November is my time to rest.
Of course, by “rest”, I don’t mean zero physical activity. I mean that, for me, November is a good time to rest from all heavy, goal-focused training.
It’s been almost three weeks since I ran the Chicago Marathon and I still haven’t returned to running. My Achilles heels are feeling WAY better and I intend to give them a little more time to heal fully before getting back to a regular pavement pounding routine.
This time off from running has allowed me to focus more on boxing again, so I’ve been spending lots of time on the stationary bike, beating the heavy bag and working with sparring partners. Not too long ago I was considering competing in the masters division for the Golden Gloves tournament this coming spring; but some unfinished business with the marathon and a sexy race in Boston have convinced me to put off those aspirations until 2015 and get back to the marathon training grind, starting this December. Until then, I’m looking forward to some fun, relaxed sweet science sessions padded by the occasional adventure run.
This weekend I’m putting the two passions together as I take in the Golovkin v. Stevens fight at Madison Square Garden, followed by spectating the New York City Marathon around mile 7 in Brooklyn on Sunday. Nothing gets me motivated like being in the presence of champions, and the streets of New York will be full of them on November 3rd.
The pugilistic metaphors runneth still.
BEHOLD! My all-time favorite round of boxing from my all-time favorite fight:
The moral of the story, of course, is: you can knock a guy down, (sometimes more than once, in the same round!), but you can’t take away his desire to keep moving forward, despite all odds against him — especially if he’s a stubborn bull like the late great Diego “Chico” Corrales.
I will certainly channel my inner Chico as I take to the streets running my hometown Chicago Marathon this coming Sunday, October 13. I may be screeching with each step; but I’m going to keep moving forward as long as I can, head down, arms pumping.
The truth is, my Achilles tendonitis, while a little bit better than what it was three weeks ago, is still keeping me from feeling my best. I haven’t been able to run much at all without stiffness and pain since late August, and I’ve resolved myself to just going out and having a good time Sunday. The main goal will be to simply revel in the greatness that is this world class event. I will look for my friends along the way, throw out lots of high fives and remember how good life has been (and continues to be) to me.
Right now my plan is to line up with the first 3:10 pace team. That even-split finish time calculates to a 7 minute 15 second mile for the duration — a much more accessible pace than the 6:50 mile I was training for (and hitting!) earlier this summer. Hopefully I can hang with the group up until 10k to go, then decide to either stay with them or take off on my own (heels allowing).
Of course, a very real possibility exists that even a 7:15 pace won’t be tolerated by my under-performing heels and now under-trained cardiovascular system. It’s quite possible that I’ll blow up or will have to dog it much earlier in the race. But just like Chico, as long as my legs still work and my heart still beats, nothing is going to keep me from crossing that finish line.
So as the city of Chicago buzzes with the excitement of marathon week and a hearty welcome towards enthusiastic athletes arriving from all across the world…
LET’S GET READY TO RUMBLE!!!
In the fall of 2011, while recovering in the back of an SUV from a particularly muddy climb up what the Michigan locals called “the stripper pole” section of trail, a teammate of mine from the Dances with Dirt 100k relay team mentioned a peculiar event that had just taken place: Run Woodstock.
“Wait,” I interrupted, “You’re saying that a bunch of people get together for three days to just camp, run crazy distances and hang out?”
“Yep. And there’s a ‘natural 5k’, don’t forget.”
“You mean, ‘natural’… as in, naked?”
“You got it.”
And I was. In 2012, I may not have run the natural 5k, but I did pace the women’s overall 100 mile champion to a 21 hour+ finish while spending the rest of the laid back weekend drinking beer and hanging out with awesome, like-minded folks.
A week after returning home, I circled the 2013 date on my calendar and encouraged my dad to come out from Houston to join in the adventure with me. With race options from the half marathon to a hundred miles and everything in between, I knew that a weekend in the woods with friends, family and a cooler of beer would be something I would look forward to all year.
I didn’t plan on toeing the line a bit hobbled — both by my heels and my low alcohol tolerance — but life throws us curveballs all the time. It’s how we swing at them that determines who we are.
Pre-Race, Saturday, September 7, 2013, 4:30 a.m.
*BEEP BEEP BEEP*
Oh… my… what the… who was… ah, shit.
I’m hung over.
Hung over! WHY!?!? WHY DID I DO THIS!?!? WHO IS RESPONSIBLE FOR THIS!?!?
Oh yeah, I am. I’m responsible. Well, shit.
Sure, it sounded good at the time. In fact, it sounded like a GREAT idea at the time:
Carbo load with beer! Why not? My heels and whatever Achilles-tendonitis-and-or-calcaneus-bursitis have limited my training to the point where I didn’t even think I would be able to run the race, let alone “race” it so let’s add something new to this race experience by getting loaded the night before! Your heels are gonna hurt anyway, let’s kill the pain!
At least, this is how I remember the decision making going down. Actually, as the fog clears, I realize it was less calculated. Only once I was four or five beers in (enough to put me in the ‘beyond buzzed’ category) was I able to justify my position with nonsense. And now… well, now it’s too late.
I’m parched. I’m dizzy. I’m running 50k.
I’m running 50k! I have the ability to run 50k… hung over… with wonky heels.
Life could be so much worse.
Dad wakes up beside me and our tent comes alive with amateur detective skills as we try to piece together all the shenanigans from last night. I am shocked to hear that I was a bit bossy towards my father in my delirium. Okay, so I’m not shocked, but I am embarrassed. I do my best to apologize before I force down a banana, chug multiple bottles of water and lube up for a long, long day.
Loop 1, Miles 1-15.5
It is still very dark as an amoeba of groggy headlamps makes its way towards the forest, where 15.5 miles of trail waits to inflict damage on my psyche and soul. My first several steps, as expected, are tender and sore. The backs of my heels — the absolute bane of my summer training — don’t quite seem to be in agreement with me today. I expect they will loosen up and not hurt as much after a while, but I know better than to think the aches will go away completely.
Luckily, my friend Jen is alongside to keep my mind off this fact. And I also have to pay attention to the trail in front of me for fear of–
Tripping. Tripping on the trail. Nice save, I tell myself, nice save.
I look down at my watch and am astonished to see I don’t have one on. Hm… no watch. Hung over. This IS a race of firsts.
So I don’t know how fast I’m going. That’s probably a good thing. I’m starting to feel a little bit better as I move along at what feels like a consistent pace, but if I knew my speed I would probably spend too much time beating myself up.
In fact, I interrupt myself, let’s just stop beating ourselves up NOW, shall we? You’re here to have fun. You had some fun last night, you’re having some fun now, you’re having fun, period. HAVE FUN!
And, just like that, I enter happy runner world bliss, not giving two shits about anything other than moving forward in time and space… and getting to an aid station because boy am I hungry.
At the first aid station, approximately four miles into the loop, I spy peanut butter and jelly. The volunteers look at me like I’m Godzilla on the attack as I stuff my face faster than I can chew. NOM NOM NOM. I grab a handful of Saltines for the trail and get going, intent on not stopping long enough for my heels to stiffen.
On my way out I wave goodbye to Jen who kept me company for these first several miles. Today’s going to be one of those days where I want the distraction of conversation so I’m glad I got through the darkness with a friend.
Now the sun is coming up, I’m starting to feel less nauseous and I have the whole day ahead of me.
The Run Woodstock loop is made up of mostly single track trail through luscious forest, but there are a few seemingly long sections of road that gnaw away at my patience. I remember this from last year; however, I didn’t run a step of last year’s pacing duties during the sunlight hours. I ran it all at night, so seeing the road stretch out in front of me tests my ability to shut off the negativity that seems to always want me to quit when things get tough.
Not today, negativity. Not today.
I spend most of miles 4 through 10 ping-ponging among a solid group of runners. My pace, while certainly below what I am use to, feels great and suits the wonkiness of my heels. I stop every once in a while to stretch out my Achilles, and I embrace the opportunity to slow down and power hike when I feel like my heart rate is too high.
By the time I hit the third aid station, around mile 11 or so, I conclude that my body has won the war against hungover dehydration. I celebrate by stuffing massive amounts of peanut butter and jelly in my mouth.
NOM NOM NOM
*ZOOM, ZOOM, ZOOOOOOM*
What the? Half marathoners. Blazing. Flying! Right past me. I knew this was going to happen, that I would be embracing my inner tortoise, comfortably laboring along only to have my ego slaughtered by slender speedsters. With each approaching huff and puff gaining from behind, I politely step off trail to let them through.
Then immediately chase them. Duh.
By the time I hit the end of loop one my heart rate is way higher than it should be, the sun is beating down from above and when I see the clock reads 3 hours and change I know this is going to be the longest 50k of my life.
But, as if the running gods could actually feel my pain, at the start/finish line aid station I am gifted with the glorious grace of… GRILLED CHEESE.
The kind volunteer who offers it to me marvels at my ability to clear the plate. Well, I hope he is marveling and not chastising. Either way, that grilled cheese doesn’t stand a chance.
NOM NOM NOM
Before I head out for the second loop I make a stop at my tent to roll out my calves with The Stick. My heels are really thumping me with aches now. Tight calves are often the culprit. I back all of this up with 800 mg of Ibuprofen and a nice long chug of water.
I stumble out of the tent and see my friend, Kirsten, who is running the 50 mile race.
“Hey, Kirsten, wait up!” I call out, anxious to share more miles with friendly faces. If I’m going to be out there for another 3+ hours, I want to have some conversation to keep my occupied.
Loop 2, Miles 15.5-31
Kirsten has showed up on this blog many times, notably here and here. It’s been cool getting to know her over the last year and a half, another testament to the notion that ultrarunners are awesome by default, regardless of gender, occupation, speed. We run long, and in doing so, share so much.
Her 50 mile race speed is slightly faster than my current 50k race speed, but I don’t want to be alone right now so I just stay on her heels as we head back into the forest. We chat about everything and nothing at all, keen on sharing elevated heart rate stories caused by the blazing fast half marathoners who caught us on the first go around.
My legs are getting heavy, and by the time we hit the road section I can tell I need to slow myself down. I wish Kirsten the best with the rest of her race before I stop, stretch, then settle back into a slow slog — smile still ear to ear.
Because really, what is there not to be happy about? I am still moving, right? I’m still having fun, seeing my friends, enjoying time alone in the forest. I’m alive, I’m sound. It would be easy for me to feel sorry for myself right now because I’m not 100% but I’m not having it. As long as I’m able to run — period — I am going to be happy about it. That’s the choice I make.
That choice, and the bliss that goes with it, is what convinces me to take the time to stop around mile 23. I’m really starting to feel the thumping in my heels now and I know that taking my shoes off and massaging my heels will give me some relief. I sit down right beside the trail and do this, to both feet, for a few minutes. The relief I get from it is well worth the time lost. I’m not breaking any records today anyway, so I might as well be as comfortable as possible.
Back on my feet now, my smiles grows along with my effort. I really, really needed that.
I reach a road crossing and tuck in behind a friendly woman in pink, donning a Marathon Maniacs jersey. Her name is Amanda and this 50k is her very first ultra.
ULTRA VIRGIN! YES!
And immediately behind me is a familiar voice. I turn to see it’s Betty, another friendly gal whom I met at Ice Age this year, where she was running her first ultra.
We’re just one happy ultra world, ain’t we!?
It turns out we are all New Leafers (hooray!) and we all have a lot in common: marathon-crazed, adventure-driven, Bears fans. We will spend the next (and last) 8 miles running together, enjoying a free-flowing, easy conversation that does wonders for my achy feet.
Now I’m not even aware my heels hurt anymore. I just concentrate on the company and conversation, quick to share my race experiences on nutrition, pacing and everything in between. The three of us are forced to stay on our toes as multiple masses of mountain bikers haphazardly fly towards us.
Death wish on handlebars.
After successful navigation through the gauntlet of disgruntled bikers, we are almost done. I can hear the music and laughter of the camp off in the distance. Betty and Amanda pick up the pace. I do all I can to stick with them, but as we approach the last 800 meters or so, I’m more interested in just finishing rather than finishing with a kick, so they leave me in their dust.
I couldn’t be happier for them both.
When I cross the line myself, arms up in triumph after 6 hours and 22 minutes of running, they are both there with big smiles and individual age group awards.
Hot dog! What a day! Now somebody get me a beer!
Post-Race, Hair of the Dog, Hippies Abound
If you assumed I would celebrate this 50k finish with an Anti-Hero IPA from Revolution Brewing, then you are most definitely correct. Waiting for me by the cooler was my old man, himself content with his own half marathon finish, and there, the two of us rejoiced in one of nature’s longest pastimes: relaxation.
With our tent situated right on the trail coming out of the start/finish line aid station, we spent the next several hours cheering runners (50 milers, 100k’ers, 100 milers) along with the raucous sound of beer and cowbell.
Much of the rest of the evening was spent in a similar manner. We ate, we drank, we cheered. We took in live music, shared war stories with friends, and some of us (not me) even enjoyed a naked jog through the woods.
But most of all, we celebrated the peace that is being in nature, running long and being alive.
For sure, I will be back to Run Woodstock. As for how sober I will remain, well, there are no guarantees.
Long have I been a sucker for classic training montages, the cheesier the better. Whether it’s Rocky Balboa racing a boat, Daniel-san whipping crane kicks to get the girl or Frank Dux redefining ninjitsu, I just can’t help but get pumped up watching that all-or-nothing training mentality in superlative action.
And, of course, a nice score doesn’t hurt.
It could be said that race day is just the exclamation point on the process, whether one reaches his goal or not. Hours and hours of training are logged so that race day simply comes down to execution. We reach our goals with compounded hard work, not by a one-day luck of the draw.
The process of training — the long, drawn out montage in real time — is what the whole experience is about for me. It’s about getting up before light to log a lactate threshold run. It’s about strict attention to clean diet while my friends pack away the pints. It’s about daily massage, supplemental strength training and lots of sleep.
It’s about doing everything in my power to make myself as good as I can be, to (as Survivor would suggest) rise up to the challenge of my rival.
My rival is me — the old me, the me who couldn’t run a block, let alone speed through 26.2 miles all in one shot.
And while that old rival self may not exist in the flesh anymore, the doubt and negativity inherent to his being still lingers. The challenge of rising up against it is still very real. I want to put it to rest forever.
My target is the Chicago Marathon; the goal is to break three hours. It’s my hometown course. It’s built for speed. And I know every tangent, every turn, every double-sided aid station.
On August 4th, backed by a summer of long, slow base mileage, I began marathon training in earnest. Right now I have eight and a half weeks to get tuned into high turnover and to make October 13 one of the most memorable days of my life.
Of course, with high expectation comes the risk of major heartbreak. If it’s 80 degrees on race day then I will have to ditch the effort and just survive. If I go out only to blow up halfway through, I’ll have to suck up defeat and look forward to the next opportunity. Or I could get injured, I could get ill, I could spontaneously combust. Any number of detrimental things lurks, ready to stop me from achieving my ultimate running goal.
But one thing is for certain: even if I do get knocked down, I’m gettin’ my ass right back up.
I’m not going to quit. I’m going to achieve this goal.
It’s going to happen.
And by putting this declaration out into the universe for all to see I feel even more driven to get the job done, one 6 minute and 50 second paced step at a time.
It’s the eye of the tiger
It’s the thrill of the fight
Rising up to the challenge of our rival
And the last known survivor
Stalks his prey in the night
And he’s watching us all with the eye of the tiger
In this year’s comeback from last fall’s IT band injury, I have been doing a lot of sparring at the gym. It’s a good thing I have been doing so, because the only thing that properly prepared me for the type of beating I would take at the Minnesota Voyageur 50 Mile Race on July 27, 2013 was getting punched over and over again by dudes bigger and stronger than me.
And just as it goes in the ring, sometimes getting your bell rung can be the most beautiful thing in the world.
Pre-Race, Friday, July 26, 2013
First thing in the morning and my heels hit the ground pain free.
This is good. This is very good, I say to myself.
I haven’t run a step since Saturday and the extra rest has given me full motion in my ankles and heels, something I am going to need as I mentally and physically prepare myself for Minnesota Voyageur. The Achilles pain that scared me most of the week seems to be absent and with this added rest I feel confident about tackling the tough, gnarly course.
My friend, Kirsten, who I met last year at Clinton Lake, shows up at my house with Jim, another ultrarunner from central Illinois, and all three of us exude excitement with a hint of anxiety as we load the car and begin the 8-hour trek north towards the Minnesota wilderness.
The drive is long and confusing — long because it’s 480 miles from my house to Carlton, Minnesota; and confusing because it’s 55 degrees and pouring rain most of the way. Between the spry conversation and the giddy storytelling of ultra-adventures past, I make sure to look at my watch every now and then just to remind myself that it really is late July.
We arrive in Carlton and walk to packet pick-up shivering in the cold, wet rain.
The high for tomorrow is 57, says Jim as I pinch myself hoping to wake up in a warmer state. Supposed to be 42 at the start.
With our race shirts and bibs in hand, we get news that this year’s course will be different than the original one. Due to some washed out areas and bridge construction, the course has been modified from the one that made it famous, but we are assured that all the familiar Voyageur sections will still be there, including the infamous power line section of steep, brutal climbs.
We head back to the hotel, eat dinner and then commiserate on the less-than-summery skies mother nature will provide us tomorrow. We all agree that the cooler temps will make for nice running weather, but the chilly rain will make things quite sloppy. This isn’t going to be an easy fifty (are any of them really?), but the good news is: we are all prepared for a fight.
Jim, you ready to finish your first 50 miler? I ask.
Yes, I am, he emphatically replies.
More than satisfied with his confident answer, I wish he and Kirsten both a good night, turn off the lights and fall fast asleep.
Pre-Race, Saturday, July 27, 2013
*BEEP BEEP BEEP*
WAKE THE HELL UP, JEFF! says my brain to my body as I desperately reach for the “off” button on my smartphone’s alarm clock. I look around to see Kirsten and Jim are rising along with me.
Who thought it was a good idea to run 50 miles this morning? Jim asks.
Excellent. We’re cracking jokes well before the crack of dawn and that’s a great sign. Unfortunately, the weather report has jokes too, unwavering from its estimated high of 57 degrees. And right now, as I shove two bananas and a Clif Bar down my throat in the black of morning, it’s a balmy 43 degrees.
Armed with this bit of irony, the three of us ready ourselves with our own pre-race rituals. I take some time to get my head right, to focus my mental game on pushing my physical.
There is no question that I am stronger, right now, than I ever have been before. This increased muscle mass was born out of less miles and more rounds in the gym, so while I know the body is there for a full-on physical adventure through the woods, I still have questions about my endurance, especially over the course of a demanding, difficult race like I will face today.
The only other question mark entering my psyche this morning is whether or not my heels will hold up on this challenging terrain. I won’t know until I get going, so it’s no use worrying about it now.
Instead, I focus on being confident, and sometimes, that’s all it takes to get my stubborn ass moving the way I want.
After a 25-minute drive and some nasty, watered down gas station coffee, Jim, Kirsten and I find ourselves shivering together in the Carlton High School parking lot, still scratching our heads at the unorthodox July chill. It’s 47 degrees as we prepare to toe the start line and I overhear another runner say it was 80-something last year.
What a difference a year makes, I say as I stick my hand down my shorts to slather Vaseline all over my nether region, further exemplifying why I love the ultra community so much. Here I am coating my crack with grease mid-conversation and no one seems to notice, or care. It’s just part of the game.
So too is putting yourself in arduous predicaments. In fact, THIS is what I live for — the challenge of NOW — and I know that, no matter what, this entire day is going to be an adventurous exercise in taming doubt and experiencing the present, through every possible channel.
We pose for a final pre-race picture before the race director gives his speech.
A couple of good-luck fist bumps later and…
Slow, slow, slow.
Let’s go slow.
I repeat the above mantra as I settle somewhere in the middle of the pack.
My goal for today is to FINISH, of course. That’s always my first goal of any ultra distance race. But I would be a liar if I didn’t admit my sincere desire to run a sub-11 hour race today. After my dreamlike Western States pacing experience last month, I really want to start putting my name in the Western States lottery, and to do so I need to qualify with a sub-11 hour 50 miler. Because I plan to focus on Chicago Marathon training after this, I likely won’t be running any more 50s this year, so this is my one and only shot.
But considering how tough this course is, combined with the elements of rain and chill, I know that it is going to be nothing short of a fight to achieve that.
I’m also unsure about my heels. And as we start the short jog on paved bike path toward the trail head, my left Achilles starts giving me that wonky, sharp-YOW-YOW-give-out sensation. It’s not as serious as it was before, but it’s there, so each step seems like a question mark. For now, I try to be aware but not obsessive.
Once we turn onto the trail, the conga line of runners keeps my pace in check. Here there are jagged rocks and technical terrain alongside the gorgeously flowing St. Louis River. My heart rate is low. I’m just getting warm. Enjoying the slow.
You have all damn day out here, Jeff. No need to waste yourself now, I tell myself.
By the time we reach the multi-track leading to the first aid station at Leimer Road, my heels are all warmed up and won’t be an issue the rest of the day. Halle-ultra-lujah!!!
At the aid station, I grab a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and some chips that I wash down with a half-water-half-blue-Powerade mix. My most successful fueling strategy for ultras thus far has been to go on the “see food” diet, eating whatever I see that looks/sounds good at the time, favoring savory over sweet as much as possible. Yesterday I made sure to avoid all dairy products (they tend to make my gut a crap-shoot *rimshot*), so as long as I eat a little bit of real food at every station, supplemented with the occasional gel when I need it, I should be okay.
The aid station personnel kick ass with their awesomeness and before I head out, I tell them I can’t wait to see them again, some 44 miles down the road.
The Minnesota Voyageur is a wild, picturesque out-and-back course from Carlton to Duluth. I know I need to average 12-13 minute miles the best I can to finish under 11 hours; and while this seems like it should be no sweat for a three-hour marathoner who averages 7-minute mile pace in a road marathon, maintaining a 13-minute mile pace over this rugged terrain is going to be tough.
There are going to be spots along the course where running is just not possible. Hell, after hearing grizzled vets talk about what was in store for us this morning, I know that there are going to be spots along the course where even power hiking will be impossible — spots where we’ll be lucky to put one foot in front of the other without breaking something!
This is why instead of darting up ahead and through the conga line of mid-packers like I normally would, I just stay right here, somewhere in the middle, letting the natural pace of things rule. I am in no hurry. In fact, at Ice Age and Howl at the Moon last year, I suffered greatly from running too fast too early, so I know better and do my best to keep my heart rate low and my smile wide as I take in the beautiful forest all around me.
In every direction I see the greenest green. Luscious leaves of birch and pine soar high above me, the woodsy waft of nature fills my nose. This section out of Leimer Road is quite runnable, so I find a nice, easy, comfortable gear and just ride it steady, happy to be alive. I cruise along with other runners until there is a sudden halt in the line.
What’s going on? I ask, leaning my head to the side to see if I can see what the hold-up is. Before anyone can answer I see we have reached a shin deep stream crossing and some people up front are trying to figure out how to best get across.
It’s drizzling, it’s chilly. The trail is soaked, soggy and sloppy. It’s an absolute given that the feet are going to get and stay wet all day, so I bust out of the line and charge to the front, happy to jump in and out of the stream, off and running on the other side. Besides, my feet are protected with 2Toms BlisterShield Powder and Injinji socks, a combination that hasn’t let me down yet, so YEEEEEE HAAAAAW!
After another good stretch of running on flat, grassy trail, I cross another stream in much the same way — banging on through without a care in the world, happy to be a part of this lovely forest. I am leap frogging with several friendly faces, but unlike most other races, I am not in a real talkative mood. I’m feeling more introspective, happy to live this particular adventure with my thoughts to myself.
This is pretty suiting, since I’m thinking about a lot of people today, especially my friends running the Burning River 100 Mile Race in Ohio. Thinking of them doubling the distance in similar rainy conditions motivates me to move along the best I can, to pace myself responsibly and to enjoy the experience.
During an ultra, it’s pretty common for me to question myself, to wonder why I keep going out on these long, time-consuming, muscle-busting journeys that test my physical and mental abilities unlike anything else. When such doubt enters the mind I remind myself how much my face hurts from SMILING.
I absolutely love it. What other reason do I need?
The Bull Run aid station greets me at the 8.1 mile mark. I grab some more peanut butter and jelly, some bananas and an orange slice before I kick out down the road.
And yes, it is a road. A long, welcoming downhill, road. My instinct is to bomb down it, but I’m working smart today, so I just take it easy, chilling on the ride down.
What’s really cool is that I can see, about a mile down the road, all of the runners ahead of me. What’s not cool is that I know I’ll have to traverse UP this damn thing later in the race, with 39 miles in my legs.
But today we’re working with the NOW, and that’s all that matters. Right now, I’m having a great time. Legs feel good. Heels feel good. Head feels good. Out on the open road it’s a bit chilly with the breeze, but otherwise I’m quite comfortable in my long sleeve technical tee and trademark short-shorts. Best of all, I’m right on time with my splits as I reach the end of the road and say hello to the good folks at the Chambers Grove aid station. More peanut butter and jelly. More half-water-half-blue-Powerade mix. More bananas and oranges.
Nom nom nom.
A quick thank you and cap tip later and I’m off to tackle the first of the infamous power line sections.
Now begins the climbing. Seriously.
Minnesota Voyageur and the power lines might as well be synonymous, because in my course study before the race, I couldn’t find any source that didn’t mention them both. Notoriously steep climbs equipped with the loud background buzz of high voltage, these hills test my patience as much as my body. But I am ready for both.
After I crest and coast down the last one I turn back to the nice woman behind me and say, Well, that wasn’t so tough.
Ha! she replies, we haven’t even gotten to the big ones yet.
Before we get there, we still have to travel through some more winding up-and-down trail. The ground is wet. It’s still drizzling off and on. But the footing is still pretty good and I make sure to take the downhills easy as opposed to trucking right down. With the grade as high as it is on some of these downhills, bombing them just isn’t possible and my quads probably couldn’t take it later on, even if I could. Caution ain’t a bad idea.
Several times we reach a point where the trail has been “closed” for “our safety”, except that the course markings lead us right through said signs and accompanying fence blockage, not bothered by whatever possible danger may lurk beyond.
The race director has jokes too! Ha! I love it!
As I reach Peterson’s aid station (where they have Ginger Snaps, holy-effing-YES!), I notice my right hip is aching pretty loudly. I stuff my face with cookies, bananas and oranges while I gently massage the bursa sac that likes to get inflamed sometimes during these crazy outings. It’s a nuisance, yes, but a nuisance I can and WILL overcome.
I go through more runnable, grassy trail before I hit the second section of power lines. I know I’ve reached the second section because I’m now looking straight up at the beasts I have to climb and my neck is not a fan.
Here’s where all those pistol squats are going to pay off, Jeff. Here’s where Kettle Moraine and Western States and Big Bertha repeats are going to pay off. Keep your head down, your confidence high and just get the job done.
Up, up, up.
Gingerly. Carefully. Slow enough not to tumble and break my face… down, down, down.
Up, up, up. Down, down, down.
Over and over.
As I cautiously crest a climb, clinging to some foliage to keep from teetering back towards my death, I hear off in the distance RUNNER COMING THROUGH!
What the –
It’s the youthful race leader, coming towards me, blazing by with ease and the most patriotic red, white and blue short-shorts.
Stars and stripes forever!!! I holler as I wave him through. He smiles and thanks me. Wow, the dude isn’t even sweating. He’s 10 miles ahead of me and not even sweating!
TEN MILES! HOLY SHIT! I’M NOT WORTHY, I’M NOT WORTHY!
I will say this to myself again as the rest of the leaders come through behind him. Meanwhile, it’s all I can do to keep moving forward, up and down the last power line before I make it to the Beck’s Road aid station at mile 21.
I have a drop bag here, and while the idea of changing socks and clothes sounds good right now, I’m going to wait until I get back at mile 28 to consider any of that. I still have to get to the turnaround before 11:30 a.m. to be on target with my sub-11 goal, and I have lots of hard work to do before that so I can’t waste any time.
I grab some grub, refill my handheld bottle and boom, I’m off.
Here is a mile and a half section that is flat as a pancake. From studying the course beforehand, I know that this is a place I really gotta push the pace because it’s the calm before the storm that is Jarrow Beach (pronounced JAH-row) — a section I’m told will “chew me up and spit me out”.
I try to run fast, pumping my arms as hard as I can to see if that will get my motor running. The problem is, I’ve been stuck in low gear all day long and now anything more than a steady jog seems impossible. Just as I work myself up to feeling good and speedy, I reach a defunct railroad bridge reminiscent of a Stephen King novel.
As I cautiously tip toe my way across, all the momentum I just built up on the flat ceases. The rain starts to come down a little harder too, further insulting my efforts.
But as soon as I get over the bridge, I have more fast moving terrain to spring me forward, making me feel pretty confident as I cruise along, taking in the sights and sounds. I’ll be at the turnaround soon and it looks like I will get there before 11:30.
My head is filled with happy thoughts.
I’m having a blast.
I’m enjoying the ride of life…
Until I find myself at Jarrow Beach.
Jarrow-effing-Beach. Where the hell is the sand? Where are the bikinis? Can’t I even get a mai-tai?
This ain’t no damn beach, this is a bone-breaking ankle trap intent on taking me down! If the power lines slowed me to a power hike and the dilapidated railroad crossing slowed me to a tip toe, the jaggedly edged boulders protruding through the earth at Jarrow Beach force me to a crawl.
No hyperbole here. I’m definitely crawling over the rocks. Sometimes I can stand enough to tepidly place one foot on another rock while I desperately search for a place to safely put the other, but it’s raining and the rocks are all covered in slippery moss making this traverse quite a challenge on my entire body.
Two guys I’ve been yo-yo-ing with in the race have caught up to me now and the three of us curse like sailors as we try to get through Jarrow without killing ourselves. I can’t help but slip and fall a couple of times. I twist an ankle — not badly, but enough to notice. I slip and land on a jagged edge, bruising my arches, toes, elbows, wrists and heels.
There is no running here. There is only surviving.
For the first time all race, I am extremely hot and sweaty. But we must soldier on.
Together, the three of us — me and two strangers who must like pushing themselves just as much as I do — fight through this section, one rock and misplaced foot at a time.
Our reward for getting through Jarrow Beach is some more flat terrain before the turnaround. I try to bust out with some speed, but my bruised and achy feet aren’t so excited about that, so I just move the best I can.
I reach the Magney aid station, halfway through the race, at 11:15 a.m. Right on target, but not without damage.
Most of all, I’m feeling pretty tired — an all-body tired, the kind you get from being on your feet all day climbing insane hills and picking your way through a boulder laced killing field. But my left arch is particularly achy from a poor landing and my right hip bursitis is really aggravating now. Besides that, both of my piriformis muscles are inflamed, causing that all too familiar butt ache to pulse to the rhythm of my heart.
But my stomach is doing well. I’m pissing clear and often. And I’M HALFWAY DONE, HUZZAH!
Off I go, knowing that I have to go through that damn Jarrow Beach again. Having done it once, I now have the confidence that I will get through it no matter what, and that my reward will be another mile and a half section of fast, flat terrain where I can really make up some time.
While I make the second pass through the boulders, I start to see all the other runners coming back towards me on their way to the turnaround. This offers me some delight. It’s always nice to see friendly, encouraging faces on the trail during a long effort. It’s even nicer to know I don’t have to do the boulder field again.
I get through with just minor scrapes and bruises this time and bust ass over the railroad crossing and back onto the long stretch of runnable trail. I’m moving much faster this time, despite the aches and pains, because I can’t wait to get to Beck’s aid station where I have the ultra-cocktail of Ibuprofen and Red Bull waiting for me. I also plan to change socks, shirt and hat, because the ones I’m in now are disgustingly soaked.
Sometimes, just putting on a dry shirt can make all the difference.
I reach Beck’s and as soon as I locate my drop bag, the sky opens up and, as if to laugh at my plan of getting into drier clothes, it begins to POUR RAIN!
What can I do but laugh?
Haha, you got me, Minnesota Voyageur. I know this wasn’t ever gonna be easy. Trust me, I get it. I get the joke now.
I’m in the middle of changing socks anyway, so I complete the change as planned and top it all off with my ultra-cocktail and some Icy Hot on my hip. I kick out down the trail as the heavens continue to rain down.
I don’t really mind the weather since I’m under canopy for the first part after Beck’s. But when I reach the bottom of the first power line section on the way back I realize what kind of test I’m really in for.
Mud, mud and more mud.
How could we possibly make a terrifying climb harder than it already is? Add pouring rain and a slick, muddy surface so that with every step forward you take at least two or three slip-and-slide ones back.
At first, I move forth daintily, trying to avoid a complete fall into the mud as I cautiously attempt to climb along the best line I can find. The problem is, mother nature don’t give a shit and before I know it I’m falling face down in the mud, clinging to the slanted earth with my fingers deeply embedded into the mud.
The nozzle on my water bottle is all but caked over in the rich, red clay and my new, clean (ha!) shirt is a pretty shade of filth. I’m lucky that one of the women I’ve been leap frogging with today is alongside for this section, because multiple times she has to push my ass up while I attempt to pull myself forward.
The pouring rain makes each step a dangerous one. And once I finally get to the top, I still have to go down.
Only way but one, the woman says as she butt slides her way down ahead of me. She’s totally right. I try to take soft, easy, calculated steps, but the ground is so sloppy and loose that it just gives way, sucking me down with it.
With mud on my face, in my ears and up my ass crack under the pouring rain, I wonder if I’m in an Oliver Stone film or in a 50 miler. Either way, this is the path I chose.
How often do you get to play in the mud? I ask myself.
Obviously, not often enough! YEEEEEE HAAAAAW!
Like a prize fighter just off his stool for the 12th round, I stumble into the Peterson’s aid station, rain and sweat streaking down my body.
Boy, am I happy to see you! I shout. I’ve been thinking about those Ginger Snaps for longer than I’d like to admit!
I grab a couple of them, even though they’re soggy and gross, and I force them down my throat while I get my bottle refilled. I look at my watch and know it’s going to be a struggle. I lost a lot of time on both Jarrow Beach sections and this last set of power lines. What’s worse is that the steepest climb of them all is yet to come and the rain is not letting up. If I want to get in under 11 hours I’m going to have to run all the runnable stuff as hard as I can.
At least the Red Bull and Ibuprofen are kicking in. My left arch and right hip are quieting, but my quads and butt, neck and shoulders are all taking a beating now too. In this tired, downtrodden state, the rest of the run will be an aid-station-to-aid-station test, and I won’t know if I can make the time until I inch a bit closer.
For now, all I can do is get through the aid stations as quickly as possible and give my best effort no matter the terrain.
I bust out of Peterson’s and take advantage of the rolling hills where I can, but once I get to the last power line section, I can’t help but think my time goal is doomed. Under all this rain, on top of all this slippery mud, there is simply no footing. I have no choice but to lie flat on my belly, in a leaning bear crawl position, and dig my hands into the side of the earth to pull myself up the hill.
The last and steepest of the climbs does all it can to knock me out, to put me out of my happy-misery. But it can’t. I signed up for this and I don’t care how much things hurt right now, I’m getting over this hill.
On the peak of the last climb I take a second to stretch my arms out wide, head pointed up towards the pounding rain. I laugh in the face of hardship and beat my chest before I mudslide down on my butt like a little kid.
I look at my watch and know I need to get to Chambers Grove soon. There, in my other drop bag, is another Red Bull. That, combined with the knowledge that I’ll only be 11 miles from the finish line might be enough to get me under 11 hours. But I gotta hurry.
Ahh, yes, but stupid me forgot about that ROAD CLIMB!!!
What was a long, happy, stretched out downhill coast the first time around is now a dooming, massive, impregnable power hike up what looks like forever.
I won’t make eleven hours. Shit. It’s just too much at this point.
*BIG FAT DEFEATED SIGH*
Oh well. I’ll still finish…
I’LL STILL FINISH.
Up, up, up I go.
Waaaaay ahead of me I see the silhouette of a girl who passed me around mile 5. I’m going to go catch her. I’m coming for ya, girl who passed me at mile 5! Here I come.
Head down, arms pumping.
Forget about the rain. Forget about the aches. Forget about the discomfort. You’re going to finish this thing and you’re going to feel so good about it for so long so just… keep… MOVING.
After what seems like forever, I’m finally at the top of the road and back on trail.
Oh yes how I love you, sweet, sweet trail!
I run as fast as I can (which, let’s admit, ain’t that fast really), taking advantage of every single downhill, despite the poor footing, while power hiking my ass off on every significant uphill section. It’s all or nothing now, only 8 miles to the finish.
And I have… (looking at my watch) an hour and thirty minutes to get in under 11?
Hot dog! I holler as I push through the pain and concentrate on high cadence and lots of arm pumping.
I quickly grab some grub at the Bull Run aid station, thank everyone there and move quickly through the rolling terrain. The rain continues to fall, but it’s less violent now and almost undetectable considering I’m nothing short of a muddy, soggy, sweaty mess.
A muddy, soggy, sweaty mess with a SMILE on his face and a pain in his ass! Ha!
She eluded me on the road, but ironically now just five miles from the finish, I see that same girl who passed me at mile five up ahead. I decide I have to pass her now.
Head down, arms pumping.
A few minutes later I’m cruising on by, exchanging happy salutations with her as she keeps her slower pace. I look down at my watch again and know that if I can get to Leimer Road with at least 40 minutes left, I might be able to break 11 hours. I say, “might” because the last three miles include a lot of technical terrain and another jagged rock field that will definitely slow my pace.
You’ll never know if you never try, I tell myself, and we know that the only thing worse than missing your goal is knowing you didn’t give your best effort.
HEAD DOWN. ARMS PUMPING.
I whiz through the Leimer Road aid station, falling just short of telling the volunteers I want to make love to you all! I don’t have time to tell them exactly how much I appreciate their being out here today, so a quick “THANKS I LOVE YOU” will have to do. No doubt, this race features grade-A race personnel. Every single volunteer I have come in to contact with today has been as helpful as he/she has been kind.
And let’s not forget, standing outside in the cold, pouring rain isn’t very fun if you’re not running over gorgeous terrain. I blow them all a kiss and charge down the multi-track trail which turns left and back on to the technical stuff along the St. Louis River.
I have about 30 minutes to get to the finish line now as I slowly and deliberately pick my way over rocky trail. I haven’t been using the GPS function at all today, knowing it would kill my battery, so I have no clue really how far I have yet to go. My body throbs and aches with each slowed step and when I squat down to go under a fallen tree blocking the trail, I realize just how seriously messed up my body is.
Getting back out of the squat takes all the effort I can find — serving as one final joke from mother nature and the Minnesota Voyageur before I am able to push on towards the final stretch.
Ha! Too bad the joke’s not on me today!
I bust out of the trail and onto the paved bike path in Carlton. The finish line is less than a mile away. I have fifteen minutes to make it there.
Oh boy, here it comes.
Why this happens to me so often on the longer, more spirited efforts I’ll never know, but I do know that I can’t fight it anymore.
Fucking cry, who cares. You deserve a good cry every now and then anyway.
I follow the yellow ribbons toward the right hand turn to Carlton High School.
And there it is.
There is that beautiful, glorious, triumphant finish line.
I did it.
I ran the Minnesota Voyageur 50 in 10 hours 51 minutes. I open up my arms, point my head to the sky and enjoy every last drop of rain falling on my face.
After the race I grabbed a quick shower inside Carlton High School (a great race bonus by the way!) and changed clothes so I could wait outside for Kirsten and Jim to finish. Seeing them on the out-and-back section was a real boost to my morale and I wanted to be sure I got to see them finish.
They came in at 12 hours and 40 minutes and we all shared a good hug, especially celebrating Jim’s first 50.
In fact, I hugged just about anyone who would hug me as they came across the finish line. There’s nothing quite like being witness to one’s ultra victory. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, spend some time at a finish line and watch the range of ecstasy flowing through the faces. You won’t regret it.
That night, back at our hotel, celebratory beers in hand, the three of us reminisced over our individual battles. Every single muscle in my body ached. For two whole days! Including muscles that have never ached during a run before (forearms, biceps, neck!)
Admittedly, I’ve never been beat up so badly by a race. But I was doing the Frankenstein walk like a champ.
As every enlightened sage and holy man has ever attested, to be whole, you must be broken.
Right now I’m about as whole as I can get.
Or at least I am until…
The next adventure…
If you aren’t living on the edge, you are taking up too much space.
– Jim Whittaker, the first American to summit Mt. Everest
Running opens the door to infinite adventure. Each test against the clock, each journey through the wilderness and every single foray into the unknown seems to hold the potential for being yet another pinnacle life moment — a time when I can truly disconnect from the busyness of everyday and just soak myself in the nature of epic, blissful surroundings.
Though my proclamations often sound like hyperbole, I assure you: they are not.
Running is real. The adventure spawned by this seemingly simple activity is real. And as long as I remain open to all possibilities — fighting through then learning from the lows while also allowing myself to soak in the ecstatic highs — as long as I stay within myself and embrace this simple way of living life, all the glory in the world is within me.
Few activities rival the profoundness I feel when I run.
Pacing my friend, Siamak Mostoufi (pronounced SEE-mack) at the storied keystone event of ultrarunning, the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run, I knew was yet another opportunity to grasp at the skirt of greatness.
Pre-Race, Friday, June 28
I wake up feeling groggily fresh with the kind of excitement that comes from hours of flight delayed napping combined with more elevation than I’m used to and the prospect of seeing the Western States course with my very own eyes. The day before was rough, but once I landed in Reno, all travel frustrations ceased to exist. The only important task for the day is getting to Squaw Valley and fighting through this thin-air headache so I’m ready to go tomorrow.
Siamak has a bounce in his step and an edge to his gait signifying the countdown to epic adventure. His girlfriend and crew chief, Meret, whom I got to know a little bit during the drive last night from Reno to our hotel in Truckee, also exudes excitement. This is her first time experiencing (let alone CREWING) an ultrarunning event, and I playfully point out to her that this is like a 16-year old getting a Mercedes as her first car.
WE ARE AT WESTERN STATES!!!
And, just in case, I didn’t believe it, here at the Squaw Valley check-in, there’s legendary runner David Horton to remind me. And there’s Tim Olson. And Ian Sharman. And oh yeah, there’s Meghan Arbogast and Mike Morton and Dave Mackey and Rory Bosio and Karl Meltzer and Ann Trason and Gordie Ansleigh and OH MY GOD HOLY SHIT ALL THESE AWESOME RUNNERS ARE HERE FOR THIS AND YOU CAN FEEL THE ELECTRICITY IN THE AIR AND I WANNA JUST SQUEEZE SOMETHING AND HOLD ON AND NEVER LET GO OF ANY OF THIS AWESOMENESS!!!
Goosebumps pop up all over me as Siamak gets checked in. Base weights and vital signs are taken. Some helpful reminders about combating the intense heat he will face tomorrow are given. We move from station to station, acutely receptive to all that is around us, including the breathtaking views of mountainous landscape and the warmth of the sun cutting through clear, blue skies.
I feel like I’m gonna cry at any moment because I’m so happy. I get to be here for THIS! I get to pace my pal, the same guy who pulled me out of the doldrums of crap city during my first 50 miler a year ago. I get to experience THIS.
I am so lucky. And thankful.
The mandatory pre-race meeting ends and everyone disperses, off to stock coolers and stuff faces with all-you-can-eat pasta. Siamak, Meret and I stop at the grocery store to get all the food, drink and Red Bull we will need for the race.
While I stand in line with an armful of deli goods and a sleeve of shortbread cookies, Siamak nods his head to the gentleman in front of us. Look who’s here.
Wow! Mike Morton. Hi, I’m Jeff, I say a bit overeager. I shake the endurance beast from Florida’s hand. I’m an in awe of his humility and slight, thin build. He smiles big when I tell him I’ve been following his career renaissance.
Yeah, but all these fast guys… he says, somewhat nervously.
Dude, you are the American 24 hour record holder. You are the fast guys, I reply.
We wish him well, buy our goods and head back to Truckee for a bite to eat followed by pre-race packing and last minute crew debriefing. Meret and I get the low-down on how Siamak will fuel his race, what is packed where, and how to get from one aid station to the next. Once we are are all on the same page, it’s off to bed for us. While I immediately enter deep, sound sleep, I can only assume Siamak — on the eve of running the race of his life — does his best to not toss and turn.
Race Morning, Saturday June 29, 3:00 a.m. – 5:00 a.m.
Siamak is up and ready to go. I’m getting quite used to seeing him smile, but the one he’s wearing this morning seems a little bigger than the one from yesterday, and for good reason: today he tackles the most coveted 100 mile race in the world.
And as we busy ourselves in and around the Squaw Valley Olympic Village prior to the race start, he knows it. He also knows that he is not alone — that hundreds of our friends back home in Chicago and across the world are following his steps via Facebook, Twitter and the Western States ultracast where his splits will be updated live, for all to see. A simple upload of his smiling face causes my phone to blow up, even at 4:30 in the morning.
A few nervous hugs, high fives and fist bumps later, Meret and I walk him to the start line then make our way a few hundred meters up the trail to record THIS.
IT’S REALLY HAPPENING NOW!!!
While the runners are well on their way to their first bout of suffering, tackling the monstrous escarpment climb of Emigrant Pass, Meret and I make our way back to the car. Still immersed in darkness, we go back to the hotel to stock the car with the day’s provisions before heading out on I-80 towards our first stop of the day: Robinson Flat, 29.7 miles in to the race.
During this 2+ hour drive through the scenic high country, I confess to Meret — an accomplished professional flutist and music educator — my continual obsession with the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. She is quite sympathetic and for once, I am able to have a long conversation about Bach, Albinoni and Vivaldi, freely discussing my love of the Baroque period without feeling like an obnoxious jackass.
Meret and I make a good crew team and she is going to do great today. I can already tell. My thoughts are validated when she says:
Siamak says this is going to be great because you have a lot of experience and I am, as he says, very conscientious.
Conscientiousness is a must and I further explain the time-tested acronym of C.R.E.W. (crabby runner, endless waiting) to Meret so that she knows what to possibly expect later on. Lucky for us, our runner is Siamak Mostoufi — one tough dude rarely seen without a smile on his face.
Robinson Flat, Mile 29.7
Meret and I reach Robinson Flat sometime around 9 a.m. and set up our mini-aid station at the bottom of the hill, next to where the runners exit and head back onto the Western States trail. We get there in time to see the leaders come through: Tim Olson, Rob Krar, Hal Koerner, Karl Meltzer and many more make their way through this colossal aid station to the roars, claps and whistles of the following crowd.
Wow, that is so cool, I couldn’t help but think to myself while watching the leaders pass through, exchanging bottles and aid with their individual crews like formula one drivers. This is some serious ultrarunning!
Following the elites is a steady string of runners, mostly of the hot and sweaty variety, as the Robinson Flat aid station is preceded by quite a a bit of long, steady climbing in exposed high country where the elevation and intense morning sun beats down on all those underneath. Most folks have covered themselves in white clothing: white hats, white shirts, white bandanas. And the smart ones, Siamak included, have been busy dousing themselves with cold water at every opportunity.
I wait at the top of the hill, close to the check-in area while Meret remains with our stuff at the bottom. Our plan is for me to make contact with Siamak as he comes in, to find out what he needs while he’s being weighed and attended to by race officials, then run down the hill to help Meret prepare whatever it is he needs.
It’s been several hours since we have seen him, and with the way I’m pacing back and forth, my eagerness to check in on him is obvious. Finally, amid the crowd of runners, spectators and crew, I see his white shirt and blue shorts emerge from the visible heat waves off in the distance.
Here he comes! I scream.
Couldn’t miss him, since his smile has hardly waned since 5 a.m.
What do you need? I hurriedly ask at the top of the hill.
Gels, amino powder, grapefruit juice, maybe some ice, he says.
Cool. We’re at the bottom of the hill on your left, I say as I dart down the hill to Meret where we rush to prepare the spread. Sifting through the enormous plastic bag of gels Siamak packed, I can’t help but think nauseous thoughts. In running, we are all an experiment of one, that much I know. But I also know my experimentation with solely gel-based nutrition during ultra events has not been good, so I tip my cap to my runner thinking he must truly have an iron belly, which is not a bad thing to have in an event like this.
Meret’s first look at her boyfriend after several hours of sweat and toil seems to go over just fine. They hug and speak briefly as we try to get an understanding of what he has run so far.
It’s hot, he says. Very hot.
Yep. In fact, today is going to go down as the second hottest Western States 100 on record, ever.
We waste little time in debriefing and instead get him everything he needs before setting out again for another long, hot stretch. I give him a pat on the back, Meret gives him a kiss and then off he goes, back into the wilderness, towards Miller’s Defeat.
Hmm… that was a salty kiss! Meret says.
Oh yeah, I forgot to warn you, another given in ultrarunning is, well, the runner is always going to smell bad.
We have a chuckle then pack up the gear and schlepp our way back towards the car.
Michigan Bluff, Mile 55.7
Another significant car ride, this time through narrow, winding switchbacks up and around a mountain, and Meret and I find ourselves at Michigan Bluff — complete with a large party of spectators, crew and staff in what would otherwise be a remote, sparsely populated ghost town featuring lots of horses, chickens and one obnoxious rooster.
Here we park the car and hike to the shuttle. We squeeze ourselves and our belongings into the short bus, already eschewing the unwritten rules of modesty and personal space. As a complete stranger smashes his sweaty body against mine, I can’t help but be grateful that we are all a dirty, sweaty mess.
Once we reach the drop-off point, Meret and I then rush to find what little spot of shade we can find. At this point, just like the entire day thus far, shade is quite a hot commodity (pun intended, naturally).
The temperature gauge back at the car told us it was 102 degrees. In the shade, it seems like a manageable 90. And after devouring a home cooked burger with fresh, grilled onions chased by a lemon flavored popsicle, the shade and a spot of grass is all I need to nod off for 20 minutes or so.
I wake up from my nap to the cheers of the elite women coming through Michigan Bluff — all of them looking fresh to death. I get up and walk around when I can and explore what little exists in the area. Surprisingly, a few people actually do live here and I can’t help but wonder what it’s like in the winter time with two feet of snow on the ground. As is the case with many of the stops along the Western States route, there is a much history to this area, most of it centered around the 19th century gold rush, and I take the time to read some of the commemorative plaques detailing as much.
Meanwhile, Meret and a whole host of others waiting patiently for their runners appreciate the hydration PSA at the main aid station. It is a very clever way of navigating what is a very serious subject. I know Siamak is taking care of his hydration. He had an alarm set on his watch to remind him to drink every 15 minutes. He’s going to be just fine.
Meret and I got to Michigan Bluff quite early, so while we wait for Siamak to come through (and current race updates inform us he should be in between 6:15-6:45 p.m.) we pass the time clapping, cheering and talking about everything from the oddities of online dating to the hilarity of the The Gospel According to Biff.
As the expectant time draws nearer, Meret heads closer to the trail where the runners first appear while I head to the end of the aid station to set up our gear. Sure enough, at 6:30 p.m. I hear cheering and look up to see Meret jumping with joy at the appearance of her man, who comes through strong and still smiling ear to ear.
Hot dog! I say to myself. He looks great!
Anything can happen in a hundo. Anything. In fact, the hundred mile race is the great equalizer. You can be the most prepared, most talented, most in-shape human being on the planet and still get struck down by nausea, or dehydration, or a busted limb. But Siamak comes through the 55 mile mark all smiles, absolutely loving life, and at this point I am certain he has the finish in the bag. It’s only a matter of time.
I laid down in the water before Devil’s Thumb. It was a little bit out of the way but it was worth it because it really brought my core temperature down, he tells us as he takes in some calories. We rush to fill his bottles.
Yes! Great job, I say. Plenty of people have come through here looking pretty rough. The heat is just terrible, I’m sure.
It’s so hot in those canyons.
I can only imagine.
At Forest Hill I’m going to change socks, he tells us. I’ll also need some Bodyglide and my head lamp.
Check, check and check. Meret and I make note, give him a nice, celebratory send off and then watch him as he disappears over the road horizon.
Forest Hill is less than a 7 mile run for him, so we have to book it. This means we have to skip over the long shuttle bus wait and instead hike all of our gear up a nasty hill as the 100+ degree sun continues to beat down on us. Hiking up with all this gear at elevation is making me breathe kinda hard, which sends my mind racing with doubt about my own abilities.
No! I tell myself. Focus. Time to FOCUS.
I put my head down and concentrate on what fun we’ll have running through the Sierra Nevadas at night.
Forest Hill, Mile 62
Meret and I arrive at Forest Hill and are greeted with rock star parking, directly across the street from the runner check-in station. With cell phone service now, I get online and update what I can while also casually skimming through the barrage of social media support for Siamak coming from our friends and family back home. The response to his journey is overwhelming. This community is full of love; and the out pour of affection streaming in from all across the country is just plain badass.
Still, I have a task at hand. I have to finish getting dressed, tape my nipples, lube up in the appropriate spots and make sure to hit the john before 8:15, approximately when I expect Siamak to roll in.
While coating my groin with Vaseline, I look up, embarrassed that I’ve been caught. But then I scratch my head. Um… Dave? I ask. Dave Mackey?
Hi, yeah. That’s me. I dropped.
I can’t really believe it. Dave Mackey, 2011 Ultrarunner of the Year Dave Mackey, was having a bad day and dropped at Forest Hill. And now he’s standing beside me while I slather Vaseline all over my balls.
A bit shy, I offer my standard reply to what I assume is a noble DNF: You live to fight another day.
He smiles and nods while jumping in the back of an SUV. As he drives off, I can’t help but think, on some level, us mid and back of the packers face an entirely different reality than the elites when it comes to ultrarunning. If they’re out of the front running and a fast time or podium is out of reach, it makes better sense for them to just drop rather than suffer on the rest of the way, causing more muscle damage and pushing back recovery time. For most of us though, finishing is all that counts. Finish. Run 100 miles. Just finish.
Lost in this contemplation, I think I hear the PA system announce Runner 293, Siamak Mostoufi, welcome to Forest Hill.
Huh? That can’t be right. It’s just past 8 o’clock–
OH NO! He’s here! They called his name! He’s here, yells a suddenly frantic Meret while moving quickly to grab the gear bags and cooler.
Oh shit! He’s running faster. Damn it, I wasn’t — okay, let’s just take it easy. For a few seconds I panic, but then, a deep breath later, I try to calm us both down. You grab everything and go across the street. I’ll be over in a few seconds.
Meret skips across the road carrying a ton of stuff while I slip on my Salomon water vest and try to prepare mentally for the next 38 miles at hand. I see Siamak now. I can’t keep him waiting. No time for that john stop. Just going to have to deal with that later.
In the Forest Hill Elementary School parking lot now, Siamak busies himself with a quick sock change while we prepare his amino powders, gels and head lamp. The sun is just going down and I figure we have about 40 minutes or so left of daylight.
Man, you really picked up the pace there from Michigan Bluff, I say. He replies with a big, fat smile — a pleasantly reoccurring theme for this particular adventure.
With everything gathered and both of us ready to head out, Siamak gives a goodbye kiss to his girl and we set out on the road leaving the school.
Forest Hill to Rucky Chucky, Miles 62-78
This is my current running pace, just so you know, he says as I excitedly stride alongside him.
Dude, I don’t care what your pace is, I’m with you no matter what. I can barely hide my giddiness, and this pace doesn’t feel slow at all. It feels like my friend has 62 miles in his legs and is still A BONA FIDE WARRIOR.
We traverse through a few neighborhoods on road and then drop down to the trail head, Siamak in front, me right behind him, which is his preference, especially on the downhill sections.
You wearing your hat regular or do you have it on backwards? he asks.
Midstride, in a monumental display of bro solidarity, Siamak turns his hat backwards to match mine. We are wearing the same one — our New Leaf club hats — and now I know this is going to be a fantastic, epic journey.
With that we begin the long, long descent out of Forest Hill.
And we’re flying. Fast. Maybe… too fast?
Man, I don’t know. If he’s feeling good I should just let him feel good and run, I think to myself, but as we continue to drop down, down, down, flying at pretty much top speed to start, I’m only a couple of miles in and my quads are already starting to ache.
Well, that’s too bad, Jeff, this is what you signed up for, I tell myself. If he can fly after running for 13+ hours, you can too.
Down, down, down we go, quad pain receptors extinguished.
We reach the Cal-1 aid station at 65.7 miles, but we don’t stay long. As we leave and get back into a constant, smooth running pace, it hits me. My gut.
Damnit! You should’ve gone before you left! I curse to myself. I was going to, I reply, again, to myself, but he showed up quicker than I thought and now (in my best Luke Skywalker voice) I’ve endangered the mission and I shouldn’t have come.
Negativity. Always a bitch when it comes to ultras!
Knowing as much, I grit my teeth and just concentrate on moving. One of these aid stations will have a john, or I’ll just pull over and do what I have to do. Ultras tend to break life down into its most simple tasks. Move one foot in front of the other, take care of “business”, etc.
The main thing right now is to keep this discomfort away from Siamak, so he can just concentrate on moving, without worrying about me. He’s moving great. In fact, he’s moving SPLENDIDLY! We are taking advantage of the free speed offered to us by gravity, running constant on the flats and power hiking all the ups.
Siamak isn’t much of a trail talker, which I already knew coming into this, having run with him on trails before, so at least I don’t have to say too much while I quietly beg the gastrointestinal baby in my stomach to please calm down.
At Cal 3, Mile 73, I take care of business, and much to my relief, I am a new man.
LET’S ROCK THIS THING!
Heading out towards Rucky Chucky, Siamak and I talk about the 24 hour goal, which, because of the intense heat of the canyons earlier in the day, pretty much seems impossible now. We’re more than an hour behind the 24 hour cut-off, and fatigue is starting to set in.
But I still have a chance to PR, he says quite excitedly. That would be pretty cool to PR at Western States.
Indeed it would, I note to myself. Siamak’s PR, or personal record, at the 100 mile distance came at The Pinhoti 100 back in November. His time then was 24 hours, 56 minutes. And he did that with no pacer, all alone in the night, fighting by himself those last 20 miles.
If Siamak is anything, I told Meret earlier in the day, he is one tough dude.
If we are close, I’m going to get him that PR, I tell myself. It’s a done deal.
For now, I say out loud, let’s just keep doing what we’re doing. Moving steady, running downs and flats, hiking with a purpose on the ups.
And boom! Here we are at Rucky Chucky, the nearside of the river, mile 78.
Meret greets us with the same exuberance and attentiveness she has displayed all day and night. In fact, I’ve been running enough miles this evening now to let my emotional guard down, and I feel the hair stand up as I watch her move, eager to help us in whatever way possible, as fast as she can.
This is her FIRST time crewing! Wow! She’s kicking some major butt!
AND she is wearing a green hoodie that she created bearing the words: SIAMAK ATTACK. Um… somebody get this gal her Girlfriend-of-the-Year Award.
Siamak sees it and does all he can to hide that he’s blushing.
We waste very little time getting what we need here as we say goodbye and focus on the river in front of us. Waiting to assist us in the river crossing are a handful of dry suit donning volunteers who do a fantastic job of telling us where to put our feet as to avoid the most slippery and dangerous of rocks hiding underneath. The air temperature is still in the mid 80s, but boy is this water COOOOOOOOOOOLD!
Siamak is in front of me, shivering quite hard. Just keep moving, I say. Just keep moving til we get to the other side.
Once we do, it is evident that he has a strong case of the shivers. An aid station attendant gets him some hot soup as Siamak and I both decide it’s not worth it to stop and change our shoes and socks here like we had originally planned. I’m afraid if he sits down for more than a few minutes — and let’s face it, changing footwear at this point of the game would require more than a few minutes — he won’t be able to get back up and move like he was moving just before we crossed.
We have quite a big climb to tackle coming out of Rucky Chucky, so we put our heads down and power on up, keeping our legs moving to bring the warmth back into our bodies.
Rucky Chucky to Highway 49, Miles 78.1 to 93.5
We may be power hiking, but we are doing it with a purpose. And up to now, we’ve done nothing else but pass people on the trail. Lots of people. We have passed men. We’ve passed women. We’ve passed people doing the zombie walk. And we even passed the legendary, 14-time Western States Champion, Ann Trason! (Ann was pacing someone rather than running her own race, so this accolade is a bit of a stretch, but still, how many times can one say we passed Ann Trason!?)
Of course, all of this moving up in the overall rankings during the overnight hours is a clear testament to Siamak’s smart first half race strategy of staying within himself, taking it easy during the hottest parts of the day, and taking every opportunity given to lay down in the cool waters to drop his core temperature.
He’s hurting a little bit now, but like in any ultra, it’s coming in waves and he is doing what he can to fight through. After each alarm on his watch goes off, I remind him to eat, to drink, to take salt. We keep running the downs and flats, power hiking the ups. We continue to pass people.
When the occasional runner and his pacer creeps up behind us, a fire is lit under Siamak’s feet and he moves just a little bit faster.
They can pass us, he says, that’s cool. But not for free, he adds, turning on the jets.
Hell to the yeah. This is what it’s all about!
In fact, we take the time to talk about it — how ultrarunning seems to break life down into just one single task: move one foot in front of the other. Nothing seems so hard when all you’re asking yourself to do is move one foot in front of the other. I think we’re both in that emotional guard let down phase as we explore this theme. But hell, it isn’t the first time we’ve waxed this poetic. It surely won’t be the last.
When we get to Auburn Lake Trails (mile 85.2) the aid station staff immediately grab him for a mandatory weigh-in while I hurry to refill my pack. While doing so, a volunteer approaches and puts his hand on my shoulder asking, How’s your runner doing? He looks a little dry. Is he drinking?
Absolutely, I reply. He’s dumping cold water on himself too. It’s pretty dry out there, but I assure you he’s hydrating.
Satisfied with my response, the medical volunteer moves along and I reconnect with Siamak as we head out towards Brown’s Bar. As we surpass the 85.2 mile marker, we both revel in how professional and on-top-of-it these aid stations and their volunteers are.
The minute you step into the checkpoint, someone is there to greet you and they don’t leave your side until you have been totally taken care of and are on your way.
That’s how you do an aid station, I remark. Before I can say much more, Siamak takes off and I follow right behind, passing more folks with an assortment of bad conditions along the way. Some are puking. Some are on the side of the trail, hands over knees, resting. Some are barely moving.
We are moving just fine. In fact, we are moving so well that I give Siamak our estimated time of arrival for Brown’s Bar based on our current average of 4.5 to 5 miles per hour.
Say that again? he asks. I comply. And boom! It’s off to the races. AGAIN!
Siamak takes off flying, utilizing gravity as much as he can.
Was it something I said? Why is he running so fast now? I don’t really know, and I can hardly find the breath to ask so I just dig deep and hold on.
We reach Brown’s Bar (mile 89.9) just after 3 a.m. and know that it’s just a Wednesday night group run distance now to the finish. We have 1 hour and 50 minutes to cover 10 miles. We can do that and break 24 hours. Right?
I hurriedly check the posted 24 hour cutoff times and to my dismay, we’re still an hour behind.
Why? How can this be? I ask, somewhat to myself but loud enough that a volunteer hears me.
You got two really big climbs to go yet, that’s why, the volunteer says with a consoling smile and a wickedly braided goatee.
Siamak and I share a moment of disappointment knowing today won’t be a silver buckle day. But this brief impasse is intercepted by the goatee’d gentleman’s sage words of encouragement:
You know what they told me when I got to No Hands Bridge last year? he asks. They looked me in the eye and said: Today… you’re going to finish Western States!
This hardass with the braided goatee might as well be Confucius himself because that is EXACTLY what Siamak and I need to hear, right this minute!
YES! I scream. YES! THAT’S WHAT I’M TALKIN’ ABOUT, MAN!
Siamak is going to be a Western States finisher today. And I will be his wingman.
As we exit Brown’s Bar on our way to Highway 49, I remind him: We can still go for that PR. Let’s see where we are at Highway 49 and go from there.
He agrees and off we go, a bit reined in now compared to our effort from Auburn Lake Trails, but determined nonetheless.
At Highway 49 I know Meret is waiting for us, and with her are two cans of Red Bull and a bottle of ibuprofen. I check my watch. We might have a chance. We just might have a chance for that PR.
Highway 49 to Robie Point, Miles 93.5 to 98.9
We reach Highway 49 at roughly 4:20 a.m., greeted by raucous cowbells and animated cheers from the kind of strangers I would like to spend a whole lifetime with. After all, it is the people that make these sorts of events so special. Tonight is no different. In fact, a volunteer hands me some bacon and I’m suddenly in heaven while Siamak gravitates towards his own version of heaven in the form of Meret, Red Bull and ibuprofen.
I will have some too, I declare. Ordinarily, the Flintstone vitamin taste of Red Bull turns me off completely, but when tired from the trail just before dawn, there’s no better stay-alert cocktail than NSAIDS and a Red Bull chaser. I am aware of the risks involved with using anti-inflammatories during long efforts like these, but since I can count on one hand the times I actually take ibuprofen in any given year, I feel like the time is now. Besides, we still have work to do.
Next time we see you will be at the finish, Siamak says to Meret with one last kiss goodbye. All three of us are ready for that moment. No doubt.
We exit Highway 49 and enjoy a nice steady drop in elevation down towards No Hands Bridge. I keep checking my watch, calculating splits in my head. I know that if we get to No Hands Bridge by 5:15 or so we will have a fighting chance to break his personal best time. It’s going to be a fight, IF we can even get there with a couple of big climbs to go still, but it’s a fight I’m willing to lead.
We cruise down for about three miles before tackling a big, steep incline. We continue to move forward, with a purpose, passing people along the way. We crest the top and then go down, down, down again, picking up speed.
The sun is coming out as we approach No Hand’s Bridge. Siamak, you good on water? If so, let’s just blow through this aid station, no stops till the finish.
Having left his vest back with Meret, and feeling a bit lighter now, he confidently replies: I’m good with that.
We come into No Hand’s Bridge and fly right on by to the cheers of aid station personnel impressed by this late-race push. We make the turn, crossing the bridge and I switch on the GPS function on my Garmin watch.
Take a look around, Siamak says as my Garmin frantically searches for a signal. All around me is the infinite wonder and beauty of nature — a sight so glorious and perfect for my purposeful demeanor that I get those damn goosebumps all over again. My watch says 5:15 a.m.
Time to go to work.
Without saying anything I instinctively pull ahead of Siamak, leaving a good 10-20 yards between us.
Just stick with me, man. Keep your eyes on me. Just stick with me.
I’m getting him that PR today, or I’m gonna waste us both trying.
I look back to make sure he’s still there. Not only is he there, but his face has now gone a bit white, his mouth hangs open, and it’s quite clear that he’s giving all he’s got. My man. DIG DEEP, SIAMAK. This is what it’s all about.
He won’t say another word to me until the finish line.
We have to run fast here on this flat and slightly downhill section. We have to bank time, I tell him, because we still have the climb into Robie Point and then one more long climb in Auburn.
We have less than 40 minutes to do it. We’re running 8:30 pace right now. I hope I’m not killing him.
I look back every thirty seconds or so to make sure, but it’s difficult to tell. The faces he is making aren’t pleasant, but hell, he’s been running for over 24 hours now and I’m pretty sure nobody looks good after doing that.
Use your arms, I direct. Pump your arms and your legs will follow.
Concentrate on quick turnover, I continue. Dig deep, deep within yourself. You can do it. I know you can do it.
I do know he can do it, but holy Sierra Nevadas I’m pushing him hard.
Just hold on to me, Siamak. Keep chasing after me.
We hit the bottom of the climb up to Robie point and I know we can’t slack now. Time is not on our side. Gotta keep moving.
Power hike with a purpose, Siamak. Lean into it. Use your arms, keep your head down and move with a purpose.
He is doing the best he can, but I know it’s tough. Still, we have to try.
The climb up to Robie Point seems to take FOREVER. I look at my watch: 5:40 a.m. Damn, I don’t know if we can–
And then, I hear it: I hear cowbells. And cheers. Not far in the distance.
Come on, Siamak, pump those arms we’re almost there!
We turn a corner on a switchback and above us are some friendly volunteers with pitchers of ice cold water approaching.
Hello, welcome to Robie Point. Can I get you anything?
Yes! Please pour some water on my friend back there, I say pointing back towards Siamak, who is giving it all he’s got to power hike with a purpose up the never ending, dirt incline.
How about you? the friendly man asks as his fellow volunteer rushes towards Siamak, ice cold water pitcher out and ready to go.
Yes, please, pour some water right here, I say, pointing to the nape of my neck. HOLY EFFING SHIT THAT FEELS AMAZING. I look back and Siamak is chugging water straight out of the pitcher. Good man. No time to fill your water bottle anyway. We got a PR to chase! I say to myself.
Cooled off and hydrated, the two of us crest the climb and are dumped out on a road. A ROAD! MY GOODNESS WE’RE ALMOST THERE!
But we gotta move, gotta book it, can’t waste any time!
We are running at a mighty quick and focused clip now, which is why it takes me a few seconds to even notice Meret is now running alongside us. Wow! Hi, Meret! I say before moving back into the lead position, that dangling carrot to coax Siamak’s ultimate triumph.
Thirty seconds go by before I look back to see Siamak is staying close on my heels, still carrying the face of death. But Meret… Meret has dropped back. And she’s… I think she’s crying. Oh no!
We’ve dropped Meret. Here we are, the two of us with 136 miles in our legs combined and we’re dropping Meret. She is clearly upset.
Don’t worry, Meret. Just meet us at the track, I offer. We’re chasing a time right now. It’s nothing personal. We’ll see you at the track. Take the shortcut!
I don’t know if there is a shortcut, or, if there is, where or what it is, but it sounds like the only good thing I can say right now to console her. She obviously meant well to run it in with us to the finish; and if we weren’t chasing this time we totally would, but this is too important and one’s opportunity to do something this badass is rarely available, so we have no choice but to soldier on now and explain later.
Judging from Siamak’s determined stride and ghastly white gaze, he’s in it to win it.
Just stick with me, Siamak. Pump those arms. Dig deep, my brother! It may hurt now but it will feel SO good for SO long after. I promise.
We hit more incline and power up, up, up. It’s hard. Oh is it so hard! But we are almost there and we don’t have any time to spare.
FINALLY, we reach the top of the last climb and now we are going downhill.
Use that free speed, Siamak! Pump those arms.
I can hear the PA announcer.
I can. I can hear it close by. I can also hear and see the folks waiting and cheering us on the street, obviously wowed by our late race effort.
As I admire it all, I notice Siamak is now beside me. HELL YEAH, BROTHER! I scream. HELL YEAH!
We hit the bottom of the hill, make a turn and THERE is the track entrance. I look at my watch and hope that mine is synced correctly to the race clock because a mere 30 seconds off will derail this entire effort and make me have to explain why I just wasted my runner for the last 4 miles.
No matter what, we’re here now. And we’re RACING IT IN!!!
I lead as we come into the track then I immediately direct him to take the inside lane. No use adding extra distance at this point. Upon entering I hear the PA announcer call out his name to the cheers of people nestled tightly in their seats, eager to watch the last 300 meters of what can only be called a VALIANT finish.
We hit the turn, I see the clock. 24:55:20… 24:55:21… 24:55:22…
We did it. WE DID IT!
SIAMAK DID IT!
DUDE, I scream, YOU DID IT! THIS IS A PR, BABY! SOAK IT UP! OH MY GOD WE DID IT! YES! YES! YES! THIS IS HOW YOU FINISH A HUNDO!!!
I completely lose myself in my own screaming and my own elated state of emotions. I let him take the lead and cross the finish line, victorious, while I do all I can to reel in my complete and utter ecstasy.
Turns out I can’t. But no one cares. To prove it, watch this video of his finish.
Siamak just ran 100.2 miles of the Western States trail in 24 hours, 55 minutes, 57 seconds, setting a new personal best and proving to me and the rest of the world what I already know: he is one tough, dedicated, brave man who knows only one way. And that way is giving it his all.
He collapses backward into my arms and smiles the biggest damn smile I’ve ever seen.
Meret found us about a minute after we crossed the line. She was in tears, but those tears quickly faded once she was in her man’s arms, celebrating with him his champion achievement.
We couldn’t have done it without her and her introduction to the world of ultrarunning was as exciting as it was epic. Siamak was right that her conscientious character would play out, in a variety of ways, from getting us the supplies we needed when we needed them to finding a way — a shortcut that is — of getting to the track by flagging down the help of a kind Robie Point stranger who didn’t think twice about giving her a ride. That’s thinking quick on your feet.
And when it comes to quick feet, Siamak proved you can still run as fast as 6 minute pace, even with 100 miles in your legs. Here is the Garmin profile for those heroic last 3.65 miles — some of the greatest running of my whole life thus far.
The truth is, running these trails, taking part in these adventures, spending time with the kind of people you meet through it all… it just keeps getting better. Each effort is more and more meaningful.
Right now, the 2013 Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run, is at the top of those experiences for me. Running is the Moore’s Law of my life, which means that from here on out, things will only get better.
Then, they’ll get better than better, before they’ll get even better than that!!!
THIS is living the high life. And for me, there’s no other way to live.
*From El Dorado Creek (Mile 52.9) to the finish, Siamak passed over 70 people, moving from 176th place to 106th by the end. He was passed by three people during the night. We caught one of them with a mile to go.
“This race is worth it for the logo alone,” said my pal, Brandt as he held up the devil-horned, mud-splattered, red silhouette of the iconic Muddy Monk on a field of black.
We were getting ready to toe the line at the Wholly Hell 15k, a nice middle distance trail race put on by Art Boulet and his Muddy Monk trail race series.
“Yeah, it’s not every day you see a monk with horns like that,” I replied, eager to throw down 9+ miles so I could get to finish line and guzzle a few Finch’s beers — my ultimate target for the day. In fact, the finish line feel at all of the Muddy Monk races is pretty spectacular: good beer, good food and most of all, good people.
It wasn’t long ago that I was yearning for some sort of trail running entity to take over the Chicagoland area — some sort of portal to the trailrunning world that didn’t require a minimum of 31 miles on your feet. Sure, 5ks and half marathons take up plenty of space on the CARA race calendar, but what about short and middle distance trail races? What about some options for those of us who like to get our running buzz on with a side of mud and a dash of DEET?
Enter Art Boulet and the Muddy Monk.
I met Art at the USOLE Trail Challenge last fall while hanging out with my ultrarunning friends. A few weeks later a few of us volunteered at his Schiller Thriller 5k — a nice 3.1 mile trail run on what was for me a previously unknown trail system on the west side of Chicago. Seeing how well received the race was, especially by those new to the trailrunning community, I decided I had to start showing up at more of these.
The Wholly Hell 15k at Palos’ Swallow Cliffs looked like an ideal race to run.
Even though I consider the Swallow Cliffs trails to be a home game venue for me, I was really surprised at how much single track was there, previously unbeknownst to me. The course had us on and off the crushed limestone multi-track that I am familiar with, but a good chunk of the race was also on heavily canopied, luscious green single track, with plenty of opportunities to get dirty.
And get dirty I did!
I ran the whole race with my friend, Brandt, and our main goal was to beat Peter Sagal, host of Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me on NPR. This goal had no malicious roots at all; it was merely a better alternative to saying “I got beat by Peter Sagal”, something I have also said before. In retrospect, I now know that both statements sound pretty cool to my fellow NPR nerd friends.
I first met Mr. Sagal at the USOLE race last fall, and again at the Paleozoic 25k. When I saw he would be running the Wholly Hell 15k, I told Brandt we had to keep him in our sights.
Unfortunately for us, Sagal took off super quick and I didn’t think we would have a chance to catch him…
Until we did with just a couple miles left to go.
In passing, we shared a few words about our experiences at the 2013 Boston Marathon (his riveting piece on his day is well worth a read) before Brandt and I took off at our own steady 7:40ish pace.
With the finish line in sight, Brandt and I had a good sprint to the finish in just over one hour, eleven minutes. Then we immediately headed to the finish line for Finch’s beer, extended sunshine and good conversation with the many new friends we made.
Whether you are a road runner curious on mixing some more nature into your workouts or a veteran trail ultra runner looking for some shorter distance options, the Muddy Monk trail running series is your ticket to exploring all that hides under the forested canopy Chicagoland can offer.
And did I mention there was good beer?
It’s been over 72 hours now since I watched Jen Birkner cross the finish line at the Kettle Moraine 100 Mile Endurance Run, and the smile her accomplishment put on my face still stretches proudly across my cheeks.
Jen overcame the intense morning humidity, the marshy sauna of the meadows and over 50 miles of macerated, blistering feet to still cross the finish line like a champ, proving once again that the ultimate test of one’s abilities is the strength of his or her thoughts. Her achievement was mind over matter, relentless forward progress at its best.
And I couldn’t be more proud.
Jen’s accomplishment also makes me a perfect 3-for-3 in 100 mile pacing duties. And in each case, getting my runner to the finish line has required a great deal of focused energy and thoughtful preparation. Pacing gig number four is coming up at the end of the month as I pick up Siamak for the last 38 miles of his epic adventure on the grandest ultrarunning stage of them all — The Western States 100 – and thinking about what it takes to be a good pacer, I thought I would share some basic ideas that have helped me fulfill my duties thus far.
In no particular order, they are:
KNOW Your Runner
Before pacing someone, you should know if he or she prefers you run in front or back, if she likes to talk or keep quiet, if he wants to power hike the hills or charge right up them. You should know how she fuels. You should know what he expects out of you. There should be no surprises. Communication is key, and I would consider being able to read body language and emotion an essential element to that communication.
Be Comfortable Knowing This Is Not YOUR Race
Your own wants/needs/dreams have no place in your role as pacer. This is your runner’s race, and the pacer serves best as a shadow of his runner — a very cool, strong, receptive and determined shadow, of course.
Talk to People Who Have Paced Before
What better way to know what you are getting yourself into than to ask those who have already had the experience? In the lead-up to all my pacing, I have made it a point to pick the brains of those who have already succeeded in such a role. Race specificity is key too. Talk to those who have already run the course. Know what to expect ahead of time.
Know/Study the Course
Though this seems obvious, I mention it still because there are going to be times when the pacer must be the voice of reason for a super-tired runner, and if he or she knows all that the course will throw one’s way, this makes those future decisions just that much more informed.
Go Over the Game Plan with Your Runner BEFOREHAND
Really take the time to sit down with your runner and discuss his or her goals before the race. I think it’s important to know what he or she is thinking, what direction she wants to go. Remember, as a pacer, this isn’t your race. It’s your runner’s race, and his or her game plan is what needs to be followed. Knowing the A goals from the B and C goals will also help you make important decisions during the race that the runner may need some encouragement and/or help making herself.
Be Prepared for Whatever Nature Throws Your Way
At Kettle, for example, we knew that thunderstorms were a likely scenario. Though they never came, Jen and I discussed beforehand what we would do in the event of a thunderstorm. We talked about visualizing that situation, so that if it did happen, we would be ready for it and it would not get us down.
I liken this concept to the “rule of positivity” my friends and I used to practice back in our youthful *ahem* partying days. Nothing kills a buzz (running or dance club induced) quite like negative thoughts. Even when your runner is in a bad spot — and he likely will be at some point during a hundred mile race — try to focus on the positive as much as possible and leave negative thoughts for another time and place.
Think Before You Speak
This goes along with the previous point, but it is important enough to be singled out alone. People can interpret things in different ways, so before I say anything to my runner I try to imagine how she might hear what I’m saying. If anything I might say could be interpreted as a negative thought, I keep it to myself.
Know How to Do Split Math In Your Head
Have a watch. Pay attention to what time you leave each aid station. Be prepared to throw out split times, estimated arrival times and cut-off times so your runner can concentrate on just running and not have to fuss with calculations.
You Are Not Allowed to Hurt, Not Allowed to Complain
Your feet might ache. You might have a blister. You might have a chapped ass. That’s fine. Just don’t say anything about it. As a pacer, and following the “no negativity” rule, I think it’s best that you leave your own issues out of any conversation.
Get Plenty of Rest
Especially if you are going to be running overnight, I highly recommend you sleep as much during the day as possible so you are alert and thinking clearly during the hardest late night/early morning hours.
Monitor Your Runner’s Fueling
Ultimately, I think it is up to the runner to fuel himself properly, but it doesn’t hurt to monitor it as a backup, especially as the late hours and extended fatigue set in. A bonky runner is an unhappy runner, so it’s best to just avoid that altogether.
Keep Aid Station Stops Short and Efficient
It is quite easy to dabble at an aid station. A lot of time can be lost. When my runner and I are approaching an aid station, I make sure to go over everything we need and everything we need to do, out loud, so once we get there we’re not standing around scratching our heads. Apply Bodyglide, change socks, eat something… knowing what to do beforehand will make the stops quick and efficient.
Know the Basics of Foot Care
Having a good idea of how to treat battered, blistered, macerated feet will come in handy. Check out Fixing Your Feet for all the gnarly details.
Carry an Emergency Gel or Two
Ya just never know when you’re gonna need it. I also carry extra batteries, Ginger Chews and salt tabs.
Be Prepared for the Bad Patches and Fight Them with Simple Goals and Positivity
Inevitably, bad spots are going to come. It’s a hundred-friggin-miles, man! Just know that they are coming and be ready to fight them back with short, simple goals. Just getting to the next aid station is a classic cue that really works and keeps the focus on something doable when the rest of the race may seem overwhelming. I have found that it also helps to point out all the great things my runner has accomplished up to that point so that she has some positivity to fuel off of when things get tough.
Know When to Stretch the Truth
I don’t ever lie to my runner, but when she asks “How far to the next aid station?”, I will construct an illusion of truth by replying with a time range that offers hope, even if part of it is impossible. Oh, we’re about 10-20 minutes away, I will say, knowing that the low range is impossible. I think it just helps the runner to hear a low number when that is what he wants to hear, even if he doesn’t know it.
Be Your Runner’s Biggest Fan
Your runner needs you. That’s why you’re there. Take care of her. Encourage him. Do whatever it takes (and you should know this by already knowing your runner) to get her to keep moving one foot in front of the other. And if you need something to motivate you as pacer, let me tell you:
OH HOW SWEET IT IS to watch her cross the finish line knowing you had a role in her success!
Of course, I do not consider the above collection of notes to be the all encompassing way to go about pacing, but the tips I offer have all worked well for me. If you have anything to add, please feel free to drop a line in the comments section.
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.