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

Illinois (2013 Paleozoic Trail Run 25k)


With my first 50k trail run just eight weeks away, it was time for a shot at half the distance to see how my feet would hold up.  In the days leading up to the inaugural Paleozoic Trail Run 25k, Chicago would experience every single kind of precipitation imaginable.  So it was with a sort of shrug and Ron Weasley face that Otter and I made the short, 25-minute drive from Chicago to Willow Springs.  The race would take place at the Palos Forest Reserve, a large recreational area perfect for riding bikes, trail running and picnics.  I had come here twice before to do some weekend trail running, but by no means did that mean I would recognize the course or be able to safely navigate my way through its serpentine paths.

Start / Finish Aid Station

Start / Finish Aid Station

The week’s mix of rain and snow had made it so that the path would be both muddy and icy.  As we got out of the car and walked toward the packet pickup, we got a taste of what the race would be like.  A thick layer of brown leaves was covering parts of the ground, which made for excellent cushioning from hard-as-rock ice patches.  The starting area was held next to a small lodge, where the organizers were setting up camp.  It was surrounded by mud of all textures, but mostly the soft and slippery kind.  It had been molded by hundreds of footsteps, looking like a frozen brown ocean in the middle of a storm.  I have started running with a local ultra group called the New Leaf Ultra Runs (NLUR), and many of them were at this event.

We huddled up with a few familiar faces and waited for the starting horn to blare.

It was fun to compare this race to my most recent.  In New Orleans, I was being ushered to and fro with exacting care by a large-scale, industrial event production company, bombarded on all sides and at all times with sponsor messages.  Today, I was in a park, the chatter of runners the only noise to be heard.  Three weeks ago, a huge colorful banner served as the opening gates for an event in which tens of thousands of people would participate.  Today, only a few hundred people stood in shivering clumps waiting for someone – anyone – to tell us we could start running.  It’s this kind of austere organization that makes you realize that trail and ultra-fanatics run for the sake of running and not for the bells and whistles.

The 50k started a few minutes late.  A group of us was engaged in a lively conversation when we were suddenly interrupted by a siren.  There was no warning, no welcome, simply a loud noise telling the 50k warriors to go.  About half of the crowd took off running over the sea of mud and into the parking lot, where they would round a corner and disappear into the trail system.  We lesser 25k runners would have to wait fifteen minutes before starting.  Those fifteen minutes were long.  Temperatures were in the mid to high 20s and a rude wind was rushing through the campgrounds.  We couldn’t wait to start.

Starting Mats

Starting Mats

Once running, it didn’t take me long to warm up.  I had brought a water bottle with me because most trail runs don’t pamper you the way road races do.  My fingers are always the first to go, but a few miles into the race was enough to flush blood into them.  At about 8-minutes per mile, I was running much faster than I ever have in this environment.  The trail was wide enough for about four people to run shoulder to shoulder but with ice, snow and mud, there wasn’t enough “acceptable” terrain for everyone.  So we were practically in single file for a long time.  About ten people ahead, I saw Jeff (aka RunFactory) with his black and neon green Brooks jacket, running comfortably in his element.  I decided to keep my pace and see how I’d feel in later miles.

That didn’t happen.  With very little elevation to slow us down, I soon found myself knocking out miles in the 7:25 range.  I would reel in runners, zip by them on their left, and continue finding that perfect path away from ice, mud and tall grass.  I wasn’t always successful and on more than one occasion, I’d get stuck in a mud puddle or slide like an arthritic marionette over an ice patch.  But I kept on, following the runners in front of me.  Around mile 4, I caught up with Jeff.

“On your right, sir,” I said as I pulled even with him.

“Hey buddy, looking good,” he said, his breathing suggesting that he was barely breaking a sweat.

“I’ll probably see you in a few miles,” I said as I put some distance ahead of us.

“I don’t think so.  I’m sticking to 8-minute miles to keep my knee from blowing up.”

I had originally thought it was pretty badass of me to match and beat the seasoned ultrarunner’s pace.  Turns out he was taking it easy.  Whatever, I’ll take it.

Somewhere around mile 7, we reached what looked like a main road and stopped.  There were some runners ahead of us, having crossed the street, but a car had pulled over to the side and the driver had stepped out with a map.  As we would soon find out, we were off course.  Some of us yelled to the people ahead of us to come back.  The helpful driver notified us that the entrance back onto the trail would be about 0.3 miles down the road.

Our mistake.

Our mistake.  And since this is MY blog, I choose to assign Otter’s trail a bright fuschia.

That was the first of many moments of disorientation.  With only one exception, I’ve never questioned whether I’ve been going in the right direction during a race (that one exception being my midnight leg during the Madison to Chicago Ragnar Relay).  You either have groups of people ahead of you to follow or there are proper markers telling you where to go.  Today, that wasn’t the case.  We were told that there would be color-coded signs at every split in the path, telling us which way to go (red = left, blue = straight ahead, orange = right).  However, in many cases, these were nowhere to be found.  I was blindly following the people ahead of me who were most likely following the people ahead of them.

Once back on the path, I continued to eschew any pathfinding responsibilities by sticking to the (somewhat fast) couple running in front of me.  I didn’t know it at the time, but we were retracing our steps, going back to the start.  While I may recognize a place if I’ve been there before, I can’t do that if I’m traveling in the opposite direction.  In other words, teach me a route and I will be able to replicate it, but tell me to find my way back to the start and I’ll most definitely get lost.

The geeky ankle socks were my clean, dry pair into which changed post race.  So ease off.

The geeky ankle socks were my clean, dry pair into which changed post race. So ease off.

My right foot was starting to hurt.  It felt like my socks, which were pretty thick, had bunched up right at the ball and were pushing upward with every strike.  I stopped and took my shoe off to examine it.  There was no obvious problem, but just having it off for a few seconds made the pain go away.  But in that pause, I had lost the runners that were leading me on the trail.  Rather than rely on them for the course, I was now forced to actually pay attention to where I was going.  I still hadn’t learned that we were on familiar terrain.  Fortunately it wasn’t long before I reached the starting area.

The second loop of the race was more secluded and narrow.  I was told to follow the orange flags that had been interred into the ground, so follow them I did.  However, I didn’t see anyone ahead or behind me for a long time.  The trail was an unsightly mix of orange mud, snow and leaves.  It almost looked like I was running on soggy peanut brittle.  My pace slowed down considerably both because there were fewer places to run without difficulty and because my foot had started to act out again.  I cursed more than once as I hit an uneven patch of hard snow, forcing the inside of my foot down at a painful angle.  But onwards I pressed in search of the next orange flag.  There was more than one split where I had to guess where the next flag would be only to see it around the corner.

I was noticing an odd pattern.  With every uphill, I would start losing all hope of keeping a decent pace, only to realize on the straight-aways that I could run at that pace forever.  I decided I had to do more hill workouts if I was serious about joining the ultra clan.

Paleozoic Trail 25k DNF (ha) Medal

Paleozoic Trail 25k DNF (ha) Medal

I soon found myself back at the open starting area but stopped running because I didn’t know where to go.  Up ahead was the trailhead for the first loop, and to my right was a short dash to the finish.  I would have shot straight to it had my watch said something closer to 25K (15.5 miles) instead of only 14 miles.  Surely there was something I had missed.  But I had followed all the orange flags and they had brought me back here.

“I’ve seen you before,” said a cheery volunteer who was marshaling the course.  “This way to the finish!”

So after standing in place for about twenty seconds exchanging confused looks with other runners, I followed the marshal’s orders and began making my way toward the finish.  I looked right and out of nowhere, there was Jeff.  For some reason, we weren’t following the same path but were converging as we neared the timing mats.  He was running fast, the anticipation of finishing clear in his stride.

“Dude, what the hell, I’m only at 14!” I said as I joined him.

“Yeah, I’m a little over that,” he replied.  “We must have missed a turn.”

A sample of trail

A sample of trail

At this point there was nothing separating us from the finish line except a mud slick.  Given that neither of us had put in a particularly brutal effort at this race, I felt like it would have been rude to try and actually race each other to the finish.  So I kept up the pace, heading for the unexpected finish.

“Dude, you wanna hold hands as we cross?” Jeff said with a smirk.

“Ha, right,” I replied.  “Like girls.  We should also jump over the finish line.”

Three strides later, he repeated the question and I realized he wasn’t entirely joking.  And so it was that we finished in a fit of airborne, feminine glee.  The chatter at the finish line was all about distances, with everyone throwing out numbers, none of which seeming to coincide.  Some runners were coming from the right, others from the left, all with a look of slight disorientation, but none with real concern.  They were out here to run and no amount of logistical mishandlings was going to stop them.

I ran back to the car and put on a change of dry clothes.  While my intention was to stay for a while at the finish and take some pictures, I could only tolerate the chill for about ten minutes before I decided to head back to the car and wait for Otter.  When he finally showed up, I learned that he had run closer to 16 miles.  A few minutes later, a fellow finisher and very attractive girl would tell us she ran just 12.  It wouldn’t be until later that I’d see where we all went wrong.

You'll note that Otter did observe the Correct course, while Jeff and I totally punked out.

You’ll note that Otter’s glitter trail and the Correct course are the same (GOOD KID BRING HIM HOME TO YOUR PARENTS), while Jeff and I totally punked out (HOODLUMS).

As it turns out, there was a large loop of mostly single-track trail that I missed.  While I will admit that I felt like an idiot for having cut a large 1.5-mile loop from the course, I assure you it was completely accidental.  Seeing that the esteemed trail maestro did the same thing was a little validating.

“It’s the inaugural year,” Jeff said at the finish line with a smile and a shrug.  His sentiments were shared by a lot of people, including yours truly.  And yet, I couldn’t help but wonder how much scorn the event would receive were it a standard road race.  Runners can be a snarky bunch and for every easygoing participant you have a handful of mudslingers who take to message boards and fulminate with zeal.  Though the race organizers don’t get a completely free pass – even the most forgiving runner will openly note the mistakes made at this event – the type of runner that signs up for this race will not go home scowling.

The next morning I felt surprisingly good.  Trail runs normally wreck my legs but I was heartened by how good they felt, as if all the packed snow had never existed.  Then again, I did miss out on the single-track trail segment, so perhaps I didn’t get the true beat-down most trail adventures provide.  While the good feeling in my legs was unexpected, even more so was this text I received from Otter:

“Haaahahahha, you won the 25K”

This picture will weed out those of you who only click on my posts for the pictures.

This picture will weed out those of you who only click on my posts for the pictures.

What?  That can’t be right.  There were many people ahead of me and … oh, right.  I cut the course.  Whoops.  As of this writing, the organizers are trying to figure out how to post the results given that everyone ran their own distance and the start/finish line lacked any modicum of order.  Still, it’s pretty cool to see your name at the top of a finisher’s list, however completely false as it may be.  The truth is, I have a lot of work to do if I’m ever going to win even an age-group category at future trail races.  Fortunately, the Paleozoic Trail Run “25k” was a good stepping stone towards that goal.

Next weekend, it’s back to the fast lane on hard pavement.