May 14, 2013 18 Comments
The announcer took the microphone and began telling the 50k racers to line up on the wet grass. I heard him from inside the cabin, where volunteers were managing packet pickup. Almost comically, the sun burst through the clouds the instant I stepped outside. Every runner, spectator and volunteer who had been tolerating several hours of intermittent rainfall began cheering for the warmth like angelic choirs.
You’re all welcome, I thought to myself as I scuttled past runners for a precautionary bathroom trip. Almost ninety races done and I had yet to run in rain; my first ever 50k would not break the streak.
A few minutes later, I was toward the back of the pack, huddled with Otter, Jeff and Elizabeth. Everyone was chattering nervously, eagerly anticipating the start of the Ice Age Trail 50k. The truly unhinged group running the longer distance had been coming into the chute for about an hour, finishing nine miles out of fifty, the first part of a journey that, for most of them, would last between 11 and 14 hours. Some looked extremely confident, as if they had just stepped out of their cars. Others emerged from the path like they wanted it to be over, which was tragic considering they had forty-one miles left.
Those of us waiting by the start banner wouldn’t be running as far. We weren’t many; the entire group could probably have fit in the small cabin where we had picked up our bibs earlier. But the atmosphere was electric. Nervous exchanges, loud laughter and shuffling feet came together for the ritualistic dance we were all performing. But more to the point, the right people were there and their contributions to my exploits in long-distance running were perfectly summed up when I went to introduce my father in law Steve to Jeff.
“Hi,” Jeff said, extending a tattooed arm. “I’m kind of responsible for getting these guys into running.”
“Wait a minute,” Steve said with a mix of skepticism and light indignation.
“Ultra!” Jeff spat out, immediately noticing his omission. “For getting them into ultra running.”
“Much better,” Steve pointed with a smile. “Because I’m pretty sure I got him into running.”
He was right about that. Shortly after that comment, he amended the history to correctly reflect how he strong-armed me into running by signing me up for a distance I had hitherto never run. When I ended up embracing the sport with an unexpected intensity, he became a mentor. Then there was Otter, my only Chicago friend with the passion and endurance to run these events with me, whose reaction to reading about Jeff’s first 50-miler was enough to spin more than one twisted cog in his brain. I’d be a lying if I said Jeff’s ultra exploits hadn’t nudged me closer to the law firm of Jurek, Karnazes & Ulrich, but without Otter’s ironclad commitment, I might have tabled this adventure for another year.
These three gentlemen were instrumental in getting me to this start line, where we continued to quip anxiously. It had been a long time since I had been overcome with such a profound feeling of uncertainty. Every marathon I’ve run in the last three years I have started knowing I would finish. Fast, slow, easily or with bleeding ears, I would eventually finish. But today I wasn’t so certain. I had never run that far before, trails tend to beat me up very quickly and my left knee had been pestering me all week. But here we were, just minutes away from starting with the lush greens of the Kettle Moraine State Forest dripping all around us. I barely had time to set up my GPS watch before we were off.
The 50k was divided into two sections. The first consisted of a 13-mile out and back on the Ice Age Trail, a very narrow single-track path that at times was barely wide enough for two people. With many ups and downs, it was by far the most technical section of the race. I ran the first 5k with Otter and his friend Elizabeth, who kept the atmosphere light by exchanging funny and colorful stories. It was nice to run and talk because it momentarily got my mind off what I was doing.
However, Otter and Elizabeth were executing a pretty conservative strategy with the downhills, which I approved for these first few miles. After a while though, I wanted to do some flying. So with limbs akimbo, I began my reliable pattern of darting down and slowly pattering back up. I would see them later on the way back, all smiles. Before, during and after, I left thousands of footprints on the Ice Age trail, which was anything but consistent. Very rarely would I ever have time to look up and enjoy the breathtaking forest because it would mean risking a hidden root or a treacherous rock.
I locked in behind a group of runners who were matching my stride and up and down we went in a reliable pattern, screaming downhill with our arms waving like windmills and marching up in single-file. Just when it felt like I could keep this mechanical pattern without trying, I kicked a root going downhill and snapped forward like a mousetrap. I broke my fall with my hands and water bottle, but still scraped up my left side. I went for a drink but the nozzle on my water bottle was caked in mud. I had momentarily lost focus and the trail made sure I paid. The worst part wasn’t the bruise I got on my palms or the occasional speck of dirt I’d feel in my mouth after a swig. Instead, it was the fact that I was only at mile 8, with my legs still fresh.
How many times would I fall in the later miles, where it feels like cement has invaded my bloodstream?
My thoughts were quickly reverted to the trail as I stepped on a slick rock and almost lost balance. I had to focus on every single step, trying hard to not get too close to the person in front of me, whose steps would prevent me from seeing places to put my own feet.
Two hours and ten minutes into the race, I was almost back at the start. I could hear a furious cowbell ringing and nearby crowds. One last turn revealed the white circus sheet of the medical tent. There, in front of everyone else, was Steve. Twelve hours earlier, we were in Chicago with the rest of the family, watching a production of Oklahoma! at the Lyric Opera. Despite the show ending late, he drove me out to Wisconsin, where we would only get about four hours of sleep before our race-day alarm sirens would start shrieking.
He was likely tired and definitely hungry. He should have been at a nearby Dog ‘n Suds, but instead stayed rooted at the start with his camera, clearly enjoying himself. Before the race had even started, he had found people that he knew. It made me happy knowing he wouldn’t spend the day sleeping in the passenger seat of his Jeep. I flashed a quick thumbs-up and made my way to the blue tarp, where all of our drop bags were haphazardly strewn about, looking like a wreckage site or an evidence pileup. Steve joined me seconds afterward and I gave him a brief rundown of how I was feeling.
I threw some Stinger waffles into one pocket, a CLIF bar into another. Steve prepared a new water bottle and gave me a red bandana to wipe off the dirt and sweat the trail had left on me. I was probably at the aid station for just a little over two minutes before heading toward the second section of the 50k race: the Nordic Loop. This 9-mile trail circuit was wide enough for two-way traffic and for the first few miles looked like a meadow. I couldn’t help but speed up a little, charging happily past slower runners and chewing on oat bars with absolutely no regard for etiquette.
If Steph could see me, I thought, she’d probably file for divorce. That girl hates mouth noises.
But the peaceful and soothing Nordic loop soon deceived me. We reached a point where the puffy soft grass spilled into the trees and became hard rocks, as if the trail were a stream that got suddenly rerouted and desiccated. Once in the woods, I learned that the steepest and longest hills were all here, and not in the first section as I had originally thought. Down I would go, leaning slightly back, flailing my arms at my side and stomping on the soil, then immediately slowing down and hiking up.
“I’m not looking forward to running these again,” said my temporary running friend with the yellow Camelbak.
Since the Nordic Loop was 9 miles long we’d be running it twice. I was feeling great during this first attempt, keeping a very reliable pattern of speed spikes, eating my Stingers or oat bars every 30 minutes without much issue. Though I began to tire around mile 18, I got a surprising burst of energy when we re-entered the tall pines. Red straw and wet cones had softened the trail to the point where it felt like walking on clouds. I once again heard the furious rattling of a cowbell and thanked the woman responsible. I sped up a little and reached the Start in around 3:36, quickly finding Steve at the front of the crowd, checking on my progress.
I felt invigorated by how quickly it seemed like those last nine miles had passed. I didn’t want to delude myself into thinking the next and final nine would be the same, but I was coasting happily on the endorphin high. Once again, I found my drop bag, this time opting for just GU gels. I must have looked like Gollum searching for his lost ring because I felt completely wired, like nothing could stop me. Steve gave me the thumbs up, told me I had this, and I left the station for the last loop.
It didn’t take long to notice that something wasn’t right. My legs were fine; turning over without much complaint. My feet, after striking the uneven, rocky terrain tens of thousands of times, were also performing admirably. I wasn’t sweating that much because the weather was cool with winds occasionally slicing through the trees. Every system that matters for shorter runs was working like a champion at mile 24. But the one that I needed the most for the long haul was beginning to fail me.
Two miles earlier I had eaten a Stinger waffle, a tiny sugar-filled disc that I had eaten several times already. But this one felt like it didn’t have anywhere to go once I swallowed it. Steph had once told me that when she was young, she thought food piled up in your stomach until one day it reached the back of your throat and you couldn’t eat anymore. That’s exactly how I was starting to feel. Even small drinks of my electrolyte solution felt like they were swishing in my throat above my chest. This uncomfortable feeling soon turned into frequent burping and reflux, which made it so I couldn’t keep my head up.
At the end of a long stretch of pines I reached the Nordic Loop aid station. As I approached it, I tried to keep my sight firmly fixed on the tent, but I couldn’t. My head would stay up for two seconds and then drop, as if the strings holding it up were cut. I laughed a little when this happened. How it is possible that I couldn’t even keep a steady forward gaze?
I took a few orange slices, hoping they would help with my digestion issue. If they did, I didn’t feel the effects. I kept moving forward, slowly up and quickly down, but all the while with a rod in my throat that wouldn’t dislodge. My esophagus was full, clogged beyond repair. There were times when I thought vomiting might make me feel better. It never came down to that, though I still don’t know if it was for the best.
During this struggle, I remember looking down at my watch to see that I was about to cross 26.2 miles. That magic number where my pains and aches normally stop would mean nothing today. My trusty watch, as if under the assumption that I was out here on another routine marathon, died 0.4 miles later.
It wasn’t long before I had returned to the tall pines and red straw path. The trail was being shared by half marathoners now, many of whom were running faster than me. I would speed up for short stretches at a time, slowed down by the frogs trying to escape my throat. I kept up this seesaw pattern over the next mile, where I was soon overcome with many conflicting emotions.
Disappointment was there, with a scowl and slumped shoulders. He wasn’t upset with me, but with my master plan to keep running on solid foods that didn’t pan out how I wanted. Fear and concern showed up, wringing their hands under large billiard eyes, wondering how I’d be able to run longer distances in the summer if I was already losing it in perfect conditions. But then elation and pride crashed through the walls in ATVs, a six-pack of beer in each hand, because they knew I had fewer than two miles to go and were ready to celebrate.
Up and down another hill, left and right around a new turn, my feet refused to stop moving. I didn’t have the energy from the first Nordic Loop, but I was no less determined to see this race to the finish. I was giving it all I had, running faster than I had in the last four miles, adrenaline magically fueling this last surge. Two invisible pins were jabbing themselves into my quads with every lunge forward, but with the finish line so close, I didn’t care. Up another up, down another down, some almost effortlessly, my central governor acting like a horse that caught sight of its stable.
I recognized the final turn. The lady with the cowbell had left her post, but Steve had not. Participating in the sport for over a decade had turned him into the perfect crewman and he didn’t miss a second of my final push. I stepped over the red timing mats, my name was announced and skyward my hands went for that fleeting moment of victory. After five hours and sixteen minutes on my feet, I had earned the title of ultramarathoner.
I walked over to my drop bag and pulled out a protein shake. Finishing the race had given me a sudden headrush of excitement, but that would soon dissipate into a semi-nauseated state of discomfort. I hadn’t felt this way since the Crazy Horse Marathon, so I knew it would just be a matter of waiting it out. The organizers had set up a large buffet in the cabin with sausages, meat patties, potato salad and chips. I served myself some, but couldn’t find the will to eat any of it. Steve and I went back outside to a large tent where a cover band was crooning Tom Petty covers. I managed to drink a beer but it wasn’t helping me get back to normal. I saw Jeff and exchanged a congratulatory high-five with him. We had very close finishing times, despite never really seeing each other on the Nordic loop.
I slumped down on a chair, my plate of food untouched. I wasn’t dizzy or light-headed, but couldn’t seem to push any food down my system at all. So I just sat there and watched people finish, some of whom were 50-milers and looked like they were barely hurt. I got up when I saw Otter’s green singlet dashing up the path on his way to finishing. He looked like a kid chasing an ice cream truck, the biggest smile on his face and not a single hint of pain or discomfort. While I was in a strange haze of acceptance when I crossed the timing mats, Otter was in a beehive, bouncing off the walls. He actually dropped down and did a few push-ups afterward as if to prove he wasn’t done.
In that moment, I realized how differently we tackled our races. I knew on the course that it might be the only 50k I ever run. So I was out for blood – to run aggressively and finish knowing I had nothing left to give. Otter on the other hand, was there for the same reason most trail runners run in the first place: to have fun. Though I didn’t run the race with him, I could tell that his goal had been to enjoy a prolonged communion with nature and experience the outdoors in the most direct way possible. I actually felt a little envious seeing how great he felt and how eager he was to wolf down the post-race food spread. Whether he had a mid-race epiphany we will soon find out, but the biggest lesson that I learned in LaGrange, Wisconsin, was that I have a lot to learn.
With Ice Age behind me, it’s back to the drawing board. I need to retool my arsenal if I’m serious about running even longer distances in warmer weather. Though Otter looked like he could have kept going, I was in no shape to continue. But whatever happened in this race that seemed to stall my food intake (eating too much too soon, perhaps) should not happen later this summer with the right tweaks. Until then, I need to massage my legs back to life, lest they atrophy too soon before the most intense summer they will ever endure.
After all, I merely joined the ultra club. I don’t want my membership revoked.