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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Wisconsin (2013 Ice Age Trail 50k)

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The announcer took the microphone and began telling the 50k racers to line up on the wet grass.  I heard him from inside the cabin, where volunteers were managing packet pickup.  Almost comically, the sun burst through the clouds the instant I stepped outside.  Every runner, spectator and volunteer who had been tolerating several hours of intermittent rainfall began cheering for the warmth like angelic choirs.

You’re all welcome, I thought to myself as I scuttled past runners for a precautionary bathroom trip.  Almost ninety races done and I had yet to run in rain; my first ever 50k would not break the streak.

The Start / Finish / Aid Station of the Ice Age Trail 50

The Start / Finish / Aid Station of the Ice Age Trail 50

A few minutes later, I was toward the back of the pack, huddled with Otter, Jeff and Elizabeth.  Everyone was chattering nervously, eagerly anticipating the start of the Ice Age Trail 50k.  The truly unhinged group running the longer distance had been coming into the chute for about an hour, finishing nine miles out of fifty, the first part of a journey that, for most of them, would last between 11 and 14 hours.  Some looked extremely confident, as if they had just stepped out of their cars.  Others emerged from the path like they wanted it to be over, which was tragic considering they had forty-one miles left.

Those of us waiting by the start banner wouldn’t be running as far.  We weren’t many; the entire group could probably have fit in the small cabin where we had picked up our bibs earlier.  But the atmosphere was electric.  Nervous exchanges, loud laughter and shuffling feet came together for the ritualistic dance we were all performing.  But more to the point, the right people were there and their contributions to my exploits in long-distance running were perfectly summed up when I went to introduce my father in law Steve to Jeff.

“Hi,” Jeff said, extending a tattooed arm.  “I’m kind of responsible for getting these guys into running.”
“Wait a minute,” Steve said with a mix of skepticism and light indignation.
“Ultra!” Jeff spat out, immediately noticing his omission.  “For getting them into ultra running.”
“Much better,” Steve pointed with a smile.  “Because I’m pretty sure I got him into running.”

(left to right): Jeff, me, Otter

(left to right): Jeff, me, Otter

He was right about that.  Shortly after that comment, he amended the history to correctly reflect how he strong-armed me into running by signing me up for a distance I had hitherto never run.  When I ended up embracing the sport with an unexpected intensity, he became a mentor.  Then there was Otter, my only Chicago friend with the passion and endurance to run these events with me, whose reaction to reading about Jeff’s first 50-miler was enough to spin more than one twisted cog in his brain.  I’d be lying if I said Jeff’s ultra exploits hadn’t nudged me closer to the law firm of Jurek, Karnazes & Ulrich, but without Otter’s ironclad commitment, I might have tabled this adventure for another year.

Steve and I figuring out the drop bag situation

Steve and I figuring out the drop bag situation

These three gentlemen were instrumental in getting me to this start line, where we continued to quip anxiously.  It had been a long time since I had been overcome with such a profound feeling of uncertainty.  Every marathon I’ve run in the last three years I have started knowing I would finish.  Fast, slow, easily or with bleeding ears, I would eventually finish.  But today I wasn’t so certain.  I had never run that far before, trails tend to beat me up very quickly and my left knee had been pestering me all week.  But here we were, just minutes away from starting with the lush greens of the Kettle Moraine State Forest dripping all around us.  I barely had time to set up my GPS watch before we were off.

The 50k was divided into two sections.  The first consisted of a 13-mile out and back on the Ice Age Trail, a very narrow single-track path that at times was barely wide enough for two people.  With many ups and downs, it was by far the most technical section of the race.  I ran the first 5k with Otter and his friend Elizabeth, who kept the atmosphere light by exchanging funny and colorful stories.  It was nice to run and talk because it momentarily got my mind off what I was doing.

However, Otter and Elizabeth were executing a pretty conservative strategy with the downhills, which I approved for these first few miles.  After a while though, I wanted to do some flying.  So with limbs akimbo, I began my reliable pattern of darting down and slowly pattering back up.  I would see them later on the way back, all smiles.  Before, during and after, I left thousands of footprints on the Ice Age trail, which was anything but consistent.  Very rarely would I ever have time to look up and enjoy the breathtaking forest because it would mean risking a hidden root or a treacherous rock.

We are off (Jeff in the red singlet on the left, me in the blue / grey)

We are off (Jeff in the red singlet on the left, me in the blue / grey)

I locked in behind a group of runners who were matching my stride and up and down we went in a reliable pattern, screaming downhill with our arms waving like windmills and marching up in single-file.  Just when it felt like I could keep this mechanical pattern without trying, I kicked a root going downhill and snapped forward like a mousetrap.  I broke my fall with my hands and water bottle, but still scraped up my left side.  I went for a drink but the nozzle on my water bottle was caked in mud.  I had momentarily lost focus and the trail made sure I paid.  The worst part wasn’t the bruise I got on my palms or the occasional speck of dirt I’d feel in my mouth after a swig.  Instead, it was the fact that I was only at mile 8, with my legs still fresh.

How many times would I fall in the later miles, where it feels like cement has invaded my bloodstream?

My thoughts were quickly reverted to the trail as I stepped on a slick rock and almost lost balance.  I had to focus on every single step, trying hard to not get too close to the person in front of me, whose steps would prevent me from seeing places to put my own feet.

Two hours and ten minutes into the race, I was almost back at the start.  I could hear a furious cowbell ringing and nearby crowds.  One last turn revealed the white circus sheet of the medical tent.  There, in front of everyone else, was Steve.  Twelve hours earlier, we were in Chicago with the rest of the family, watching a production of Oklahoma! at the Lyric Opera.  Despite the show ending late, he drove me out to Wisconsin, where we would only get about four hours of sleep before our race-day alarm sirens would start shrieking.

13 miles down.

13 miles down.

He was likely tired and definitely hungry.  He should have been at a nearby Dog ‘n Suds, but instead stayed rooted at the start with his camera, clearly enjoying himself.  Before the race had even started, he had found people that he knew.  It made me happy knowing he wouldn’t spend the day sleeping in the passenger seat of his Jeep.  I flashed a quick thumbs-up and made my way to the blue tarp, where all of our drop bags were haphazardly strewn about, looking like a wreckage site or an evidence pileup.  Steve joined me seconds afterward and I gave him a brief rundown of how I was feeling.

I threw some Stinger waffles into one pocket, a CLIF bar into another.  Steve prepared a new water bottle and gave me a red bandana to wipe off the dirt and sweat the trail had left on me.  I was probably at the aid station for just a little over two minutes before heading toward the second section of the 50k race: the Nordic Loop.  This 9-mile trail circuit was wide enough for two-way traffic and for the first few miles looked like a meadow.  I couldn’t help but speed up a little, charging happily past slower runners and chewing on oat bars with absolutely no regard for etiquette.

If Steph could see me, I thought, she’d probably file for divorce.  That girl hates mouth noises.

Looking happy so far.

Looking happy so far.

But the peaceful and soothing Nordic loop soon deceived me.  We reached a point where the puffy soft grass spilled into the trees and became hard rocks, as if the trail were a stream that got suddenly rerouted and desiccated.  Once in the woods, I learned that the steepest and longest hills were all here, and not in the first section as I had originally thought.  Down I would go, leaning slightly back, flailing my arms at my side and stomping on the soil, then immediately slowing down and hiking up.

“I’m not looking forward to running these again,” said my temporary running friend with the yellow Camelbak.

Since the Nordic Loop was 9 miles long we’d be running it twice.  I was feeling great during this first attempt, keeping a very reliable pattern of speed spikes, eating my Stingers or oat bars every 30 minutes without much issue.  Though I began to tire around mile 18, I got a surprising burst of energy when we re-entered the tall pines.  Red straw and wet cones had softened the trail to the point where it felt like walking on clouds.  I once again heard the furious rattling of a cowbell and thanked the woman responsible.  I sped up a little and reached the Start in around 3:36, quickly finding Steve at the front of the crowd, checking on my progress.

22 miles down

22 miles down

I felt invigorated by how quickly it seemed like those last nine miles had passed.  I didn’t want to delude myself into thinking the next and final nine would be the same, but I was coasting happily on the endorphin high.  Once again, I found my drop bag, this time opting for just GU gels.  I must have looked like Gollum searching for his lost ring because I felt completely wired, like nothing could stop me.  Steve gave me the thumbs up, told me I had this, and I left the station for the last loop.

It didn’t take long to notice that something wasn’t right.  My legs were fine; turning over without much complaint.  My feet, after striking the uneven, rocky terrain tens of thousands of times, were also performing admirably.  I wasn’t sweating that much because the weather was cool with winds occasionally slicing through the trees.  Every system that matters for shorter runs was working like a champion at mile 24.  But the one that I needed the most for the long haul was beginning to fail me.

Two miles earlier I had eaten a Stinger waffle, a tiny sugar-filled disc that I had eaten several times already.  But this one felt like it didn’t have anywhere to go once I swallowed it.  Steph had once told me that when she was young, she thought food piled up in your stomach until one day it reached the back of your throat and you couldn’t eat anymore.  That’s exactly how I was starting to feel.  Even small drinks of my electrolyte solution felt like they were swishing in my throat above my chest.  This uncomfortable feeling soon turned into frequent burping and reflux, which made it so I couldn’t keep my head up.

At the end of a long stretch of pines I reached the Nordic Loop aid station.  As I approached it, I tried to keep my sight firmly fixed on the tent, but I couldn’t.  My head would stay up for two seconds and then drop, as if the strings holding it up were cut.  I laughed a little when this happened.  How it is possible that I couldn’t even keep a steady forward gaze?

I took a few orange slices, hoping they would help with my digestion issue.  If they did, I didn’t feel the effects.  I kept moving forward, slowly up and quickly down, but all the while with a rod in my throat that wouldn’t dislodge.  My esophagus was full, clogged beyond repair.  There were times when I thought vomiting might make me feel better.  It never came down to that, though I still don’t know if it was for the best.

Drop Bags Central

Drop Bags Central

During this struggle, I remember looking down at my watch to see that I was about to cross 26.2 miles.  That magic number where my pains and aches normally stop would mean nothing today.  My trusty watch, as if under the assumption that I was out here on another routine marathon, died 0.4 miles later.

It wasn’t long before I had returned to the tall pines and red straw path.  The trail was being shared by half marathoners now, many of whom were running faster than me.  I would speed up for short stretches at a time, slowed down by the frogs trying to escape my throat.  I kept up this seesaw pattern over the next mile, where I was soon overcome with many conflicting emotions.

Disappointment was there, with a scowl and slumped shoulders.  He wasn’t upset with me, but with my master plan to keep running on solid foods that didn’t pan out how I wanted.  Fear and concern showed up, wringing their hands under large billiard eyes, wondering how I’d be able to run longer distances in the summer if I was already losing it in perfect conditions.  But then elation and pride crashed through the walls in ATVs, a six-pack of beer in each hand, because they knew I had fewer than two miles to go and were ready to celebrate.

Up and down another hill, left and right around a new turn, my feet refused to stop moving.  I didn’t have the energy from the first Nordic Loop, but I was no less determined to see this race to the finish.  I was giving it all I had, running faster than I had in the last four miles, adrenaline magically fueling this last surge.  Two invisible pins were jabbing themselves into my quads with every lunge forward, but with the finish line so close, I didn’t care.  Up another up, down another down, some almost effortlessly, my central governor acting like a horse that caught sight of its stable.

I recognized the final turn.  The lady with the cowbell had left her post, but Steve had not.  Participating in the sport for over a decade had turned him into the perfect crewman and he didn’t miss a second of my final push.  I stepped over the red timing mats, my name was announced and skyward my hands went for that fleeting moment of victory.  After five hours and sixteen minutes on my feet, I had earned the title of ultramarathoner.

I walked over to my drop bag and pulled out a protein shake.  Finishing the race had given me a sudden headrush of excitement, but that would soon dissipate into a semi-nauseated state of discomfort.  I hadn’t felt this way since the Crazy Horse Marathon, so I knew it would just be a matter of waiting it out.  The organizers had set up a large buffet in the cabin with sausages, meat patties, potato salad and chips.  I served myself some, but couldn’t find the will to eat any of it.  Steve and I went back outside to a large tent where a cover band was crooning Tom Petty covers.  I managed to drink a beer but it wasn’t helping me get back to normal.  I saw Jeff and exchanged a congratulatory high-five with him.  We had very close finishing times, despite never really seeing each other on the Nordic loop.

2013 Ice Age Trail Run 50k Key Chain

2013 Ice Age Trail Run 50k Key Chain

I slumped down on a chair, my plate of food untouched.  I wasn’t dizzy or light-headed, but couldn’t seem to push any food down my system at all.  So I just sat there and watched people finish, some of whom were 50-milers and looked like they were barely hurt.  I got up when I saw Otter’s green singlet dashing up the path on his way to finishing.  He looked like a kid chasing an ice cream truck, the biggest smile on his face and not a single hint of pain or discomfort.  While I was in a strange haze of acceptance when I crossed the timing mats, Otter was in a beehive, bouncing off the walls.  He actually dropped down and did a few push-ups afterward as if to prove he wasn’t done.

In that moment, I realized how differently we tackled our races.  I knew on the course that it might be the only 50k I ever run.  So I was out for blood – to run aggressively and finish knowing I had nothing left to give.  Otter on the other hand, was there for the same reason most trail runners run in the first place: to have fun.  Though I didn’t run the race with him, I could tell that his goal had been to enjoy a prolonged communion with nature and experience the outdoors in the most direct way possible.  I actually felt a little envious seeing how great he felt and how eager he was to wolf down the post-race food spread.  Whether he had a mid-race epiphany is his story to tell, but the biggest lesson that I learned in LaGrange, Wisconsin, was that I have a lot to learn.

With Ice Age behind me, it’s back to the drawing board.  I need to retool my arsenal if I’m serious about running even longer distances in warmer weather.  Though Otter looked like he could have kept going, I was in no shape to continue.  But whatever happened in this race that seemed to stall my food intake (eating too much too soon, perhaps) should not happen later this summer with the right tweaks.  Until then, I need to massage my legs back to life, lest they atrophy too soon before the most intense summer they will ever endure.

After all, I merely joined the ultra club.  I don’t want my membership revoked.

Marathon_Map 041 (WI)

2013 Race Schedule

I don’t usually have a perfectly solidified race schedule so early in the year.  At any given point, I have a few races set in stone with a select group waiting in the wings, either because I haven’t registered or because they have yet to graduate from “flight of fancy” to “official commitment.”  However, this year I am very confident that it has been completely mapped out through November.

The reason for my confidence actually stems from a comment Otter made to me a few days ago.  He said that (almost) every race on his radar has a purpose.  I looked at my own race calendar and had a similar epiphany.  With a few exceptions, the big races on my schedule were meaningful stepping stones of some sort, which made it easier to ink these events into my otherwise palimpsest of a calendar.  Though I haven’t officially registered for all of these, I decided to at least publish the schedule to keep me from flaking out on any of them.  And so, with great excitement and hope that I encounter no sudden injuries, this is the path that 2013 will take:

01-RNRNOLA
February 24, 2013
New Orleans, Louisiana

The Disney World Marathon was supposed to end my marathon-a-month streak and mark the beginning of my ultra regimen.  However, on something of a whim, I decided to go for the Rock ‘n Roll New Orleans Marathon.  If you’ve been following my adventures, you’ll find this choice of race a bit odd.  True, I’m not the biggest cheerleader for Competitor’s RNR series, but I refuse to run Louisiana in any other city and this is its only marathon.  The timing for this event wasn’t entirely whimsical though.  It has not escaped my notice that every marathon I’ve run since Des Moines has been slower than the previous.  Perhaps spacing them so close together has made it so I’m never fresh enough for a faster time.  So this will be my last shot at a fast marathon for a long time.

02-PALEO
March 16, 2013
Willow Springs, Illinois

I first saw the Paleozoic Trail Run on ultrarunner Jeff’s blog.  While the signature event is a 50k, the shorter 25k option looked like a great race to test our trail skills leading up to longer races.  I sent a link to Otter and he showed great interest, signing up almost immediately.  I was surprised at his enthusiasm, given that he has a loose rule about never signing up for inaugural races.  But here’s something intriguing, if not intimidating about their tagline: “Finish or Fossilize” which written on a T-Shirt is alone worth the registration fee.  Located just thirty minutes southwest of Chicago, it’s an easy race to reach and will surely give us a taste of the challenges to come later in the year.

03-NC
March 24, 2013
Charlotte, North Carolina

I originally wanted to run the NC Half Marathon in 2012 to continue a series of races that all had race tracks (Pomona Raceway, Kentucky Derby’s Churchill Downs and the Indianapolis 500) but airfare was unusually expensive and nobody else seemed interested.  So I tabled the race for 2013.  As of this writing, a group of 5 of us are registered and ready to start our engines.  While this race isn’t a building block of any kind, it will be the first half marathon I run since August and the last on my calendar for quite some time.  In other words, it’s my last shot at a fast half (perhaps even a PR), possibly until 2014.  Posting a record time will depend on the weather, but North Carolina can expect a bloodthirsty performance from me regardless.

04-GARMIN
April 20, 2013
Olathe, Kansas

You can’t run a marathon in  Kansas without it having some theme related to the Wizard of Oz.  Held three weeks before my first 50k race, I decided to use the Garmin Marathon in the Land of Oz as a training run.  By this point I will have spent a lot of time on trails and will simply want to strengthen my legs and steel my stomach.  My goal for this race will therefore be to run conservatively, practice my food intake and finish comfortably (in other words, avoid throwing up).

05-ICEAGEjpg
May 11, 2013
Ottawa Lake, Wisconsin

The Ice Age Trail Runs include a 50-miler and two shorter distances, a 50K and a half marathon.  In order to continue training for a much longer event later in the year, Otter and I decided to sign up for the Ice Age Trail 50k as our first venture past the 26.2-mile barrier (and no, I’m not counting his 26.5-mile Route 66 Marathon as an ultra, no matter how pedantically he tries to suggest it).  Running this will be similar to my first marathon; the next big event, the one where once again I’ll be unsure of the outcome and all excitement is slathered with a thick layer of trepidation.  While pictures from the event look gorgeous, I’m sure my face afterward will be far from comely.  It will be the single hardest race I’ve ever run.  That is, until …

06-NCR
August 24, 2013
Wellston, Michigan

… this guy.  I still don’t know how an undertaking as massive as running fifty consecutive miles could start with something as simple as a webchat at work.  You’d expect things like this to happen after a bear with a broadsword orders you to do it or if a band of marauders captures your children and leaves them fifty miles away, hungry and afraid.  But somehow I found myself receiving an email saying I was registered for the North Country Run 50-Miler, wondering how it was possible that I had signed up.  50-milers are for crazy people and I just run marathons.  In fact, I still can’t truly process what this is going to be like, but it will likely change me, for better or worse.  Given its date, there’s a good chance it’ll be warm and humid, so I’ll have to double-down on training and nutrition to ensure that I don’t donate my body to the dirt beneath the Manistee National Forest.

07-LEAVENWORTH
October 5, 2013
Leavenworth, Washington

This marathon isn’t a milestone of any sort by itself (besides being my first in the state).  In order to understand its significance in this story, you have to move to the next race.

08-LEAVENWORTH
October 6, 2013
Portland, Oregon

I doubled-up on half marathons in 2012, which meant that it was only a matter of time before I tried the same with the full distance.  Just like the North Country Run, it started off as a suggestion, which grew into an idea and finally became a commitment.  Given the distance, I will have to practice both steady discipline and measured food intake in order to successfully complete both races without hating myself too much.  There will be additional challenges, such as avoiding atrophy on the drive between cities and eating enough to both replenish and restock.

09-PHILADELPHIA
November 17, 2013
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Assuming that I survive everything so far, I’m aiming to run the Philadelphia Marathon because … well, because I want to.  It’s not part of a greater plan nor is it supposed to teach me anything.  It’s simply because after all the year’s meticulous orchestrations, I want to run something simply because I want to.  Isn’t that why we run in the first place?

Given that I haven’t signed up for all of these, there’s still a very real chance that this schedule may change.  However, I’ll do everything possible to stick with it and hold myself accountable.

But more importantly, I’ll need advice from all experienced runners on trail running, nutrition and doubling-up.  I’m going to face these challenges directly with little but intuition and my “stick-to-itiveness” as my wife once noted, but I will definitely need as many tips and tricks as possible.  All insight and anecdotes will be appreciated.

Onwards!

The (d)Evolution of a Runner

madison-outlineI’m going to speculate that when I first started running regularly, I did what most people have done for decades: run the same route at the same pace over and over again.  This might be an insultingly narrow view of the human mind, grossly underestimating our creativity.  But at the same time I like to think the majority of us are cautious creatures.  In those first months of trepidation, we didn’t know how far we could go, so we stayed in the nurturing embrace of a nearby circuit.  Eventually we found our comfort zone, where we could run without constantly looking over our shoulders to make sure we were within shouting distance of our front door, and gave it the nebulous term “pace run.”  After that, some of us decided to stay there to maintain our fitness.  Others chose to dial up either the speed or the distance, depending on what goals we had in mind.

Fast forward a few years and we’ve added different routines to the schedule, adding a smorgasbord of exercises to the runner’s simple, reliable pace run.  There’s the explosive interval, the hard effort tempo, the grueling mile repeats, the exhausting threshold run, the gradual progressive buildup, ladder/pyramid drills, hills, sprints – and that’s to say nothing of cross training and weight lifting.  Organizing the run schedule for the week now resembles putting together a 6-piece jigsaw puzzle with 20 different possible pieces.  At the very least, this adds a lot of variety to the act of training for a race and keeps it from ever getting stale.  It also keeps us from getting stuck in our comfort zones.  It happens all too often that we build walls around certain numbers, like a 9-minute pace or a 16-mile run, seeing anything faster or farther as a sure sign of instant fatigue or physical collapse.  Changing the run, the style and the goal can make it so we break through these barriers without the intimidation of crashing through them head-on.

While I don’t have any intention of chronicling my training in this blog, I decided to write about a very noteworthy week in my experience as a runner.  I’ve been talking about how we go from simple runs to more complex routines, targeting specific muscles and abilities in order to maximize our efforts on race day.  In a way, it’s like evolution.  We start off as single-celled organisms who just want to make it to the next distance milestone, and eventually – those of us with a little OCD – develop into meticulous planners with multi-tab color-coded running logs complete with a litany of graphs, historical averages and conditional projections.  When we first started, the only gear we had were shoes (and while they were probably not the right fit or kind for our stride, we had no idea).  Eventually, just getting ready to go running became an ordeal as we covered ourselves in gadgets, arm warmers, wicking socks, fuel belts, and gels.

So what made this week special?   In some ways, it was an example of the ever-growing bag of tricks available to every runner.  But more importantly, this week was a prime example of the exact opposite concept: devolution.

1. The Dreadmill

treadmillFor the last few weeks, the wolves of winter have descended on Chicago with their icy jaws.  While I am always game for running when it’s cold, I draw the line at 20 degrees and these days, that number is cause for a pool party.  So I’ve been knocking out a lot of my weekly miles on a treadmill.  This week in particular, I managed to log 22 of them through a mix of a ladder run, a consistent pace run and a progressive run.  I was very hesitant to admit it, but I actually enjoyed all three of these sessions.  Prior to this winter, my relationship with treadmills was acrimonious at best, but now I’ve grown to appreciate how useful they can be.

A fellow blogger wrote a short ode to the treadmill and it certainly helped in mending the ills between me and the moving belt.  After all, the entire run is under your control.  You shape the universe, how fast it moves, how high it slopes and how many butlers are running alongside you with water, sports drinks, towels, even a TV with classic Seinfeld and Family Guy episodes to keep you entertained.  Best of all, you live in a world where it’s always a comfortable 70 degrees with a ceiling fan to spread your musk throughout the room and impress others.  I soon fell under its seductive spell.  With all the wonders of modern technology at my fingertips, doing all my runs on this machine was almost irresistible.

But my more primal side wouldn’t have it.

2. The Long Slog

I’m three weeks out from my next marathon, which means it’s time for the bread, butter and knife of all training programs: the long run.  As I walked my dogs Saturday morning, snow fell on the three of us in tiny crystals, their movement barely interrupted by wind.  Though walking slowly, I wasn’t cold, which was a good sign that I was in for a great run.  A few hours later, my cold weather outfit and hydration pack were hugging my body, ready to make some fresh tracks.  It would be a traditional long run, with only water and a watch to accompany me.

chicago-grant-park

I hadn’t reached mile 2 when I seriously contemplated turning around and cozying up with the treadmill.  It was like someone had opened a door in south Chicago and had created an enormous draft pushing against me.  The snow on my face felt like sand, my fingers were slowly icing despite being locked in tight fists and my knees were already pink.  Though I own a pair of running tights, I never use them for long runs because they give me crazy saddle burn (and when your legs are doing most of the work, they’ll warm up on their own).  In fact, a better name for this blog could be “Pantsless Runner.”  But to make matters worse, I had completely neglected to buy an insulating cover for the water hose on my hydration pack.  In other words, my water supply was blocked by a tube of ice by mile 3.

There was no way I was running long without water.  I could deal with cold knees and squinting through the snowstorm but dehydration is not something you want to risk.  By this point I was at the tip of Navy Pier, having finished my third mile.  How willing was I to turn around now and do the rest of it on a treadmill?  Oh, comfort, you vile temptress!

The short answer was, not at all.  So I decided to improvise.  My gym has several locations in Chicago, one just across the street from my apartment, another about three miles north of where I was in a neighborhood called Old Town.  So in the absence of a reliable source of water, I’d have to use that gym as my next and only aid station.  By the time I reached it, my phone had frozen and had stopped working.  I also didn’t bring a wallet or credit card with me, so even if I wanted to stop running, I had no way of paying for a cab and no way to use public transportation.  I therefore convinced myself that I had no choice but to see this run through.

chicago-navy-pier

I had managed to store enough heat to endure the teeth-cracking winds when I stepped back outside.  For the next ten miles I remembered what it was like when I first started running.  I didn’t want to venture too far away from the gym because I knew I’d need a water fountain soon, much like how I never ran too far from my apartment for fear of not having enough energy to return.  On the way, I crossed paths with my friend Marla, who managed to tell me through a frozen mouth, “I’m in hell right now.”  I told her at least she was running downwind, which did little to brighten her day.  I was still running north, straight into the wind, much like I had been for the last 90 minutes, developing a crusty ice beard along the way.  My face was locked in a permanent grimace and I must have looked like I was trailing something with a truly acrid smell.  It hadn’t been an awful run, but it was certainly testing my patience.

But all of that changed when I turned around.  As if I had hit mute on my surroundings, the white noise hitting my ears was gone, replaced by the soft landing of shoes on soft pavement.  The snow was now falling at the same speed that I was running, as if the world itself were a giant treadmill moving underneath me.  It was pure serenity and well worth the arduous journey.  I was ushered by this calming yet enthusiastic wind back to the gym for another water stop, then back to my apartment to round out a successful 22-miler.

3. Into the Wild

Though I had to rely on others for my water, my long run was still very much in a planned environment.  I followed running paths used by several other runners (only one of whom, by the way, was also wearing shorts) and kept a very consistent pace on uniform, comfortable terrain.  In other words, it did little to prepare me for the two big trail races for which Otter and I have registered this year: the Ice Age Trail 50k and the North Country 50-Mile Run.  For that, I would have to ditch the convenience of the Lakefront Trail for the unpredictable terrain of the Palos Forest Reserve (on a recommendation from ultrarunner Jeff) just 20 minutes outside of the city.

palos-forest-reserve-01

Otter and I arrived at the turnaround by Bullfrog Lake at 7 AM.  The snow was coming down in large, deliberate clumps, covering everything in sight.  It was much colder than the day before, but the absence of winds made it just barely tolerable.  I put on a brand new pair of Saucony Kinvara TRs and began running in circles to warm up.  My left knee was aching a little from the previous day’s long run but it didn’t take long before it realized I was running this show.  I had donned some black CW-X tights, which practically choke your legs into position and layered my upper body with two shirts and a windbreaker.  Topping off the ensemble was a black balaclava, meaning my entire body was being squeezed by some sort of compression garment.

saucony-kinvara-trWith nothing but a cursory understanding of the trail map and a desire to officially start the ultra training season, we hopped on a path and ran wherever it chose to take us.

Two miles later we were in a clearing with four different paths.  While this may sound like the perfect place to quote a Robert Frost poem, it seemed like all four paths were decidedly un-trodden.  The snow was so thick that not once did we ever know if we were running on crushed limestone, gravel, or dirt.  We could have been running on paths made of laminated currency.  There was no way of knowing.  Even the paths themselves were hard to discern.  After a few minutes of looking back and forth, we chose one at random and ran over branches, logs and a few stepped descents until we reached a different trail.  We would later learn that we hadn’t chosen a path at all and had instead just run blindly through the woods.

We finished our run in about an hour, covering exactly 10K through a variety of terrain.  We ran on open trails, narrow single-track sections where we had to keep an eye for branches above and below us, over lop-sided terrain and under lots of leafless canopy.  The only signs of civilization were the occasional walker and a few ice fishermen walking over frozen lakes.  It was a very scenic run, which was not lost on either of us.  Thrilled with our first official trail exercise, Otter and I left the reserve and headed back to the city with very high hopes for the grueling regimen we will have for the next seven months.

Otter contemplates which trail to take

Otter contemplates which trail to take

“It’s the irony of trail running,” I said as we entered what looked like a picnic area, “that you’re always surrounded by beautiful scenery but you spend the entire time looking down to make sure you don’t kill yourself.”

Icebeard.

Icebeard.

And that, I think, rounds out my so-called “devolution.”  In one week I went from running in a controlled, almost sterile environment where I was in charge of every last detail, to covering miles on unpredictable trails where every footstep could mean a hidden rock or devious root.  I went from lording high over my workout to being at the mercy of the elements.  My point is perhaps more accurately described as a convergence between my evolution as a runner and how I’ve embraced the different terrains available to us, and my reliance on always having everything on me.  Regardless, it was a very fun week, where no two runs were the same.

This is a pattern that I will likely follow for a while in hopes of preparing myself for the intimidating challenges ahead.  I won’t make it a habit to write at length about it but I felt it was important to officially mark the week where ultra-training began.  I’m glad we were able to make it happen on a day where the mercury hit single-digits.  My reasoning is that if we can knock out a trail run with layers of snow quickly building up on us, then surely we can handle the spring.

It’s the summer that worries me.  But more on that later.