When it comes to running long and having a blast, the McHenry County Ultrarunning Dudes and Dudettes (M.U.D.D.) sure do set the bar high. Over the last couple of years I have gotten to know many of them through volunteering, running the trails and of course, through racing, so when they announced they would be hosting the first ever Earth Day 50K in nearby Crystal Lake, I circled April 22 on my calendar and made sure I would be rockin’ a smile, ready to race.
All day long.
Man, this is like a party! To look at all the happy faces around me, one would have a hard time believing any of us are in for 31 miles of pain and suffering today. That’s ultrarunning for ya!
I say hi to Alfredo, to Brandi, to Juan, to Edna, to Carrie, Jerret, Tony and so many others. I compliment the collection of yellow “Ultra-Virgin” shirts adorning an anxious crowd. And there is Michele Hartwig, Team Inov-8 member, trail runner extraordinaire and Earth Day 50K race director!
We runners gather for instruction from Michele, pause for the national anthem, and at the sound of the horn… we’re off!
The Earth Day 50K is comprised of five loops of 6 miles with an extra mile added to the first (remember, I LOVE LOOPS). It is run on the trails of picturesque Veteran Acres: a good mix of winding singletrack with some multi-track interspersed. It’s about 50 degrees, the sun is out and everything is GREEN! Mother Earth decided to show up to this party, and so did I!
At the start, my first move is to… lead the way! In fact, my goals coming into this race are to to finish in the top 10, be in the lead pack as long as possible and smile at everyone I see along the way.
David Epstein’s recent S.I. article on Sammy Wanjiru is fresh in my mind, reminding me of a ballsy (read: dangerous?) yet effective racing strategy: beat them at the beginning. The idea is to go hard at the start — to create a gap so immense that it is nearly impossible to clip. The unfortunate part of this strategy (as I will later find out) is that it could leave one gassed at the end, when finishing speed is needed to put it away.
But at this point, I’m only ONE mile into this journey, with THIRTY to go. I have a looooong day ahead, so I just go fast enough to get out front, but not fast enough to kill myself. Yet.
As the field spreads out, we step onto luscious singletrack, and I am not alone. On my heels is Trey Robinson, an awesome runner from Gurnee. We talk a little, but it is obvious that running this hard and talking is easier for him than it is me. His movement is fluid and deliberate. His stride is near perfect. I can’t keep up with him, so I just run my pace. Sure it’s fun to be competitive, to push my body to see what I’m capable of, but thrashing too hard too early and not running my race is as pointless as it is debilitating, so I let him go and just focus.
I have a song in my head: “Rapture at Sea” by Eastern Sun. I don’t run with music, but I do find it helpful to have a song that I like stuck in my head, to act as an equalizer between body and mind when things really get tough. Also, any time I can prevent “I’m Henry the Eighth I Am” from getting in my brain, I take advantage of it. Thankfully, “Rapture at Sea” has me cruisin’.
In fact, this first cruising loop is all about taking in the terrain. There are rolling hills. Bombs away on the down, bound on the ups! A couple steep climbs require power hiking, but barely. There is a lot of variation. Sometimes I’m enveloped by green forest only to escape into an open field. Sometimes I’m running on soft earth, sometimes crushed limestone. I come out of one downhill trail section that empties onto a paved bike path and BOOM. There are two curious deer staring straight at me, just 10 feet away. More like me are a comin’, fellas. Ya might wanna stand clear. They bound away, as if to say, naa naa na boo boo, we’re faster than yooouuuu!
Besides the one at the start/finish, there is also an aid station at the halfway point of the loop. The volunteers there are a jubilant and supportive bunch! They are so quick and efficient that I barely get to see who they are before I’m off again.
Just as I come up on a rather ominous group of trees that boast gigantic, man-made question marks on their heavy trunks, I realize I’ve lost Trey. He’s gotta be waaaaay ahead. Go get ‘em, bro!
I feel like I got a lock on second if I can just hold pace. I’m having fun. I feel good.
Loop 1 done in 51:52.
Um… about that “lock on second”… hmm… you’re 7 miles in, pal. Let’s just focus on the here and now. M’kay, thanks.
I blow through the aid station and look behind me to see I’m not as alone as all that singletrack would have me think. There’s a chase pack of three and they’re not far behind. Everybody looks good too. Not a struggler in the bunch. This is where my meditative mindset needs to take over: focus on the now. Right now. And then, RIGHT NOW. What’s going to happen later, or what has already happened is not going to help me. I need to just stay focused, take advantage of all the downhills and remember that this is something I enjoy.
WEEEEE! I scream as I leap up and over a section the locals call “Little Pig Hill”. I also marvel at the dandy and equally descriptive handmade signs put up all along the course, reminding me how creative and fun ultrarunners are: Land of the Aliens. Snake Hill. Costa Rica. Every time I get to Costa Rica, a section at the top of a gnarly downhill, I tell myself THIS IS FUN! IT’S LIKE A TROPICAL VACATION! Anything to get my mind off the guys gunning for me from behind.
At the end of the loop, the single track empties into the park where a girls softball game is going on and I must look like a mad man: A sweaty mess in short-shorts, a singlet and armsleeves. One softball spectator asks me, Are you okay?
Yep. I’m good. Actually, I feel great!
Loop 2 done in 48:14.
It’s easy to tell myself I feel great, but with the chase pack closing in and gaining every time we reach a clearing (the only time I can actually see them), I realize it’s getting harder for my body to buy into the game plan. Mentally, all is well. I think. Before I can decide, I hear blazing footsteps approaching from behind. They’re coming so fast that I have no choice but to stop, turn and look. Here comes a dude so full of energy and so strong that I feel absolutely deflated about my own performance.
Hey, man, keep up the good work. I think you’re in second, he says.
Uh… yeah. I am. I am? Wait –
I’m in the relay. Just starting out.
Comic relief to the rescue! Thank you, running gods! Thank you, Mother Earth! I needed that! Now, back to work.
With the spark of a good laugh, I put my head down and focus on turnover. Quick. Rapid. Turnover. I begin to pass people still on the second loop and I make sure to give words of encouragement to all, just as they do to me. Singletrack can be lonely sometimes, but coming into contact with others who love running and are as passionate about the trails as I am is a welcome comfort.
Meanwhile, my butt is starting to hurt. Literally. Both the left and right piriformis muscles are beginning to ache, but I’m not gonna let a pain in the ass stop me from tearing up dirt.
Loop 3 is done in 49:34.
As I leave the aid station, I think I’ve lost the chase pack. But then, as I power hike the steep climb to the trail head I hear footsteps right behind.
Hi there. You’re doing great, man. C’mon!
It’s Damian Nathaniel. I recognize him from my frantic looks back earlier. We exchange names and salutations.
Man, you’re running way stronger than me, I offer, somewhat deflated. After running in second by myself for 20 miles, then being caught on an uphill climb, I start feeling sorry for myself. But before I can give into the despair, Damian puts his hand on my shoulder and says, C’mon, let’s go!
Who is this guy and why is he so awesome!?!? He takes off downhill, balls to the wall and I follow, injected with energy I didn’t know I had. This dude could have totally smoked me but instead he offers encouragement and talks me through a low point.
After a couple of miles, we reach the paved section and talk about how much we hate it compared to the singletrack. We jockey back and forth on position, but I know he’s going to go ahead of me once we reach the aid station so I wisely ease off the jets. My butt hurts and I need some Coca-Cola to give me a jolt. I doubt he’s gonna stick around for any of that.
I make peace with this development. I accept it. Hell, I’m out running my butt off (literally) and I’m still having the time of my life!
I realize that, when discussing my running adventures, it appears that I often use hyperbole to describe my experiences. That couldn’t be further from the truth. There is no hyperbole. If I’m doing it right, every run is the best run I’ve ever had, because it’s happening NOW and I’m loving it NOW more than I’ve ever loved it before.
Competitiveness, for me, is a healthy addition to my running. When I choose to embrace it, it pushes me to do things I never thought I could do. So I use Damian as inspiration. Follow that runner! I tell myself. Head down. Back to work.
Then, out of nowhere, my own body throws up an obstacle by way of… a gastrointestinal scare. Yikes! Where’s my ginger? I grab a Ginger Chew (a must-have for any race) out of my pocket, quickly unwrap it and throw it in my mouth midstride. Of course, chewing this thing would be easier if it wasn’t so damn hard! The chilly temps have left it solid, nearly impossible to bite down on, so instead, I just swallow it.
Now I’m choking at the top of Costa Rica. I try to cough it up. Can’t do it. I pour the water/Gatorade mix from my handheld bottle down my throat and desperately try to swallow again, and again…
So how did Jeff die again? Oh, he ran himself silly then choked to death on a Ginger Chew. He was also wearing short-shorts.
Gulp. Whew. Got it down.
Back to work.
Loop 4 done in 52:01.
Suddenly. I’ve been running around in circles with a big, goofy grin on my face for 3 and a half hours now, talking to deer, choking on Ginger Chews, high-fiving strangers. Also, my butt hurts.
I’m at a low point, but these things come and go, so I just go back to what’s been working: the song in my head, bomb the downhills, focus on the now.
And then, just as quickly as I felt terrible, magically, I feel good again. I feel so good that I don’t even care when John Kiser clips me, leaving me fourth overall, with just 3 miles to go. Dude, you look fantastic! I holler at him as he blazes by (he eventually took 2nd overall). He did look fantastic.
I slam some Coke at the last aid station and put my head down one last time. Song in my head. Bomb the downhills. Focus on the now.
I feel the earth under my feet. I marvel at its touch, its beauty. I smile each time I see one of the M.U.D.D.ers’ clever signs.
I am so happy. This is what makes me truly happy. This land, this Earth. This life, this journey. This is why I’m here.
Loop 5 done in 56:24.
At an event like this, there is no going home right after. I rehydrate, I eat. There’s something delicious here called “Taco Soup” and I’ve eaten two servings. There’s homemade muffins and cookies and cakes. I devour everything in sight.
I change my clothes. I hug anyone who will hug me, including the race director! I call my Mom and Dad and then I sit my sore butt on the ground and cheer on all my friends coming through the finish.
Congratulations to Trey Robinson on the win. That was some spectacular running, my friend.
I won my age division, took 4th place overall and set a 50K trail P.R. of 4:17:55.
I could use a beer. And a nap.