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:

0824_northcountryrun 52

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.

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

  1. Dan says:

    Honestly, a huge part of me wants to run this specific course again. Not only do I KNOW I would finish it on a structurally sound knee, but I would know what to expect and would pace myself accordingly. I just don’t know how soon that will be. Definitely not next year or the year after that. But then again, very little of what I say I WON’T do ever sticks, unlike our impulses which drive us to do crazy shit on a whim.

    It was fun sharing the adventure with you, all 13 months of it. But now we have a 2-day 52.4-miler to tackle. Onwards.

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  4. Mike says:

    Kick-ass effort, Otter… and now that you’re a 50-mile veteran, I’ll be expecting the limbo at the finish next time. Had to laugh at the familiar and embarrassing “THERE IT IS!” purgatory between the moment toe meets tree root and the moment face meets ground. Picking myself up off the ground is typically my signal that an ultra has officially begun and the game is ON. Glad only your pride was injured and that nobody else was there to witness it.

    Got a kick out of reading your and Dan’s unique accounts of this race, though I obviously didn’t get a kick out of seeing him with that ice pack on his knee. No doubt he’ll be back at some point to finish the job. But congrats on killing your own race… and when your next 50-miler rolls around and you start eyeing a Western States qualifier, count me in for your High Sierra crew team!

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