Dropping Down: Silurian Spring 25k

Otter started running an hour before me. Along with seventy other runners, he began the Silurian Spring 50k by running a nautilus coil around the starting line, across a damp grass field and into a gravel path just beyond our sight. I had planned on running the 31.1-mile trail race with him. It was supposed to be the tune-up, the stepping stone on my way to a redemptive trail run in May on the Ice Age Trail. This beautiful spring morning was meant to portend another series of successful training months, culminating in my first ever 50-mile finish.

Waiting to start the 25k

Waiting to start the 25k (and Lisa, if you’re reading this, thanks for lending us your car and I swear my feet never once touched the console!)

But sometimes, for better or worse, or simply because things are what they are, plans don’t pan out.

Three weeks earlier, I woke up with a feeling akin to panic, as I suddenly realized that I hadn’t been running as much as an ultra regimen would dictate. Despite one twenty-miler, I didn’t feel at all ready for the trials of the neverending trail, my legs hadn’t yet been subjected to any 5-hour gauntlets or forced to the pavement on fatigued muscles. So, almost impulsively, I stepped outside for a 30-mile run. Five hours later, I came home feeling triumphant and a bit cheeky. I ran a marathon and change on a whim with nothing but a bottle of water.

Some might say that my impudence did it. Others might say my body wasn’t ready for the prolonged distance, or that it had been three years since I had incorporated scheduled walking breaks into a long run. But regardless of the culprit, my left knee began to ache. The next day, as if to show dominion over my body, I went for a trail run in Chicagoland’s famous Swallow Cliffs. The first mile of the run was unnerving – perhaps because nerves themselves were not properly aligned – but it wasn’t long before I shook it off and ran with no issue.

But the problem is, you eventually have to stop running. And once I did, I realized something was wrong.

Start + Finish Line

Start + Finish Line

That was over a month ago. I still have a slight pain in my left knee, self-diagnosed and later confirmed by doctors as patellofemoral pain syndrome. I’ve been here before, but not for a long time. It’s what I imagine it must be like to meet the kid who bullied you in middle school but as an adult, only to discover he’s still a jerk. You remember how to deal with it, but this time, it’s somehow worse. You thought you were done with this. And the timing could not have been worse. Just as everything was lining up for another stab at the punishing 50-mile distance, everything began to fall apart.

As the Silurian Spring 50k race approached, I knew it would be stupid and dangerous to try and run the whole distance. It wasn’t easy to silence my ego. I wanted to run the full distance and prove that a pesky pain was no match for that laundry list of positive traits that supposedly characterize long-distance runners. If you read enough inspirational quotes or follow Runner’s World on Facebook, you soon feel invincible, like you’ve been inoculated against pain, as if the beautiful pictures of people bounding across mountaintops could fasten your bones and ligaments into proper alignment forever.

The 25k race, which was one long out-and-back through the Palos Forest Preserve, started out fine. I ran on the soft grass, taking short, efficient steps, landing softly and fluidly. I was acutely aware of every sensation in my legs, no matter how tiny or insignificant. Despite the uneven terrain and the occasional puddle, everything felt fine. For now.

Otter about 11.5 miles in (out of 31.1)

Otter about 11.5 miles in (out of 31.1)

Four miles into the race, I had reached a single-track trail arched by thin branches. Up until now, the race had felt like an introduction to trail racing, having started with a mile on grass, followed by a long stretch on a relatively flat gravel path, which led to a series of gently rolling hills. The course was ideal for anyone looking to leave the harshness of roads but not without a little handholding. Once on the single-track, I saw Otter running toward me, on his way back from the first lap of the 50k. I stopped to get a burst shot of him before tucking my phone away and continuing the run.

“Hey Dan!” yelled the runner behind me.
“Oh hey, what’s up?” Otter replied as their paths crossed, his voice trailing into the woods.
“My name is also Dan,” I yelled back, “I thought you were talking to me.”
“Dan … Solera?” the voice asked.
“Uh, yeah?”
“Hey buddy, it’s Paul!”

Three years ago, almost to the day, Paul and I were just a few miles away in a different part of these woods, running the Paleozoic Trail 25k. It was the first trail race that would lead to the North Country 50-Miler in August. I learned back then that running through the woods and eating Oreos at aid stations was only a small part of the ultra experience. The most meaningful part was the community. As I trained for my first ultras, I met an incredibly friendly and welcoming group of people. It was easy to become friends with them for two reasons: they were naturally affable and generous, and they were usually at every ultra near the city.

And so it was that the ultra community had found me again.

For the rest of the race, Paul and I matched strides. We ran over a few marsh-like stretches that stopped us dead, through silent stretches of brown forest, over rocky tracks and finally to the turnaround shack, where we stopped for some cookies. I learned that he too was wrestling with a nagging pain while training for a big race. Except that Paul’s injury was in his foot, and his race was the Bighorn 100-Miler. Suddenly, my issues seemed laughable.

Miles 2 + 14

Miles 2 + 14

We made our way back to the start over familiar territory. Back over uneven tracks, dead forest, and boggy strips of overgrown grass. We continued talking during this stretch, mostly about recent races we’ve run and how we were going to overcome our current injuries. I couldn’t help but notice how emphatically optimistic he was. He was so confident that I was going to finish Ice Age, you would think that I had just regaled him about how I’ve never once in my life felt pain. It was enough to forget that I was running quite comfortably.

By mile 13 we had stopped talking. Something clicked in both our brains once the trail flattened out, as if we had both smelled blood. There was an unspoken decision, almost like instinct, that demanded that we run, and that we run fast. The camaraderie was still there, but I kept glancing at my watch to notice we were running in the 7:30s, which is very fast for a trail run. Just as he would pull ahead, I would kick back up to his heels. And yet, despite this rush, neither of us really pulled ahead. I know we both had a faster clip reserved in our legs, but we refused to go for the kill. We had pulled each other for most of the race, so it would have been wrong to run away so close to the finish.

Miles 4 + 11

Miles 4 + 11

We returned to the large clearing, the finish line shack perched atop a green hill. We had to run clockwise around it like a vortex before spinning into the finishing. About a third of a mile from the finish, one of Paul’s kids joined him for the run and he motioned that I go on ahead.

I couldn’t argue with that. After giving him my heartfelt thanks for the company, I continued the spiral toward the finish line.

I stopped the clock at around 2:17 and immediately saw “Iron Lung” Jeff, another fixture of the Chicagoland ultrarunning community, by the post-race snacks. We caught up on life and ruminated on the mysteries of the sport, to which he is making a big comeback this year. He left soon afterward to join his fiancée on the second loop of her race. Meanwhile, I sat on the grass and waited for Otter. With only about 200 people between both distances, virtually every single finisher got their own personalized finish line cheer. Once Otter finished, he became a one-man bandstand, roaring for every finisher’s newly minted 50k time as if they were all his children.

(left to right): Paul, me

(left to right): Paul, me

My knee, as expected, was hurting afterward … but not as much as I was expecting. I still had to take all manner of precautions and avoided certain positions all day, but progress is progress. My performance in the woods of the Palos Forest Preserve did not convince me that a 50-mile finish was in my legs, but it didn’t drive a stake into my ambitions either. It left me in a frustrating state of ambiguity, which is where I still am today. It’s been over two weeks since I ran this race, and I’m not one to take this long to write a summary. Clearly this knee injury has managed to scramble my mind as well.

But I’m trying to stay optimistic. It helps that I really want to finish Ice Age; I set it as my goal for the year and I don’t want to let myself down again. With no other races in between now and May 14, I won’t really know how it will go until I’m already deep into the woods. Wish me luck.

Otter smashes his 50k PR

Otter smashes his 50k PR

About Dan
Running a marathon in all 50 states because there's no better way to explore the world around you than on your own two feet, for as long as you can, until you hate yourself and everything around you. Then you stop, get a medal, and start over.

12 Responses to Dropping Down: Silurian Spring 25k

  1. I was just wondering the other day if you were still blogging! I’m so glad to see that you are. I hope the knee is back up to par soon and that you can get that 50-mile finish. That’s one race report I can’t wait to read! Good luck!

    • Dan says:

      Yep! Still blogging, but not as prolifically as before (which was still not prolific at all). Thanks to Ice Age, this year is proving to be quite barren race-wise. Maybe once that event is over, however that pans out, I’ll pony up a little more cash for race registrations and continue filling in the 50-states map. But for now, I’m happy to slowly recover from my knee woes and face the 50-mile monster in whatever shape my body allows. Thanks for checking in – hope you’re doing well!

  2. Keep on running Dan! 🙂 Since we moved to Colorado I slowly but surely started running on trails much more than pounding pavement. I enjoy it a lot and I am glad to see that you are out exploring the trails, too!
    I hope your knee will get better and it will not cause any trouble in May and look forward to see how that next event will go.
    I have to warn you: it is very easy to become addicted to trail running! You’ve been warned! 🙂

    • Dan says:

      Colorado, Wyoming, Montana — three states where I’ve run before that take my breath away, and not just because I’m at 9,000 feet. I sometimes worry that if I moved to Colorado, I’d get too used to the beautiful panoramic views and then never want to run anywhere else. Glad to see you’re out there, taking it all in.

      And I do see the allure of trail running, but I don’t think I’ll become enamored with it in the long-run (pun intended). I’m a road runner, through and through, built for speed. My forays into ultras are fun and they help me become a better runner. But once the race is over, I’m back to roads.

      Good to hear from you Laszlo!

  3. MedalSlut says:

    Although not glad to see you are yet another warrior fighting the mighty knee pain, I am glad to see that you seem to be winning the battle! Nice job on the 25k, and all the best for next month. I’m sure you’ll be even more determined for Round 2 with the 50 mile distance, and while I’ll be rooting for you to get that finish, continue to be wise and listen to your body. Hopefully it will be cheering you on! Good luck!

    • Dan says:

      I tend to develop … acrimonious relationships with my injuries. Instead of listening and treating them, I get angry and imagine them plotting to take me down. It becomes a weird, unhealthy and adversarial relationship. But this time, I did decide to really dial it down and treat the problem because it wasn’t going away. After this weekend’s run, I’m much more optimistic about my chances next month. Fingers crossed that it wasn’t a fluke :-/

      Thanks for reading! I have two of your posts to catch up on – you’ll hear from me on both of them, promised!

  4. Mike says:

    Nice job nonchalantly pounding out 25K on a twingy piston – and smart choice going no farther. As exhilarating as running can be, injuries can be equally deflating, particularly when you don’t know why they happened or if/when they’ll go away. I’ve been surprised (and a bit unnerved) at the havoc injuries wreak on my psyche, even more so than my body. That said, they do go away – the body heals, usually faster than the mind, and soon you’re back to doing what you love, and taking every step for granted because you can. Until the cycle repeats itself… ah, the runner’s circle of life.

    Luckily you’re in familiar territory and know how to deal w/ this particular bully, so you know he can be vanquished w/ rest. And given your current fitness level, you should be in fine shape for Ice Age even if you have to dial down the mileage and dial up the heat & ibuprofen between now & then. As cliché as it sounds, one day at a time is solid advice right now.

    As far as Ice Age goes, with a month to go you still have plenty of time to pamper the knee. And given the harsh uncertainties of ultrarunning in general, there’s nothing to say what awaits any of us in Kettle Moraine. But we’re all 3 in this together, and that’s motivation enough for me!

    And yeah, those bloggers who take forEVER to write up their race reports? Don’t get me started on those slackers…

    • Dan says:

      I mentioned to Steph the other day that despite my passion for running, I don’t like how much control it holds over my disposition. You said it yourself, it wreaks havoc on my mood. While it doesn’t affect my work performance or how I treat my loved ones like a real addiction would, it does … taint my general temperament. And I don’t like that. I also don’t like breaking streaks, and this injury ruined a 15-month invincibility streak.

      But hey, I guess this is just life right? Anyone would get upset if something prevented them from doing what they love. It just sucks that we take it so seriously, we do it year-round, and we beat ourselves up by thinking that a setback now will ruin us for the rest of the year. But after this weekend’s run, I’m feeling much more optimistic about my chances of finishing Ice Age. And speaking of “this weekend’s run,” I’m writing this not that long after you became a Boston finisher! This feeling, it’s such a strange mixture of pride and seething envy …

      All kidding aside, I do take inspiration from you. Not only are you a very disciplined and passionate runner, you went from a dreaded foot injury to a PR in an incredibly short amount of time. It’s a testament to patience and focus, and if I make it to the start with any shot of making it back, you had a part in making it happen.

      Thanks for reading, Mike. Congratulations on earning the blue and yellow memento of champions.

  5. Just like we talked about… patience. Enjoy the scenery. Take it all in. Don’t worry about the watch. For me ultras are all about just being one with the surroundings and having the experience. 50 miles is 50 miles man. Enjoy every one of them when you run them in May! Woo hoo! Can’t wait to read that race report!

    • Dan says:

      If I’m worrying about the watch, it won’t be to score a PR, but to make the cutoff times. I look forward to enjoying the experience and absorbing as much of the wooded wonderland as possible, but there will come a time where I’ll have to rely squarely on my mental game, which I fear I haven’t honed at all in the last … ever?

      Pray to the lords of ultra for me, Sir Jeff. And best of luck to your own crazy ultra plans this year!

  6. Pingback: On, Wisconsin! The 35th Ice Age Trail 50 | Blisters, Cramps & Heaves

  7. Pingback: Race Schedule & Results | Dan's Marathon

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