Mammoth Run: 2016 Ice Age Trail 50-Miler

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.

Ice Age Trail Runs Start

Ice Age Trail Runs Start

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?

Nordic loop, mile 1.5

Nordic loop, mile 1.5

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.

Mike + Otter

Mike + Otter

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.

Runners + Crew, left to right: me, Steve, Mike, Katie, Otter, Lisa

Runners + Crew, left to right: me, Steve, Mike, Katie, Otter, Lisa

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.

The occasional clearing

The occasional clearing, mile 4

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.

Otter and I, Mile 10.5

Otter and I, Mile 10.5

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.

Wandering in a wooded wonderland

Wandering in a wooded wonderland, mile 26

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.

Approaching an aid station, Mile 19

Approaching an aid station, Mile 19

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? …

Bald Bluff, or about 30% of it

Bald Bluff, or about 30% of it, mile 33

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.

Following the path

Following the path

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.

Mike, mile 40.8

Mike, mile 40.8

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.

Otter, mile 39

Otter, mile 39

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.

A very tempting bench at the top of Bald Bluff

A very tempting bench at the top of Bald Bluff, mile 47

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.

The final sprint, mile 49.9

The final sprint, mile 49.9

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.

Victory.

Victory, mile 50

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.

13235096_1080472668665361_5347430754452198483_oThe 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.

What a day, gentlemen

What a day, gentlemen

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.

Into the woods

Into the woods

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.

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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

On Rosie and Rossi: Cheating in Modern Footraces

A brief examination of running’s most famous course-cutting allegations.

There is a popular aphorism in the running community that single-handedly describes our sport as intense, ridiculous, and simplistic: my sport is your sport’s punishment. Evoking memories of middle school P.E. when we’d realize to our shoulder-slumping chagrin that we’d be running the mile (or as we might call it today, a time trial), this saying reaches the core of what it means to be a runner.

We run, for long periods of time, through pain, for nothing more than to continue running.

It’s not something we do because we arrived late for practice or missed a shot. It’s not something that makes us groan or paint a bright morning into an otherwise somber gray. For many of us, it’s not the stick, but instead the carrot. We run because we enjoy it and its remarkable simplicity. Yes, it’s the foundation for most exercise regimens and a crucial component in many major sports. But lacing up and jostling our heart for a prolonged period of time can be its own reward, and as we stop our watches at the end of another quality workout, we can feel both refreshed and empowered. Those of us with an intense, perhaps unhealthy obsession with statistics will relish at how remarkably easy and satisfying it is to track and quantify our development in the sport, allowing the real, tangible results to speak for themselves.

These results are crucial for many runners. We want to see that we’re either improving or at least maintaining a good level of fitness. We can do this through emotion – from primal elation or the tricky process of measuring “feel” – or by measuring split times. However, the best way to do this, I believe, is through competition. And unlike almost every other sport out there, this is the arena where everyone comes together, from the top athletes in the world to the guy who lost a bet and everyone in between. The glorious stretch of road or trail that we all tread, writing with each step a new chapter in our lives, is a communal path, a shared experience.

So why would anyone want to tarnish the experience by cheating?

Unsurprisingly, there are many reasons, along with a handful of people who do it every year. At the professional level, elite athletes can gain unfair advantages from performance-enhancing substances or oxygenated blood. Organizations such as the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) do their best to crack down on these incidents and provide deterrents to their use. Athletes obviously have many incentives to use these banned substances, such as prize money, national pride and the thrill of winning. On occasion, giants fall, with the most examples in recent years being Kenya’s Rita Jeptoo and Russia’s Liliya Shobukhova. But there has been extensive reporting on this, and it is not what interests me.

I’m more intrigued by what motivates and ultimately causes the average person to cheat in the sport because it sounds so counterintuitive. Thanks to social media, the current running boom has made the sport a meaningful source of support and inspiration. It’s an activity that challenges you to race against thousands of like-minded people, but unless you’re a gifted athlete or a budding amateur, you are competing squarely against yourself. In a showdown against your own best efforts, what can you possibly gain by cheating?

When the average runner cheats, it’s rarely done through the use of performance-enhancing drugs or blood transfusions (and if it happens, the results may not arouse enough suspicion to ever make headlines). Instead, it is usually done by taking shortcuts on the course, or bypassing entire parts of it altogether by car or bike. The intent is obvious: to appear as though one has run the race without actually having to do so. Most of the time, runners are too busy focusing on their breathing and hydration, lost in a carousel of pump-up jams and motivational signs to notice if a nearby runner slips off or on the course. Since the camera crews and pacers are mostly focusing on the lead pack, there are few witnesses who can reliably demonstrate foul play in the thousands of runners behind.

The Unwitting Champion

The most notorious case of this transgression is Rosie Ruiz. Her infamous story, which quickly became a cautionary tale, is as relevant today as it was in 1980, when she accidentally won the Boston Marathon by sneaking into the course just ahead of the eventual winner, Canada’s Jacqueline Gareau. Ruiz not only crossed the finish line first in Boston by cheating, but it was later revealed that her qualifying race in New York City the year before was also a sham.

This incident has not only made her name synonymous with cheating, it has elevated her quite possibly to the ignominious honor of being the world’s most famous marathoner. Sure, a lot of us can name drop a handful of East African superstars and fluidly comment on Olympic hopefuls from many different nations. But the average person might only know Rosie because her story is so compelling, embarrassing and timeless. To date, the world has not received a confession or apology from Ruiz, who instead asserts as recently as 2000 that she ran the entire race. If “long-distance runners [see] themselves as purists of mind, body and soul” as Neil Amdur of the New York Times describes, what would motivate someone to not only brazenly cut the course, but lie about it to this day?

Some theorize that she cut the course in New York to impress her co-workers, who then went on to bankroll her Boston performance. Faced with having to repeat or improve on her false performance for her peers, she had no choice but to cut the course again. Social motivation, as we will discuss later, is indeed very influential. But though her story is fascinating, it is still shrouded in mystery. And of course, she is not alone.

After Rosie, Boston beefed up its checkpoint system, all but ensuring that a repeat performance like hers would be impossible, if not incredibly difficult. As we move closer to present day, we’ve seen races institute chips that record times as runners pass over various timing mats distributed throughout the course. Large races also feature photography stations, which are meant to provide runners with mementos of their hard-earned run, but also serve as photographic evidence that they did, in fact, run. Cutting the course today would mean orchestrating and executing a meticulous plan that involves starting the race on time, registering times at multiple checkpoints and posing for photographers, all while not actually running the full distance. Some have even suggested that because of the logistical plan involved, cheating a result at a major marathon might even be tougher than running the race itself.

And yet, it happens. With the advent of the internet and vigilante journalism, the running community has become a hive-mind of sleuths, investigating aberrations in race results nationwide. Such devout scrutiny has yielded numerous cheaters and more than one cult figure, none more famous than Michigan’s Kip Litton.

The Race and Runners That Never Existed

A dentist by trade, Litton sought to run a marathon in under three hours in every state, an incredibly ambitious and impressive goal by any stretch of the imagination. However, as chronicled in mesmerizing detail in a 2012 New Yorker feature, the enterprise eventually drew suspicion when Litton began placing very close to the podium without ever being seen on the course. He would start much later than the majority of the field, appear in different outfits across the same race, and cross the finish line in strange positions. Over time, the case against Litton became an obsession on the internet, with multiple amateur detectives collecting images, data points, and tidbits of anecdotal evidence to try and disprove or at least cast doubt on his finishing times. There was even one race, the West Wyoming Marathon, where he won the race outright. But thanks to the archival permanence of the internet, a few investigations began to pick away at what seemed like a house of cards.

The result has transformed Litton from another aspiring 50-states marathoner to a legend at best, the subject of a tireless blog at worst. Like Ruiz, Litton stands by his integrity to this day, offering explanations of questionable veracity to explain the bizarre circumstances that have made him the target of all these accusations. Whether you believe him or not depends on how easily you can swallow the conspiracy theorists out there who posit that he not only cheated in a large number of marathons, some of which, like the Boston Marathon, included photographers and timing checkpoints, but also fabricated the West Wyoming Marathon, its entire roster of participants, all while acting as its race director under a pseudonym.

It almost sounds like running a three-hour marathon would be easier.

What is certain is that Litton’s case is fascinating and ripe with peculiar details that beg investigation, none of which definitively prove any wrongdoing. But as tantalizing as it is to speculate about how Litton managed to avoid providing his critics a smoking gun, why he would be driven to cheat is just as intriguing. From the start, he chronicled his countrywide marathon exploits on worldrecordrun.com, a site that has since been re-appropriated to track Litton’s activities. The internet and social media have allowed runners to participate more deeply in the running community by sharing success stories, articles, tips and pictures of the running experience. With more participants every year, it may seem like running a marathon is no longer the singular life achievement that it used to be. Perhaps many of us, Litton included, want to reach that next level and have something to show for our added efforts. Worldrecordrun.com might have been just that – a public outlet for personal fulfillment and gratification. But when the grueling regimen required to run under three hours for the marathon in every state proved too much, a shortcut was needed.

The Burden of Performance

According to Jack J. Lesyk, PhD, the director of the Ohio Center for Sport Psychology, “[people] who thrive on measurable achievements and the reactions of others – racking up titles, medals and accolades in the hopes of impressing friends and family – are more likely to cheat.” In this case, it could have been that Litton’s desire for praise and recognition was strong enough to override the “purity of mind” that is often associated with long distance running. He might have felt beholden to his public goal, enough to break the rules. Almost by definition, cheating discards matters of morality – if you’re going to cheat, you probably don’t care too much about right or wrong.

Dr. Maria Kavussanu from the University of Birmingham thinks differently. She suggests that framing a situation in terms of right and wrong before cheating has occurred has the potential to dissuade athletes against any malfeasance. Kavussanu published an article in Sport, Exercise and Performance Psychology that demonstrated that athletes, when asked to write a story about themselves that explicitly involved morality, were “significantly more likely to experience guilty feelings if they engaged in anti-social behavior during a game and therefore significantly less likely to engage in such behavior when compared to athletes in the control group.” The feasibility of scaling this initiative to combat cheating at the professional level remains to be discussed.

But I keep coming back to the maddening question of “why” by way of utility – what does someone actually gain from cheating? At the professional level, this isn’t really much of a question. An unfairly obtained competitive advantage is, as South African distance runner and confirmed doper Hezekiél Sepeng states, “a shortcut” (and the fact that this word literally describes how the average runner cheats in a marathon is not lost on me). This shortcut, meant to improve performance, can lead to higher earnings, greater visibility in the sport, bigger and more lucrative endorsements. If you’re an East African trying to escape poverty, a magical ointment could literally change your life.

If former World Anti-Doping Agency chairman Dick Pound is to be believed, then there are five fundamental reasons why athletes cheat: to win at all costs, for financial gain, national pressures, individual pressure from coaches or sponsors, and the belief that they won’t get caught.

A middle-aged marathon enthusiast has virtually no shot of making an Olympic team or earning a significant payday by winning a major race. So of the five reasons above, I’d say only the first and the last apply to the average person, but with caveats. If the aim is to win at all costs, we confuse things a bit because the average person doesn’t “win” the race (hence lending some truth to the old saying, cheaters never win). If “winning” simply means “breaking a PR by any means necessary” then you have an unrepentant cheater whose motivations are simple but unexciting. If the average person isn’t aiming to win the race (unless they commit the same error as Ruiz, which a young woman in St Louis unwittingly did as recently as 2015), simply getting away with it is juvenile and again, uninspiring. Then there’s the third reason, which only applies if the “pressures” come not from coaches or one’s country, but from our peer groups and environment.

I won’t discard or even underestimate the heavy burden of social pressures. Despite how openly accepting and loving the running community is, fear of failure is a powerful motivator. It’s very difficult to walk away from a goal, especially if its progress has been carefully documented across social media networks and blogs. If friends and family are supporting us, the thought of letting them down might lead us into uncharted territory. Some of us have just the right combination of traits to make cheating more tempting. According to Maurice Schweitzer, expert on behavioral decision making at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, “a combination of personality traits particular to high-achievers and external pressures can lead to unscrupulous behavior.” One might wonder if high-achievers have also been conditioned to “come out on top,” which can exacerbate a fear of losing, or in this case, disappointing one’s peers or coming shy of expectations.

It is all compounded when we factor in the rise of social media. After all, our online avatars are merely representations of our real lives, manipulated and curated to showcase our best qualities. Some might say there’s just a veneer of truth to our digital selves, so aside from the minute chance that someone will put on their finest deerstalker and begin asking questions, what’s the harm in a little white lie? And does one fraud’s sense of self-worth justify the cost of installing additional timing mats? Recruiting more volunteers who can spot potential cheats? Hiring more photographers?

For some race directors, it’s not even worth the pain. “A lot of times, the race directors just don’t care,” says Josh Stern, owner of Split Second Timing. “They don’t want to have a scene.”

Regardless, these are still difficult questions to answer because they involve complex emotional conflicts. Unless we conduct exhaustive and psychologically taxing interviews on everyone with mildly suspicious checkpoint splits, we simply have to give everyone the benefit of the doubt. Since we don’t do this, we have to assume that cheating happens a little more often than we think. An investigation by Runner’s World suggests that in 2014, about 0.1% of the field at the New York Marathon, or roughly 50 people, were removed from the results page because of suspicious times. If the evidence is substantial, a race may even ban a runner outright.

Anyone who has trained hard for a race and come up short, either from injury or bad luck, knows how gut-wrenching it is to not achieve a big goal. We would never want to let down our support group or our charities, and we certainly don’t want to disappoint ourselves. For 0.1% of us, cheating may be a real option.

And yet, there is one very real, tangible and tempting reason for your average, everyday runner to break the rules and the course, and that is to earn a coveted Boston Qualifying Time. The ever-tightening standards of the world’s most prestigious marathon, coupled with a booming running community ready and willing to fill each and every spot, has made it increasingly challenging to stand at the starting line in Hopkington. Runners are faced with two options: train with all your effort and spirit to improve your marathon time, or maintain your current PR until age 65 (assuming the standard doesn’t get faster by then).

Of course, I wouldn’t be writing this article if there weren’t a third option. This brings us to the most recent target in the online community’s witch hunt: Mike Rossi.

Peaks and Valleys

Rossi reached middling levels of internet prominence when he took a stand against his children’s school principal, who reprimanded Rossi for their unexcused absence from school. Rossi had brought them to see him run the 2015 Boston Marathon as a learning experience and posted a defiant letter to the principal on Facebook. The letter and incident soon swept the internet and he quickly became a viral sensation worthy of television interviews and multiple Facebook Likes.

It wasn’t long before he became the next Kip Litton. Possibly motivated by Rossi’s pontificating tone in the letter, the feverish members of Letsrun.com were quick to pull up his running history and allege that his recent running times did not indicate that he could have qualified for Boston in the first place. What followed was a series of accusations leveled against Rossi so detailed and thoughtful that it defied belief. From finding previous race times archived at athlinks.com to contacting the LeHigh Valley Marathon where he earned the BQ in question, to actually cross-referencing each and every single individual who ran the race with professional race photography shots, the investigative effort was mind-boggling. Much like the Reddit community’s crowd-sourced efforts to (incorrectly) identify the 2013 Boston bombers, the famous race had once again sparked an internet collective into action. It was both a testament to the fierce loyalty of the running community and a disturbing reminder of the internet’s slithery, yet powerful tendrils.

Since the accusations were hurled at Rossi, nothing tangible has come of the ordeal. Both sides have lobbed the burden of proof back and forth, and the fight eventually migrated to Twitter, where Rossi received many vitriolic messages from strangers. Just when you thought the ordeal couldn’t get more hyperbolic, Letsrun.com offered up $100,000 to the embattled runner as prize money for reproducing a similar qualifying time, which has gone unclaimed. In hopes of lowering the bar, the website also offered $1,000 to Rossi’s charity of choice just for a confession. Rossi has vocally stood by his innocence, and neither the Boston nor the LeHigh Valley marathons have disqualified or nullified his results. As is the case with Kip Litton, it is surprisingly difficult to prove an act of cheating in a marathon when the evidence is only an absence of evidence. Without a picture of Rossi in a car at the time of the race or sneaking into the crowd, race organizers prefer to give him the benefit of the doubt.

And yet, why the outrage? If race directors don’t seem to care too much about it, why should anyone else?

In this particular case, Rossi’s accusers would say it’s less about someone’s sense of pride or fulfillment or a debate between right and wrong, but more about him wrongfully taking a spot at the Boston Marathon that should have gone to a runner who earned it. Getting into Boston gets tougher every year, independently of the qualifying standards, which are likely due for a revision soon. To qualify for the 2016 running, applicants had to run 2 minutes and 28 seconds faster than their standard to even register. This means I would have had to run a 3:02:32 last year to satisfy the BAA algorithm that sorts the lucky speedsters from those who just barely made the cut. Naturally, we have to ask ourselves if this will mean a corresponding increase in wrongdoing.

Run Honestly

Pride, ego, bullheadedness. There are many other selfish reasons to cheat through a marathon, either by cutting the course, or showing up just at the start and finish to register a time. But although the act is often overlooked and fails to register any meaningful effect on anyone’s life, it still denigrates the otherwise inspirational running event. I’m not saying that someone’s act of cheating devalues my honest marathon achievement, because I run against myself and my own expectations. But whenever a top athlete is exposed as a drug cheat, it casts a grey pall on the sport in general, tempting unwanted speculation to question everyone else, even if there has never been cause for suspicion. Part of what makes running so popular and confusing to outsiders is its raw honesty. Any breach in that honesty, no matter how trivial, chips away at the sport’s integrity.

Cheaters make headlines. Be it brazenly, habitually, seemingly by accident, questionably so, or done with premeditated intent, cheating happens and will continue to happen. Race directors can either invest in smarter chip-timing technology to lower the likelihood or keep things as they are, writing off the occasional course-cutter as collateral damage. There will always be those who choose shortcuts over the daunting task of battling through 26.2 miles with little else but grit and determination.

But ultimately, the rest of us have to respect the sport by honestly giving it only our very best. This means backing down in the face of serious injury, cutting our losses if the weather doesn’t cooperate, or simply accepting that everyone has bad days. We can’t give into that urge to “outsmart” the system or furtively circumvent the rules just to gain an artificial accomplishment, even if that means training just a little harder as an insurance policy against potential interlopers taking our prized spot on Patriot’s Day.

I remember participating in a Big Wheel race in Kindergarten. It was held in the parking lot of my school on a blustery day, my parents and sister watching from the sidelines. The distance was an afterthought – a quick thirty yard dash to a turnaround, then back to the starting line. Though I was only five or six, I had a distinct sense of pride about how fast I could go on my Big Wheel. I knew I would win that race, even though I had never really competed with my neighborhood friends.

Almost because I refused to lose, I spun the handlebars before the turnaround, cutting the distance by just enough to make it back to the finish line first. Though I was a wee lad with an undeveloped sense of justice, I was somewhat aware that I had broken the rules. If my nascent ideas of right and wrong weren’t guiding me, my parents laughing at the blatant course-cutting confirmed it. This being Kindergarten, I still received a trophy (though it’s possible that every child did).

I lost that prize not long afterward. It probably got swept away during a move or a seasonal purge of household items. But I know that if I had won the race honestly, I would have kept it and featured it prominently among my stuffed animals and Ninja Turtle action figures. It would have meant something to me. But since I cheated, it fell victim to the gales of time, blown away forever. But I still remember the event, I remember the decision, and I’m sure anyone who has ever cheated at a sporting event knows what they did, even if they keep it buried.

Because it’s one thing to admit wrongdoing, but another to injure a sport that only asks that you honor yourself by doing the best you can.

End of Year Recap (2015)

2015 began with one singular, driven purpose: to qualify for Boston at the Berlin Marathon. I put everything I had into the quest, attacking it with a balanced combination of aggression and caution. In addition to re-tooling my approach to training, I tried my best to avoid signing up for races just to scratch the itch. Berlin became my singular focus, and with it came a powerful, if not familiar surge of motivation. I became reacquainted with what it meant to train specifically for one event, months away. As my legs would tire during intervals, I would remind myself, this is for Berlin. As the soft tendrils of my bedsheets would threaten to keep me away from my early morning runs, I’d quietly murmur the mantra, this is for Berlin.

Recap_2015

I hadn’t felt this committed or excited for a race since my first ultras in 2013 and my first marathon in 2009.

With a newfound thirst for success, I mapped out nine months of training, each with its own goals and milestones. In the spring, I narrowed the gap to my goal in Fargo with a 3:16 PR, and in the summer I stayed strong through warm temperatures, signs that a BQ was not only possible, but almost inevitable if I could only maintain my progress.

And maintain that progress I did. I earned PRs at the 5k (18:52), 10k (40:12), and 10-mile distances (1:06:36). I ran long runs at paces that I couldn’t believe and no run was finished without a confident smile or an overpowering enthusiasm that convinced me I was on my way to greatness. My date with the Brandenburger Tor was to be the culmination of nine months’ worth of planning, dedicated training, and execution.

0125_mediamiami 15And then, halfway through the Berlin Marathon, things fell apart, the center could not hold.

Fortunately, I did not follow the Yeats poem with its successor line, mere anarchy is loosed upon the world. Instead, I ate delicious food, drank full-bodied beers, took a few weeks off and then got back to what I love to do. I was concerned that Fargo had been a fluke, a magical moment of perfect confluence that I might never again replicate. So, I did what I swore I wouldn’t do all year, and impulsively signed up for another marathon.

Only seven weeks removed from Berlin, I ran a 3:17, 0215_lostdutchman 30just a minute shy of my PR, in a course with four times as much elevation change. The race didn’t get me any closer to my goal of running a marathon in all 50 states, nor was it a bucket list event on everyone’s list. Instead, it was for personal assurance, a validation of trial through fire, that I hadn’t overestimated my progress. That race showed me that I had indeed moved the chains in the right direction, that 2015 would indeed be another year of progress and improvement.

As for the actual, raw numbers? Thanks to my meticulous stat-tracking – which I learned in 2015 was unusual at 0509_1_fargomarathon 01best, psychotic at worst, even amongst my most diehard running friends – I know that this year I laced up 177 times for a total of 1,433 miles, or an average of 8.09 miles per session. I ran for 7 days, 18 hours, 54 minutes and 22 seconds, which means an average yearly pace of 7:49.

I know that my fastest 10th mile was at the Fort 2 Base 10 Nautical Miler (6:42), my slowest month was June (average 0705_correcaminos 26of 8:14 per mile), it took me only 20 days to run 100 miles in August, and I placed in the top 1% of racers at 3 different races.

Will any of these stats actually help me become a better runner? Maybe. It all depends on how I use them to plan for 2016. Running goals are, pun fully intended, a moving target. Because while I didn’t achieve my goal of running under a 3:05 for the marathon and earn a Boston qualifying time, I’m not necessarily sticking squarely to that goal for the new year. Instead, I am returning to an old goal, one I did not accomplish back in 2013, and has since remained the only unsightly DNF in an otherwise 2015-0719-rnr-teamchance 01clean sheet: the 50-mile distance.

It truly was another banner year, even with the surprising meltdown in Deutschland, one that I will etch into memory as the one where it all came together: speed, distance, audacity and care.

That doesn’t mean I will abandon fast marathon ambitions in 2016. As I train for distances absurd, I will continue my speed training and stick to the 80/20 training philosophy that I adopted this year to achieve my best big10kever fitness, all without a single injury. Thanks to my unwavering focus on Berlin, I only added one state to the map in 2015. I am hoping to run more than that over the next twelve months.

But most importantly, I will aim to run as many of them in the company of good people. Race stats and chip times are worth very little if they’re not part of a fun and increasingly social sport. Every year since I joined the running masses, I have tried my best to rope others into the movement and 2015 was no exception. Thanks to wonderful friends and family members, the vast majority 2015-08-23 11.35.58of the bibs I pinned had companions.

Because every result, whether scratched on a calendar or inked in a labyrinthine spreadsheet, is a continuation of everything that has come before it. No run or race exists in a vacuum, but instead relies on the staggering distances whose sum has written the story of our struggles and aspirations.

And so, with my sights set on the many adventures to come, I look to 2016 with a buzzing mix of eagerness, trepidation, and ambition. Though my plans aren’t completely 2015-0823_fort2base 06set in stone, I hope that whatever path my trail takes, that I will share it with fleet-footed travelers of all dispositions, from starry-eyed newcomers to ragged veterans. We’re all searching for the same thing, so we might as well enjoy the company.

Happy New Year!