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