.
As we Wave 1 warriors rounded our first turn of the “race”, I found myself as the last runner in the wave. I kept looking back anxiously to see if Wave 2 had been released, but I saw nothing but open asphalt. I was running with a digital camera, because I thought that this was going to be a nice and easy race and I wanted to take pictures from inside Lambeau Field, and I took the following picture from the back of the pack.
I am too proud and too stubborn to finish last in anything, even if it’s just the first wave of a charity, and so I was resigned that I would need to run faster than I had wanted to. Again.
I reeled in the last 5-6 runners of Wave 1, and I was content to match their pace for as long as I could. My entire right leg was aching from all the left turns of the Heatbreaker (which I had finished just THREE HOURS EARLIER), and I developed a painful side-stitch within the first half-mile of the race. An EMT was worryingly riding her bike next to me at my exact pace, to the point where I asked her if there was any particular reason she was riding level with me. She laughed and replied No, and then she sped up to check on the runners in front of me.
I was running doubled-over at this point, and I legitimately wanted to throw up. I have no comments to make on the course — I don’t remember the scenery, only the splitting pain in my side. I believe we ran through residential streets for the middle mile or two, but I can’t be sure. It was very flat, save for one teeny uphill that may as well have been K2. Thankfully, the lead runners of Wave 2 finally caught up with me somewhere after the Mile 1 marker, and I allowed myself to dial it back now that I wasn’t worried about running all by myself again.
Shortly before Mile 3, we entered hallowed ground — Lambeau Field itself.
Unlike the Race to Wrigley 5K, which just ran through the concourse of Wrigley Field, the Packers 5K ran next to the actual field. I geeked out HARD. An unexpected treat was seeing ourselves on the video board inside the stadium:
I’m the guy on the far left, with my bib on my shorts, right behind the shirtless guy. I’m more proud of appearing on the Jumbotron at Lambeau Field that I have any right to be.
The aura of the Frozen Tundra and the cheering crowd (only on one sideline, not pictured) buoyed me slightly, but it didn’t last. As I ran through the tunnel out of Lambeau, I had developed a horrible cramp at the top of my abdomen, to the point where I wondered if this is what it felt like to have cracked ribs. As I crossed the finish line, I was out-kicked into the chute for the first time in my racing life — at least a half-dozen people passed me, as I didn’t have legs to cross the finish line at any pace faster than “feeble jog.”
I finished in 23;09, good enough for a 07:27/mile pace and 376th place out of the 5,600+ finishers. After crossing the line, I grabbed a bottle of water and a cookie and made my way back to my rental car. I didn’t want to linger — I just wanted a shower, a burger, and a beer. In that order.
I had booked myself a nicer hotel than I would normally get for a race, as a way to reward myself for finishing, even if I wouldn’t be spending that much time in it. The Tundra Lodge in Green Bay did not disappoint — in addition to being a 3-1/2 star hotel/resort, it also boasted a 30,000-square foot WATERPARK within its grounds that was open until 10pm. If you think that I did anything other than float on the resort’s Lazy River for about 20 minutes after my shower, then you don’t know me that well. No, I didn’t take any pictures of the water park, because there were kids running around and I just didn’t want to have to make any explanations.
After all that, it wasn’t until shortly after 9pm before a beer finally made its way to my parched lips. I picked up a 6-pack of a phenomenal black IPA called Black Top from local Wisconsin brewer New Glarus Brewing Co., and I returned to my hotel with the full intention of drinking all 6 of them as I wrote and watched TV. However, I then had the saddest realization ever when I realized that if I drank all 6 beers, I may still be a little drunk when I woke up at 3am the next morning to drive back to Chicago.
Wait, why was I waking up at 3am to drive back to Chicago? Oh, that’s right…
BONUS RACE #4 — The Run for Walk 4.1-miler (7:30am start in Evanston, IL on 7/29 — 88th out of 568 finishers)
Now may be an appropriate time to stage a running intervention, yes. If you’re going to go big for a weekend, you may as well go all-out, right? …Right?
And so I woke up in Green Bay at 3am, after sadly only polishing off 4 of my 6 beers, to drive 3-1/2 hours to Evanston, IL for the inaugural Run For Walk on the campus of Northwestern University. Run in memory of the late Northwestern football coach Randy Walker, who died of a sudden heart attack in 2006 while still coach at Northwestern, the race was 4.1 miles long in honor of the number 41 that Coach Walker wore during his collegiate days at Miami University. My desire to stay in bed in Green Bay and skip the race was strong, but I trudged out of the hotel and hopped in my rental Impala to make the trip — I wanted to get to Evanston early enough to pick up my packet (my God, I was tired of picking up race packets) and meet up with some Northwestern alum friends before the race. This race wouldn’t be for personal glory, but rather to run along Lake Michigan with friends and pay respect to a good man.
I made the drive from Wisconsin without incident, and shortly before the race I met up with Dan Solera (a recurring character in this blog), his fiancee Stephanie (who, for someone about to marry a die-hard runnerd (spelling intentional), ironically HATES running), and our friend Marla. I wasn’t sure where I would meet them, but I took a nap in my car, and when I woke up, there they were.
The course was scenic and peaceful, starting and ending at Ryan Field while running along Lake Michigan for the middle miles. I’d never looked at the Chicago skyline from this far north on Lake Michigan, and the view at the Mile 2 turnaround was breathtaking. I don’t have much to say about the actual race since I was utterly knackered, other than I was able to keep my overall pace below an 08:00/mile average, and I passed current Northwestern head football coach Pat Fitzgerald somewhere just past Mile 3. For the 2nd consecutive race, this course took me inside a football stadium, with the Run For Walk finishing at the 50-yard line inside Ryan Field. After the race and then a quick drive out to Naperville to say hi to my parents, I was never more relived to successfully drop off an undamaged rental car — after having been up for 32 out of the previous 36 hours and running a combined 26.5 miles, I’m not sure how much I had left in the tank.
I did a lot of things wrong with these races. I didn’t hydrate enough mid-race(s), I didn’t allow for enough passive rest time between events, and I had no clue what I was supposed to eat between races to re-fuel. I recklessly pushed the pace of my half-marathon on a track, when I hadn’t done a single track workout since high school, and that led to a niggling arch injury that I am still getting over now a full 10 days later.
My biggest mistake was treating each race as an event in a vacuum, rather than planning a strategy to comfortably run 26.5 miles in about 24 hours. With breaks, I ran my 26.5 miles in around 3:24:45, which is almost a full minute per mile faster than my goal pace for this October’s Chicago Marathon. That was probably a dumb thing to do.
Will I ever do something like this again, with all the driving in between races? God no. Am I glad that I gave it a shot just this one time? Absolutely. I came, I saw, and while perhaps I didn’t quite conquer, I finished.