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)

Wisconsin (2010 Madison Mini-Marathon)

In February 2010, Leo Garcia and Lindsey Finn got married. It was a small ceremony on Southport, in the decorative private room of Qué Rico. Though small, it was far from quiet. Nearly every guest was handed the microphone, willingly or by force, to deliver an improvised speech inspired by the newlywed couple’s exchange of vows. I was lucky to have both the microphone and an acoustic guitar handed to me by surprise, allowing me to serenade the misfits with an amateur rendition of that late 90’s one-hit wonder, “Save Tonight” by Eagle-Eye Cherry. I didn’t pick the song on the spot. A few weeks earlier, Steph and I found ourselves at an open mic with Leo and Lindsey and their Improv group “Jessica”, where I was thrust on-stage to play and sing whatever songs came to mind. When you’re three or four beers deep, you tend to forget how to play a lot.

But I digress. It was a great time and Leo and Lindsey’s longtime Chicago friend, Ryan Hopker, officiated the wedding, gracing the evening with a charming and humorous tribute.  So, at the risk of sounding like Michael Scott, you could say Ryan and I had the most “screen time” of the wedding if you don’t count the bride and groom. There’s no real relevance or significance to this – just a fun way to segue into the weekend I spent with these three hooligans while running the second annual Madison Mini-Marathon.

Ryan, Lindsey, Leo

After a loquacious drive to the state’s capital and a pit stop at an Olive Garden for some last-minute face-stuffing, we settled in our hotel room. Leo let me know that cots were made illegal in Wisconsin around the same time as Prohibition and as such, I’d have to share a bed with Ryan, whom I had technically just met four hours earlier. But since the conversations in the car ride ranged from nationwide referendums on gay marriage to making fun of the three different waitresses we had at Olive Garden, I’d say the ice had already been confidently broken.

The four of us made it to our start corrals early the next morning, ready for the 7 AM start. The weather cooperated halfway, for while the temperature was hovering at 70, the humidity was – this is an actual, reported figure – 100%.  By mile 2, my sunglasses were so fogged up, that I took them off and held them for the rest of the race.  It also doesn’t take a long walk around Madison to notice the city’s hills. It wasn’t going to be a day for PR’s, but that didn’t stop Leo from booking from the start at a cheetah’s pace. The course starts on Langdon Street, just a few blocks away from the shores of Lake Mendota.  From there it turns onto Wisconsin Avenue and heads straight towards the famous Madison State Capitol. After a dash down the ostensibly more famous State Street, the course begins to take runners away from the University of Wisconsin campus by hooking onto a pedestrian path and eventually a residential neighborhood.  The course would soon reach the marshy shores of Lake Wingra, replacing the urban rush of the city with the serenity of a mountain trail run.

Also, the hills of a mountain trail run.

Any true trail marathoner will laugh at my definition of “hills”, because the vertical gain on this course wasn’t anything to highlight.  However, when you’ve been training in Chicago, the slightest change in slope is a climb. The hills of Arboretum Drive were gradual, fortunately, but by Mile 6, the humidity was starting to weigh me down and my once ambitious pace started to languish.  After rounding out Lake Wingra, the course once again enters the tree-lined streets of Madison neighborhoods.  Water stations were spaced out roughly every two miles and I was worried about the gap between miles 7.5 and 9.5.  Fortunately, a budding philanthropist had a little tray of Gatorade in Dixie cups on his front yard with his parents, looking on the runners with as much curiosity as confusion.  Without his important contribution to my hydration, who knows how much more my pace would have suffered?

Around mile 10, the course re-enters the University of Wisconsin campus via Walnut Street, passing the McClimon Memorial Track, the Nielsen Tennis Stadium and … the Class of 1918 Marsh. I suppose the majority of those graduates will be more likely to remember the end of the First Great War than their honorary swamp. After a brief out-and-back detour, we were back on the shores of Lake Mendota, running on damp gravel for the remaining few miles. Even at mile 12.9, it still looked like we were in the middle of the woods. After a quick, but surprising uphill, the course veers right, shooting runners onto Park Street, where they hug the Memorial Union for the final 0.1 mile sprint. With my finishing time of 1:44:29, I took my medal, drank my complimentary finisher’s beer, and searched out the rest of the party.  Upon getting everyone together, we learned that two of us were bleeding, but I won’t say who or where.

The rest of the weekend was a fun combination of New Glarus beers, Middle Eastern cuisine, 90’s rock anthems and the joys of a meager 1% sales tax. That, and trying to convince Lindsey to run a full marathon. Leo unequivocally says he will never run one, so I’ve decided to coax his wife instead.  We’ll see how that turns out.

As I was finishing up the half marathon plan for 2010, two things were happening. First, I had started preparing for the Bank of America Chicago Marathon. Runs were getting longer and mornings earlier.  But the other development was that I had already been planning further adventures in 2011 …

State 3: Wisconsin (2010 Wisconsin Half Marathon)

I wrote at the end of my entry for the Go! St. Louis Half Marathon that I ended the race with a pain in my lower back. What I didn’t mention with the purpose of quelling any concern amongst family members, was that the pain was borderline excruciating. Standing up and sitting down were tasking motions, lifting my left leg any farther than three feet was to be avoided, and sitting down for longer than an hour on a desk chair meant preparing myself for retribution.

So in spite of having run my fastest half marathon, it was clear that my spirits were down. Had my training taken a subtle wrong turn? Was this the injury that would kill my hopes of running ten half marathons this year? Was I doomed to the elliptical forever? For a crazy person with the running bug, these are legitimately scary questions and I was set on getting through the agony.

I took an entire week off. Taking the stairs at work was the only exercise I let myself do, hanging up my running shoes for the time. The pain subsided very slowly, but eventually it was gone. Two weeks later, I was running in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, (a deceptively hilly town) where I realized that my back was complaining with every downhill. I’m not a physical therapist but I decided that I had discovered the source of my pain. I guess I need to practice more downhills.

Baxter, Me

Running woes behind me, I arrived in Wisconsin for the Wisconsin Half Marathon Friday night, ready to scarf down plateloads of pasta at Buca di Beppo thanks to the hospitable graces of my little gentleman, Baxter. Between the summers of 2007 and 2008, we roomed together on Clifton before he graduated and went off to Waukesha to work for GE. Since then, he has come down to Chicago several times to hang out with us, but this was the first time that I had visited him.

Saturday morning was overcast and breezy with temperatures flirting with 60 degrees. There was rain on the horizon, but it never reached Kenosha, which is where the second annual Wisconsin Marathon and Half Marathon was held. I made my way to my pace starting corral, just behind the all-cheese corral, which is made up of people in cheese hats, cheese shirts, or just people wearing all-yellow. Truth be told, it’s unlikely that runners bedecked in cheese apparel were the fastest people on the course, so the very beginning of the race required a bit of crowd negotiation.

The course begins on a grassy extension of land by the lakeshore, where one can find the Civil War Museum. From there, it heads right into the city of Kenosha, and then south into residential areas that reminded me of those found in Evanston just south of Northwestern. The course runs about 2.5 miles down to 78th street and turns around, heading back into the city and through a harbor to reach a lakefront path around mile 5. From there, it continues north to run on 32. Though I had been sweating since mile 2, I felt full of energy. The course turns around just before mile 8, where I decided to start increasing speed.

The final sprint

I’ve never been able to run a fast second half. I always start off the race too fast and burn out by mile 10, clocking significantly slower splits. I sometimes fear that it’s becoming a psychological thing, as if just the thought of reaching mile 10 sends an instant rush of fatigue into my muscles. Like a true running nerd, I’ve even graphed my results and have found the same downward sloping trend in speed in almost every race. But not this time. I kept going, recording times not seen in the first half, including my fastest half marathon mile ever (7:26) at mile 13. At the final stretch, I caught up with a young man who had started just before me. Seconds after I passed him, I saw his shoulders in my periphery – he wasn’t going to let this skinny kid beat him. I turned to my new best friend and emphatically yelled “Let’s do this! Let’s – do – this!” and broke into a sprint. He passed me in that final sprint, but I didn’t care – I had recorded a personal best of 1:43:53.

With this formidable PR under my belt, Baxter and I drove back into Chicago. My elation of having broken the 8:00 pace threshold scarcely let me appreciate my lower back, which wasn’t complaining one tiny bit. This is a great thing for many reasons, but mostly because I had only one week to recover and deliver an acceptable run at the OneAmerica 500 Festival MiniMarathon in Indianapolis. I was glad I got a chance to see Baxter, because he left Wisconsin to attend Mount Sinai Medical School in July, where he’ll be spending many long and rewarding years earning an MD.
Onwards!