Last year, the Ice Age Trail was home to a most glorious running experience. It was such a memorable event that I was absolutely adamant about coming back. But when it came time to register, an injury-laden winter and the knowledge that I would be fresh off a challenging Boston Marathon made me bump down to the 50k option.
On May 11, 2013, I ran the Ice Age Trail 50k — a challenging yet highly runnable course and now all I can think about is running it again in 2014. This is my story…
It’s 4:15 a.m. and my alarm sounds off along with my buddy Siamak’s. The unison doesn’t last long as we are both wide awake. In fact, I’ve been tossing and turning all night long and just happy to be fully awake now, ready to get the day started.
My off-and-on sleep was the result of the warm hotel room and a subliminal tick infestation planted in my brain by our waitress at Sperino’s the night before. She warned us that “the ticks were bad”. Indeed, I was tick-incepted by an Elkhornian and I didn’t get much sleep because I was more worried about the invisible critters sucking on my blood than traversing 31 miles of trail.
Still, I feel pretty fresh now that I’m awake. Siamak and I eat, go through our respective rituals of preparation, and by 5:10 we are in the car, driving to the start line.
As expected, the start/finish area at John Muir is a who’s who of familiar, crazy runner folk. Even though the majority of the people stirring about are running the 50 mile race, which begins at 6:00 a.m., I am glad I am here among the crowd because I won’t see most of them again until much later in the day.
My alarm wakes me from what was a fitting 90 minute nap (or was I meditating just now?) and I feel fantastic. I grab the gear I’m going to need (a handheld water bottle, gloves and a cap), I lube up where necessary (this is becoming automatic nowadays) and I head over to the start line. Here I run into two other recurring Run Factory faces, Dan and Otter. This is the first ultra distance race for both of them so I remind them to ENJOY the experience, have fun, take a look around. They both look pumped. I’m excited for them and can’t wait to hear about their experiences once this is all done.
We cheer on our friends in the 50 miler coming through the 9 mile mark at the start/finish line before the race director corrals all the 50k runners and tells us to get on our marks… set…
Miles 1-13, Out to Horseriders and Back
Here we go! The start line energy is high as I take off, trying to remind myself that ultras require pacing. Hell, all races require pacing! It’s just that the longer the distance, the less I tend to adhere to that important nugget of truth. Take it easy, Jeff, take it easy, I tell myself. We got a long way to go.
But, as we start to cruise the luscious single track, it isn’t long before we hit the first series of downhills and I… Simply. Can’t. Help myself.
I feel great. I feel strong. I feel like flying.
Yep. I’m doing this. I shouldn’t be, but I am. I am definitely FLYING down these hills. I’m power hiking up them, but I am flying down. Fast. Too fast. I know this. I know this! But I’m also loving every second of it and am willing to deal with the repercussions later, if they come (they do).
As I pump my arms, tilt my pelvis forward and allow my heels to kick me in the butt on the descent, I think of all the reasons why I should check my ambition right now:
- Limited weekly mileage (no more than 35 per week) since January
- This first 13 mile section is all rocks and roots, quite technical and hard on my unseasoned feet compared to the easier Nordic sections coming up
- I’ve run on trails just ONCE since November and it was only for 25k
- I have only run more than 20 miles in one shot ONE TIME since October and that was at the Boston Marathon, just a few weeks ago
- I have too much energy exploding through my being unchecked for this to end well
I internalize all of the above, and then, like a lot of ultra freaks, I quickly disregard everything and decide to just have fun.
I’ll fly when I wanna fly, walk when I wanna walk.
Later I will also walk when I don’t want to walk, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Right now I’m four miles in and the field has finally spread out. I’m marveling at the lush green landscape, the twisting turns of the trail and the pesky pricks of the rocks under my feet. Every two seconds I also check for ticks. Damn you, lucid dream inspiring Sperino’s waitress!
Suddenly, two strong fellas are right on my tail, so much so that I look back and offer them open passage on my left.
No, we’re good, the one in front replies. This is a good pace for us.
Cool, I reply. I like to let ‘er rip on the downs. I’ll be power hiking the ups.
They fall right into place and suddenly we are one. Down, down, down. Up, up, up. Their names are Tim and Mike. This is their first ultra. They are having a blast.
And they are pretty darn quick too. Turns out one of them (sorry, I can’t remember which because they’re both behind me while we talk) is a Nike Pace Team leader who led the 3:25 pace group at the 2012 Chicago Marathon.
Do you know Chris? He was my pace leader for the 3:05 group, had a California-bro accent of sorts.
Yes, I know Chris.
Boom. We are all instantly connected. That was the best run of my life so far and I spend the next couple of miles rehashing the experience. I get all jazzed, talking about fast marathons. I seem to forget about pacing all together. And when I find out they know another friend of mine, John from Grayslake, another Nike Pace Team leader, I get all bubbly telling them about some of our prior ultra battles (ED50k and Howl most notably).
Before I know it we are seeing the 50k leaders coming back towards us, approximately half a mile from the turnaround at Horseriders. We all marvel at their speed, speak fondly of their poise.
It’s one thing to run fast. It’s another to run fast on elevating, technical terrain.
We get to Horseriders. It’s just the three of us and the aid station crew. We chow down on some peanut butter and jelly. A minute or two goes by and we are just eating and stretching, drinking and breathing. But standing around too long in this chill is not comfortable so it’s time to go. After all, it’s barely 50 degrees and the sky is cloudy — very, very cloudy.
The three of us take off back into the woods, but we aren’t a half mile back in before I realize they are going way faster than me up the hills and there’s no way I can keep up. I tip my cap and wish them the best. It’s going to be a long day yet.
Still, the next several miles present A LOT of smiles because I get to see all my friends passing the other direction. As I scream down the hills I high-five and fist bump lots of folks, Dan and Otter included. Everyone is looking good. Everyone is smiling.
There’s no place I’d rather be right now. THIS is the life!
I’m past 1o miles now and I won’t be seeing anyone else on this out-and-back section. The next sign of human life will be at the start/finish line.
Hmm… I wonder if they have Oreos. I could really go for some Oreos right now.
And just like that, my OCD kicks in and all I can think about are OREOS OREOS OREOS. Such are the strange fixations of an ultra-distance race. In my every day life I wouldn’t touch an Oreo cookie. A drop of soda does not touch my mouth. I make it a point to eat clean — very, very clean. But throw me on a beautiful, wooded trail for hours on end and suddenly I will devour all processed foods and binge on soda pop. Like a boss.
I get to the start/finish. They have Oreos.
Miles 13-22, 1st Nordic Loop
It was nice to see some people at the start/finish line but I got a lot of work to do yet so off I go, back into solitary run mode.
Just a couple of miles in and I realize how much easier the Nordic loop is compared to the one I just finished. Instead of technical, rocky, rooted, up and down terrain, what we have here is a lot of flat, grassy ski trail. I should be able to fly through this.
SHOULD. Of course, I can’t right now because I beat myself up during the first 13, flying downhill like I was a mountain goat or Killian Jornet. Clearly, I am neither, as my quads and now achy heels can attest.
I am 16 miles in and anxiously looking for some hills.
Where are the hills? My legs hurt and I want to walk. Can I have a hill please?
No one can hear me. I’m all by myself. I have been all by myself since mile 8 so if I stop and walk, surely no one will see me.
A little bit of walking is allowed. Right?
I turn the corner and I see a HILL! I sprint towards it — OUCH — get to the base, and power hike up that baby.
For no good reason at all, Mozart’s Requiem pops into my head. Lux Aeterna, the last movement where Wolfy takes us from the world of the living to the world of the dead, blasts through my ears.
Why, brain? What are you trying to tell me?
Oh boy. I am tired.
While the IT band is just fine, my right hip starts to ache. I’ve had this ache before. It feels like bursitis. I stop and stretch. I massage it with my right thumb. Doing so makes it feel better. But as I stretch I notice the bottoms of my feet are sore too, probably from all the pounding during the first loop. I wiggle my toes around… and yep, just as I thought, definitely got some nails loose.
Oh well! What’s an ultra without losing some toenails?!?
REQUIEM, sings the choir.
Hey, finally some company, says a voice behind me.
I turn around and amazingly enough there is another human being! I find out his name is Matt. He’s from Wauwatosa and, of course, we know a lot of the same people from the running community.
As we marvel at how small the world really is, we also relax a little bit and find a nice cruising pace. We are about 18 miles in now and I’m feeling pretty beat up. Instead of complaining, I just hitch on to his heels and let the friendly conversation take us along.
Unfortunately for me though, Matt is much stronger right now and I have to dial back. I know we are on sub-5 hour pace (which, for this course, is a fantastic time), but I just can’t sustain that right now. I’m too tired. When I stop to walk the hills it’s taking a lot more concentration than it should to contract my quads and I know it’s because I went out too fast. I knew slogging along the second half could be the result of my eager start, but it’s way too late now.
A slog it is! Might as well enjoy it.
I complete the first Nordic loop, reach the start/finish aid station and all I want is Oreos. Duh.
Nom nom nom…
Miles 22-31, 2nd Nordic Loop
Just 9 miles to go, I tell myself. You could walk 9 miles. In your sleep. Speaking of sleep, check for ticks!
No ticks, but my armpits are kinda chafed.
Oh what I would give for some Vaseline right now.
And just like that, as if Mother Nature confused “Vaseline” for “sunlight”, the clouds in the sky part on cue, revealing a glorious, GLORIOUS sun.
Take that, Mozart! HALLELUJAH!
Sunlight, Vaseline, whatevs. The sun is out! The sun is out I tell you!
This picks me up as I try my best to run the entire first stretch of my second Nordic loop. But the truth is, my run is more of a shuffle than anything right now.
Doesn’t matter. Still moving. Still having a blast. And if I just keep moving, there will be more… Oreos!!!
Still, there isn’t much company. There is a tall, skinny white guy with a Prefontaine mustache out here every once in a while cheering for me (and others I would assume). Each time I see him I light up with a smile, and try to look as if I’m running strong (even though I’m not).
Next year we’re taking the first loop easy, then flying on the second and third.
Next year? I ask myself.
Yes, of course, next year, I reply to myself. You’re doing Boston again next year, then you’re doing this 50k again. It will be deja vu all over again, except less aches and pains. Probably.
Deal. Just make sure there are plenty of Oreos.
The 27.2 mile aid station is an absolute oasis in the forest. I devour what I can of those tasty, chocolatey, cream-filled treats. I stretch a little. And like I often do during long distance races, I find myself in a poignantly emotional state. I take the time to thank the volunteers and gush about how grateful I am that they are all there. I’ve been on both sides of the table now and volunteering is often harder than running the race. Even though my butt hurts, my hip aches and my feet are sore, I am much happier to be less than 5 miles from being done. These guys are still going to be here a while.
With the volunteers’ blessing and the bright sun in the sky urging me on, I take off on the last leg of my journey. To get me to keep moving I focus on landmarks up ahead, urging myself to just run to that tree, then walk for a few seconds and get around that bend, then stretch for a bit.
After several exhausting rounds of this tortuously fun process, I see the Prefontaine ‘stache guy one last time and he tells me I’m less than a mile from the finish.
Please tell me there is beer, I plead.
Hell yeah, man! Lots of beer! Good beer too!
That’s all I needed to hear. Suddenly my legs are fine and I’m flying again.
I hear a cow bell. And voices. And more Requiem.
There’s the finish line.
With a confident and incessant arm pump I cross the finish line in 5 hours 22 minutes and 11 seconds, sporting a big-ass smile and chafey armpits.
I couldn’t be much happier.
Besides the glorious trail running experience, the other main reason to run Ice Age is for the post-race party. Lots of free beer. The food is good. And there’s nothing like sitting at the finish line cheering on your friends. Most of my pals were running the 50 mile race, so to see them all come through in such epic fashion was a real cherry on top of my day.
Plus, my friend Moffat and I got the McHenry County Ultrarunning Dude and Dudettes’ mascot super drunk:
Like I already told myself:
See ya again next year, Ice Age!
Then I became a runner.
Nowadays, mud spattered tights and mucus crusted gloves are as common for me as bloody nipples and permastink-laden technical tees.
Meh, so what. As long as I’m having fun, right?
And boy did I have some fun on Saturday, March 16, 2013 whilst gliding, sliding, hurdling and traversing the ever treacherous and never clean Paleozoic Trail Runs 25K race course at the nearby forest preserve of Palos Heights. For me, the fun began before the race even started because I was at an event where I knew A TON OF PEOPLE! Having been a part of the trail and ultrarunning community for a couple of years now, I really feel like a part of the family. And that’s what the local New Leaf Ultra Runs group is to me: family. We run together, we get dirty together, we laugh together. That many smiling faces, firm handshakes and strong fist bumps is enough to make one’s day. Running the race was just extra.
And, to be honest, it was a bit confusing as well, but there were many reasons for this. As an inaugural event, I expected some obstacles outside of those offered by the freeze-to-thaw-to-freeze-back-to-thaw terrain. There was some uncertainty about course markings (weather washed a lot of them away). One of the aid stations wasn’t there when I got to it. I had a guy running a few inches off my heels for three quarters of the race. And I was trying to take it easy because a few days prior I aggravated my right ITB running intervals.
But I had a fantastic time in the cold, soupy weather, surrounded by good friends and warm community. I’m going to skip my regular play-by-play reporting of this race because all of the confusion caused by my missing a turn, adding mileage where it shouldn’t have been and then stopping to scratch my head a few times sort of took me out of my normal thinking patterns and now when I think back to the race all I can remember is putting one foot forward through muddy muck with a great big I-don’t-know-where-the-heck-I-am-going smile on my face.
When I finished, my Garmin read 1:55:47, but only 14.29 miles, a bit short of the stated 25K (15.5 miles). Upon further review, I missed a section near Bull Frog Lake but added some mileage on the east loop. All in all, I was still tired when I finished and I crossed the line with a healthy ITB/knee.
And oh yeah, this time I beat Peter Sagal (maybe? I dunno, after my misguided route maybe I didn’t). Still, I enjoyed chatting with him this go around, as he was quite lost too. In fact, I think everyone was lost at one point or another.
But I will be back next year. No doubt about it.
Meanwhile, Boston is just four weeks away…
Goodbye, dear 2012, and thanks for the memories. From a running standpoint, 2012 will go down as the year I upped my game beyond what I ever thought was possible. And I have the jawbreaking ear-to-ear smile to prove it.
I raced two major marathons and PR’d them both (Houston in January and Chicago in October). The Chicago race served as my very first Boston Qualifier — a feat that leaves me eternally proud and acutely focused.
In May, I finished my very first 50 mile race at the Ice Age 50 and followed that up in August by logging 50.85 miles during the Howl at the Moon 8 Hour Run. In the latter race, I also tasted another top ten finish (8th Overall), to go along with those achieved at Clinton Lake (8th Overall) and the Earth Day 50K (1st in Age Division, 4th Overall).
I also ran a few short races, completing my third Chinatown 5K (the race that started it all), while also logging a then PR in the half marathon at Batavia and a respectable time in my first short-distance trail event.
Plus, I got to spend a lot of time with my dear friends from the New Leaf Ultra Runs club, including two unforgettable 100 mile Supergirl pacing experiences (Mohican 100 and Hallucination 100), an inspiring Run Across Illinois and the most liberating impromptu adventure run I have yet to have.
No doubt, 2012 was something to remember.
It was also something to learn from, as the continuous pushing of my body without adequate rest eventually led to an IT band injury and a sincere reevaluation of my training techniques. But I am happy to report that after 6 weeks off and a highly focused physical therapy regimen, I have begun to run again pain-free and feel confident that I will be able to put forth 100% effort in training for my next major event, the Boston Marathon.
Indeed, a sub-3 hour attempt at Houston in two weeks will not be possible. However, I was able to transfer my registration down to the half marathon, which I will use as a barometer for my current fitness, the base from which I will begin Boston training in earnest.
And while I do have a couple of 50Ks and perhaps one 50 miler on the schedule for 2013, my main focus will be on the marathon distance and breaking that 3 hour mark. I am obsessed (in the very best way possible) with seeing my name followed by a 2-something marathon time. I will do it, by golly.
I will run 26.2 miles in less than 3 hours.
And when I do, I’m having a big party. You’re all invited.
Peace, love and all the running happiness in the world!
Automysophobia. The fear of getting dirty. For most of my adult life I have suffered from this irrational phobia and though I cannot pinpoint the exact reason, I am quite sure that it stemmed from my struggles with obsessive compulsive disorder that strangled me during my college years.
But then I became a runner.
Running has taught me so much. It has taught me how to set goals, then work hard to achieve them. It has taught me to be mindful, to be present and in the moment. It has taught me to be compassionate, to be receptive, to be the best version of me I can possibly be.
And it has also taught me to just go with it sometimes.
So when my second leg of the Dances with Dirt 100K Extreme Relay in Hell, Michigan had me face a nasty series of mud bogs the consistency of blackstrap molasses, I tightened the string on my shorts and just jumped right in.
Waist high muck intent on sucking the shoes right off my feet was no match for my running induced love affair with nature. Getting dirty has never been so fun! In fact, the whole time I was wading through the mud, I couldn’t help but think about how alive I felt, about how much I enjoy being out in nature, truly experiencing everything she has to offer.
Surely, the smile on my face while trudging through swamp was disconcerting to those fellow runners around me who looked… um… uncomfortable. And awkward. And pissy.
Such feelings are not for me. As long as I’m able to run, I’m going to embrace it. And though my adventures might sometimes lead me down dirty, difficult, uncomfortable paths, I will always take the feeling of being alive over being reserved and unaware of my ultimate potential.
- – -
If you’re looking for a fantastic way to spend a whole day with your running buddies on awesome trails, consider participating in one of the Dances with Dirt 100K Extreme relays. It’s such a fun day. The teams really go all out with their costumes and totems and team names. And the organizers do a great job of making it a fun-first event.
My running resume got a big boost of BOOYAH this weekend as I had the pleasure of pacing Anastasia Andrychowski “Supergirl” Rolek to her EPIC overall female VICTORY at Run Woodstock’s Hallucination 100 Mile Race in Hell, Michigan. Already known as 100 pounds of pure inspiration, Supergirl not only completed the Midwest Grand Slam of Ultrarunning, but she did it with a new personal best of 21:46 while taking home the female victory, finishing sixth overall!
My part in getting her to the finish line started on Friday night at 10:23 p.m. and lasted for 7 hours 26 minutes and 32 miles, ending at 5:49 a.m. on Saturday. Those 32 miles were some of the toughest 32 miles I’ve ever faced, and unlike most of my race reports, I’m finding it very difficult to describe the specific action, thoughts and struggles that took place in that particular block of time.
The main obstacle? RAIN. Like, a LOT of rain. A constant, unforgiving downpour of cold, pounding rain. From the time I picked her up for her third 16.4 mile loop on Friday night, all the way until I let her go Saturday morning: RAIN RAIN RAIN. This continuous onslaught from mother nature not only made the trail a dangerous slip-n-slide-shoe-sucking-mudfest, but it also had the potential to drain all positive energy that lay in its path.
But not Supergirl. Hell no. Supergirl was upbeat, fast and full of life! All I had to do was put my head down and keep up.
We fought right through the muck. We put the hammer down on the paved straightaways. And while the majority of runners moved slowly through the night, shoulders slouched and spirits broken from the relentless water torture thrown down from above, Supergirl and I found a high, sustainable gear that suited her indomitable will and unbreakable spirit.
SMACK! BAM! ZOOM!
I wish that I could provide a detailed, minute-by-minute race description of this experience; but honestly, because of the treacherous footing and the dark blanket of night, I never even saw the actual course. All I could see was the ground directly in front of me and an aid station every four miles that clued me in to where I might be at any given time.
It was such a running anomaly for me that I lost all sense of place, of movement. It was like running on a muddy, slippery treadmill in the dark while someone sprayed me with a never ending stream from a fire hose. I lost all track of time. Because of the slow numbing from the chilly rain, I couldn’t even tell if I was really tired or not. I just… was. In fact, that was the crux of this running experience: I felt so awake, so alive.
You know that feeling you get when you jump into a cold swimming pool? You know that bit of hesitation you feel right before barreling in? Then there’s that moment where you just do it and suddenly your body is saying “WOOOOOOAHHHH!” You’re extremely uncomfortable, but if you take the time to get passed the discomfort, you eventually find yourself really living life. You feel every single hair raise, feel every breath with an unprecedented alertness and purpose.
That’s what pacing Supergirl at Hallucination was like. I felt alive and well and motivated and present.
My entire world boiled down to one, single task: RUUUUUUUUUUUUN!!!
And I know that I was the “pacer”, that I was there to keep Supergirl on track. But let me tell you something: Supergirl doesn’t need anyone to keep her moving. She has all the determination in the world right there inside of her jubilant little self. If she wants something, she works hard to get it, and this weekend was no exception. She got it done. With style. And speed.
She could have moped through that awful, stormy mess. She could have taken her time at the aid stations, to warm up, to be comfortable. She could have complained about the conditions and decided today wasn’t the day for a personal best, that this race wasn’t the race to win. She could have done all of that and NO ONE would have had a bad word to say about it.
But no. She isn’t about that. She is about overcoming the odds. She is about ignoring the elements and pushing through the hard times knowing that something better waits on the other side.
Supergirl is simply super.
And now she is a CHAMPION as well.
*Also of note is the fact that my friend pictured above, Siamak Mostoufi, who has appeared on this blog several times already, ALSO kicked some major trail butt at Run Woodstock as he set a new personal best, won his age group and took home 4th place overall in the 50 mile race. What a great performance! Can someone say SUPERFRIENDS!?!?
When I close my eyes and venture back to the happy place of my youth, I am always outside. I’m exploring. I’m looking under rocks and following creeks and rallying my sisters to follow my lead.
Back then I knew, just as I know now, that there is something inherently special about doing something I’ve never done before. There’s something intoxicating about going someplace I’ve never been, about stepping out on that ledge to see the world from an entirely different point of view.
Running fits that natural call for adventure like no other activity, and the ultra distances set the stage for bigger, better and bolder treks. I’ve run miles and miles through enchanted forests. I’ve explored old farm roads, scaled mountainous switchbacks, cruised barren beaches and plucked through quiescent cityscapes. I’m a runner. I know no other purer form of joy.
And I like to cover distances on foot.
So on Friday, August 31st, at 1o p.m., I left my home on the south side of Chicago and ran. I ran with no other purpose but to explore, to have fun, to revel in the level of fitness I have that allows me to keep going and going and going. I ran north on Halsted, then east on Roosevelt. I shot up Michigan Avenue, taking in the lights, the sounds, the plumes of cigarette smoke from jetlagged tourists.
I turned left on Chicago Avenue, then right on Clark. I zoomed by Old Town, passed through Lincoln Park. I ran further north through Wrigleyville, marveling at the level of insecurity of the drunken hooligans giving me a hard time for my choice of activity for a Friday night. “It’s Friday night, dude, running is not necessary.”… “Run Forest Run!”… “What are you doing, dude? You’re crazy!”…
I just kept… running.
I ran by Wrigley Field, touched the Ernie Banks statue for good luck. I ran by my old house in Buena Park. The lights were off. Nobody home.
I passed the old Jewel I used to frequent, the liquor store where I used to buy my booze — both distant reminders that I didn’t always have super powers.
Heading west on Montrose I ran by the Brown Line station and the Starbucks and the Mexican restaurant where I tasted the best chorizo burrito I’ve ever had.
When I got to Lincoln I went back south. I looked at my watch. I picked up the pace.
At 1 a.m. I was to meet my friend, Siamak, just outside The Second City at North and Wells, so I sped up so I wouldn’t miss him. As I navigated my way through the pockets of drunken crowds along the way I noticed the stillness in the air, that it hadn’t rained as previously forecasted, that the blue moon hanging high above was blanketed by a beautifully savage cloud system.
“Jeff!” yelled Siamak.
We were both right on time. Early, actually.
Giddy as only adults who aren’t afraid to unleash their inner exploratory children can be, we caught each other up. We explained to one another how we got where we were, what sights we’d seen, what cat-calls we’d received. And then we kept running.
With CVS, Starbucks and multiple Walgreens as our “aid stations”, we were never without fuel. We ran south down LaSalle, through the Gold Coast and by the Viagra Triangle. We stopped and salivated at the Rolls Royce dealership, imagining what we’d look like tooling around town in a chrome colored $400k power machine. I got a tour of Siamak’s personal architectural projects further dotting the downtown area and soon we found ourselves running through the Loop — a Chitown staple — at its quietest and spookiest of hours.
By the time the bars were letting out we were all the way back south, heading west on Roosevelt, then south on Halsted. We ran through UIC, glided through Pilsen, then took a left on Archer, following the Chicago Marathon course all the way into Chinatown. Even with all the lights off and no patrons to speak of, Chinatown’s smells (the good, the bad and the rancid) still permeated the summer air.
Making our way through old Chinatown, we followed Wentworth all the way to 35th, tagging our second baseball stadium of the journey. “Do you realize how much of the city we’ve covered tonight?” I asked Siamak, still unable to fully conceive the relative distance compiled in my now very tired, achy feet.
“Yeah, this is really the existential run,” he replied. “I love it. The run is whatever we want it to be.”
When we hit Halsted from 35th, we headed back north, passing my house. And even though it was right there, calling my name with a warm shower and soft bed, we kept going.
And going, and going, and going.
We crossed the Chicago River (for the fifth time) and soon found ourselves at Randolph, where we turned west to explore the stillness of endless restaurant supply chains. At Ogden, having just run by a brewery whose massive casks seemed to beg me to drink from them, Siamak showed me another architectural project of his and then somehow I was ranting about Michael Jordan.
At Grand we headed back east, moving slowly with short walk breaks interspersed to mix up the otherwise steady 10-minute-miling. By 4:30 a.m., we reached Grand and Wells, where we would separate for the last hour and a half — giving us each time to decompress, to go back and find ourselves through the grandness of our night. With 34 miles in the bank, we fist-bumped and went our separate ways.
I headed further east until I got to State Street, then went south. I played with my speed. Slowing down. Speeding up. Quicker turnover. Elongated strides.
I knew that if I could get to Roosevelt by 5 a.m., then I could hit the Lakefront Path at Museum Campus and end my night with a familiar 5-mile stretch that I could probably do in my sleep. I almost did do it in my sleep!
At 5 a.m. on the dot I was standing outside the Shedd Aquarium, trying not to yawn. I took some caffeinated GU and stopped to stretch. I said “hello” and “good morning” to the handful of runners and bikers out early to train, then I put my head down and trucked.
Of course, I made sure to stop outside Soldier Field, to pay homage to DA BEARS and revel in the reality that in one evening alone I visited Wrigley Field, Sox Park AND Soldier Field! Not only that, but as I continued south on the Lakefront Path, a hint of sun peeking up over the black horizon, I realized that in this one run alone I pieced together most of my favorite landmarks Chicago has to offer.
In one epic, adventurous evening, I experienced my city like I’ve never experienced it before.
I hit the homestretch of 31st street — head down, speeding west.
When I got a block from my house the clocked turned to 6 a.m. The Chinese ladies were in McGuane Park waving their flags in rhythm. The sky was a gentle blue.
42 miles were in my feet.
I did it. I lived the adventure.
And it was simply awesome.
As my summer of ultras continues, I find myself wearing a bigger and brighter grin. With inspiration being as bountiful as the sun, I shouldn’t be surprised that I found yet another motivating group of inspiring people doing extraordinary things for the betterment of the universe.
The particular corner of the universe I am most interested in is my home: the city of Chicago. And when I found out that, due to budgetary cuts and limited public resources, most of Chicago’s elementary schools do not have recess (YES, you read that sentence correctly), I found myself getting angry at the passiveness of my peers who deem activity to be of little importance to the development of our youth.
NO RECESS?!?! HUH!?!?!
But there is something I can do about it. Enter, Chicago Run and the Chicago area ultrarunning community. Chicago Run’s mission is to work with elementary schools implementing running programs for kids, getting them to embrace activity while preparing for 5Ks, 8Ks and even a virtual marathon where participants accumulate mileage through fitness breaks 3-5 times a week. Considering America’s childhood obesity problem — one that seems to be magnified in low-income urban areas such as inner city Chicago — this program couldn’t be more poignant.
To raise awareness for this program and to better fight the battle against childhood obesity, eight inspiring individuals have decided to run across Illinois. I have signed up to help. In fact, a growing number of runners has stepped up to aid in this thrilling project where on Friday, August 17, 2012, those eight rock stars will depart the Mississippi River at East Dubuque, running along the Illinois/Wisconsin border for ONE HUNDRED AND SIXTY-FIVE MILES, all the way east to Lake Michigan. While my legs are not yet seasoned for the 165-mile journey, I am thrilled to be participating as crew and pacer.
To make it even more special, the running team (lovingly named “TEAM LOL”) has allowed me access to document the entire three-day adventure in written form. However that may develop — be it as multiple blog entries, a magazine article, a full length book — it is my hope and desire that I can put together something of real interest, something that could affect the lives of others in a positive way for years to come.
Check back for more updates, and in the meantime, feel free to participate in the cause by donating to our mission with Chicago Run. Our donations page can be found *HERE* and I guarantee you a small donation will be waaaaay simpler (and cleaner!) than packing up multiple vans to follow eight runners across 165 miles of searing Illinois pavement. Scott, Chuck, Kathy, Brian, Juan, Tony, Kamil and Mike, as well as the multiple crew and pacing teams and Chicago Run, will all be humbled by your generosity.
Making a difference isn’t easy, but it’s damn satisfying.
One of the myriad benefits of being involved with the ultrarunning community is that one never wants for inspiration. Everywhere I look there are fascinating individuals who run long for a variety of reasons, all of them willing and eager to share their stories, each one as special as they are profound.
So when my friend, Anastasia (from here often referred to by her popular nickname “Supergirl”), asked me if I would pace her at the Mohican Trail 100 Mile Trail Run in Loudonville, OH, I jumped at the opportunity. For the last several months, I have been eagerly awaiting a chance to pace someone in a hundo and this couldn’t have come at a better time.
Fresh off my first 50, well rested and eager to see a 100 miler up close, I cleared my weekend and got mentally prepared to be the best pacer I could possibly be. In preparation for the task, I asked around, picking the brains of my fellow ultrarunners (thanks Jennifer, Tony and Siamak!), trying to get a good idea of what would be expected of me and how I could best handle my duties. After all, Supergirl was going for her SECOND 100 mile finish in just TWO WEEKS, aiming to reach the halfway mark of completing the Midwest Grand Slam of Ultrarunning, a feat, which if accomplished, would solidify what most associated with her already know: that Supergirl is one ultrarunning badass! The pressure was on me to make sure she finished, so I did my homework.
My duties would basically come down to the following: safety, nutrition monitoring, time management and, of course, encouragement.
The Mohican Trail 100 consists of four loops of rugged, technical, monster up-and-down trail (two 26.7 mile loops followed by two 23.4 mile loops). Runners were allowed pacers after completing the first two loops, so while Supergirl tackled the first half of the race I merely served as crew. This required preparing drop bags, trouble shooting any problems she encountered, monitoring her checkpoint status online and being ready for her to arrive at the Start/Finish area upon completing each loop. Supergirl is an extremely calculated runner with a great inner-pacing system already. She said her plan was to complete her first loop in 7 hours and by golly she did just that. She said she would finish her second loop in 7 and a half hours, and whad’ya know, she did that too! After completing both loops I noticed her spirits were extremely high. Her face was lit with bounds of energy and despite having 53 miles in her legs, she was punchy as could be. After all, she was having fun!
Ready to tackle loop three, I geared up and joined her at 7:35 p.m., 14 hours and 35 minutes since she first began.
Heading out, my only concern was that she wasn’t really eating much. Sure she was getting down plenty of carbohydrates through liquids (Perpetuem, Gatorade, Mt. Dew, etc) but she was still having difficulty taking in solid foods. I took note of such and would encourage her to eat something (ANYTHING!) at each aid station along the way. This would prove to be a challenge as the aid station spread deteriorated throughout the evening and into the next day, but she did tell me, long before the race even started, that this was an ongoing issue she’d been dealing with in other 100 mile races and that as long as she was still feeling okay and able to drink, we would successfully fuel her run.
As we began I was happy to see she was the same Supergirl I’d come to recognize from our club events: full of life, full of energy! As is her tradition when tackling hundos, she wore her “Supergirl” outfit, which consisted of a red and blue ensemble accented by her trademark red tutu. I ran behind her at her pace and watched as the trail lit up every time we came in contact with other runners. “Party girl!” one woman yelled in jubilation. “Awww yeah! Here comes Supergirl” said another. Our encounters only solidified what I already knew: I like being around Supergirl and people like her because she LIVES LIFE. She doesn’t hold back. She celebrates the beauty of being alive by pushing herself to see what she’s capable of and her electric personality is contagious. Her mere presence was enough to lift the spirits of many along our way.
Close to 9 o’clock, the sun went down and the dark canopy of the Mohican forest faded to black. With our headlamps lit, I took over lead position, scouting the way to the cleanest line of trail (a trail that was nastily decorated with unforgiving rocks and roots throughout). At this point we transitioned to a fast hike. It was just too dangerous for us to run with limited visibility; plus it was her game plan from the beginning to fast-walk the night. The last thing she wanted to do was injure herself in the dark by being stupid when she had plenty of time to work with. The 100 mile cut-off was 32 hours and by her calculations a 31 hour finish was the goal. “The most important thing,” she reminded me, “is FINISHING.” So that’s what we focused on.
The main reason for having a pacer in the first place is to insure a runner’s safety. Fatigue is a nasty constant in any endurance event, and when a runner tackles the trail after nightfall, the danger zone increases tenfold. The Mohican Trail, unforgiving in its constant climbs, twisting switchbacks and rugged downs, was a serious injury just waiting to happen in the dark. Having some experience with night running already, I made sure to bring a second light, one that I would hold in my free hand to create shadows so that our depth perception would not suffer (with only a single head lamp, rocks and roots become 2D objects that become tripping machines and trail tattoo guns). Leading the way, I scoped out any would-be hazards and alerted her of their existence with a wiggle of a light. We had only a couple of close-calls, but no actual falls.
All through the night we soldiered up and down and through rough terrain. We met up with several other pairs along the way and engaged in one interesting conversation after another. We laughed, we told stories, we sang songs. We made fun of the shitty aid station food, drew inspiration from our fellow club-members and their memorable catchphrases (LET’S GO MACHINE, BABY!), and reveled in past running adventures.
At one point it became clear that Supergirl had developed some nasty blisters, on both feet, and we faced the decision of whether we were going to stop and fix them or not. I can fix blisters. I’ve been doing it to myself for a long time now, but I didn’t have all the necessary tools I would need to do a good job. From asking other runners, we found out that the aid stations weren’t exactly well equipped to fix them either, so she decided to just keep going rather than risk a bad tape job that could possibly cause more problems. This was against my better judgement but I could tell that with Supergirl, she needed to be in control, especially when it concerned her own body and capabilities. She knew better than anyone what she could tough out and what needed immediate attention. What she needed from me was positive reinforcement and calculated guidance. Using this strategy, and making a point to approach every suggestion with a jolt of positivity, I was able to get her to start eating (chips, noodles, licorice and even the occasional gel). Sure her feet hurt. She was running 100 miles. OF COURSE HER FEET HURT. This wasn’t her first hundo. A few aggravating blisters weren’t going to hold her back.
But would they hold me back? Little did she know, all the walking (something I was simply not accustomed to) combined with the gnarly trail surface caused my feet to swell and throb and ache and burn. The last thing she needed was a whiny, wimpy pacer holding her back, so I picked my spots, telling her to go on ahead so I could fix my own issues (ball chafing, ass chafing, blistery feet among them) without her having to see or hear any of it. I likened this process to my old tripping/partying days from way back, when only positive thoughts were allowed. NO NEGATIVITY. I ate and drank appropriately, making sure I was hydrated and fueled enough to make smart decisions.
As the night dragged on, we began to tire. Eventually I had to slow my leading pace. And the 2 o’clock hour brought a sudden lag in mood and energy. I looked behind me to see once happy-go-lucky Supergirl had her head down, stumbling along the trail, sighing deeply every now and then.
“You feeling okay?” I would ask.
“Eh.” She would whimper.
I knew that was going to happen eventually, that at some point the long effort would team up with the darkness of night, bringing her spirits down. Hell, she’d been awake for nearly 24 hours already, of course she was going to experience some down time. We finished loop three in about 8 hours — the absolute longest, most ache-inducing 23.7 miles I’ve ever traversed.
But she didn’t dally at the aid station. She got in. Ate. Refilled her bottle and got out. I told her to go ahead, that I’d catch up. I had to really examine my feet and see if I could fix them. Quickly. Both forefeet were throbbing with firey pain, but I didn’t find any actual bubbly blisters. I changed my socks, massaged my feet rigorously, then ran to catch up.
When I finally found her on the trail, about a mile away, she was a zombie.
“Anastasia, you feel okay?”
Head down, shoulders sunk, she sniffled. “No” she cried. She took a deep, deep breath and said something that nearly broke my heart: “I don’t want to be here anymore.”
These were not the words I was expecting to hear, but here they were. Thumping me in the face. I felt my stomach drop.
“Everything hurts,” she said, “my feet…”
“I know, I know. You’ve been out here for over 75 miles already, of course everything hurts. You know this. And you’ve conquered worse before. But you’re Supergirl.” (She had conquered worse, just 12 days earlier at the Kettle Moraine 100 Miler, but that’s another story.)
“Anastasia, you told me I can’t let you quit unless you are seriously injured. Now, are your feet problems a serious injury? Is this something you really want to q–”
Before I could get out that awfully dreaded word, she cut me off, “Just, just, let me… sit down for a second.”
“Do you think that’s really a good idea?” Earlier we had discussed that common ultra running mantra “beware the chair”, because once you sit your tired ass down it’s gonna be REALLY hard to get your tired ass back up.
“It’s okay, this isn’t a chair… it’s just a rock.” She sat down on a big boulder. I took the opportunity to squat-stretch my hams and quads. She closed her eyes for 30 seconds, then stood up.
“Okay, I’m better now.” Except, now she was leaning against me, eyes open, but glassy, far off somewhere.
“You know, it’s 3:40 in the morning now. In just a little while, the sun is going to come up and everything is going to be beautiful again. The birds will start to talk to us, the forest will come to life. Everything will be okay.” (Long pause)
“Anastasia, are you awake?”
She snapped to. “I am now. I was just sleeping with my eyes open for a second. (sigh) Let’s go. I’m better now.”
And that was it. We took off back down the trail. She was all better. She had her deep, dark moment of despair, and now she was party rockin’ again. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.
What a tough, strong, inspiring woman. Wow. Just… wow.
We moved down trail and as the 4 o’clock hour approached we switched positions, with her in the lead. I followed and within a half hour or so I started to get noddy. I took some caffeine and desperately waited for it to kick in because I was having a very difficult time keeping my eyes open.
We reached an aid station, I slammed some Coke, got Supergirl to drink some chicken broth (against her wishes) and we were back on our way. A quarter mile outside the aid station I let out a belch so loud I’m sure it was heard back home, which got Supergirl to do something she hadn’t done for a couple hours: LAUGH!
And with that laugh, the first inklings of sunlight poked through the thick canopy. “Do you see that?” she asked. “It’s… the sun!!!”
“I know! I know!” I replied. No wonder so many cultures are based on worshiping the sun. “I love the sun!”
Soon, the birds were chirping like mad, rays of light shone through the tree tops, and suddenly, out of nowhere, Supergirl just took off.
She… was… RUNNING!!!
I followed, happy to be moving quickly again, and watched with delight as we were greeted with enthusiastic and encouraging smiles from runners along the way. “Looks like someone got her second wind!” someone said. “Party rockers are rockin’ again!” said another. It was no secret. Supergirl was back.
It started to rain, but it was a slight, cool, refreshing rain. We scooted along, taking walk breaks on the tough inclines, traversing the rocky downs gingerly yet efficiently. My feet were killing me, so I knew hers had to be even worse, but you wouldn’t know it from looking at her. She just powered away. Strong and deliberate. It was when we overtook a brawny pair of dudes on a steep incline when I realized just how badass Supergirl was.
These guys were strong, sculpted muscle machines. And here comes 5-foot nothing, 100-pound Supergirl leaving them in her dust. I looked back and caught their exasperated looks. I had to stop and marvel at her badassery myself. Indeed, this is one tough chick.
The rain stopped and before I knew it, we were in single digit mileage. There’s really no way to describe the feeling associated with asking an aid-station captain “What mile marker is this?” and hearing him say “94.4.” How does one react to that? He or she just smiles and picks up the pace. And that’s exactly what we did.
A mile or so out and we were off the trail, on a long dirt road climb. I made sure to look at her face, to study the emotions coming through her expressions. There was only one: DETERMINATION.
No smiles at this point. Just concentration, will and desire. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a person so focused. She was in the proverbial zone. And why wouldn’t she be? The girl had just run 99 miles, with only one more to go, on her way to completing her second 100 mile race in two weeks and her third in six months. I was witnessing a true ultrarunning rock star work!
So when we came down the big hill that dumps on to the home stretch, I fell back and off to the side, making sure to give her the spotlight. And boy did she shine. A race favorite of volunteers and fellow runners alike, Supergirl did not disappoint. Her face lit up with a victorious sheen, arms raised high above her head symbolizing her warrior like conquering of one of the toughest race courses I’ve seen.
As she crossed the finish line in 30 hours, 13 minutes, the crowd roared in her accomplishment. And I couldn’t have been more proud.
Last weekend I spent some time with my grandmother, who lives in a small town surrounded by rural country roads, farmhouses and cornfields galore. Between puzzling (that would be the verb for putting together frustratingly enormous puzzles), eating home cooked comfort food and visiting the graves of many of my deceased relatives, I had a fantastic time.
And wouldn’t you know it, I even made sure I got in a nice, long run.
There I was, all alone on a seldom traveled country road, surrounded by nothing but blue sky, outrageously talkative orioles and corn when I realized:
I’ve been here before.
I’ve BEEN HERE. BEFORE.
About 20 years ago, on a summer afternoon at my grandma’s, inspired by my dad’s running adventures and a bit of boredom, I ventured out on a country road running long. I didn’t make it very far. A couple of miles or so, but I did it. And I remember feeling very proud of myself — that I took it upon myself to go for a “long” run, in the heat, all by myself.
The accomplishment, while pretty impressive (so I thought at the time) didn’t make the running habit stick back then; but here I am now, a self-confessed running fanatic with a knack for spreading the running love, still channeling the youthful ecstasy I discovered way back as a 13-year-old.
I guess I’ve always had it in me.
And that’s a powerful truth to discover.
This past week, for the first time in a year, I took some extended time off from running — six full days to be exact. I figured the best time to take such a break would be after a pretty hard effort, so after 50 radical miles on the Ice Age Trail, I let myself sleep in. Every day. I came home after work, and instead of grabbing my trainers, I grabbed the slippers.
I vegged out, basically.
I needed that.
With my body pretty well recovered by Wednesday, I started to get anxious. The fantastic weather we had all week didn’t help either. By Friday, I was dying to run, but I waited. I purposely waited.
Part of the reasoning for the week off was physical. Over the last 6 months I’ve battled one nagging injury after another — nothing serious enough to keep me from running, but enough to cause me discomfort at times. The only way to let all those things heal completely is to kick back.
The other reason behind it was that, for me, by the time I get to the end of a long training cycle, I begin to get burned out. When I’m hitting the snooze button too often, half-assing my strides and cutting my routes short, then I know I need some rest.
One of things I did with all my free time this week was sit at the top of Palmisano Park. With the park’s elevated views of the Chicago skyline, I find it a peaceful place to just sit and watch as life unravels in front of me. It’s a good spot for meditation, for flying a kite, people watching.
And the one thing I noticed over and over again while sitting up there is just how often children run. They run. A lot.
They’re playing! Kids play! When kids play, they run!
They don’t walk from point A to point B. They run! They don’t saunter down the hill. They run!
They aren’t worried about their form or their shoes or winning their age division. They just… do it. It’s such a natural movement this running. At its base, it is play. I realized the craving I began to harbor during my week of rest was this insatiable desire to GET OUTSIDE AND PLAY.
Only my playground is winding, forested singletrack. Or the Lake Shore path. Or anywhere I can run free and tune out the noise of everyday city life.
By the time I was able to get my first run in on Saturday, I could hardly contain myself. I was back doing what I love. Playing, without reservations.
The only thing left is to make sure I say “Weeeee!” as much as possible.
“Running is a vehicle for self-discovery.”
In May of 2009, I was a pack-and-a-half a day smoker who drank too much, ate like shit and never exercised. In May of 2010, I was logging 3-mile runs two or three times a week. In May of 2011, I was recovering from my first marathon.
And in May of 2012, I unleashed an ultrarunning, trail-diggin’, dirt lovin’ dragon.
Here is my story:
Race Morning, 3:30 a.m.
I’m up! Banana, granola bar, a big gooey blueberry muffin and a cup of coffee. Did I sleep last night? A little. Am I nervous? No! But I should be… right?
In a couple of hours I will begin the journey of completing my very first 50 mile race. With four road marathons and five trail 50Ks in my legs already, this is the trip that will really stretch my psyche. This is the one that I’ve been daydreaming about for well over a year.
I’m craving it. I’m expecting it. I can’t wait to test the body I’ve been steadily building for this exact day, May 12, 2012.
Dad doesn’t seem to hear the blaring alarm clock deafening my ears so I nudge him awake and then we both busy ourselves with prepping for a very long day. I’m really glad he’s here with me. He’s one of the main reasons I fell in love with running in the first place and he’s been with me at every step of my transformation. Despite the fact that he lives outside of Houston (which is pretty far from Chicago and the midwest) he was at my first 5K, my first half marathon, first marathon and first 50K!
Now he’s here for my first 50 miler, only instead of participating as runner or spectator, this time I’m puttin’ him to work as my crew. Last night we went over his duties and I’m pretty confident that he’ll be a big help to me throughout the day. This might be almost as epic for him as it will be for me.
I think that’s pretty cool.
Start Line, 5:30 a.m.
With so many of my New Leaf and M.U.D.D. friends also running in this race, I know the start and finish lines are gonna be buzzin’ with awesome-sauce. Every time I look around I see someone I know, which is just fantastic! With this kind of good company, it’s hard for me to give in to the normal anxieties and fears I usually have before a big race. My stomach’s not churning at all. I’m not shaking. Instead, I’m crackin’ jokes and shakin’ hands.
If I were all alone right now, surely I’d be worrying about the unknown, about the fact that I’ve never run more than 32 miles at any one time, or longer than 6 and a half hours — both tasks I’m going to have to deal with. But I’m not alone. I’m surrounded by a loving, joyous community.
And some kick-ass trail.
The temp is in the mid 50s. It will get up into the high 60s, but we’ll have cloud cover for most of the day and virtually no rain (some spits here and there).
The race director addresses all 360+ of us, then comes the National Anthem. I hug my dad goodbye and take my place at the start line. This is really happening now.
This is really, actually happening.
The first section of the race takes place on the Nordic Loop, which is a relatively wide and flat grassy section, ideal for speed. But this ain’t no speed contest. This is a long haul. And pacing will either save me, or destroy me.
My goal for today is to just finish the race, to enjoy the virginal voyage. After the last few trail races, where I’ve placed in the top 10, it is paramount that I stay humble and don’t get cocky. There are world class athletes here today with lots of experience and I need to just watch them blow by.
Racing a 50K is much different than racing a 50 miler. I think. Hell, I don’t even know how to race a 50 miler yet, because I’ve never done it! And my track record on first races at all the different distances is not very good.
Sure, I’ve finished them all, but in each case (my first half marathon, first marathon, first 50K) I went out WAAAY too fast and had to suffer through some gut-busting, painful miles at the end. I don’t want that to happen today.
So the plan is to run this first loop at a controlled 10-11 minute pace with my new friend, Geoff, whom I met at the Earth Day 50K. He and I finished a close 4th and 5th there and since our paces are about the same, we decided to run this first bit together.
I’m very glad we did, because the conversation with Geoff is making this early portion quite fun. As if the infinitely luscious green forest isn’t enough to make me smile, the chatter we have going makes it all the sweeter. We share our running backgrounds and talk race schedules. We wax on nutrition, training, and of course, beer (this will be an all-day theme actually). We also share the strategy of running the flats, walking the uphills, and running the downs. The Ice Age Trail is notorious for its incessant batch of rolling hills and having an attack plan could be key.
I’m carrying a 20 oz. handheld bottle and lots of GU stuffed in my short pockets. All is going well so we blow by the first aid station. In fact, the first 8 miles breeze by, but nature calls and I tell Geoff to head on while I make a quick stop to water the trees.
A few minutes later, I’m back on the trail, but the lot of racers has already spread out so much that I have little company. That’s to be expected in a trail race, so I embrace the alone time while I have it. As I come into the second aid station at mile 9, I see Dad waving his arms, yelling my name.
The temperature is rising, so I rip off my singlet, get a quick bottle refill and get back to work.
Cruising. Damn. I just feel… good. I’m not going too fast. Am I? No. I think. I don’t know.
Because it is so early still, I try not to think about what I’m doing too much. I mean, I don’t wanna stress myself out with math and splits and whatever else problem could come up. I’m pretty much just zooming along by myself here, enjoying the magnificent surroundings, eating a GU every half hour and taking a sip of my half-water-half-Gatorade mix every few minutes. It’s not really too warm, but it is a bit humid and when the sun does break out of the clouds it jumps up and smacks me in the face.
Of course, the actual trail does a good job of smacking me in the face as well. Literally. While it’s not uncommon for me to trip and do a face-plant during the latter stages of a race, this early section sees me fall *BOOM* not once but *BOOM* twice. Luckily, I’m alone and my embarrassment is limited to just me and Mother Nature, who graciously covers me with mud and dirt upon each trip.
After collecting myself, I reach one of the rare exposed sections of the course, close to a lake, and suddenly I’m choking on a swarm of bugs.
What the — … are these gnats or… midges or…. what the hell are these things?!?
Whatever they are, they swarm in bunches and attack from out of nowhere. While some of them kamikaze into my sweaty torso, the majority decide to invade my eyes, ears and mouth.
I look behind me and see another runner falling victim to the same insect army.
Disgusting, he says. He has a very pleasant sounding British accent, and he’s running faster than I am, so I move out of the way and let him lead.
His name is Mark. He’s from Evanston via Cambridge, England. I recognize him from some earlier banter, back when I was running with Geoff. We were talking about beer.
Though it’s quite early, we pick up our beer conversation in anticipation of the finish line refreshment and share some stories of races past. Along the way, we pick up another runner, one donning a Marathon Maniacs singlet, whom I sheepishly anoint as “Maniac”. Turns out his real name is Steve.
For the next 10-20 miles, I will spend a lot of time with Mark and Steve, ebbing and flowing according to the terrain.
Shortly after we depart the Highway 12 aid station at approximately 17.3 miles, I trip and fall AGAIN, this time breaking the strap on my water bottle.
I don’t have a backup strap either. Damn it! But… wait… I do have… duct tape! It’s in my gear bag that Dad is hauling around, and if anyone can create something functional out of duct tape, it’s my father. He’s been doing it my whole life.
I will see him in 5 miles or so. I can hold on to this thing the old fashioned way until then. I hope.
BOOM. I trip again. What the FUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUU!!!!
Pick up yer damn feet, Forest! I tell myself. I can’t go a week of running in my neighborhood without some jackass yelling Run, Forest, Run! at me through his car window, so when I do something stupid I like to call myself Forest. And today, Forest is falling all over his face.
BUT I’M STILL HAVING FUUUUUN! says Forest, er… I mean, me.
Here is where time sorta stops and I don’t know what’s happening where. I know that my right IT band is aching. And that has NEVER happened before. On the uphill power hikes, when I have a chance, I stop and knead my knuckles into the band as hard as I can. This relieves whatever pressure is building up, but my hand can’t keep up with the tightness and the lateral portion of my right knee begins to ache. I know this is not good but I ain’t stoppin’ so I’ll just deal with it later.
Luckily, there are a lot of out-and-back sections in this race so there is a constant flow of traffic coming from the other direction. At first it’s the leaders — whom I can’t help but stop and watch with complete awe. Such form! Such ease! And then I’m on the other side, high-fiving those who are behind me.
Perhaps this is why everyone says the Ice Age Trail 50 is so special. Hell, I know at least 50 people who are running this thing, and each time I see their smiling, suffering faces, I get a HUGE energy boost. Pushing my limits is fun enough on its own I guess, but when it involves the type of camaraderie and support inherent in the ultrarunning community, it’s just like a big old party. Instead of boozing, we’re running. That’s all.
I try to use that energy in hammering the downhills, but eventually, all that force causes my right knee to ache, so I begin to take it easy on the downs. This is probably a good thing, because now I’m starting to feel pretty tired. Not wasted, just tired, as expected. I look down at my watch to see 4 hours and 10 minutes have gone by and I’m only at 24.2 miles.
Can I sustain this pace for another marathon? Will my knee hold up? How many more times am I going to trip and fall? Can I even feel my right toe anymore?
Before I can answer these questions I’m at another aid station, instructing Dad to rig me a duct tape bottle handle — a task he gleefully accepts. I reload on GUs (even though I’m getting sick of them now), suck on some orange slices and I’m back on the trail.
Sticking with Mark and Steve, back and forth, all this time and finally I fall back. I’m starting to feel more and more gassed. The sun is busting out. Mark takes off, Steve is right behind him, but I gotta slow down for a minute.
Zone out. Just keep moving. Don’t think too much.
I get to the shoulder of Duffin Road, 30.2 miles in the bag, and I see Dad.
VAS! I yell.
What? he says.
VAS! I need VAS.
VASELINE, yells the crowd of other crew members, spectators and volunteers. In unison.
I didn’t realize it until just now but I need some lubrication down in the nether regions and this aid station couldn’t have come at a better time. In true trail runner form, I dip my hand in the jar, pull out of big glob and then immediately stick my hand down my shorts. Apparently, I don’t mind an audience.
I’m starting to get hot, I tell Dad. I don’t feel too good. He douses me with ice water, dumps ice cubes in my bottle — a bottle that NOW has a nice, new and STRONG duct tape strap, (good work, Dad!) — and asks if I need anything else.
Salt. I need salt.
He hurries to grab some salt tablets out of my bag and he kindly puts them in a plastic baggie for me to take. My old man has always been there for me, and I know he always has my back, but in this instance, watching him run around all over this forest preserve, jumping into quick action at my slightest command, to help me, is quite a comforting feeling. I know he’d like to be out there adventuring himself, and that crewing can be a drag sometimes, but more than anything, he is here for me. I am not alone.
He believes in me.
You’re doing great, Jeff. Keep going. Just keep going, he says.
I catch up to Steve again.
Mark took off, he says. Just flew. Had a lot of energy left.
Not me, man. I’m starting to feel tired, I admitted.
Steve and I share the trail. We talk about races we’ve run, races we want to run. We keep each other going.
I see a bunch of folks coming on from the opposite direction again and the salutations, while maybe a bit quieter than they were during the first half, still serve as pleasant boosts of mental energy. I say “mental”, because that’s what is taking over now. My mind has to control everything from here on out because my body is starting to revolt.
Eventually Steve starts to fade, but I keep trucking.
BOOM. I trip and fall. Again.
Fuck you, earth. Fuck you. Then I look and see that the duct tape water bottle strap did not break. Alas, duct tape is better than anything I could buy in a running store! I’m sorry, earth. I didn’t mean to say ‘fuck you’. I love you. Seriously. I really do.
I get back up. Keep on moving.
I’m still surrounded by lush, green canopy, but I hear traffic. And voices. And… a cowbell!
I come out of the forest and realize I am at Emma Carlin, aid station 10, and I’ve run 40.2 miles so far. Holy shit. 40.2 miles.
Dad is waving his arms, yelling my name, and with all these people watching me run in I suddenly feel the urge to pick up the pace and at least LOOK strong, even if I don’t feel it.
40 miles already, Jeff! Dang. Just think how much you’ve done. You’ve never gone that far before, says Dad.
I think I wanna be done now.
Nooo, you’re doing good. Just keep going.
Just keep going. Just keep moving. Just put one foot in front of the other.
What time is it? I ask.
One thirty, someone says.
I want it to be beer thirty, I say. Everyone within ear shot chuckles. I smile too. Dad tries to hand me GUs but I’ll puke if I eat another so I go for the orange slices instead. Also, some Coke, some water, some whatever… I don’t know, I’m tired and I’m pretty sure I smell worse than I ever have before and I’m globbing Vaseline all over my balls and I had some bugs for lunch and… wha… huh…
This is the last time I’ll see Dad before I make it to the finish line, so I give him a big hug and thank him for his help.
I honestly feel like shit right now. Just completely zapped of energy. I went too fast in the middle sections and now my unseasoned body is paying for it. But there’s a huge crowd here at Emma Carlin and I won’t be out of their sight as I run away for a good quarter mile so I’m gonna bust it outta here and will myself to finish strong.
Off I go… 10 minute pace, 9 minute pace, 8 minute pace! I look at my watch and see I can finish under 9 hours if I just stay strong and steady.
But where will the energy come from? I ask myself. Don’t worry, I answer myself. Just keep moving.
And then, SNAP, THWACK, BOOM.
I’m on the ground. Again. Face down.
I hear the Inception soundtrack as I look at the deceivingly beautiful rocks and roots responsible for slamming me to the ground. I roll over, slowly, and gaze up at the light peaking through the gargantuan canopy. I’m tired. I’m so, so tired.
SO WHAT. GET UP.
I’m achy. So, so achy.
SO WHAT. GET. UP.
I want to be in bed, under the covers, with the lights off.
I get up. I put one foot in front of the other. I tell myself I can walk all the hills, but I have to run — or at least try to run — the remaining flats and downs.
I reach an oasis at Horseriders, the 43.3 mile mark and I see some friendly faces (Brian, Kelly, Geoff and Paige). Their encouragement gives me an extra boost. But I got 6.7 miles to go and I think I wanna die so I’m not sure how much the boost will last.
As quickly as I was surrounded by a swarm of people, I’m just as quickly all by myself. I come to a series of big hills — DO THESE HILLS EVER FRIGGIN’ STOP??? — and before I can power hike (can we even call it that at this point? more like anti-power crawl) up the dang thing I actually have to come to a complete stop, take a few deep breaths, then psyche myself into moving further along.
People start to pass me. I’m wavin’ ‘em through. They’re saying “good work” and “dig deep” and “stay strong” but they’re all full of shit. I look terrible. I feel terrible. I’m slow and I’m basically crippled. I can’t feel my right big toe. My IT band and knee still ache but I can hardly tell because I’ve fallen so many times that all the scrapes and bruises are beginning to take precedent.
BUT I SIGNED UP FOR THIS.
A guy passes me, moving pretty swiftly. As he darts by I throw out an invisible lasso, hook him around the waist and let him pull me. My feet are moving along quite nicely (considering) for a good bit so the invisible lasso works. Eventually another dude flies by. I lasso him too and let him carry me for a few hundred yards until the invisible rope breaks, just as I break myself.
I hear Jimmy Buffett off in the distance. I lasso that motherfucker and let him bring me in. Maybe he has margaritas.
If he does, I don’t see them. I don’t ask either, for fear they might actually have them. The thought of putting anything in my mouth (liquid or otherwise) absolutely disgusts me at this point. I feel kind of sick. Dizzy. Am I gonna throw up? I try, but I can’t.
My only option is to just go finish this thing. At least I’m only 1.5 miles from the finish, right? Nope. Someone tells me I’m still 2.5 miles from the finish. Oh well. I don’t know what to believe anymore. All I believe is I’m broken.
I leave the aid station and find myself alone again. I’m shuffling now.
And then, I start to cry. Like a big baby.
I have no idea why. Maybe it’s because it has taken me about an hour to go these last 4 miles. Maybe it’s because my body aches and wants to sit in a pool. Maybe it’s because I’m just not as tough as I think I am.
NO, YOU DUMMY. IT’S BECAUSE YOU’RE PUSHING YOURSELF. YOU’RE BREAKING THROUGH. YOU’RE REALLY DOING THIS.
Really? I’m really doing this?
I’m really doing this!
I wipe the tears away, dust myself off and put one foot in front of the other as fast as I can.
- – -
Jeff!!! someone shouts from behind.
*CUE THE HALLELUJAH ANGEL CHOIR, BITCHES, CUZ I’M ABOUT TO GET ALL VERKLEMPT*
Behind me is my buddy, Siamak. He’s in my running club and we’ve spent most Wednesday nights since January running together. He looks strong. He looks fresh. And most importantly, he’s wearing a big old smile on his face.
Siamak, man… oh, god, I… I’m not doin’ so good… I…
Come on, bro, run it in with me. You got this. Let’s go in together.
I pick up the pace to match his, which is much faster than what I was going. I search my brain for something to say. I’m searching hard, but I have that Microsoft hourglass of death spinning relentlessly and I don’t know what to say. I felt so small just now, like a burned up piece of space junk ready to disintegrate into the atmosphere, and then Siamak came along and now… now everything is okay and I’m gonna finish this race and my dad’s gonna be there and all my friends and I’ve worked so hard and…
I’m crying again.
I’m sorry, man… I don’ know why… I don’t know why I’m so emotional right now.
Hey, it happens. To a lot of people.
I look at him and he’s all there. Has his wits. His legs. Dude, if you want to go ahead of me, don’t let me hold you back –
Nah, let’s do this together.
Time. There is no time. This moment, right now, even with these last few hills to climb and these last few meters to run, this moment, it will always live. It will always be.
Here on Saturday, May 12, 2012, I woke up with the goal of running 50 miles — FIFTY FRIGGIN’ MILES — and I sure as hell am about to reach that goal.
I made some mistakes. Yes. I fell flat on my face. I also marveled at nature’s endless beauty while getting to play in the most gorgeous of forests for hours on end. I had a ton of laughs, a bunch of real conversations with real, fascinating, INTERESTING people. And I had an endless amount of support, from my family, from my friends.
But right now, it’s just Siamak and I. And the finish line.
Smile, he says, you’ll feel better.
I do. He is right.
We end our journeys together. 9 hours, 38 minutes. I collapse into my Dad’s arms. I don’t know if I’ve ever felt happier.
Man, we had a blast. I had at least six beers, got to catch up with Steve and Mark. I talked to everyone who would talk to me. I cheered on all my other buddies coming through the finish line in style. It was such a fantastic day — a day that I will never forget, ever.
And, despite all the pain and suffering I experienced in the last 10 miles, my body is recovering nicely. I promised myself I would take a week off. But, once an ultrarunner, always an ultrarunner.
The next target race? The Howl at the Moon 8 Hour Ultra in August. It’s gonna be hot, humid and downright nasty as I try to run as many miles as I can in an 8-hour period on a 3.2 mile loop course.
The more I run, the harder I push and the further I go, I learn just what kind of man I really am. And I’ll tell ya what: I’m a damn happy one.
Since my last long training run nine days ago, I’ve really been taking it easy, which has made tapering for the Ice Age Trail 50… well, EASY!
Having made overtraining mistakes in the past that left me feeling as stupid as I was hobbled, I made it a point to stay focused this time.
The most important thing about last week was preventing a nagging/weakened plantaris from getting worse by… just chilling out. As hard as it was on my psyche, I only ran three times last week: 10 miles on Wednesday, 12 on Saturday and 4 on Sunday.
And today, as I try to juggle the constant, vivid daydreams about Saturday’s upcoming 50 mile adventure with the actual preparation (gear, nutrition, instructions for crew), my body is thanking me for all the rest. For the first time since Earth Day, my right leg feels pretty strong. The plantaris strain has healed enough so that it isn’t painful. There are still some occasional signs that it is weaker than my right, but such orthopedic mysteries seem to always pop up for me during race week.
What matters the most is I’m gonna be good to run on Saturday.
For a long ass time too.
Since this will be my first dance with the 50 mile distance, I’m going to be conservative. I don’t want to screw anything up. My goal is to finish. That’s it. I won’t be racing or killing myself to stay with the lead pack. Having never run more than 32 miles at one time, I will be entering the unknown for at least 2-3 hours at the end of the day, and I can’t tell you how excited I am about that.
Hell, I’m just excited about everything associated with this event! I’m ecstatic that this is all finally happening! Finally! The day I’ve been looking forward to for almost a year now is finally going to be here. And while the race week nerves try to flip my stomach, an actual flip through my training log reassures me that I already DID all the hard work necessary to finish this thing strong, to accomplish what I set out to do.
And isn’t that what all this crazy running is about? Isn’t it about accomplishment? Isn’t it about surprising yourself? Isn’t it about nature and about community and about love?
Hell yes it is.
I can’t wait to share my experience!
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.
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.
- – -
*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!
- – -
The post-race food and vibe was also pretty sweet. That homemade turkey chili… someone should get an award for that!
All this rugged trail running is making me tough and leathery. I feel stronger. Gettin’ dirty. But being so often bombarded by nature’s beauty is also leaving me emotionally vulnerable. It’s hard for me to not stop, to soak in my surroundings, to dissociate from time and to just be in the moment.
I think that’s a perfect mix of cojones and heart.
My running club organized a 50K (31 mile) fun run through Wisconsin’s southern unit of the Kettle Moraine forest yesterday. With the Ice Age Trail 50 Miler just 7 weeks away, I knew logging some long hours on the actual route I’ll be running during the race would be nothing but beneficial, so I took the whole day to really immerse myself in the trail.
Holy bejeebus. It’s as beautiful as it is tough.
The elevation gain from my forest adventure only totaled about 2,400 feet, but the constant up and down rolling nature of the moraines (a result of the last ice age glacier melts, thus the name) is so relentless that I never could find a consistent rhythm to my stride. Walk up hill a little, fly down hill a little, walk up hill a little, fly down, and so on. WHERE ARE THE FLATS?
I never found them, but I did find out that Wisconsin is home to one of the most luscious forests I’ve ever seen. It was like running on Endor! I kept anticipating an Ewok ambush or stumbling across one of the Empire’s hidden bases. Green, green, green!
And the sounds: loons, bullfrogs, crickets, swallows, robins, my tired footfalls.
There were several moments along the trail when I thought, Man this is hard! How am I ever going to run 50 miles on it if I’m struggling through 31? I had moments where I felt awful, but I also had moments where I felt euphoric, and the switch was made within minutes.
At one point I looked down to notice I’d “run” a 15 minute mile. That’s some real humbling shit right there, especially to a guy who touts himself as a regional class speedster. 15 minute mile!?! Good grief.
But I later realized, if having to suck up some slow miles is what it takes to become part of nature’s truest gifts, then I’m all for it. In the end, it took me 6 hours and 21 minutes to complete my 31 mile Kettle adventure. That’s the longest run I’ve ever logged to date. To put that time in perspective, my current 50K trail PR is 5:15, and I barely gave any effort in attaining that time, as it too was just a fun run.
Yet I can’t help but think 6 hours and 21 minutes still isn’t enough time to sufficiently gallivant through such luscious forest. It surely didn’t feel like I was out there that long. And despite the aches in my glutes and the pains in my quads, I didn’t want to escape the canopy. I wanted to stay in there as long as I could.
Time stops in there. And in a world where time is often my enemy, suddenly I don’t mind reevaluating my expectations.
The area around Malibu is home to some beautiful peaks. And though none of them would be considered overly “mountainous” to someone calling himself a mountain runner, the bottom of a 2,000 foot climb looks pretty damn mountainous to this flatlander. Hell, we Chicagoans run parking garage platforms and bridge spans to get in our hill work. Swallow Cliffs, part of the Palos Hills trail system outside the city, features the gnarliest hill we have around these parts: Big Bertha. And even with her, you gotta run up and down, up and down, over and over again to simulate even the slightest mountain route. And it still doesn’t simulate. Not well anyway. Honestly, there’s really no good way for flatlanders to practice running/power hiking/slogging up a mountain other than just running/power hiking/slogging up a mountain.
Thanks goodness for vacation!
While a great deal of my time was spent exploring Malibu Creek State Park, my first encounter with running closer to the sky actually came on the trails of the Zuma/Trancas Canyon. In order to maximize my time (remember, this was not a running trip, allegedly), I got up before dawn and started the four mile trek along the Pacific Coast Highway to reach the trail head. The weather called for sunny, clear skies and a high of 70 degrees. Holy hell I would be running in heaven and I didn’t even know it yet!
By the time I reached the trail head, the sun had risen, and I was totally aware of just how beautiful everything was around me. Before I started my climb up the Zuma Ridge Trail, I took in a deep breath, surveyed my surroundings and admired the silence. Believe me, no matter how many times I use the word “beautiful” to describe this adventure, it will never be accurate enough to relate what I saw.
Up, up, up!
After a quarter mile on the trail, ahead of me I saw the one (and only) person I would see out that day — an elderly lady, grandma-fit and truckin’ along — whom I apparently scared when I approached. Turns out power hiking up a hill makes for less foot noise. That and the fact that she was rockin’ an iPod are probably why she didn’t hear me coming until I was right next to her.
AH! she screamed. You scared me!
It’s okay. Just not used to seeing people out here this early. (Swigs her water bottle) You trying to scare away the mountain lions with that shirt?
I was wearing my SCREAMING fluorescent green St. Louis Marathon tech tee from 2011, mostly so I could be clearly seen by motorists while I ran along the PCH, but I didn’t feel like having a long conversation, so I smiled and just kept going past her. Before I got too far along, I couldn’t help but ask: Are there really mountain lions out here?
You bet! They’re all over the place! But don’t worry. They won’t like that shirt. Too bright!
She laughed. At my shirt? At the prospect of me getting eaten by a mountain lion? Too much coffee? Her shirt was white. Didn’t she want to scare the mountain lions? Where was her SCREAMING fluorescent green shirt?
I laughed back. Have a nice day! I told her as I dug deeper into the power hike.
I guess part of me knew beforehand that mountain running would require quite a bit of power hiking, but an hour of it? Two hours of it? I thought, gee, this isn’t really what I think of when I think of “running”. I wanna move! I tried running up the incline, even though I knew it was counterproductive. After 15 seconds I realized as much. But that didn’t stop me from trying it again. And again. And again.
I’m a stubborn dude sometimes.
Still, stubbornness is no match for nature. And every time I tried to do the impossible I was humbled back to the slow, slow, slow power hike.
It didn’t matter. The scenery… OH THE SCENERY! How can I even possibly describe it? First of all, it’s Malibu so, HELLO BEAUTY. Luscious, rolling green mountains with the ocean and the beach up against their side and multimillion dollar homes tucked neatly into pockets of pristine vegetation. The sea breezed air was refreshingly clean. The sky as blue as I’d ever seen.
I stopped. Often. Just to take it all in.
I’ve been sucker punched by beauty during long runs before, but never anything like this. I was so overwhelmed with love for nature and all that surrounded me that I broke down. I didn’t now what else to do or how to handle it. I was totally unprepared for such sensory overload, but I am so glad I got it anyway. A couple minutes of crying like a baby was all I needed to get my power hiking legs back on to go further up, up, up…
And then BOOM! A flat! And a downhill! Both of them brief, but utterly invigorating before… more power hiking. Up, up, up…
BEEP BEEP BEEP. My watch. Dammit. I knew what that meant. Time to turn around. I was, after all, in Malibu with other people and we had other things planned for the day. So after two hours of climbing, I knew it was time to turn it around, which meant….
With one of nature’s greatest gifts guiding me down the mountain, I thought here’s my chance to clock some 5:30 miles without feelin’ it. And I would be a total liar if I did not admit to screaming WEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!
all most of the way down.
It’s really difficult for me to think of something more fun than running downhill. It’s not even running really. It’s play. It’s fun!!! For a little while anyway. After 30 minutes of non-ntop flying on the decline, I realized it wasn’t always fun and my quads were not happy, nor would they be if I didn’t slow up and take it easy some.
The quads don’t know what to do going downhill. They’re doing the opposite of what they’re made to do (lift/extend the knee) and so they revolt by HURTING LIKE A BITCH. Like all the other pains, it’s just another truth about running — something that must be battled, defeated, pushed through.
Eventually it would go away.
I was celebrating that fact, and then before I knew it I was at the bottom of the canyon. Very, very sad.
Luckily for me, I had a nice (and flat!) four mile cool down jog along the beach and, literally, an ocean of cold water to soak my battered posts in. When I got back to the house, my friends were waiting for me. Smiles, all of ‘em.
How was it? they asked.
I tried to speak but as soon as I opened my mouth I realized there was nothing I could say that would do the experience justice. As I struggled to give an answer, a great, big boyish grin consumed my face. I shook my head and quickly brushed away the trickle forming in the corner of my left eye.
They knew. They all smiled and they all knew.
Running distances further than a marathon — in some cases, running distances A LOT further than a marathon — takes a certain type of character.
I believe that character is deep inside all of us, there for the unlocking. I didn’t know I had one, and WOULD HAVE LAUGHED if you said I had one, just a couple years ago. But now I am certain we all have it.
It just takes something to trigger it.
Like rage. Fear. A broken heart.
For me, it was all three. At once.
I had just caught the running bug and my destination was: THE MARATHON. I thought there was no finer achievement. So I dug right in.
At the time, I was dating a girl who I really dug. She was perfect. Maybe I was falling in love.
She was a runner too. She’d drawn me in to the sport actually. She was training for her first marathon as well and her target was Chicago 2010. I loved being with her for the build up and the excitement. And I started thinking about what it would be like to run further than a marathon. Is it possible? Do people hurt themselves trying? I was really clueless that an entire world of ultrarunners even existed.
And then I found Dean Karnazes’ book, Ultramarathon Man. I was fascinated. And determined I would test the waters. Some day. Soon.
The girl thought that running more than a marathon was dangerous. And stupid.
I didn’t say much. I put it in my brain’s back pocket and forgot about it.
But then, exactly one week before she was to run the Chicago Marathon, on a cold October morning, she broke up with me.
I went for a run. And on that run, I decided I was not only going to beat her marathon time (by a lot), but I was also going to tackle the ultra distances. 50 miles. 100 miles. 24 hour races. I’m doing that shit.
That was how my switch was flipped.
And now I’m doing that. I’m really doing it.
So much hurt has brought so much joy to my life. I find it astoundingly ironic.
And just perfect.
One of my sick fantasies is to run a 24-hour timed race… on a 400 meter track.
When I met Scott Jurek this past October, I was in complete awe of his description of the latter hours of a short looped 24-hour ultra, of how the mind is forced to go to unexplored places, and how self-discovery can be dug up from the deepest and darkest of holes.
The short looped course offers a different dimension of running than most conventional courses at long distance events. It’s not the scenic kind of race. It’s not the one you go out and enjoy with a buddy either. Instead, it’s the put-your-head-down-and-zen-out-til-you-know-what-it-means-to-BE-ALIVE kind of event. And I want as many of those as I can get.
Sometimes, to add variety to my training, I will do short loop long distance training runs to find that zone where my body and my mind become one powerfully synced moving machine. A 20-miler on a half mile loop around my house. 3 hours on the 400 meter dirt track at Palmisano Park. The same 3 mile out-and-back until I hit whatever number I want on that day.
The trick, for me, is to do these spontaneously, with gentle, easy effort. The idea is to just float along on the same invisible line, hitting every step exactly the same each time. When I’m really feeling it, I am able to hit near exact splits on every single loop, without even thinking about it.
That is some powerful mind-body connection right there. And I love experiencing it. But if I do it too much then it loses its allure, so I like to think of them as prized, perfect storm opportunities.
I always seem to know when it’s time for one of these. It’s like my body craves it. Like a drug.
One of the myriad benefits of long distance running is being treated to the wondrous and often times flabbergasted expressions of friends and family.
You did what this morning?
I ran 30 miles.
Because it’s fun.
You’re insane. Crazy. You ran 30 miles!?! Without being forced to? That’ s some real Superman shit right there.
Maybe it is!
Running any distance mark can be impressive. I’ve enjoyed the evolution of reactions I’ve received as I’ve transitioned from half marathons to marathons to ultramarathons. People really do think I have superhuman abilities, that what I do is simply not normal and shouldn’t be possible. But the truth is: anyone can run a marathon. Anyone can run an ultramarathon. It will take some time to lead up to such an achievement, but it’s certainly not as “insane” as folks make it out to be.
Desire. Discipline. A strong will.
And the courage to get out the door to say I’M DOING THIS.
That’s all that’s required.
Everyone has Superman power. It’ s just that most people aren’t willing to work to find it. Too lazy. Too comfortable. Too risk averse.
Living life like that, to me, is boring. Luckily, I found running before complete apathy found me; and the rewards from that discovery have been so rich and so fulfilling that I can’t ever imagine living without them again.
Confidence. Purpose. Strength.
I walk with my chest out, yes. But not in a douchey way. I just know that I’m capable of doing whatever I set my mind to, and that, in my opinion, is the only way to live.
Rest. Wow. What a concept.
After months and months of solid training. With a strong base. A calculated taper.
You go out and run the race of your life.
Then you get to rest.
I like to give myself 2 to 3 weeks of just playful recovery/rest. Go run when I feel like it. Don’t follow a plan. Leave the watch at home. I put on the shoes that look good at the time and go run wherever I feel drawn. Sometimes it’s just 5 miles around the neighborhood and sometimes it’s a nice, slow 6-hour adventure on single track.
You wanna veg out for three days and watch streaming epsiodes of Breaking Bad? Wanna stay up til midnight, Google surf and eat a bowl of cereal before you go to sleep? DO IT! You earned it!
And it feels awesome. Knowing that in a few weeks I’ll be back to the hard, disciplined grind of training for that target event makes the few weeks of active rest a damn fine prize. It refreshes me. Reminds me why I love to run. Makes me hunger and want it again.
I always do. I always want it again.
No matter how fanatical the runner, there are going to be days when getting out and logging the long miles seems to be a daunting and taxing task. Like today.
Having stayed out late (it was New Year’s after all), I didn’t roll out of bed until 11 a.m. — it happens like once a year, I swear — and a quick look out the window revealed a dreary, gray sky with trees bent sideways from 40 mph hour winds. Ugh. Not only that, but the temperature was 32 degrees, so the signature Chicago whirlwinds would only make it feel colder.
Did I mention I was out late?
Two weeks away from the Houston Marathon, I had to get out and get 16 miles on the books, no matter how shitty the weather. But it was going to take some creativity to make it fun. So I decided to make it… AN ADVENTURE RUN!
For me, the adventure run is a cure-all for the doldrums of routine. And it can be done anywhere: on trails, in the city, on a country road. The only requirement is that you open your mind.
Let go of split times. Forget that headwind. Embrace your chaffed nipples.
Just get out there and run!
When I decide to go on an adventure run, I disassociate myself from all the “business” of running. I leave the watch at home. I go only by feel. I run in whatever direction pulls me at any given time. I turn when I feel like turning and I stop if I feel like stopping. I allow curiosity and exploration to motivate my legs and forget about everything else.
Most of all, I connect with that innate love I have for just RUNNING. I focus on that childlike playfulness, to go out and discover new worlds, new people, new things.
And today was quite the adventure. Sure it was windy. And cold. And dreary. But I had the time of my life, discovering new neighborhoods I’d never seen before while running from Sox Park to Wrigley Field and all the way back, turning on whims and smelling all the proverbial roses I wanted, when I wanted.
Having done all that, I now have my feet kicked up with a smile on my face. I feel fresh. Recharged. Fulfilled.
I went on an adventure run today. And I had a helluva time.