Mammoth Run: 2016 Ice Age Trail 50-Miler
May 17, 2016 26 Comments
I danced downhill over rocks and exposed roots, side stepping onto the soft earth as if it were a ramp, letting it gently guide my legs over the next obstacle. My eyes were three rocks ahead, trance-like and robotic, finding the optimal path to avoid tripping. Every second my gaze would dash three or four times, my strides never the same, with short steps quickly becoming bounding leaps over large rocks, followed by heavy, typewriter stomps over steep terrain. Tiny flecks of sleet fell from the canopy, dusting the damp trail in a crystalline white pattern. In this moment, I felt unstoppable, efficient, and powerful.
But it was also in this moment that my quads began to singe. And I still had twenty miles to go.
This is it, I thought. This is where it all begins to fall apart. After a lackluster training effort thanks to injury and last-minute illness, this is the beginning of the end; this, right here, is my last chance to feel confident and capable, the last upright steps that portend the miserable slog to the finish. I might as well enjoy them.
Many hours earlier, I was in LaGrange, Wisconsin, at the starting line of the Ice Age Trail 50-Miler, a race billed as one of the country’s “classic ultramarathons.” Whether the race has earned that description from age or by bearing the standard for how ultras are organized, I had neither the experience nor the research to say. But I had made it to the starting line as a tangled knot of nerves. A knee injury in March had made ultra-long trail runs nearly impossible, relegating my training to merely fitness upkeep, and a slight head-cold the week before was threatening to dehydrate me more than usual.
Remembering my last and only attempt at the 50-mile distance, I couldn’t help but feel frustrated and dejected. I sat on a folding chair in the woods of the Manistee National Forest with an ice pack slowly melting off my knee, watching as dozens of dusty bodies entered the North Country Run’s aid station with bright smiles. How were they able to make it this far, 39 miles into a race, still happy and energized? What did they know that I didn’t?
Whatever it was, I hadn’t learned it in the last two months. And yet, there I was, listening to the Star-Spangled Banner in the dripping wet woods of the Kettle Moraine State Forest with kindred spirits Otter and Mike, just minutes away from a distance I had never completed before. The miles I had run in the lead up were paltry and my confidence at an all-time low. The only option I had was willful submission. I was going to enter the woods, walk through the verdant looking glass, and let the journey unfold as it should.
Otter was running because he loves trails and the Ice Age races in particular, but also because he too was on a redemptive attempt of his own, having dropped out of the 2015 event seven miles short of the full distance. The two of us then goaded Mike, RaceRaves’ Chief Lunatic, into running his first ever 50-miler by assailing him with enough text messages, pictures and emails to pave the entire trail.
The three of us had decided to run the first nine mile section together. Called the Nordic Loop, it is a fairly wide path that traces a jagged circle over soft pine straw, rocky paths, and grassy stretches of flat land made for speed, finishing back at the start. In between, it rises and falls like an ancient roller coaster, assuring that our pace would see similar peaks and valleys as we would stop to walk uphill ready to pick up the pace on the other side. The field of 372 runners was a tightly-packed human train for most of this loop, allowing for the kind of friendly chatter that completely belied the monumental task ahead.
As we reached the first aid station, I remembered the need to eat early and often. I was attempting fifty hill-ridden miles, a feat that would burn between 7,000 and 9,000 calories, and the average person typically stores anywhere from 2,000 to 3,000 in their reserves. Rather than wait until I actually felt hungry, I planned on noshing at every aid station to avoid an early bonk. I surveyed the spread under the white tent, the only artificial blemish in an otherwise serene wooded path, and grabbed a few Oreos.
The end of the Nordic Loop would mark the last time the three of us would run together. The casual, carefree banter that we exchanged mostly to distract us from the task ahead, was coming to an end. As we approached the starting banner, we found our respective crew members amid the whooping clamor of spectators. Mike grabbed a sandwich and high-fived his wife Katie before speeding towards the race’s next section. Otter’s girlfriend Lisa was in a bright green winter jacket, ready to keep him in fighting shape for the 41 miles to go. My father-in-law and trusted crew master Steve refilled my water pack and bottle with the course volunteers before urging me to eat. Otter and I realized we were both ready to go at the same time, so we marched back into the woods shoulder to shoulder, feeling light and cool.
We had started the race shivering. The early spring warmth of the previous week had been dashed by an arctic wind, whose gust was rustling the dense forest around us, often drawing creaks from nearby trees. I had considered shedding some clothing a few miles earlier, but once I stopped running at the aid station, that lingering desire became an immediate need to stay warm.
Otter and I ran together for a few miles until the aid stations began separating us. For the next two hours, I followed a very reliable pattern. Drink water, drink electrolytes, eat an energy gel, drink water, drink electrolytes, catch Mike, pass Mike on a downhill, reach an aid station, hand my wares to Steve, watch as Mike would leave the aid station, eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, suit up, chase Mike …
At mile 19, I reached the next checkpoint in a clearing surrounded by tall grass. I gave my hydration vest to Steve and he looked at me with a mixed expression of confusion and fear. “You should eat something salty,” he says, as if there were a grim sign of it on my face. I grabbed a handful of pretzels and chewed on them until they were a mealy paste caking my teeth. I put myself together and took off, wondering if Steve’s admonishment was a sign that I was starting to succumb to the ghostly pallor of exhaustion.
Drink water, drink electrolytes, eat an energy gel, drink water, drink electrolytes, catch Mike, pass Mike on a downhill, reach an aid station …
I would strike up brief conversations with Mike as I would reach his heels. But since I’m not much of a talker on the run, I kept the exchanges short. Without music or a running partner, it was up to the course’s beautiful and constantly changing character to entertain me. Thin single-track eskers became wide open mounds of earth, which led into tree-lined promenades and serpentine dirt paths. If it weren’t for the nagging voice in my head, reminding to keep moving forward at all costs, I would have stopped to breathe in the Wisconsin air, crisp enough to slice and eat.
Meanwhile, everything seemed to be working. My left knee, which had plagued me with all manner of discomforting pain during March and April, was at the top of its game. Despite being covered by weary and worn road shoes, my feet and toes were free of blisters, and I wasn’t chafing anywhere. My stomach was happily digesting the food I had eaten, and my lungs were thrilled at the fresh air coursing through them. I reached the aid station near the shores of Rice Lake, just shy of 22 miles into the race, the farthest trail distance I had run in anticipation of this event, feeling composed, energized, and ecstatic.
After stocking up on supplies, I grabbed Steve’s hands and leaned back into a squat to stretch my hamstrings. With a quick slap to legs, I shuttled out of the aid station once again in Mike’s footsteps. Water, electrolytes, energy gel, water, electrolytes, Mike, downhill, aid station, all in a reliable cadence of clean breaths through an unpredictable series of open clearings and narrow paths. The ease and relaxed stride that carried me through every mile felt invigorating but deceptive. Ask any long distance runner and they will tell you that the first half of any race feels great, but there will inevitably come a time where, pushed against your limits, you will begin to suffer. With very few exceptions, I have faced that awful wall and have never been able to recover. Once it hits me, I’m done and have no choice but to drag what’s left of me to the finish.
The first sign of worry came just before mile 30, as I drummed downhill toward a roadside aid station. A tiny pinch in my quads had emerged and I felt twinges of pain with every downhill step.
This is it, I thought. This is where it all begins to fall apart.
But I continued moving forward, almost daring the pain to get worse. Given enough time and distance, the body will find a way to collapse, and with twenty miles left, there was plenty of both. I would have dwelled on the pain longer, but I could hear the hollers from the aid station emanating from the woods. I reached it to find Steve busy tending to a runner with dried streaks of blood on the right side of his face. Seeing that he was handling a delicate matter, I filled my own stores. Once he was free, I told him where I was and how I felt.
The next crew-accessible aid station was ten miles away. Up until now, our crews were there to help us roughly every three miles. And it wasn’t just Steve who would be there at the mouth of every aid station, but Katie and Lisa as well. That kind of support and dedication were better rewards than any sugary treat and I had come to rely on it to keep me going. Steve was also providing real-time updates to my family in Costa Rica, which was an added surge of motivation to stay strong every time I reached an aid station. The next ten miles away from my support crew, into the hills and in the shadow of Bald Bluff, the tallest climb in the race, were surely going to test me.
Drink water, drink electrolytes, eat an energy gel, drink water, drink electrolytes, chase Mike, chase Mike, reach an aid station, continue chasing Mike … where the hell is Mike? …
I continued my pattern of walking uphill, running the flats, and stomping downhill with great temerity. Every runner that I was able to catch, I would slowly approach and then storm past them on a downward section, letting my long legs leap over rocks and the occasional stair, acutely aware of what could happen if I clipped a root or slipped on a moss-covered rock. My quads were still feeling a tiny pinch with every hill, but they had miraculously not worsened. I kept expecting everything to go south at any minute, knowing how furtively the wall can suddenly plant itself, but against all odds, that hadn’t happened yet.
Like a finely-tuned machine, I took swigs of water and HEED, ate at regular intervals, and shoved peanut butter sandwiches down my throat at aid stations. If I heard water swishing in my reservoir, I would drink it; if my water bottle was heavy, I would drink it; if the road was flat, I would run it; if it bent up, I would walk it. I was focused on the singular act of moving forward, subconsciously expecting the demons of running to shank me at any minute, spilling my energy like blood on the damp trail.
At mile 35, I reached the base of Bald Bluff. I followed an older runner in a yellow singlet, who refused to power hike and instead took tiny, yet still airborne steps to tackle the mountain’s bright, gravel path. I couldn’t help but chuckle as I nipped at his heels with my long walking strides. I passed him on a flat section and continued upward, acid seeping into my quads with every step.
Here it is, the thought crept again. Much later than I would have ever expected, but this is where the knives pierce my legs, this is where each ligament and muscle becomes a wrought-iron cable, stiff and heavy.
I continued hiking uphill, keeping my body as upright as possible to avoid reflux. My quads were burning, but this far up, there was no stopping. As I crested the top of the bluff, I lunged forward into a run and found that I still could. The seeping burn into my legs was only temporary as I climbed, and now that I was back to running flat terrain, they were still willing to cooperate. In fact, after a minute or so, it was as if nothing had changed. Bald Bluff, the most imposing part of the race, had only slowed me down a little, but had done nothing to break me.
What the hell is happening? I thought, completely aware that I was questioning a good result instead of merely enjoying it. Where was the breakdown? Why wasn’t my stomach rejecting all the food I was eating like it has in every other ultra I’ve run? Why don’t my feet feel like they were marbled and ground? Why wasn’t I gasping for air, this far into the longest continuous run of my life? Where was the sound of the freight train, the inevitable thud of fatigue that can trample the strongest of wills?
In short, why was I doing so well?
Although every step I took got me no closer to answering these questions, they pushed me toward the next checkpoint. I saw Mike running toward me, fresh out of the upcoming aid station. He clapped when our paths crossed, content that I was still in the game forty miles into the race. Not long after, I reached the Emma Carlin aid station, which was a raucous party thanks to the Flatlander Ultrarunners. I ran comfortably in and began replenishing my hydration stocks. I told Steve I was feeling great, and that I was eager to take this all the way to the finish. He looked me dead in the eye and reminded me to relax for a minute and celebrate this moment, as I had passed the longest I had ever run; that every step I took would be an improvement over the last 50-miler I tried to run, whose coiling path was cut short at 39 miles almost three years earlier.
With the electrifying encouragement of my crew behind me, it was time to retrace my steps. Although I felt accomplished and could sense that the finish was near, ten dense, hilly miles separated me from the end. I could face any number of perils in that long swath of trail, from rolled ankles to sudden gastric discomfort or perhaps energy depletion.
I tried to avoid thoughts that might throw my focus off balance. I still had ahead of me the same distance that separated me from the aid station where Steve was helping the injured runner, which felt like an eternity. I had to re-scale Bald Bluff and every smaller hill in between, with only two aid stations to break up the miles. By this point in the race, the field was spread so thin that I rarely saw anyone ahead or behind me. Everyone had found their pace, marching in unison like colorful ants. But if I ever came across a runner, I would always pass them on the downhills, which I was still somehow able to tackle with alacrity. I saw Otter approaching and we both came to a dead halt, which almost threw off the person I didn’t know was running quietly behind me. We exchanged brief status updates and fist bumps before returning to our paths.
Up and down I continued, drinking and eating, running and drinking, eating and running. In a haste to speed up, I clipped many roots on my toes. I stumbled on many occasions and quickly regained my footing, allowing the woods to absorb a loud “Come on!” before resuming the path. I was lucky to fall only once in the entire race, and it happened during a slight uphill about six hours earlier. It was almost as if the trail itself were trying to keep me from pushing the steady pace, as if it could tell my patience was being tried and had quietly hunched a few roots into my path.
Reaching the top of Bald Bluff proved easier this time. I stopped briefly at the top and took in the view before scrambling down the loose gravel path on the other side, leaping over rocks and wooden planks like a mountain goat. I reached the next aid station and skipped it entirely. I was 2.5 miles from the finish and feeling great, with no sign of stopping. I felt my phone buzz in my hand and I checked it to see my cousin calling from Costa Rica. I answered and told him I was 48 miles into a 50 mile race. He laughed almost incredulously and urged me to keep going.
As I skipped the last aid station, I almost felt ungrateful. But I had everything I needed to reach the finish line. Even though I could almost taste the end, I kept my regular pattern: walk uphill, run the flats, drink often. Here I was, just minutes away from accomplishing a goal that had haunted me for three years, and yet, it somehow felt un-ceremonial.
It’s no secret that long distance running and masochism can sometimes feel inseparable. Deliberate suffering or at least the mindful acceptance of it is part of the experience and for many runners, it’s a source of pride. The last six miles of a marathon are an exercise in attrition, fighting against the building agony and seeing how far you can go before you relent. Salt deposits, staggering limps, and even a black toe or two are as much battle scars as they are badges of honor. But as I approached the finish line on that cold Saturday afternoon in Wisconsin, I was feeling great.
With each step, there were more spectators standing where the trail meets the woods, clapping and smiling. I was half in the moment, enjoying the experience, and half in a daze, completely shocked at how I was able to do this with such a lackluster training season. I had fantasized about this moment for the last five months, expecting that I would turn the corner into the finish line, in plain sight of my crew, a ragged mess with a proud glint in my eyes. But that wasn’t who emerged from the woods. The lone traveler was instead completely free of heaves, tears or a lip-biting struggle to reach the banner at any cost, speeding up and ending his journey in ten hours and nineteen minutes.
In the moment, it was just another stretch of trail, which, if followed past the crowds and parking lot, would have led to another series of winding paths. I could have honestly continued further into the woods, deeper into the indifferent beyond. Despite the cheering crowds, the finish felt a little anti-climactic, precisely because I didn’t have to dig myself out of a spiritual trench at mile 40. Instead, I had managed to put all the pieces together to run seemingly forever. The result, in a word, was magical.
For a beautifully written summary of the day’s events from Mike’s vantage, please read his post at Blisters, Cramps & Heaves.
Even as I write this, I can’t quite process everything that happened. Every ultra I’ve attempted has resulted in wrecked legs, a tumultuous stomach, and gassed lungs, and those all followed a successful training regimen. The worst I suffered during this race were a few side stitches after mile 40 that went away with a quick walking break. Part of me credits the weather with keeping my sweat rate down and allowing me to stay hydrated and thus, able to digest food and continue running. But what truly kept me going were the people who shared the day with me.
The belt buckle I earned at the finish line goes out to everyone who helped me along the way. I dedicate it to Steve, who is not only responsible for my running lunacy in the first place, but kept me focused and honest with my nutrition and wouldn’t let me leave aid stations without a handful of pretzels; to Lisa and Katie, who were always waiting for me at every trailhead, cheering as if I were leading the race and never complained about cold or hunger; to the many friendly volunteers who bundled up and braved the winds to keep this race a world-class event that sells out every year; to ultra-runners Paul and Jeff for believing that I could finish this beast, even when I was at my most skeptical; to Mike for humoring us in the most dedicated way possible by agreeing to run the longest race of his life and selflessly sticking around after a huge 9:54 finish to capture our finishes; to my family and in-laws for their constant real-time support throughout the day; and to my excellent partner in life Steph for always supporting me in my running adventures, even though they require early morning alarm clocks and a separate laundry hamper.
Last, but certainly not least, I couldn’t have finished this race without my running pal Otter, who not only believed in me more than I ever did, but routinely went out of his way to help me overcome my woeful training. There were times during the spring where it felt like he was more interested in getting me across the finish line than earning the buckle himself. After all, he was the first person to see me hobbled at my first failed attempt, and knew more than most how much I wanted to earn the title of 50-miler. But he too was out here for more than just another run beneath a green canopy.
On the morning of April 9, he lost his father. The weeks that followed were a test of Otter’s emotional fortitude, as he took charge of the heartbreaking tasks that come with the death of a loved one. Although I never met his dad, it was apparent that he was a kind, generous, and selfless man, whose driving purpose in life was to help others. I didn’t say it at the time, but I’m certain that at some point during his communion with the wilderness, Otter must have thought about his departed father and everything he learned from him. His willingness to put my success ahead of his own is nothing short of a loving testament to his father’s legacy.
Since I’m still trying to make sense of everything, I don’t yet know how this experience will shape my running path going forward. After all, there are tacit questions that come with a successful finish like this one. It certainly made me more confident about my abilities and shed light on why so many people love the ultra life. But don’t expect me to sign up for any similar or longer races in the near future. I’m still basking in the glow (and residual muscle soreness) of a race completed, but won’t plan on another one until I’ve finished running all 50 states.
For now, I’m happy with my redemptive day in the forest.