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