Hello, Kentucky Derby Festival Marathon!
With two weeks to go until my spring target race, the Ice Age Trail 50 Miler, the Derby Marathon would be my first crack at running a road marathon as a training run: a super-exciting, fully supported, training run! Having run the Derby Mini the year before with my brother-in-law, Patrick, I was quite familiar with the first 8 miles of the course, and I knew that the easy terrain and jubilant crowd support would make for a fantastic final long run before beginning my taper.
It did not disappoint.
I took off work Friday. Early in the morning, I drove down to my sister’s place in Jeffersonville, IN, just across the bridge from Louisville. That afternoon, Patrick and I picked up our race packets (he ran the mini), had a pasta dinner and were in bed by 9:30 p.m. I slept fairly well, but I couldn’t shake all of my nervousness left over from the proceeding week.
After my hard effort last Sunday at the Earth Day 50K, I felt some ominous muscular oddities in my plantaris, behind my right knee. Thinking it was something I could run off, I ended up aggravating it on Tuesday during a short recovery jog and decided that the best thing to do was to rest it completely. This was not easy for me to do. I’ve been averaging 60-70 miles a week, so to take it down so dramatically so quickly left me stewing. BUT, part of being a running fiend is listening to your body — backing off when necessary, keeping things in perspective. By Friday night, my plantaris felt about 85%. I went to bed thinking I would at least start the race, but I had to make peace with the idea that if it became painful, I might have to drop. Nothing could be worse than losing out to Ice Age because of an injury I could have prevented, I repeated to myself, as if counting sheep.
When I awoke at 5 a.m., my feet hit the ground and… VOILA! No plantaris pain. Some light, eccentric stretching confirmed such a miracle. I ate some breakfast, lubed and laced up, and by 6:15 Patrick and I were out the door.
We parked at his office building across from the Yum Center, gave each other some encouraging words and then I left him to meet fellow Chicago running blogger, Dan Solera. Dan is not only a good writer, but a great runner as well! He is currently tackling the task of running a half-marathon in all 50 states and boy did he do something special in Louisville! Check out his blog for the details.
I entered my corral and reminded myself of the following:
- You’re not racing. Period. Don’t even try it.
- Respect the distance. You may consider yourself an ultrarunner, but 26.2 is 26.2 and that shit ain’t easy. Ever. So don’t treat it as such.
- Stop if you feel like it. Talk to people if you feel like it. This is your chance to do the things you always wished you could do during a marathon.
- Smile at everyone you meet along the way.
- If you feel any pain (not to be confused with discomfort, ‘cuz ain’t no marathon run without discomfort), drop. Immediately.
- HAVE FUN, YA DINGUS!
And we’re off!
The first few miles were pretty fun, I gotta admit. Usually, this is not the case in a mega-race, but since I wasn’t watching my splits, I found it quite pleasant to just look around and soak up all the excitement of plodding away with 17,999 other people. To an implanted, intentional observer, the start of a race is a fascinating mural of motion. And since the half-marathoners and marathoners run the first 8.5 miles together, this was even more the case. Runners of all abilities were jammed together, bumping elbows, lining up the tangents, gesturing and surging for position.
The Derby Marathon course if pretty flat. The Mini is completely flat. So I wasn’t even thinking about hills until mile 14 or so. Instead, I marveled at the perfect weather (mid 50s with sunshine) and waited for the Churchill Downs section at mile 8, my favorite part of the course.
I already knew it was my favorite part from running the Mini last year. So when I entered those hallowed grounds again I slowed a bit and took in the sights. I even stopped and jogged backwards on the way out so I could have as much of it in my memory as possible. My only disappointment was that this year they didn’t have the loudspeakers playing archived Derby broadcasts like they did before. Hearing those speedy calls of the fastest two minutes in sports really gave me a mental boost last year, but in 2012 I’d have to do without.
When we exited the track, it wasn’t long before the marathoners split off from the half-marathoners. And then…
Is anyone else running the full marathon? I asked myself as I turned right on to an empty street, seemingly by myself. Up ahead were a few runners. I looked behind and a woman said to me: Wow, that’s depressing, isn’t it?
Yeah. I guess we’re on our own until the very end now, I replied.
I actually meant that I’d rather be running with them.
Not me, I said. I live for the long stuff.
She was right though. It was a bit depressing. For the rest of the race the crowd support would be sparse. The silence continuous. And just because I was taking my sweet-ass time, soaking in the experience, didn’t mean that my fellow runners were. On the contrary, they were working hard. Instead of engaging in conversation, I embraced the role of quiet observer. I stared at a lot of calves and read the backs of many a tech-tee.
Meanwhile, as we entered Iroquois Park for the first of several gentle climbs, I noticed that my right calf was suffering from a deliberate forefoot strike, presumably from the weakened plantaris and extra days off. I stopped several times to stretch it, checking in with the plantaris itself, but none of that really helped. I was forced to alter into a midfoot strike, which meant as I tired, I would probably begin to land on my heels, which meant I’d most likely be doing the Frankenstein walk on Sunday, but that’s how it goes. At least I was still running. Pain free!
My recent ultratraining made the hills seem easy. I encouraged others up the climbs, even leading a peloton of sorts for most of it. Despite the camaraderie, part of me wanted to break off from the road and go discover whatever trails existed behind the beautiful green forest. But just as soon as I my mind wondered about what was in there, we were descending out of the park and back onto the flats.
When I hit the 16 mile mark, I felt quite good. Other than my right calf, nothing ached. Nothing was debilitating. There was no pain. I thought to myself, just an easy 10 miler with my Wednesday night running buddies now. I started to think about those guys and what they might be doing. The Illinois Marathon. Horseriders 27 Mile Club Run. The Kettle Moraine Trainer. I’ll see y’all on Wednesday, I thought. Can’t wait!
By the 20 mile mark I reflected on how awesome it was to not be a part of the marathon carnage for once. All around me people looked rough. Cramping. Spasms. Dehydration. That’s what happens when you give it your all in the mother of all race distances. Hell, it KILLED Pheidippides!
I wanted to help. I wanted to say Dig Deep and Lookin’ Good and Almost There to those who looked liked they needed it, but then I remembered how much I hated hearing that shit myself when feeling bad, so I just kept my mouth shut and respected the process.
When I got just past the 22 mile mark, the terrain shifted from flat and fast to mountainous and slow. Of course, describing the elevation spikes as “mountainous” is more hyperbolic than truthful, but believe me: after running on road for that long, any climb is gonna look like Everest. I ran the hills, but I ran them slowly. And I didn’t fly down them like I normally do. I kept myself in check, as I had been doing the entire race, and all I could think about with a mile to go was….. BEER.
So, I thought, let’s go get that beer sooner rather than later. And I took off.
With a half mile left I looked down to see I was running 6:30 pace and decided to keep it right there. The few spectators strewn about cheered me on and I gave ‘em a show.
Where is everybody? I thought as I passed the 26 mile marker sign. There should be crowds galore at the finish.
Then I made the right turn onto Preston Street, reuniting with the mini-runners, and realized that’s where they all were. With a boosting roar of the crowd I turned on the afterburners and shot through the finish with a time of 3:43:25, almost an entire half hour slower than my current PR.
I did it right. And had blast.
I got my medal, grabbed a banana and headed straight for the beer tent.
My only complaint (other than the absence of the Derby broadcast at Churchill Downs) is that for the first half of the marathon, not all of the aid stations were stocked with sports drink. In my opinion, that is ABSOLUTELY UNACCEPTABLE. It may be okay for a half-marathon, but in a full marathon, it is WISE to be drinking sports drink from the very beginning, to help defend against hyponatremia. Had the temperature been warmer, this could have made for a very dangerous situation and race officials would be wise to address this danger for future events.
Also, it would’ve been nice to have crowd support for the full marathon like they do the half, but in my experience, this is commonplace in races that combine the two.
When it comes to running long and having a blast, the McHenry County Ultrarunning Dudes and Dudettes (M.U.D.D.) sure do set the bar high. Over the last couple of years I have gotten to know many of them through volunteering, running the trails and of course, through racing, so when they announced they would be hosting the first ever Earth Day 50K in nearby Crystal Lake, I circled April 22 on my calendar and made sure I would be rockin’ a smile, ready to race.
All day long.
Man, this is like a party! To look at all the happy faces around me, one would have a hard time believing any of us are in for 31 miles of pain and suffering today. That’s ultrarunning for ya!
I say hi to Alfredo, to Brandi, to Juan, to Edna, to Carrie, Jerret, Tony and so many others. I compliment the collection of yellow “Ultra-Virgin” shirts adorning an anxious crowd. And there is Michele Hartwig, Team Inov-8 member, trail runner extraordinaire and Earth Day 50K race director!
We runners gather for instruction from Michele, pause for the national anthem, and at the sound of the horn… we’re off!
The Earth Day 50K is comprised of five loops of 6 miles with an extra mile added to the first (remember, I LOVE LOOPS). It is run on the trails of picturesque Veteran Acres: a good mix of winding singletrack with some multi-track interspersed. It’s about 50 degrees, the sun is out and everything is GREEN! Mother Earth decided to show up to this party, and so did I!
At the start, my first move is to… lead the way! In fact, my goals coming into this race are to to finish in the top 10, be in the lead pack as long as possible and smile at everyone I see along the way.
David Epstein’s recent S.I. article on Sammy Wanjiru is fresh in my mind, reminding me of a ballsy (read: dangerous?) yet effective racing strategy: beat them at the beginning. The idea is to go hard at the start — to create a gap so immense that it is nearly impossible to clip. The unfortunate part of this strategy (as I will later find out) is that it could leave one gassed at the end, when finishing speed is needed to put it away.
But at this point, I’m only ONE mile into this journey, with THIRTY to go. I have a looooong day ahead, so I just go fast enough to get out front, but not fast enough to kill myself. Yet.
As the field spreads out, we step onto luscious singletrack, and I am not alone. On my heels is Trey Robinson, an awesome runner from Gurnee. We talk a little, but it is obvious that running this hard and talking is easier for him than it is me. His movement is fluid and deliberate. His stride is near perfect. I can’t keep up with him, so I just run my pace. Sure it’s fun to be competitive, to push my body to see what I’m capable of, but thrashing too hard too early and not running my race is as pointless as it is debilitating, so I let him go and just focus.
I have a song in my head: “Rapture at Sea” by Eastern Sun. I don’t run with music, but I do find it helpful to have a song that I like stuck in my head, to act as an equalizer between body and mind when things really get tough. Also, any time I can prevent “I’m Henry the Eighth I Am” from getting in my brain, I take advantage of it. Thankfully, “Rapture at Sea” has me cruisin’.
In fact, this first cruising loop is all about taking in the terrain. There are rolling hills. Bombs away on the down, bound on the ups! A couple steep climbs require power hiking, but barely. There is a lot of variation. Sometimes I’m enveloped by green forest only to escape into an open field. Sometimes I’m running on soft earth, sometimes crushed limestone. I come out of one downhill trail section that empties onto a paved bike path and BOOM. There are two curious deer staring straight at me, just 10 feet away. More like me are a comin’, fellas. Ya might wanna stand clear. They bound away, as if to say, naa naa na boo boo, we’re faster than yooouuuu!
Besides the one at the start/finish, there is also an aid station at the halfway point of the loop. The volunteers there are a jubilant and supportive bunch! They are so quick and efficient that I barely get to see who they are before I’m off again.
Just as I come up on a rather ominous group of trees that boast gigantic, man-made question marks on their heavy trunks, I realize I’ve lost Trey. He’s gotta be waaaaay ahead. Go get ‘em, bro!
I feel like I got a lock on second if I can just hold pace. I’m having fun. I feel good.
Loop 1 done in 51:52.
Um… about that “lock on second”… hmm… you’re 7 miles in, pal. Let’s just focus on the here and now. M’kay, thanks.
I blow through the aid station and look behind me to see I’m not as alone as all that singletrack would have me think. There’s a chase pack of three and they’re not far behind. Everybody looks good too. Not a struggler in the bunch. This is where my meditative mindset needs to take over: focus on the now. Right now. And then, RIGHT NOW. What’s going to happen later, or what has already happened is not going to help me. I need to just stay focused, take advantage of all the downhills and remember that this is something I enjoy.
WEEEEE! I scream as I leap up and over a section the locals call “Little Pig Hill”. I also marvel at the dandy and equally descriptive handmade signs put up all along the course, reminding me how creative and fun ultrarunners are: Land of the Aliens. Snake Hill. Costa Rica. Every time I get to Costa Rica, a section at the top of a gnarly downhill, I tell myself THIS IS FUN! IT’S LIKE A TROPICAL VACATION! Anything to get my mind off the guys gunning for me from behind.
At the end of the loop, the single track empties into the park where a girls softball game is going on and I must look like a mad man: A sweaty mess in short-shorts, a singlet and armsleeves. One softball spectator asks me, Are you okay?
Yep. I’m good. Actually, I feel great!
Loop 2 done in 48:14.
It’s easy to tell myself I feel great, but with the chase pack closing in and gaining every time we reach a clearing (the only time I can actually see them), I realize it’s getting harder for my body to buy into the game plan. Mentally, all is well. I think. Before I can decide, I hear blazing footsteps approaching from behind. They’re coming so fast that I have no choice but to stop, turn and look. Here comes a dude so full of energy and so strong that I feel absolutely deflated about my own performance.
Hey, man, keep up the good work. I think you’re in second, he says.
Uh… yeah. I am. I am? Wait –
I’m in the relay. Just starting out.
Comic relief to the rescue! Thank you, running gods! Thank you, Mother Earth! I needed that! Now, back to work.
With the spark of a good laugh, I put my head down and focus on turnover. Quick. Rapid. Turnover. I begin to pass people still on the second loop and I make sure to give words of encouragement to all, just as they do to me. Singletrack can be lonely sometimes, but coming into contact with others who love running and are as passionate about the trails as I am is a welcome comfort.
Meanwhile, my butt is starting to hurt. Literally. Both the left and right piriformis muscles are beginning to ache, but I’m not gonna let a pain in the ass stop me from tearing up dirt.
Loop 3 is done in 49:34.
As I leave the aid station, I think I’ve lost the chase pack. But then, as I power hike the steep climb to the trail head I hear footsteps right behind.
Hi there. You’re doing great, man. C’mon!
It’s Damian Nathaniel. I recognize him from my frantic looks back earlier. We exchange names and salutations.
Man, you’re running way stronger than me, I offer, somewhat deflated. After running in second by myself for 20 miles, then being caught on an uphill climb, I start feeling sorry for myself. But before I can give into the despair, Damian puts his hand on my shoulder and says, C’mon, let’s go!
Who is this guy and why is he so awesome!?!? He takes off downhill, balls to the wall and I follow, injected with energy I didn’t know I had. This dude could have totally smoked me but instead he offers encouragement and talks me through a low point.
After a couple of miles, we reach the paved section and talk about how much we hate it compared to the singletrack. We jockey back and forth on position, but I know he’s going to go ahead of me once we reach the aid station so I wisely ease off the jets. My butt hurts and I need some Coca-Cola to give me a jolt. I doubt he’s gonna stick around for any of that.
I make peace with this development. I accept it. Hell, I’m out running my butt off (literally) and I’m still having the time of my life!
I realize that, when discussing my running adventures, it appears that I often use hyperbole to describe my experiences. That couldn’t be further from the truth. There is no hyperbole. If I’m doing it right, every run is the best run I’ve ever had, because it’s happening NOW and I’m loving it NOW more than I’ve ever loved it before.
Competitiveness, for me, is a healthy addition to my running. When I choose to embrace it, it pushes me to do things I never thought I could do. So I use Damian as inspiration. Follow that runner! I tell myself. Head down. Back to work.
Then, out of nowhere, my own body throws up an obstacle by way of… a gastrointestinal scare. Yikes! Where’s my ginger? I grab a Ginger Chew (a must-have for any race) out of my pocket, quickly unwrap it and throw it in my mouth midstride. Of course, chewing this thing would be easier if it wasn’t so damn hard! The chilly temps have left it solid, nearly impossible to bite down on, so instead, I just swallow it.
Now I’m choking at the top of Costa Rica. I try to cough it up. Can’t do it. I pour the water/Gatorade mix from my handheld bottle down my throat and desperately try to swallow again, and again…
So how did Jeff die again? Oh, he ran himself silly then choked to death on a Ginger Chew. He was also wearing short-shorts.
Gulp. Whew. Got it down.
Back to work.
Loop 4 done in 52:01.
Suddenly. I’ve been running around in circles with a big, goofy grin on my face for 3 and a half hours now, talking to deer, choking on Ginger Chews, high-fiving strangers. Also, my butt hurts.
I’m at a low point, but these things come and go, so I just go back to what’s been working: the song in my head, bomb the downhills, focus on the now.
And then, just as quickly as I felt terrible, magically, I feel good again. I feel so good that I don’t even care when John Kiser clips me, leaving me fourth overall, with just 3 miles to go. Dude, you look fantastic! I holler at him as he blazes by (he eventually took 2nd overall). He did look fantastic.
I slam some Coke at the last aid station and put my head down one last time. Song in my head. Bomb the downhills. Focus on the now.
I feel the earth under my feet. I marvel at its touch, its beauty. I smile each time I see one of the M.U.D.D.ers’ clever signs.
I am so happy. This is what makes me truly happy. This land, this Earth. This life, this journey. This is why I’m here.
Loop 5 done in 56:24.
At an event like this, there is no going home right after. I rehydrate, I eat. There’s something delicious here called “Taco Soup” and I’ve eaten two servings. There’s homemade muffins and cookies and cakes. I devour everything in sight.
I change my clothes. I hug anyone who will hug me, including the race director! I call my Mom and Dad and then I sit my sore butt on the ground and cheer on all my friends coming through the finish.
Congratulations to Trey Robinson on the win. That was some spectacular running, my friend.
I won my age division, took 4th place overall and set a 50K trail P.R. of 4:17:55.
I could use a beer. And a nap.
One of my most valuable training tools is my logbook. A quick peek at my tired scribbles gives a very thorough and accurate view of who I am as a runner — how I feel, what kind of running I’m doing, ebbs and flows of a training cycle displayed beautifully by the English language.
Once I pick it up, it’s hard for me to put down.
Yesterday, as I studied the bevy of runs logged over the last 12 months, I made a surprising realization:
Life rarely gets in my way.
Life rarely gets in my way!!!
You know what I’m talking about. I’m talking about that cliche oft heard by runners of all abilities: “Sometimes life gets in the way.”
Wife. Kids. Job.
I have a job, but it requires zero stress. Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Nothing more, nothing less. No late nights for me. No taking work home. No last minute business dinners. No trips, no conference calls.
I do not have kids. I don’t have a significant other. My closest family member lives four hours away by car.
I live alone. I do what I want to do, when I want to do it. And I don’t stress.
In fact, in the last year, life has only gotten in the way of my training twice: once due to a death in the family which required an entire day of driving, and once so I could go to Games 1 and 2 of the 2011 World Series in St. Louis (I know, rough life, cry me a river, etc.). Those were the only two times I had to shelf a run. That’s it! Twice.
Meanwhile, most of my running buddies find themselves having to adapt to the barrage of life-shit thrown at them. Some have to deal with such hiccups on a daily basis!
So why have I not taken more advantage of this near-perfect training environment? Good question. And it’s one that I aim to address through reversal.
Go big or go home.
That’s another one of those cliches favored by the running community. Well, my friends, since life has been kind to my running addiction, my ass is going BIG.
My recent Kettle Moraine 50K trainer grounded me so into the earth with brute, relentless force that the next day I started to wonder, why am I doing this again? Also, it made me hungry for more! Enter the Clinton Lake 30 Mile Trail Run near DeWitt, IL.
Three Days Prior
I’m looking at the results from last year’s race. I’m reading race reports online. I’m trying not to worry.
Dang this thing is hilly!
But… I’m… feeling competitive? Yes, yes I am! And I have six weeks to recover for Ice Age, so let’s give it a good effort, Jeff! Dig deep!
I’m pumping myself up with positivity, knowing that if it hurts too much I can always pull back.
I’m gonna put myself up front and just see what happens. Let’s live.
I finish work at 5 p.m., then get in the car and head south on a jampacked I-55. I’m going to my mother’s house, just outside of Springfield, IL, but I have to sit in traffic before I can crank up the old ’99 Maxima to 80 mph (not her preferred cruising pace I should add). I want to get as much sleep as I can and it’s a 4-hour drive. My right piriformis is behaving, so I consider myself lucky.
Race Morning, 4:30 a.m.
Up and at ‘em! Did I even sleep? I have one cup of coffee, a banana and 5 fistfulls of whole grain Chex. My youngest sister, Cara (17 years old) is awake too, ready to keep me company on the drive and crew during the race. We hop in the car, I crank up The Cranberries Greatest Hits and we are off.
7:00 a.m. — 30 Minutes Before Start
It’s 42 degrees. The sun is creeping up. We are here.
Seriously, when I look to the Google Oracle for directions, even she says whaaaaaaaaat? A country road here, a gravel road there, vast farmland everywhere.
But we are in the right parking lot. Lots of anxious runners are getting ready for the long voyage consisting of three 10-mile loops around Clinton Lake, with about 4500 feet of elevation gain. I go over the last minute details with my sister and she assures me I have nothing to worry about (she’s right). She’s a smart kid and her help will prove invaluable on the day.
Parked just beside us is a friend of mine from my Chicago running club (New Leaf Ultra Runs). We chat a little before he asks if I have any goals for the day.
Yeah, I’d like to finish in 5 hours, I think.
Whoa, he says, 5 hours. It took me 6 hours the first time I ran this race.
Well, shit. Now I’m not so sure about myself. This guy is a great runner. His stride is so effortless and strong that I’ve expressed my jealousy more than once. I’m glad I didn’t also just tell him I hope to finish in the top 10! He might think I’ve gone mad! (I have)
Damn, well, okay, maybe I won’t get 5 hours? I don’t know. I’m gonna try, I say.
We wish each other luck then head towards the start line but, before I get there, I run into another friend of mine, Paul “Crazy Legs” Stofko, a phenomenal runner from northwest Indiana. Paul schooled me on the mighty Indiana sand dunes last summer. After one particular 4-hour run, I recall finishing, then immediately throwing up all over the parking lot. That’s how hard Paul pushed me that day (don’t feel sorry for me, it was an awesome run). In exchanging salutations with him, I’m hoping he has forgotten about my puke job. He doesn’t mention it, so I feel like we’re all good.
7:30 a.m. — Start Line
I position myself at the front. Clinton Lake is almost ALL single track. There’s a short climb up a paved road at the start, another short paved climb at the loop halfway point, but otherwise it’s all trail, so I want to make sure I don’t get stuck too far behind. Once you’re stuck in a single track conga line, it’s pretty hard to get out of it.
The RD gives his speech and… WE’RE OFF!
One guy darts out at the front and the rest of us give chase. We maneuver through the parking lot, bang a louie and go uphill towards the trail head. I’m moving pretty swiftly. There are maybe 4 or 5 or 6 people in front of me, the leader about 40 yards ahead. I look to my left and there is Paul.
Crazy Legs, I don’t know what I’m doing up here, I say.
He laughs. We chat about the upcoming Ice Age Trail 50, then, as we reach the trail head and start our single track adventure, I tuck in behind him. I know I have to be careful here because Paul is fast, and if I try to keep up with his torrid pace too long I might blow up. I mean, I will blow up.
But as we move our way through the first mile of trail, it is apparent that there are a couple of slower folks ahead of us, keeping the pace very conservative. Too conservative, in my opinion. Inevitably, in every race I’ve ever run, there is always someone up front who probably shouldn’t be, blocking the path for everyone else.
Some chatter regarding this scenario starts and it’s apparent that everyone wants to make a move, but no one wants to be the first one to do it. And then, someone does. One guy goes by me. Two. I tuck in behind the second passer, Paul tucks in behind me and we fly by the slower runners, bombing on a downhill.
This course has some mighty big hills, but hills work both ways, and the down sections were a blast to cruise! With trail conditions as ripe as they were (damp, soft, smooth), the footing for bombing was perfect. So that’s just what we did.
A few minutes go by, I give way to Paul, feeling like we would both do better if he were ahead of me and voila! I’m in the chase pack!
That’s right. The four leaders (3 guys and 1 girl) are far enough out front that we can’t see them. The chase pack is two dudes I don’t know, followed by Kirsten Marek (who I get to know a bit later), then Paul, then me in the back. I look behind me and there’s no one.
We are about 3 miles into the race and I’m surprised at how hard those in front of me are hammering the uphills. I spend a lot of time working on my power hike, so I’m able to keep up with them no problem, but I worry about being able to later on. Just run your race, Jeff.
I realize I’m currently in 9th place. I decide to chill out and enjoy the ride.
We hit the first aid station just after the 5-mile mark and I’m feeling pretty darn good. My nutrition plan for the day is my 20 oz. handheld bottle filled with half water, half Gatorade. (I drank about 120 oz total) I plan to eat a GU gel every half hour and suck on an orange slice if it looks good.
We all whiz through the first aid station, cross the bridge then find ourselves quickly back onto single track.
I love watching races on television. Every televised marathon I can watch, I watch. Every track meet too. And one of the things I enjoy watching the most is “the chase pack”. Seeing Dathan Ritzenhein’s effort in the 2012 U.S. Olympic trials is the sort of thing I mean. Complete, utter, AGONY. Screw Law & Order SVU, the CHASE PACK is drama!
We aren’t in agony, but we do have a lot of work to do if we want to catch the leaders. The four runners ahead of me keep charging up those hills. I try to hang with them, but by the 8-mile mark, when a brief stretch through an open meadow allows me to see Paul’s bright orange shirt waaaay up in front of me, I realize I’m gonna have to conserve some energy if I want to finish the race, let alone place in the top ten.
I’m totally cool with that.
I power hike the uphills. Hard. I bomb them on the way down.
I’m playing! I’m having so much fun! And now… I’m all alone!
I come through the start/finish line and there is Cara, waiting for me, all smiles. She switches my empty bottle for a full one, takes my jacket and tells me I’m doing good. I look down at my watch and see my first 10 miles are done in 1:34. Heck, I am doing good!
How many in front of me? I ask. I’m pretty sure I know, but I just want to check if I am right.
Seven or eight, she says.
I don’t even stop. Our entire exchange takes place on the run. My sister does a great job.
Now power hiking up the paved hill towards the trail head again, I see Kirsten ahead. I didn’t know her name until we turned onto the single track together, but over the next 5 miles, we keep each other company by introducing ourselves and doing what ultrarunners usually do on the trail: talk about running!
And oh what a pleasure it is! We are moving along at a pretty fast pace, but the conversation masks the hard effort, makes it flow. She is relatively new to ultrarunning too, so we exchange tips, talk about races, mull about the possibility of one day getting into Western States (don’t we all?!?!).
Just before the next aid station, a friend of hers creeps up on us, then flies by me. He’s moving quickly, but I keep him in my sights as we come out of the woods. We are officially at the halfway mark and I’m feeling great. Kirsten stops to get some fluids, her friend does the same. I have plenty with me (thanks to Cara!), so I just grab an orange slice, thank the volunteers and boom, I’m off before they know it.
I won’t see either of them again until the end (Kirsten eventually took home 2nd overall female. Good work!).
And now… I’m all alone. For real. No one in front. No one in back. But this doesn’t stop me from keeping my pace.
The toughest hills are on miles 8 through 10, on the back half of the course. I make sure to power hike hard, but to fly downhill even harder.
I’m having so much fun.
There’s Cara! Ready to go! She switches my bottles, takes my arm warmers, skull cap, gloves. She hands me a fresh hat, a sweatband for my wrist and three gels. I’ve already eaten 4 at this point, and now that the temperature is warming up (about 60 degrees), I decide to pop a salt pill too.
Good work, Bro! says Cara.
Looking at my watch, I holler back, Definitely going to finish under 5 hours. Next time I see ya, I’ll be done!
I charge back up the paved road to the trail head and then:
Holy shit, I’ve got 20 miles in my legs right now and I feel fantastic! Let’s do this!
No hyperbole here. This is an historic moment for me.
The course is not easy. Just 7 days earlier I was getting my ass kicked by hill after hill after hill and now I’m conquering them like a warrior. I know I’m in the top ten, but not exactly sure where because each race official I ask tells me something different, but it doesn’t matter. What matters is I feel great, my body is adapting to all this crazy running, and I’m surrounded by some kickass forest! Lots and lots of green. Lots of birds: woodpeckers, cardinals, pelicans! (I didn’t know we had pelicans in Illinois either) I’m feeling great, I’m feeling alive and I ain’t backin’ down. Instead of slowing, I speed up.
Still, this loop is lonely. I pass several folks on just their second loop, each one offering me a hearty cheer and a Great job! I reciprocate with high fives and encouraging words of my own, for them, and I can’t help but revel in the awesomeness that is the ultra community.
In standard road races (5Ks, 10Ks, marathons), when someone gets passed, there is no “great job” or “you’re doing great” or go “get ‘em”. There’s… nothing. But the ultra community survives on kindness, on mutual encouragement. It is so full of altruism that I can’t ever imagine myself not being a part of it.
This is what I think about on this loop. Well, that, and I wonder just how fast I can go on these downhills.
Turns out, pretty fast.
I hit the last aid station, look each one of the volunteers in the eye and thank them. Then I’m off.
I’m in La La Land. I’m so happy. I can’t wait to sprint through the finisher’s shoot, give my sister a hug and soak my warrior legs in that big ass lake.
After 4 hours 48 minutes and 12 seconds, an 8th place overall (7th male) finish*, I do just that.
And I feel as happy and alive as I ever have.
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*At the finish line, I asked the race officials what place I came in overall and they told me 7th. So that’s what I told all my friends/family. The official results show that I came in 8th overall, 7th male. Still, not too shabby for an early spring race, or, any race for that matter.
Paul Stofko came in 3rd overall. Awesome work, Paul!
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The post-race food and vibe was also pretty sweet. That homemade turkey chili… someone should get an award for that!