10,000 Miles: 2016 Chicago Lakefront 50k

Note: It took me longer than usual to write and upload this post. Let’s just say I’m happy to write a story about a race that ended well.

Sunrise in Chicago

Sunrise in Chicago

In the fall of 2009, with my legs still reeling from my first marathon, I was stunned to discover that there was an even longer race that took place just three weeks afterward. A colleague who worked in the mailroom told me he had been walking along the lake front path and seen people running with bibs, up and down the path, all day. I had never heard of it and no one seemed to talk about it. If the Chicago Marathon attracted 40,000 runners and over a million spectators, why did this race, which was 4.9 miles longer, not attract just as many, or even more?

Start / Mile 10.37 / Mile 20.7 / Finish

Start / Mile 10.37 / Mile 20.7 / Finish

Year after year, I was quietly taunted by this timid race. The Chicago Lakefront 50/50, as it is known, takes place every year on the city’s beautiful park paths that line Lake Michigan, usually three weeks after the city’s marquee race. This might be a strategic move, as it not only takes advantage of the typical drop in temperature, but also allows diehard locals to use Carey Pinkowski’s world class event as the start of a mega-taper, culminating in a 50k or 50-mile race. Every year I considered giving it a shot, but I would always end up signing up for an out-of-state race, or opt to run a shorter distance instead, a decision usually forced by a late season injury.

But the 2016 race season was turning out to be an interesting one. It began with my second attempt at the 50-mile distance, which sucked the speed out of my legs in favor of endurance, and then continued into the summer with some unremarkable marathon performances. Upon finishing the Newport Marathon in a time I might have considered fast six years ago, part of me wanted to end the year on a higher note. Ice Age had added a bright sheen of success to my race exploits, which had started to quickly fade.

Lakeshore & Fullerton; Chicago skyline

Lakeshore & Fullerton; Chicago skyline

It wasn’t until my buddy Otter told me he was checking the weather for the Lakefront 50/50 just days before the event that I decided to register. Of course, the day after I did, the weekend forecast immediately jumped ten degrees.

Although it might sound like I’m prepping the reader for another disastrous race beset by heat, I was lucky to avoid that. In fact, the day was near perfect for a long, meditative run crisscrossing paths that have become intimately familiar to me. The race began in characteristically quiet fashion just south of Foster Beach on the lakefront trail. The 50-milers had started an hour earlier, so we were left to mingle with an incredibly diverse group of 50k runners. Long distance running, especially in large cities, is a mostly white sport, but I would have never guessed that as I listened to the sounds of pre-race jitters in several languages.

The course would trace a five-mile path south to Castaways, a bar and event space modeled after a marooned ship, whose crew decided to surround with beach volleyball courts. From there, we would turn around and retrace our exact steps back to the start, and then repeat the process two more times for a total distance of 31.1-miles. Aid stations would greet us every 2.5 miles, whose assortment of cookies, potato chips, Nutella, and fluids held us in place for longer than the standard 10-second visit.

A sample aid station spread

A sample aid station spread

The lakefront trail is never closed, even for races. This meant that at any point, we were running alongside casual runners, cyclists, walkers, and families. Under normal circumstances, this would bug me. You expect race officials to clear the course for runners so you’re not faced with unexpected weaving or dodging. But having run thousands of miles on this path, I wouldn’t have wanted to clear it. Chicago is a city that loves its parks and knows to enjoy beautiful weather while it’s an option. Despite bibbed runners having to take a more serpentine approach to the path to avoid weekend warriors, we felt like we were blending in, again, ever so quietly.

Right around where I ran my 10,000th mile

Right around where I ran my 10,000th mile

It was warm for late October, but perfect for a long run. Although the sun had been shining just over the horizon as we began, a grey screen was eventually pulled across the sky. Autumn leaves crunched below us, often brushed aside by a reliable eastward breeze.

As with any race that repeats certain sections, each iteration was a completely different experience. The first lap was meant to develop an impression, the second challenged you to stay strong, and the third dragged you home. I ran the first twenty miles comfortably, but began to lose speed right around mile 25. I reached the marathon mark in 3:49, right at the last turnaround, with five north-facing miles separating me from the finish. My phone buzzed in my hands three times and I glanced to find out that Otter had dropped out with IT band issues.

I gave myself a moment to shake my head in solidarity as I know how the dogged the struggle can be to vanquish IT band pain. But he knew it was the smart thing to do. I continued on the path, whose many turns, splits, ponds, landmarks, and recreational areas have become almost sacred territory. These were the roads that made me a runner, that pulled me farther from my comfort zone and built the foundation for what I hope will be lifelong endurance. It was almost transcendental when I learned that somewhere between that last turnaround and the finish line, after almost eight years of running and meticulously tracking every step, I ran my 10,000th mile. There, on the path that gave me my runner’s legs, the trail that has allowed me to cover paths in almost every state, I was back where it all started.

Fourth ultra in the books

Fourth ultra in the books

I ran into Steph’s uncle Jim at mile 29. He biked alongside me for a quarter mile and seeing a familiar face allowed me to speed up ever so slightly. It wasn’t just theatrics, as I wasn’t completely dead. But the bottoms of my feet were so beat that my insoles felt like they were made of sandpaper and nails, and my calves were one kick away from a harsh cramp. But I kept a workmanlike pace through the dirt path around Cricket Hill and toward Foster Beach. There were no large crowds, just a handful of spectators and even fewer fatigued runners beneath a rapidly thinning orange ceiling. In just my fifth ultramarathon, I crossed the finish line in 4 hours and 40 minutes, a half hour faster than my 50k PR.

I stayed for a few minutes to let my legs rest and watch runners trickle in, about one every five minutes. It was quiet, as if everyone were keeping a secret. Like most other ultras I have run, the event felt clandestine, almost forbidden. Runners were blending into their surroundings, focused and happy in their isolation. They weren’t there for the crowds, thunderous applause, or the deep bass thuds of the year’s most popular single. The Lakefront 50/50 and its faithful handful don’t really care about any of that.

You see, the Chicago Marathon is a spectacle; the handsome quarterback who parades down the halls and beams a cover-worthy smile to everyone who sees him. The floor clears ahead of him and his posse fawns from the sidelines, ready to do whatever it takes to get or stay on his good side. He points at you and you point back, but you don’t always know why. He’s the one destined for greatness and can do no wrong. The Lakefront 50/50 though, watches him walk by and moves on with his day. The 50/50 plays in an intramural rugby league after school with a small group of rebels, usually sharing the field with soccer drills. He doesn’t have a uniform or use expensive gear, but he makes up for the glitz in blood, sweat, and the occasional cracked bone. His legs are bruised, his shoes leave behind him a speckled mudpath, and very few people come out to see him play.

But they both love their sport and go home happy.

The lake front path, my winding home away from home

The lake front path, my winding home away from home

 

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