Last June, I went on a weekend adventure with Jim Street and Kirsten Pieper. Along the way, they got me excited about a race they co-direct: the Evergreen Lake Ultra Series. When planning out my 100 mile race training, I made sure to put their event on the schedule.
It would not disappoint.
Pre-Race, Sunday, September 14, 2014
Of course it’s 2:15 in the morning and of course I’m awake.
What the hell is wrong with me?
Only crazy people get excited about losing sleep and comfort to the task of running 50+ miles in the woods.
I am certified crazy, man.
Edna is crazy too, which is probably why we get along so well. Either way, we’re both up and getting ourselves ready for what will surely be a long day. It’s 38 degrees outside, with an expected high in the upper 60s, so we both pack layers along with our Red Bulls and Starbucks Double Shots.
After a 20-minute drive from our hotel in Minonk, we arrive at Evergreen Lake (about 14 miles from Bloomington) and the groggy bustle of the start/finish line. We check in, get our bibs and say hello to Kirsten, who is busy greeting chilly runners and directing us towards the food.
“I’m only here for the food anyway,” I remind Kirsten.
She laughs as Edna and I dig in to the smorgasbord of breakfast items — several different quiches, potato wedges, and of course: BACON.
Nom nom nom nom…
As Edna already knows, the fastest way to my heart is through bacon, and there is so much bacon here I think I will love this race forever, and it hasn’t even started yet.
We finish eating and then go through our regular pre-race routines, which unglamorously include bathroom breaks and lots of lubricants.
Ready to go, we runners gather around for Jim’s pre-race speech. It’s cold. I can see my own breath and this pre-autumn chill only reminds me of the awful winter we had and what more awfulness might be on the way in 2015.
Brrrr! I have on a skull cap, long sleeve pull-over and gloves. All wrapped up, Edna looks like she’s about to embark on an Aleutian whaling expedition.
“Good luck, babe!” I tell her with a quick kiss.
There is a countdown… and then…
LOOP ONE — WINTER
Miles 1 – 17
There is a surge of eager runners that tightly pack in front of me. I let them go. I will be going slow today — locking in that 100-mile pace.
I laugh out loud at the idea of my “100-mile pace”.
You say it as if it’s sooo fast, I tell myself.
Nah, it ain’t, I reply. But eventually, it will hurt just the same.
I know that. Anyone who runs ultras knows that. Pain is part of the game. It’s part of what draws me in, keeps me engaged. By feeling my body’s reaction to the stress I put on it, I remain present and in a constant conversation with myself.
I’m not a masochist. I don’t like to hurt. But I do like to feel alive, and nothing makes me feel more alive than putting my body to the ultimate test and relaxing in the happy wasted comfort of accomplishment that comes after.
It’s a magical, transcending experience.
Can’t wait to get there today!
One thing is for sure: that end will be a long time coming. We have 13 hours to finish, and I plan to take as much time as I need. This race is 51 miles and consists of three loops of 17 miles each. I hope to keep an even pace — something on par with what I’ll experience at Pinhoti in November — and log each loop somewhere in between 3.5 to 4 hours.
Just a few miles in, and I am all by myself. The forest is quiet and dark. My new Black Diamond headlamp (thanks, Edna!) shines a brilliant beam, lighting my path ahead. Occasionally I look at the vast blackness above, in complete awe of the billions and billions of stars that exist, up there, way beyond my comprehension.
We don’t get this kind of view in the city. What a beautiful sight.
My awe and tranquility is interrupted every 10 minutes with the sudden urge to pee — another unglamorous staple of my ultrarunning career. There is something about running in the woods for hours and hours that causes me to urinate often, exemplifying my oft said japish quip of “The world is my toilet.”
I say that out of respect, Mother Nature. Please do not strike me down with a bolt of lightning.
She does not. Instead, she gives me an aid station.
I quickly take some peanut butter and jelly, and before I can say “my hands are clean, no really” I’m off on my merry, dark way.
Not long after, I find myself at a creek crossing. I stop, take a quick look around for any object that might make crossing this body of water a bit easier (and drier).
Nope. No help for you, Mother Nature surely chides.
Meh. Just as well. My feet are already wet from the dewy grass. Might as well get dirty too.
I plunge through the cold creek, water up to my knees, with a loud and boisterous “YEEEEEE HAAAAAW!”
The chill of the water complements the chill in the air.
How is it so cold? We never even got a summer! Thanks, Obama!
I pick up the pace to generate more warmth, and immediately my mind goes to a warmer place… like… um… here, later today, where it will be in the upper 60s. Soon.
I can make it that long, I think as I zip through the halfway mark of the loop, met by enthusiastic volunteers and a rising sun. I put away my head lamp and find comfort in being able to see everything around me. I was running cautious in the dark, trying hard not to trip. Naturally, an hour or so into sunlight I take my first head dive off an ornery root. I can’t help but laugh at myself.
That’s another reason why I keep coming back to these races, I think to myself. I always end up laughing at myself.
It’s hard to take things too seriously when my biggest concerns often revolve around something as simple as picking up my own two feet, one after the other; or whether or not I used enough Vaseline on my butt crack to keep from chafing halfway through the race. Such are the silly demands of an all-day runner.
I plop through another knee-high creek — this one just as cold — and shriek just the same as before. Not long after passing through though, and I start to feel the warmth of the sun penetrate my winter layers, telling me it’s time for a costume change.
Change hats, ditch gloves, change shirts, eat. This is my mantra before I reach the start/finish line aid station. I often repeat such phrases so that I don’t show up to the aid station and waste time not knowing what the hell to do (as is often the case if I don’t have a plan).
Change hats, ditch gloves, change shirts, eat, I repeat again as I FINALLY come up on other people on the trail. I’ve run almost the entirety of this 17-mile loop without seeing any other people.
“Hey, you’re moving too fast,” one of the female runners I pass hollers, “this is the no passing zone!”
We all have a good chuckle as I continue on.
I’m still chuckling as I approach what looks just like any other bridge, except that when I step on this particular bridge, I almost fall off as it bounces awkwardly, daring to toss me in the water it spans below. Once I recover my wits and realize I didn’t actually break any bones trying to get across, I think back to my youth and the bouncy bridges that used to be popular at the playgrounds in my hometown. I used to get such a kick out of scaring my sisters on those things.
Before I can answer, I start to see signs of civilization: generators, tents, camp fire smoke. At this point I pick up the pace and notice I’m sweating. Uncomfortable.
Change hats, ditch gloves, change shirts, eat.
EAT! It’s time. I’ve been munching on whatever looks good at the aid stations thus far — mostly peanut butter and jelly and some fruit — but I’m ready for some real food. The start/finish line aid station has it.
Potato wedges, more fruit and… rice balls? Yes! Rice balls! With some sort of tomato-something… shit, I don’t know, but they are delicious. So I grab a cup and stuff a bunch of them in there for the road.
I change my shirt (short sleeves now), ditch my gloves (too hot for them) and change hats (ball cap rather than skully). Feeling fresh and refreshed, I fill up my Salomon hydration vest with another 50 ounces of water and strap it on.
Before I head out, I see Jim and say hello. “I guess you know how much I loved creek crossings,” I tell him.
“You mean you couldn’t jump those creeks?” he laughs back.
“Well, I’m still smiling, so all is well,” I respond, heading back out onto the trail.
(Loop One Time: 3 hours, 42 minutes)
LOOP TWO — SPRING
Miles 17 – 34
I am still smiling. 17 miles in and yeah, my legs are starting to ache, but keeping a smile on my face keeps me from dwelling on any discomforts I have. For now.
The peacefulness of this trail — this outdoor wonderland — is also distracting me from any creeping aches and pains. In fact, this time around the loop seems like the first time, at least for the first half, since when I came around earlier it was pitch black.
My breath keeps getting taken away, not by the labors of my body, but by the beauty of the trail. The views are dramatic and pristine. Nature at its finest. My eyes wander on scenes reminiscent of a Bob Ross painting.
There’s a happy little tree next to a happy little lake. And, oh look, there’s his friend, Mr. Rock, all nestled into the happy little grass.
Fucking beautiful, man. I could stay out here all day.
Ha! Guess what, YOU ARE!
Oh yeah. I am. I AM!
Damn it, I’m just overwhelmed with happiness right now.
Don’t start crying, silly. You’re not even halfway through the race yet. Can’t get so emotional so early.
Yet sometimes the trail calls for it. For me, running is communing with nature. Running is meditation. Running is pure joy. When it is all those things together at the same time, sometimes I can’t help but get pretty emotional about it.
Ah fuck it, no one cares. If anyone asks, just tell them you got some dirt in your eye.
No one is around anyway. I’m all by myself. Just me, the happy little trees and… GOBBLE GOBBLE GOBBLE.
Yeah, as much as I would like to think I’m all alone out here in this forest, the constant turkey gobbling coming from deep within the woods reminds me I’m not. This is the first time I’ve knowingly shared the wilderness with turkeys, so that’ s kinda cool.
Just us turkeys out here!
I wonder what the turkeys think of this weather. It’s spring now. In the shade I’m too cold, in the sun I’m too hot. I guess the turkeys probably don’t think about that too much. They will just be happy to be alive come November.
Past the halfway mark of the loop now, my legs are really starting to slow down, so I welcome the clockwork necessity to stop and pee every 20 minutes. It feels good knowing I’m more than halfway through the course, right on my targeted goal per loop, but it would also feel really good to be sitting on a couch watching football right now.
My mind wanders from Jay Cutler to Brandon Marshall to Alshon Jeffery.
I bet they couldn’t do what I’m doing right now, I think. Then again, I don’t think I could do what they do either, so I guess it’s a wash.
While debating what possibly hurts more: being tackled by 300 lb defensive linemen or running ultramarathons through he woods, I trudge through the creek crossing again.
WOOOOOO HOOOOOOOO! BRRRRRRR!!!
I wonder if anyone can hear me? Other than the aid station volunteers — whom are ALL AWESOME BEYOND AWESOME by the way — I haven’t seen a single soul on this loop yet. I’m all alone… with my thoughts…
And now my mantra is water, Ibuprofen, Red Bull.
That early morning wake-up is catching up with me now as I slumber my way through the back half of the course. The cold creek crossings do well to snap me out of my zombie-like state; and I keep running as much as I can despite the slow pace. But for the last 17 miles I’m going to want a pick-me-up.
And it’s getting hot.
Water, Ibuprofen, Red Bull… water, Ibuprofen, Red Bull…
I hear footsteps. About a mile from the end of the loop now and I hear hard, fast footsteps. What the –
I turn around and see a young man blazing toward me. It’s Zach Pligge, a talented runner I met at Potawatomi earlier this year. I recall he had a fast finishing time in the hundred miler at that race, so he must be on his last loop of this one.
“Finishing up?” I ask.
“Yep! You think we’re going to hit that bridge soon?” he replies.
The bouncy bridge. The scary bridge. The bridge that almost sent me home in pieces.
“I hope so,” I reply. I want to stick on Zach’s heels so I can see how a super fast runner with 50 miles in his legs handles that bridge monstrosity, but he’s too fast and I’m too hot (and slow) to chase. He takes off as I congratulate him on a great race.
Wow. So the only person I see on this whole 17-mile loop is the guy who laps me on his way to an overall win. Now that’s not something that happens every day.
Civilization creeps back into view, and I know I’ve only got one more loop to go. With a little help from my friends (Ibuprofen and Red Bull to be exact), I’m looking forward to getting done.
Back at the start/finish line aid station, Kirsten greets me asking, “Are you done?!”
“Um…. no. No way. I have one more loop to go.”
“Oh, okay, well be careful at the aid station. We are having a little bit of a bee problem.”
When I get to the food table, I see what she means: there are bees EVERYWHERE! Yikes! And they really seem to dig watermelon as they are all over that. Luckily, they’re not into those rice balls, so I take as many as I can, fill up my hydration vest, chug a Red Bull and swallow 400 mg of Ibuprofen. In about 15 minutes I expect I’ll feel like a new man!
(Loop Two Time: 3 hours, 49 minutes)
LOOP THREE — SUMMER
Miles 34 – 51
The sun is hot.
Duh. It’s only about 10 billion degrees Fahrenheit. And even at 92.9 million miles away from the earth, it’s pretty impressive that I’m not fried up and dead right now, because 10 billion degrees is really hot.
In moments of extreme fatigue, my mind spends a lot of time on the obvious.
Oh, look over there is a tree. And there’s another. And another…
Having chowed down on rice balls and Red Bull… I shuffle-cruise my way through the first couple of miles of this last loop. Still all alone. Still stopping to pee every 20 minutes.
I bet I could shave a good half hour of my finish time today if I didn’t have to pee so damn much, I tell myself.
Yeah, but you have to keep drinking. You have the bladder of a pregnant woman. Nothing you can do about that. Better to drink and pee than to dehydrate and suffer.
Good point, self. Good point.
I shuffle along wondering when the Ibuprofen will kick in when, all of the sudden. It kicks in.
BAM! Off to the races!
At this point, pace is relative. I know I’m probably moving along around an 11 or 12 minute mile pace (at best), but I feel like friggin’ Killian Jornet out here. Zooming down this hill, bending around that corner, power hiking up that climb.
How much of it is caffeine versus NSAIDS versus mental toughness, I don’t know. Frankly, I don’t care either. I’m feeling good and I’m lettin’ ‘er rip!
Où t’es, papaoutai? Où t’es, papaoutai? Où t’es, papaoutai?
I don’t know what I’m humming to myself exactly, but it’s a catchy hook to a song from Stromae, an artist a friend of mine introduced me to on my recent trip to Mexico, and I can’t get it out of my head.
Où t’es, papaoutai? Où t’es, papaoutai? Où t’es, papaoutai?
Now I’m singing it out loud. Why not!? Other than me and the turkeys, this forest is as still as can be.
Which begs the question: if an ultrarunner flies through the woods and no one is there to see him, does he really ever fly through the woods?
Où t’es, papaoutai? Où t’es, papaoutai? Où t’es, papaoutai?
I get to the halfway point aid station and chug another Red Bull from my drop bag. I notice in the bag that there’s another half consumed can, which means Edna is on the jolt now too. YAAAAAY EDNA! I hope she’s doing well. I love that girl.
“Thank you, volunteers! I love you all!” I shout as I head back on down the trail.
I’m getting finish-line syndrome — the phenomenon of central governor override that seems to happen the closer one gets to the finish line. Some people just call it “wanting to be done”.
I want to be done, no doubt. My feet and heels are aching, my butt is sore and all this running is making me a little too hot for comfort; but at the same time I don’t ever want to stop, don’t ever want to leave. I just want to be in the forest with my thoughts, surrounded by nature, consumed by beauty — perpetually in the moment.
This is the life! YES!!!
Oh my goodness! People!
I must be slowing down as there are people behind me. Two ladies. I look behind and they greet me: “Hi, are you in the 51 miler?” one asks.
“No, we’re in the 34 miler. You’re my hero though!”
Wow, that’s kinda cool. Who knew you only had to be stupid enough to want to run in the woods all day to be someone’s hero. I’ll take it!
“You’re too kind,” I holler back as I pick up the speed. “Enjoy your finish! Congrats!”
I rev up the engine. ZOOM!
YEEEEE HAAAAAW! through the creek crossings again, focused on reaching civilization, my mind wanders to the task of running 100 miles come November.
What an adventure that’s going to be, I remind myself. And what pain is in store!
“Running is a vehicle for self discovery.” Scott Jurek said that. It’s a quote I think about often, one that I live by.
Look at the person you have become, the self you have discovered, all because you decided to go run in the woods!
Indeed, this is the life.
I reach the wonky bridge, tip-toe over it, saving myself from any potential embarrassment while charging on towards the finish line. As I approach civilization again and am greeted by the friendly cheers of volunteers, spectators and fellow runners, I long to stay out here — to find out more about myself and what I’m made of.
There will be plenty of time for that, I remind myself.
The finish line is in sight, I charge forward to applause, throw my hands in the air and think that crazy thought I never thought I’d think: 5o miles doesn’t seem that long.
(Loop Two Time: 3 hours, 52 minutes)
TOTAL RACE TIME: 11 hours, 23 minutes
Not only is there a killer post-race spread of delicious recovery foods (roast beef, potatoes, drunken berries and sweets galore) but lots of folks stick around to cheer on finishers. I hang out, patiently waiting for Edna to come through, and enjoy some conversation with Jim. I also talk to several other runners, eager to hear their stories from the day. Many of them centered around the cold creek crossings and the wonky bridge. While I only had one face plant, some had several.
We are alike in that we all find humor in ourselves.
It still boggles my mind that I spent nearly all of those 11+ hours alone, by myself, on the trail.
Still, having done so gives me the confidence I need going into the hundred miler, especially knowing I will have a pacer to keep me company on the last half.
Edna comes through about an hour after me, all smiles as usual. She too has some stories to tell, and I can’t wait to hear them. We share an embrace — the kind that only comes from an entire day’s worth of exhaustive exercise — and collect our walking sticks (a unique, kick-ass finisher’s prize that has immediate worth I might add) before heading back to the hotel.
- – -
If you’re looking for a beautiful run in the woods next September, go run Evergreen Lake! They have three distances to choose from (17 miles, 34 miles, 51 miles) and the support is top-notch. The food was great, the volunteers spectacular and the views serene! Also, the trail was impeccably marked, a detail that can never be overstated.
More importantly, with running being that vehicle to self discovery, you’re bound to discover something new about yourself. And having the Shady Hollow Trail Runners’ love and warmth as the background for such introspection is a certain recipe for success.