Mammoth Run: 2016 Ice Age Trail 50-Miler

I danced downhill over rocks and exposed roots, side stepping onto the soft earth as if it were a ramp, letting it gently guide my legs over the next obstacle. My eyes were three rocks ahead, trance-like and robotic, finding the optimal path to avoid tripping. Every second my gaze would dash three or four times, my strides never the same, with short steps quickly becoming bounding leaps over large rocks, followed by heavy, typewriter stomps over steep terrain. Tiny flecks of sleet fell from the canopy, dusting the damp trail in a crystalline white pattern. In this moment, I felt unstoppable, efficient, and powerful.

But it was also in this moment that my quads began to singe. And I still had twenty miles to go.

This is it, I thought. This is where it all begins to fall apart. After a lackluster training effort thanks to injury and last-minute illness, this is the beginning of the end; this, right here, is my last chance to feel confident and capable, the last upright steps that portend the miserable slog to the finish. I might as well enjoy them.

Ice Age Trail Runs Start

Ice Age Trail Runs Start

Many hours earlier, I was in LaGrange, Wisconsin, at the starting line of the Ice Age Trail 50-Miler, a race billed as one of the country’s “classic ultramarathons.” Whether the race has earned that description from age or by bearing the standard for how ultras are organized, I had neither the experience nor the research to say. But I had made it to the starting line as a tangled knot of nerves. A knee injury in March had made ultra-long trail runs nearly impossible, relegating my training to merely fitness upkeep, and a slight head-cold the week before was threatening to dehydrate me more than usual.

Remembering my last and only attempt at the 50-mile distance, I couldn’t help but feel frustrated and dejected. I sat on a folding chair in the woods of the Manistee National Forest with an ice pack slowly melting off my knee, watching as dozens of dusty bodies entered the North Country Run’s aid station with bright smiles. How were they able to make it this far, 39 miles into a race, still happy and energized? What did they know that I didn’t?

Nordic loop, mile 1.5

Nordic loop, mile 1.5

Whatever it was, I hadn’t learned it in the last two months. And yet, there I was, listening to the Star-Spangled Banner in the dripping wet woods of the Kettle Moraine State Forest with kindred spirits Otter and Mike, just minutes away from a distance I had never completed before. The miles I had run in the lead up were paltry and my confidence at an all-time low. The only option I had was willful submission. I was going to enter the woods, walk through the verdant looking glass, and let the journey unfold as it should.

Otter was running because he loves trails and the Ice Age races in particular, but also because he too was on a redemptive attempt of his own, having dropped out of the 2015 event seven miles short of the full distance. The two of us then goaded Mike, RaceRaves’ Chief Lunatic, into running his first ever 50-miler by assailing him with enough text messages, pictures and emails to pave the entire trail.

Mike + Otter

Mike + Otter

The three of us had decided to run the first nine mile section together. Called the Nordic Loop, it is a fairly wide path that traces a jagged circle over soft pine straw, rocky paths, and grassy stretches of flat land made for speed, finishing back at the start. In between, it rises and falls like an ancient roller coaster, assuring that our pace would see similar peaks and valleys as we would stop to walk uphill ready to pick up the pace on the other side. The field of 372 runners was a tightly-packed human train for most of this loop, allowing for the kind of friendly chatter that completely belied the monumental task ahead.

As we reached the first aid station, I remembered the need to eat early and often. I was attempting fifty hill-ridden miles, a feat that would burn between 7,000 and 9,000 calories, and the average person typically stores anywhere from 2,000 to 3,000 in their reserves. Rather than wait until I actually felt hungry, I planned on noshing at every aid station to avoid an early bonk. I surveyed the spread under the white tent, the only artificial blemish in an otherwise serene wooded path, and grabbed a few Oreos.

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

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

The end of the Nordic Loop would mark the last time the three of us would run together. The casual, carefree banter that we exchanged mostly to distract us from the task ahead, was coming to an end. As we approached the starting banner, we found our respective crew members amid the whooping clamor of spectators. Mike grabbed a sandwich and high-fived his wife Katie before speeding towards the race’s next section. Otter’s girlfriend Lisa was in a bright green winter jacket, ready to keep him in fighting shape for the 41 miles to go. My father-in-law and trusted crew master Steve refilled my water pack and bottle with the course volunteers before urging me to eat. Otter and I realized we were both ready to go at the same time, so we marched back into the woods shoulder to shoulder, feeling light and cool.

The occasional clearing

The occasional clearing, mile 4

We had started the race shivering. The early spring warmth of the previous week had been dashed by an arctic wind, whose gust was rustling the dense forest around us, often drawing creaks from nearby trees. I had considered shedding some clothing a few miles earlier, but once I stopped running at the aid station, that lingering desire became an immediate need to stay warm.

Otter and I ran together for a few miles until the aid stations began separating us. For the next two hours, I followed a very reliable pattern. Drink water, drink electrolytes, eat an energy gel, drink water, drink electrolytes, catch Mike, pass Mike on a downhill, reach an aid station, hand my wares to Steve, watch as Mike would leave the aid station, eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, suit up, chase Mike …

At mile 19, I reached the next checkpoint in a clearing surrounded by tall grass. I gave my hydration vest to Steve and he looked at me with a mixed expression of confusion and fear. “You should eat something salty,” he says, as if there were a grim sign of it on my face. I grabbed a handful of pretzels and chewed on them until they were a mealy paste caking my teeth. I put myself together and took off, wondering if Steve’s admonishment was a sign that I was starting to succumb to the ghostly pallor of exhaustion.

Otter and I, Mile 10.5

Otter and I, Mile 10.5

Drink water, drink electrolytes, eat an energy gel, drink water, drink electrolytes, catch Mike, pass Mike on a downhill, reach an aid station …

I would strike up brief conversations with Mike as I would reach his heels. But since I’m not much of a talker on the run, I kept the exchanges short. Without music or a running partner, it was up to the course’s beautiful and constantly changing character to entertain me. Thin single-track eskers became wide open mounds of earth, which led into tree-lined promenades and serpentine dirt paths. If it weren’t for the nagging voice in my head, reminding to keep moving forward at all costs, I would have stopped to breathe in the Wisconsin air, crisp enough to slice and eat.

Meanwhile, everything seemed to be working. My left knee, which had plagued me with all manner of discomforting pain during March and April, was at the top of its game. Despite being covered by weary and worn road shoes, my feet and toes were free of blisters, and I wasn’t chafing anywhere. My stomach was happily digesting the food I had eaten, and my lungs were thrilled at the fresh air coursing through them. I reached the aid station near the shores of Rice Lake, just shy of 22 miles into the race, the farthest trail distance I had run in anticipation of this event, feeling composed, energized, and ecstatic.

After stocking up on supplies, I grabbed Steve’s hands and leaned back into a squat to stretch my hamstrings. With a quick slap to legs, I shuttled out of the aid station once again in Mike’s footsteps. Water, electrolytes, energy gel, water, electrolytes, Mike, downhill, aid station, all in a reliable cadence of clean breaths through an unpredictable series of open clearings and narrow paths. The ease and relaxed stride that carried me through every mile felt invigorating but deceptive. Ask any long distance runner and they will tell you that the first half of any race feels great, but there will inevitably come a time where, pushed against your limits, you will begin to suffer. With very few exceptions, I have faced that awful wall and have never been able to recover. Once it hits me, I’m done and have no choice but to drag what’s left of me to the finish.

Wandering in a wooded wonderland

Wandering in a wooded wonderland, mile 26

The first sign of worry came just before mile 30, as I drummed downhill toward a roadside aid station. A tiny pinch in my quads had emerged and I felt twinges of pain with every downhill step.

This is it, I thought. This is where it all begins to fall apart.

Approaching an aid station, Mile 19

Approaching an aid station, Mile 19

But I continued moving forward, almost daring the pain to get worse. Given enough time and distance, the body will find a way to collapse, and with twenty miles left, there was plenty of both. I would have dwelled on the pain longer, but I could hear the hollers from the aid station emanating from the woods. I reached it to find Steve busy tending to a runner with dried streaks of blood on the right side of his face. Seeing that he was handling a delicate matter, I filled my own stores. Once he was free, I told him where I was and how I felt.

The next crew-accessible aid station was ten miles away. Up until now, our crews were there to help us roughly every three miles. And it wasn’t just Steve who would be there at the mouth of every aid station, but Katie and Lisa as well. That kind of support and dedication were better rewards than any sugary treat and I had come to rely on it to keep me going. Steve was also providing real-time updates to my family in Costa Rica, which was an added surge of motivation to stay strong every time I reached an aid station. The next ten miles away from my support crew, into the hills and in the shadow of Bald Bluff, the tallest climb in the race, were surely going to test me.

Drink water, drink electrolytes, eat an energy gel, drink water, drink electrolytes, chase Mike, chase Mike, reach an aid station, continue chasing Mike … where the hell is Mike? …

Bald Bluff, or about 30% of it

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

I continued my pattern of walking uphill, running the flats, and stomping downhill with great temerity. Every runner that I was able to catch, I would slowly approach and then storm past them on a downward section, letting my long legs leap over rocks and the occasional stair, acutely aware of what could happen if I clipped a root or slipped on a moss-covered rock. My quads were still feeling a tiny pinch with every hill, but they had miraculously not worsened. I kept expecting everything to go south at any minute, knowing how furtively the wall can suddenly plant itself, but against all odds, that hadn’t happened yet.

Like a finely-tuned machine, I took swigs of water and HEED, ate at regular intervals, and shoved peanut butter sandwiches down my throat at aid stations. If I heard water swishing in my reservoir, I would drink it; if my water bottle was heavy, I would drink it; if the road was flat, I would run it; if it bent up, I would walk it. I was focused on the singular act of moving forward, subconsciously expecting the demons of running to shank me at any minute, spilling my energy like blood on the damp trail.

At mile 35, I reached the base of Bald Bluff. I followed an older runner in a yellow singlet, who refused to power hike and instead took tiny, yet still airborne steps to tackle the mountain’s bright, gravel path. I couldn’t help but chuckle as I nipped at his heels with my long walking strides. I passed him on a flat section and continued upward, acid seeping into my quads with every step.

Following the path

Following the path

Here it is, the thought crept again. Much later than I would have ever expected, but this is where the knives pierce my legs, this is where each ligament and muscle becomes a wrought-iron cable, stiff and heavy.

I continued hiking uphill, keeping my body as upright as possible to avoid reflux. My quads were burning, but this far up, there was no stopping. As I crested the top of the bluff, I lunged forward into a run and found that I still could. The seeping burn into my legs was only temporary as I climbed, and now that I was back to running flat terrain, they were still willing to cooperate. In fact, after a minute or so, it was as if nothing had changed. Bald Bluff, the most imposing part of the race, had only slowed me down a little, but had done nothing to break me.

Mike, mile 40.8

Mike, mile 40.8

What the hell is happening? I thought, completely aware that I was questioning a good result instead of merely enjoying it. Where was the breakdown? Why wasn’t my stomach rejecting all the food I was eating like it has in every other ultra I’ve run? Why don’t my feet feel like they were marbled and ground? Why wasn’t I gasping for air, this far into the longest continuous run of my life? Where was the sound of the freight train, the inevitable thud of fatigue that can trample the strongest of wills?

In short, why was I doing so well?

Although every step I took got me no closer to answering these questions, they pushed me toward the next checkpoint. I saw Mike running toward me, fresh out of the upcoming aid station. He clapped when our paths crossed, content that I was still in the game forty miles into the race. Not long after, I reached the Emma Carlin aid station, which was a raucous party thanks to the Flatlander Ultrarunners. I ran comfortably in and began replenishing my hydration stocks. I told Steve I was feeling great, and that I was eager to take this all the way to the finish. He looked me dead in the eye and reminded me to relax for a minute and celebrate this moment, as I had passed the longest I had ever run; that every step I took would be an improvement over the last 50-miler I tried to run, whose coiling path was cut short at 39 miles almost three years earlier.

Otter, mile 39

Otter, mile 39

With the electrifying encouragement of my crew behind me, it was time to retrace my steps. Although I felt accomplished and could sense that the finish was near, ten dense, hilly miles separated me from the end. I could face any number of perils in that long swath of trail, from rolled ankles to sudden gastric discomfort or perhaps energy depletion.

I tried to avoid thoughts that might throw my focus off balance. I still had ahead of me the same distance that separated me from the aid station where Steve was helping the injured runner, which felt like an eternity. I had to re-scale Bald Bluff and every smaller hill in between, with only two aid stations to break up the miles. By this point in the race, the field was spread so thin that I rarely saw anyone ahead or behind me. Everyone had found their pace, marching in unison like colorful ants. But if I ever came across a runner, I would always pass them on the downhills, which I was still somehow able to tackle with alacrity. I saw Otter approaching and we both came to a dead halt, which almost threw off the person I didn’t know was running quietly behind me. We exchanged brief status updates and fist bumps before returning to our paths.

Up and down I continued, drinking and eating, running and drinking, eating and running. In a haste to speed up, I clipped many roots on my toes. I stumbled on many occasions and quickly regained my footing, allowing the woods to absorb a loud “Come on!” before resuming the path. I was lucky to fall only once in the entire race, and it happened during a slight uphill about six hours earlier. It was almost as if the trail itself were trying to keep me from pushing the steady pace, as if it could tell my patience was being tried and had quietly hunched a few roots into my path.

A very tempting bench at the top of Bald Bluff

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

Reaching the top of Bald Bluff proved easier this time. I stopped briefly at the top and took in the view before scrambling down the loose gravel path on the other side, leaping over rocks and wooden planks like a mountain goat. I reached the next aid station and skipped it entirely. I was 2.5 miles from the finish and feeling great, with no sign of stopping. I felt my phone buzz in my hand and I checked it to see my cousin calling from Costa Rica. I answered and told him I was 48 miles into a 50 mile race. He laughed almost incredulously and urged me to keep going.

As I skipped the last aid station, I almost felt ungrateful. But I had everything I needed to reach the finish line. Even though I could almost taste the end, I kept my regular pattern: walk uphill, run the flats, drink often. Here I was, just minutes away from accomplishing a goal that had haunted me for three years, and yet, it somehow felt un-ceremonial.

The final sprint, mile 49.9

The final sprint, mile 49.9

It’s no secret that long distance running and masochism can sometimes feel inseparable. Deliberate suffering or at least the mindful acceptance of it is part of the experience and for many runners, it’s a source of pride. The last six miles of a marathon are an exercise in attrition, fighting against the building agony and seeing how far you can go before you relent. Salt deposits, staggering limps, and even a black toe or two are as much battle scars as they are badges of honor. But as I approached the finish line on that cold Saturday afternoon in Wisconsin, I was feeling great.

With each step, there were more spectators standing where the trail meets the woods, clapping and smiling. I was half in the moment, enjoying the experience, and half in a daze, completely shocked at how I was able to do this with such a lackluster training season. I had fantasized about this moment for the last five months, expecting that I would turn the corner into the finish line, in plain sight of my crew, a ragged mess with a proud glint in my eyes. But that wasn’t who emerged from the woods. The lone traveler was instead completely free of heaves, tears or a lip-biting struggle to reach the banner at any cost, speeding up and ending his journey in ten hours and nineteen minutes.

Victory.

Victory, mile 50

In the moment, it was just another stretch of trail, which, if followed past the crowds and parking lot, would have led to another series of winding paths. I could have honestly continued further into the woods, deeper into the indifferent beyond. Despite the cheering crowds, the finish felt a little anti-climactic, precisely because I didn’t have to dig myself out of a spiritual trench at mile 40. Instead, I had managed to put all the pieces together to run seemingly forever. The result, in a word, was magical.

For a beautifully written summary of the day’s events from Mike’s vantage, please read his post at Blisters, Cramps & Heaves.

Even as I write this, I can’t quite process everything that happened. Every ultra I’ve attempted has resulted in wrecked legs, a tumultuous stomach, and gassed lungs, and those all followed a successful training regimen. The worst I suffered during this race were a few side stitches after mile 40 that went away with a quick walking break. Part of me credits the weather with keeping my sweat rate down and allowing me to stay hydrated and thus, able to digest food and continue running. But what truly kept me going were the people who shared the day with me.

13235096_1080472668665361_5347430754452198483_oThe belt buckle I earned at the finish line goes out to everyone who helped me along the way. I dedicate it to Steve, who is not only responsible for my running lunacy in the first place, but kept me focused and honest with my nutrition and wouldn’t let me leave aid stations without a handful of pretzels; to Lisa and Katie, who were always waiting for me at every trailhead, cheering as if I were leading the race and never complained about cold or hunger; to the many friendly volunteers who bundled up and braved the winds to keep this race a world-class event that sells out every year; to ultra-runners Paul and Jeff for believing that I could finish this beast, even when I was at my most skeptical; to Mike for humoring us in the most dedicated way possible by agreeing to run the longest race of his life and selflessly sticking around after a huge 9:54 finish to capture our finishes; to my family and in-laws for their constant real-time support throughout the day; and to my excellent partner in life Steph for always supporting me in my running adventures, even though they require early morning alarm clocks and a separate laundry hamper.

What a day, gentlemen

What a day, gentlemen

Last, but certainly not least, I couldn’t have finished this race without my running pal Otter, who not only believed in me more than I ever did, but routinely went out of his way to help me overcome my woeful training. There were times during the spring where it felt like he was more interested in getting me across the finish line than earning the buckle himself. After all, he was the first person to see me hobbled at my first failed attempt, and knew more than most how much I wanted to earn the title of 50-miler. But he too was out here for more than just another run beneath a green canopy.

On the morning of April 9, he lost his father. The weeks that followed were a test of Otter’s emotional fortitude, as he took charge of the heartbreaking tasks that come with the death of a loved one. Although I never met his dad, it was apparent that he was a kind, generous, and selfless man, whose driving purpose in life was to help others. I didn’t say it at the time, but I’m certain that at some point during his communion with the wilderness, Otter must have thought about his departed father and everything he learned from him. His willingness to put my success ahead of his own is nothing short of a loving testament to his father’s legacy.

Into the woods

Into the woods

Since I’m still trying to make sense of everything, I don’t yet know how this experience will shape my running path going forward. After all, there are tacit questions that come with a successful finish like this one. It certainly made me more confident about my abilities and shed light on why so many people love the ultra life. But don’t expect me to sign up for any similar or longer races in the near future. I’m still basking in the glow (and residual muscle soreness) of a race completed, but won’t plan on another one until I’ve finished running all 50 states.

For now, I’m happy with my redemptive day in the forest.

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Dropping Down: Silurian Spring 25k

Otter started running an hour before me. Along with seventy other runners, he began the Silurian Spring 50k by running a nautilus coil around the starting line, across a damp grass field and into a gravel path just beyond our sight. I had planned on running the 31.1-mile trail race with him. It was supposed to be the tune-up, the stepping stone on my way to a redemptive trail run in May on the Ice Age Trail. This beautiful spring morning was meant to portend another series of successful training months, culminating in my first ever 50-mile finish.

Waiting to start the 25k

Waiting to start the 25k (and Lisa, if you’re reading this, thanks for lending us your car and I swear my feet never once touched the console!)

But sometimes, for better or worse, or simply because things are what they are, plans don’t pan out.

Three weeks earlier, I woke up with a feeling akin to panic, as I suddenly realized that I hadn’t been running as much as an ultra regimen would dictate. Despite one twenty-miler, I didn’t feel at all ready for the trials of the neverending trail, my legs hadn’t yet been subjected to any 5-hour gauntlets or forced to the pavement on fatigued muscles. So, almost impulsively, I stepped outside for a 30-mile run. Five hours later, I came home feeling triumphant and a bit cheeky. I ran a marathon and change on a whim with nothing but a bottle of water.

Some might say that my impudence did it. Others might say my body wasn’t ready for the prolonged distance, or that it had been three years since I had incorporated scheduled walking breaks into a long run. But regardless of the culprit, my left knee began to ache. The next day, as if to show dominion over my body, I went for a trail run in Chicagoland’s famous Swallow Cliffs. The first mile of the run was unnerving – perhaps because nerves themselves were not properly aligned – but it wasn’t long before I shook it off and ran with no issue.

But the problem is, you eventually have to stop running. And once I did, I realized something was wrong.

Start + Finish Line

Start + Finish Line

That was over a month ago. I still have a slight pain in my left knee, self-diagnosed and later confirmed by doctors as patellofemoral pain syndrome. I’ve been here before, but not for a long time. It’s what I imagine it must be like to meet the kid who bullied you in middle school but as an adult, only to discover he’s still a jerk. You remember how to deal with it, but this time, it’s somehow worse. You thought you were done with this. And the timing could not have been worse. Just as everything was lining up for another stab at the punishing 50-mile distance, everything began to fall apart.

As the Silurian Spring 50k race approached, I knew it would be stupid and dangerous to try and run the whole distance. It wasn’t easy to silence my ego. I wanted to run the full distance and prove that a pesky pain was no match for that laundry list of positive traits that supposedly characterize long-distance runners. If you read enough inspirational quotes or follow Runner’s World on Facebook, you soon feel invincible, like you’ve been inoculated against pain, as if the beautiful pictures of people bounding across mountaintops could fasten your bones and ligaments into proper alignment forever.

The 25k race, which was one long out-and-back through the Palos Forest Preserve, started out fine. I ran on the soft grass, taking short, efficient steps, landing softly and fluidly. I was acutely aware of every sensation in my legs, no matter how tiny or insignificant. Despite the uneven terrain and the occasional puddle, everything felt fine. For now.

Otter about 11.5 miles in (out of 31.1)

Otter about 11.5 miles in (out of 31.1)

Four miles into the race, I had reached a single-track trail arched by thin branches. Up until now, the race had felt like an introduction to trail racing, having started with a mile on grass, followed by a long stretch on a relatively flat gravel path, which led to a series of gently rolling hills. The course was ideal for anyone looking to leave the harshness of roads but not without a little handholding. Once on the single-track, I saw Otter running toward me, on his way back from the first lap of the 50k. I stopped to get a burst shot of him before tucking my phone away and continuing the run.

“Hey Dan!” yelled the runner behind me.
“Oh hey, what’s up?” Otter replied as their paths crossed, his voice trailing into the woods.
“My name is also Dan,” I yelled back, “I thought you were talking to me.”
“Dan … Solera?” the voice asked.
“Uh, yeah?”
“Hey buddy, it’s Paul!”

Three years ago, almost to the day, Paul and I were just a few miles away in a different part of these woods, running the Paleozoic Trail 25k. It was the first trail race that would lead to the North Country 50-Miler in August. I learned back then that running through the woods and eating Oreos at aid stations was only a small part of the ultra experience. The most meaningful part was the community. As I trained for my first ultras, I met an incredibly friendly and welcoming group of people. It was easy to become friends with them for two reasons: they were naturally affable and generous, and they were usually at every ultra near the city.

And so it was that the ultra community had found me again.

For the rest of the race, Paul and I matched strides. We ran over a few marsh-like stretches that stopped us dead, through silent stretches of brown forest, over rocky tracks and finally to the turnaround shack, where we stopped for some cookies. I learned that he too was wrestling with a nagging pain while training for a big race. Except that Paul’s injury was in his foot, and his race was the Bighorn 100-Miler. Suddenly, my issues seemed laughable.

Miles 2 + 14

Miles 2 + 14

We made our way back to the start over familiar territory. Back over uneven tracks, dead forest, and boggy strips of overgrown grass. We continued talking during this stretch, mostly about recent races we’ve run and how we were going to overcome our current injuries. I couldn’t help but notice how emphatically optimistic he was. He was so confident that I was going to finish Ice Age, you would think that I had just regaled him about how I’ve never once in my life felt pain. It was enough to forget that I was running quite comfortably.

By mile 13 we had stopped talking. Something clicked in both our brains once the trail flattened out, as if we had both smelled blood. There was an unspoken decision, almost like instinct, that demanded that we run, and that we run fast. The camaraderie was still there, but I kept glancing at my watch to notice we were running in the 7:30s, which is very fast for a trail run. Just as he would pull ahead, I would kick back up to his heels. And yet, despite this rush, neither of us really pulled ahead. I know we both had a faster clip reserved in our legs, but we refused to go for the kill. We had pulled each other for most of the race, so it would have been wrong to run away so close to the finish.

Miles 4 + 11

Miles 4 + 11

We returned to the large clearing, the finish line shack perched atop a green hill. We had to run clockwise around it like a vortex before spinning into the finishing. About a third of a mile from the finish, one of Paul’s kids joined him for the run and he motioned that I go on ahead.

I couldn’t argue with that. After giving him my heartfelt thanks for the company, I continued the spiral toward the finish line.

I stopped the clock at around 2:17 and immediately saw “Iron Lung” Jeff, another fixture of the Chicagoland ultrarunning community, by the post-race snacks. We caught up on life and ruminated on the mysteries of the sport, to which he is making a big comeback this year. He left soon afterward to join his fiancée on the second loop of her race. Meanwhile, I sat on the grass and waited for Otter. With only about 200 people between both distances, virtually every single finisher got their own personalized finish line cheer. Once Otter finished, he became a one-man bandstand, roaring for every finisher’s newly minted 50k time as if they were all his children.

(left to right): Paul, me

(left to right): Paul, me

My knee, as expected, was hurting afterward … but not as much as I was expecting. I still had to take all manner of precautions and avoided certain positions all day, but progress is progress. My performance in the woods of the Palos Forest Preserve did not convince me that a 50-mile finish was in my legs, but it didn’t drive a stake into my ambitions either. It left me in a frustrating state of ambiguity, which is where I still am today. It’s been over two weeks since I ran this race, and I’m not one to take this long to write a summary. Clearly this knee injury has managed to scramble my mind as well.

But I’m trying to stay optimistic. It helps that I really want to finish Ice Age; I set it as my goal for the year and I don’t want to let myself down again. With no other races in between now and May 14, I won’t really know how it will go until I’m already deep into the woods. Wish me luck.

Otter smashes his 50k PR

Otter smashes his 50k PR

The Catharsis of Ultra

1. How Far Are You Willing To Go?

0824_northcountryrun 33

It was on the 17th of July last year that Otter and I had the following chat conversation, which has been abridged for clarity and fluidity:

me: i got Marla super hooked on doing the north country run next August
……so … yeah, keep that on your radar
Otter: north country run?
me: yeah, it’s a trail run out in Manistee, MI
Otter: oh is that the one with the MASSIVE medals?
        and by the way
        how fucking dare you get someone else hooked on a race before me
        which….which distance would you run?
me: 1/2
Otter: when are you going to bite the bullet and do an ultra?
         god damn this race looks awesome
me: i’m not yet ready to tackle an ultra
……flat marathons kill me already as it is
Otter: it’s weirdly intriguing to me
        would give me a full year to train
        but I have no idea how I would crew it
me: oh shit, it’s a 50 miler
Otter: not a 50K
me: haha, are we talking about our first 50-miler now?
……is this the beginning of the planning stages for a 50-mile run?
……ARE WE THOSE PEOPLE NOW

Thirteen months later, we are those people, lined up under the cover of trees in Michigan’s Manistee State Forest.  A small group of about 200 of us are about to start the 2013 North Country Run 50-Miler, the marathoners having started thirty minutes earlier and the half-marathoners waiting on the sidelines.  We all exchange nervous looks, wondering if this is actually happening.  No doubt some of us have dreamt of this day, but here we are, at another potential milestone, nervously shuffling our legs in anticipation of the trials ahead.

(left to right): Marla, me, Otter, Chris, Jay

(left to right): Marla, me, Otter, Chris, Jay

I hadn’t slept the night before.  I tossed and turned, my stomach crackling with electricity.  Despite that, I was eager to start and see how I would fare over the next eleven hours.

The previous year’s racers roasted in mid-90s temperatures.  But high mercury levels didn’t deter us from signing up almost a year ago.  Suddenly the twelve months that followed seemed to revolve around completing this one singular race.  I had to factor it into every single other race I contemplated and it was what led us to run our first 50k in May.  It felt like preparing for my first marathon four years ago, but on a much grander scale.  It always felt so far away, like the event that would never come.  But lo and behold, suddenly it was just a few months away, then a week.  Even as I write this, I can’t quite comprehend how quickly the last year flew by.

At 7:30 in the morning, the race director sends us on our way.  As I feel those first soft steps on the grass, I wave to my wife Steph and our friend Marla who was running the half marathon.

I’m not sure how my legs are going to react to running on trails again for many reasons.

2. How Hard Are You Willing to Train?

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We must be going super fast to achieve that motion blur

We must be going super fast to achieve that motion blur

During the winter and spring, I bought special trail shoes, went out of my way to run trails, and tested my stomach with different foods.  For one reason or another I did none of that over the summer, opting instead for running long, longer and super long.  It was not uncommon for me to run 30-50 miles per weekend and July was my biggest month ever at 223 miles.  I wasn’t getting any faster but I certainly felt like I was slowly reaching Peak Endurance.  Long runs felt effortless and my legs were surprisingly fresh the next day.  The so-called “food tuning” process I thought I would master did not happen.  I just ran.  I ran far, I ran until I was exhausted and then I continued running.  I even went for a long run at 5 in the morning in San Francisco after landing three hours earlier, napping for thirty minutes and spending the entire day in vineyards with friends.

And then I knocked out a 3-hour run the next morning.

As I run that first short loop through the forest, I try to stay focused on how I feel.  Every step reaches out, hugs the ground, and pushes forward.  Short, repetitive, delicate.  My arms stay close to my body, my focus on the ground ahead, looking out for roots and furtive rocks.  Everything feels fine so far.  The woods are cool, the sun nowhere in sight and the summer heat replaced by friendly zephyrs.  Otter and his friend Chris are a little bit ahead of me and Jay, who attempted the Leadville 100 last year and came to the Midwest to run with us, is already out of sight.  Nine minutes into the race, I stop to walk.  This was how I had learned to run seemingly forever.  Run nine minutes, walk one.  Lots of runners sidestep their away past, and part of me feels a little silly, but I know I will thank myself later if I reel in the exuberance.

0824_northcountryrun 19Three miles in we face our first climb, where I end up catching Otter and Chris.  We stick together for the next three miles or so, alternating slow uphills with fast descents.  We are cruising, cracking jokes with an insouciance that belies how much race we have ahead of us.

I went into training for the North Country Run with an aggressive combination of focus and recklessness.  On the one hand, I kicked up my mileage considerably, found time wherever I was to run, be it Florida, New Jersey or California.  I hit my numbers, but it wasn’t without a bit of bullheaded risk.  After the Ice Age 50k, I took a full ten days off to recover and then jumped back into training.  Conventional wisdom says to never increase your maximum weekly mileage by more than 10%, but if I was serious about running fifty miles, I had to kick that up considerably.  A ten mile run became commonplace, twenty miles lost their status as a rite of passage – they happened quite often and with little fanfare.  All was going well.

Until twelve days before race day.

Otter & Chris running the flats

Otter & Chris running the flats

Midway through a 13-miler I developed the dreaded runner’s knee, or patellofemoral pain syndrome.  Two days later, I ran two miles because that’s as far as I could tolerate.  My first ever 50-miler was around the corner and I was facing the possibility of not even starting.  I was already feeling shaky from not running on trails all summer … and now this?

The knee pain and my first potential DNS (Did Not Start) forced me to evaluate what racing and running means to me.  Training had been intense, but also very enjoyable.  I got to run in Miami with my mom chasing me on a bike, on the boardwalks of Ocean City with my uncle-in-law and over the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.  At home, I enjoyed every single mile of Chicago’s lake front path, from Loyola all the way to the South Shore Cultural Center and every sun-soaked park in between.  But without the race, was it worth it?  If you trained your ass off to hear a tree fall in the woods but you weren’t there to hear it because you were saddled with a knee injury, did it ever make a sound?

Aid Station #2, Watermelon City

Aid Station #2, Pineapple City

We cruise past the first aid station around 4.5 miles in.  My knee is behaving admirably, almost perfectly.  On occasion I feel a tiny echo of pain but it never lasts more than a few strides.  I feel great and run with a smile.  At the top of a long uphill, I behold the side-winding slide to the bottom.

“Are you gentlemen ready to fly?” I say before leaning forward and taking the hill.  Otter gives me his blessing and that is the last I will see of them for many, many hours.

The trail changes shape several times over the next ten miles.  Grass beds become sandpits, branches lean into the trail and create a lush canopy only to recede a few steps later.  Large mounds of straw and dirt suddenly erupt in greenery.  The sun, largely kept obscured by heavy tree cover, manages to pierce the verdant ceiling and cover the path in light here and then.  The perfect silence only makes it easier to get lost in the scenic beauty.  The only time where I snap out of this trance is when a course volunteer detours us from the trail to avoid an angry nest of hornets.

In other words, the run is going very well.  Until it isn’t.

3. How Much Are You Willing To Fight?

0824_northcountryrun 30

I reach the fourth aid station and find my drop bag.  I toss my shirt in a plastic bag, refill my water bottle, stuff my pockets with snacks and take off after thanking the volunteers.  I immediately face a steep climb before the path flattens out, wild flowers growing on both sides of the single track.  It would have been the perfect time for another reverie were it not for a few dreaded twinges coming from my left knee.

Marla sprinting toward the finish of her first trail half marathon

Marla sprinting toward the finish of her first trail half marathon

I had almost forgotten that I could hurt again.  This wasn’t the first race that I run with a ghostly doubt in the back of my mind.  But in the last three years, my body has always managed to rally on race day, to exorcise all pain from every joint for the duration of the race.  Even if it comes back at the finish line, it knows game time and steels itself.  But today that is not happening.  I must be losing a few shades of color from my face as I realize what’s happening and with this realization come many bad thoughts.  I try to force them out, try to will my knee into cooperating with me.  It is thus far a losing battle.

I try walking a little more and that seems to help.  But the remaining twelve miles to the start area have the majority of the elevation change.  My knee recovers enough on the slow uphill to tolerate the fast downhill, so with this strategy I drag myself from one aid station to the next.  Though my progress is encouraging, I still wrestle with what to do.  The knee isn’t getting worse but it isn’t improving either.  The organizers give ultrarunners the choice to finish after one loop and run “just a marathon,” an opportunity I am seriously considering.

But I came here to run 50 miles.  I had talked about this race to anyone who would listen – friends, family, co-workers, strangers in elevators.  I had spent many an ascetic weekend sticking to my training routine.  What kind of message would I send to myself and others if I came back from this trip having done only half of my committed goal?

Just moments earlier, I had made the decision to start the second loop.

Just moments earlier, I had made the decision to start the second loop.

I push on, as if hypnotized.  After the last aid station, I hear distant cheers and know the finish line is close.  The last ten rolling miles had felt like an eternity, but I am determined to continue.  With one foot in front of the other, I climb the last hill of the course on a sandy trail divided by yellow tape.  I reach the top of a ridge that overlooks the Manistee State Forest, calm waves of green stretching into the horizon, a wooden bench the only sign of humanity.  I stop to take it all in before stomping down the trail, the beautiful vista having invigorated me and sedated my knee pain.  I catch up to two ladies who had been pacing me for much of the last five miles.  My alternating strategy of running and walking has us trading leads many times, and in a race of this length, that makes us very close friends.

“You still have a loop to do, don’t you?” one of them asks.

At this moment, I know the answer.  Of course I have another loop to do.

We explode out of the trees and back to the start area, 25 miles done.  I see Steph and Marla and I immediately want to talk about how I’m doing.  But Steph is much more focused than I am.

“Tell me what you need,” she says, my drop bag and our cooler within reach.
“My knee has been bugging me since mile 14.”
“Do you need food?  Water?  What should I get?”
“I’m feeling good though-”
“Do you need GU or Stingers?”
“How’d your race go?” I ask Marla.
“Fourth in my age group!”
“Nice!”
“Do you want stuff now or after the marathon loop?” Steph asks, bringing me back to reality.
“I’ll … I’ll just do the loop now.”
“Ok, go!”

That’s the mark of a good crew – focusing on what you need and not letting the runner’s desultory mind take over.  After the 1.2-mile loop, I’m at the marathon mark in just a little over five hours, feeling fresh, powerful, like I can do anything.  I load up on GUs, Stinger Waffles, refill my water bottle, dip my buff in ice water and kiss Steph.  She came all the way up here with us to stand around for far too many hours with a subpar DJ blaring the same tired tunes in the background.  That kind of dedication and care is (one of the many, many reasons) why I married her.

“I didn’t come all the way here to run a marathon,” I say and take off, cheers of “Go Ultra!” chiming in from all sides as I enter the woods for the second loop.

Jay figuring out his business 26.2 miles down

Jay figuring out his business 26.2 miles down

The next two miles are a walk in the clouds.  I am running light on my feet, breathing easily and completely cool.  I even touch my chest to find that I am barely sweating.  I walk every ten minutes, zip the downhills and feel energized with every step.  Negative thoughts have taken a positive tone and a smile returns to my lips.

I’m doing this.  I’m actually doing this.  This is what I came out to do.  This stupid, painful, impossibly hard thing, but with one foot in front of the other, I will make it happen.  

The first long climb seems to take forever to scale and it sucks all the wind out of the air.  I reach the top and continue running but soon my stomach starts to fail me.  None of the food that I’m carrying on me sounds appetizing.  At the sight of an aid station, I pick up my pace and dig into the watermelon tray, shoving five slices of heaven down my throat.  I don’t even like watermelons but I’m eating it like it’s been a lifelong favorite.  Once again, I’m a new man and it’s time to soldier on.  I pass 31.1 miles and do a little dance to celebrate passing the farthest distance I’ve ever run.  I have a delectably flat section ahead of me so I manage to hammer out several miles with little complaint.

My knee isn’t improving, but it’s not worsening … too quickly.  I hurt more now than I did at the start of the second loop, but so far the pain is still manageable.  I reach the next aid station and my heart breaks when I see that they don’t have any watermelon.  But this one has something better: pineapples.  I stuff six to seven wedges into my system, fully aware that I never eat fruits on the run.  But my body saw something it wanted to eat so I gave in.  I might be hallucinating and eating a dry sponge but they are the best sponges I have ever eaten.  I can taste the sweetness all the way in the back of my head and the rush of flavor is almost dizzying.  After this much-needed jolt, I continue.

But soon things get worse.  Downhills start to send sharp stabs of pain into my knee and the uphill walks are no longer keeping the agony at bay.  I learn that I can only move pain-free if I walk the flat parts, which are reserved for running to keep a decent pace.  I also can’t recognize the trail anymore.  Red flags pop out every now and then from the dirt to reassure me that I’m on the right path, but none of it looks familiar.  The more lost I feel, the worse the pain in my knee.  The pain gets so bad that I can’t run for more than four minutes without a walking break.  Ultra runners are starting to pass me with more frequency.  Many of them stop to ask how I’m feeling.  Rather than let my negative thoughts become contagious, I respond with typical, gung-ho affirmations like “Keeping it going” or “One step at a time.”

Tiny inclines that I barely noticed the first time around are killing me during the second loop

Tiny inclines that I barely noticed the first time around are killing me during the second loop

Although I am keeping it going, one step at a time, it’s at a snail’s pace.  Negative thoughts once again invade my mantra and I allow myself one loud curse into the unfeeling woods.  One quick, angry curse for the pain concentrated in one tiny, damned spot.  My quads are tired but otherwise fine.  My calves could use a break but they are working overtime without complaint; hamstrings are in fighting shape and ready for more.  I haven’t cramped at all nor have I become nauseous or short of air.  At this point, I face the sad truth.  I have to make a decision, soon.  Am I going to do something stupid or live to run another day?

I think of professional ultrarunner Scott Jurek, having read his book Eat and Run two weeks ago.  While he managed to endure far longer and harsher races, there were several times in his autobiography where injury prevented him from finishing a race.  I keep reminding myself that overcoming muscle pains, blisters, spasms and cramps is completely different from running through a potentially serious injury.  I know what I have, and it is definitely the latter.

But the decision is never that easy.  There’s no shortage of motivation to get you through difficulties like this.  They say pain is temporary, that glory is forever.  They say that ultrarunning is a mental game. They say that you have to dig deep, to find a source of mental strength to carry you over the hot coals.  But those aphorisms are meant to treat black toenails, sore legs, and upset stomachs.  They don’t apply to potential stress fractures, torn ligaments or bruised tendons.  At least I don’t think they should.

So really, how badly do I want this?

4. How Much Are You Able To Learn From It?

0824_northcountryrun 32

I reach the next aid station, 36 miles into the race.  I see the watermelon tray and forget all my woes.  As I stand there with the fruit’s refreshing sweetness dissolving in my mouth, I see Chris approaching from the trail, fatigue written all over his face.

“No shit!” I yell and he looks up with a surprised look, almost as if he doesn’t recognize me.  I wouldn’t have expected to see me here either.  “Dude, you’re looking strong!”
“Yeah, we’ll see,” he says.  “My hamstrings are going to seize up any minute.  This isn’t going to end well.”
“How’s Otter?”
“I left him at the last aid station.  He was overheating.”
“What’s his name?” a volunteer says, alarmed.  “Tell us his name and we’ll check on him when he gets here.”
“He’ll be fine,” Chris replies after giving them his name.  “He’s not going to do anything stupid.”

Jay on his way to the finish line

Jay on his way to the finish line

I eat a few more slices of watermelon and leave, letting Chris evaluate his caloric needs.  Almost immediately after the aid station I face a very steep, unforgiving hill.  An earthquake must have taken place between loops because I can’t remember this mountain.  Every step feels like misery and I can’t fathom the thought of running another hundred feet, let alone another half marathon.  But for now, I have no choice.  I stubbornly move forward, muttering imprecations at the tiny spot on my knee that is solely responsible for my grimace.

Eventually Chris catches up.  He asks how I’m doing and I decide to be honest.  I tell him about my knee and how my stomach is also starting to do a few flips.

……“Did you throw up?” he asks.
……“No.”
……“You sound like you have.”

So I guess the misery is coming through in my voice.  I tell him I don’t want to hold him back but he’s enjoying the walk break.  Not long after, he takes off, looking strong.  I hope Otter’s okay.  Given my current status though, I keep looking behind me to see if he’s caught me.  I continue walking for what feels like an eternity.  On occasion, I pick up the pace and run.  But mostly I walk alone with my thoughts, interrupted every ten minutes as I dodge to the side to let someone pass.  Downhills are a series of icy stabs, uphills are dull grinds.  I can feel the damage I’m doing, one wince at a time, and the last ten miles are nothing but hills.

Chris just seconds away from finishing his first 50-mile race

Chris just seconds away from finishing his first 50-mile race

After dragging myself over three miles of thick forest with a slight limp, I finally hear the next aid station.  Volunteers can see runners through the woods and begin clapping and whooping.  My walk becomes a run as I enter the clearing.  Under the tent two volunteers are tirelessly filling pitchers with Gatorade and keeping bees off the fruit.  Family members are sitting on the dirt, waiting for their runners and their smiles somehow brighten this cloudless day.

“Looking great, runner!” one of the volunteers says to me.  “What can we do for you?  We have broth, pineapples, sandwiches.  We can fill you up with Gatorade or water.  What’ll it be?”

“Thank you guys so much for the support,” I say after a deep breath.  I look at the three volunteers individually, allowing myself a fleeting moment of shame before doing what I have to do.  “But I’m afraid I have to drop out here.”

Without missing a beat, the volunteers change gears.  Chris had passed by earlier and mentioned to them that I was running with a bum knee, so they had set up a few chairs with an ice pack.  I sit down for the first time in almost nine hours and sink into the earth with the weight of almost forty miles.  Though I’ve stopped moving forward, my mind is still racing.

Am I doing the right thing?  Could I keep going?  What’s a little pain in the face of such a huge feat?  Ok, scratch that, what’s a LOT of pain plus the potential to seriously damage your knee when you’re talking about the glory of finishing a fifty-miler?  Why am I even doing this in the first place?

I catch myself wondering what people will think.

Does it matter?

Otter doing the Bernie at the finish line

Otter doing the Bernie at the finish line

I ask for a cell phone and text Steph to let her know my day is done and that I’ll be back at the starting line eventually.  Fifteen minutes pass and Otter shows up to the station, looking like he’s having fun.  He is happily absorbing the energy from the volunteers that I couldn’t reciprocate.  He sees me and doesn’t quite register what has happened until he spies the ice pack.  His look of dismay is genuine.  He knows more than anyone else how much I want to finish this.  But each person runs their own race and after I reassure him that I’m fine, he gets back to the aid station.  He has somehow become reborn since mile 32, joking with volunteers, bouncing back and forth between his drop bag and the aid tent as if tethered between them.

Meanwhile, I am slumped by the wayside, Stinger Waffles crushed to bits underneath me, the ice pack now a bag of cold water slowly sliding off my leg.  I feel pathetic and wish I could leave and go straight to the finish, but the volunteer in charge of that isn’t in the area yet.  Instead I watch as more people enter the aid station in varying stages of fatigue.  Some are heaving but set on finishing, others look like they just left home and skimming through a mental list of brunch places to visit afterward.  It would be uplifting in better circumstances.

Part of me was definitely happy to not look like this

Part of me was definitely happy to not look like this

I keep reminding myself of my overall goal: to run the fifty states.  This foray into the ultra community was a fun experiment, a side trip into a higher level of difficulty and determination.  But the stars didn’t line up for this race and there was no sense in taunting the cosmos.  Part of me still doesn’t want this to be the end.  A few minutes after Otter leaves, I stand up and run in place, briefly considering a superhuman last-minute ditch to the finish line.  But those last ten miles would have turned a nagging injury into a potentially serious threat to my long-term running career, hobbling me for more than just a few weeks.

With every passing minute, I come closer to terms with my decision.  Nobody’s invincible.  Greater and more disciplined athletes than I have been through this experience.  Today was my turn.  But it’d be disingenuous of me to say I’m completely at peace with it.  I really wanted to finish.  I never wanted the harsh blemish of a DNF on my racing history and it’s never fun to tell people that I had to drop out, especially when I made it a point to tell so many that I was running in the first place.  Plus, I chose this race for its enormous and beautiful medal, which I would have earned had I dropped at the marathon distance.  You get nothing for running 39.3 miles.

Huge Medal.

Huge Medal.

But I keep reminding myself that I can walk.  My legs are sore but I’m otherwise fine.  Had I continued, I would be writing with a different tone, likely describing the race more as a Pyrrhic victory than a meaningful personal accomplishment.  If this story sounds glum overall, it’s because I’m using it as an outlet for all the negative feelings I had during and since the race.  Overall it was a very fun weekend with good friends, heavy food and a grueling athletic endeavor.  Though I was more than envious of my friends as I watched them cross the finish line, I couldn’t help but revel in their success.  I know that Otter will be returning to the ultra distance, probably sooner than he suspects.  Chris may have conquered the distance but I’m not so sure he’ll be making a habit out of these absurd distances.  Marla has already said she’ll be back for more trail races, even saying she’d be happy to try a marathon.  And as for Jay, this was a walk in the park for him, a fun stepping stone on the way to truly insane runs.

I can’t say I’ll sign up for another 50-miler soon, but I’m glad I went for it.  So much of long distance running success depends on the simple act of committing that I couldn’t have come home without trying.  That medal I will see in my friends’ collections, hanging from the back of a closet hook or in a stylized shadowbox, and it will always remind me of the time when the race proved too much for my legs but not my drive.

There will be other races.

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!