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!
Last fall I cut more than 12 minutes from my previous best marathon time. Part of the reason for such improvement was due to increased core and leg strength. The rest, I am convinced, was because of my glorious summer of ultras.
With such a strong base established, by the time August came around and I was ready to put in 10 solid weeks of specific marathon speed training, my endurance engine was so robust that 26.2 miles at 7-minute pace felt short — exactly what I needed to to run my fastest race.
This year I plan to do even better. As I have proclaimed before: 2013 is the year I break 3 hours in the marathon. I hope to do it at Chicago on October 13th.
And so it will be again, with great fervor (and more intelligent training, especially regarding rest/recovery time), that I embark on yet another sunny summer of ultrarunning. Outside of the occasional fartlek, the next few months will feature mostly long and slow distance runs with a handful of short races thrown in for fun before tackling my summer target event: The Christmas in July 12 Hour Race, organized by my friends and fellow New Leaf Ultra Runners Brian, Ed and Terry.
In addition to the above, I am happy to announce that my personal training business, Iron Lung Fitness, is sponsoring Anastasia “Supergirl” Rolek’s 2013 Midwest Grandslam of Ultrarunning bid. Supergirl has graced these pages many times and I know she will represent ILF with the same focus and strength she does all of her events. Go SUPERGIRL!
But perhaps the most exciting development of this upcoming summer of ultras is the fact that I have TWO premier pacing positions to fill. The first will come June 1st and 2nd as I pace my friend Jen during the Kettle Moraine 100 Mile Endurance Run. Jen is a tough, focused athlete who trains with me, so I know getting to the finish line will be top priority for both of us.
Then, at the end of June, Siamak, another friend of mine and recurring Run Factory persona, will be taking on the biggest, baddest, most historic 100 mile race in the entire western hemisphere: THE WESTERN STATES 100 MILE ENDURANCE RUN!!!
And yep, you guessed it. I am the lucky fella who will pace him to the finish! Indeed, making sure Siamak circles the track at Placer High School will be my sole reason to live come the weekend of June 29th.
Running! If there’s any activity happier, more exhilarating, more nourishing to the imagination, I can’t think of what it might be. In running the mind flees with the body, the mysterious efflorescence of language seems to pulse in the brain, in rhythm with our feet and the swinging of our arms.
–Joyce Carol Oates
The weather has turned for the better, my legs are feeling fresh and I welcome the mysterious efflorescence of language to pulse in my brain alongside my constantly moving feet.
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…
The New Year generally brings with it a storied whim of clarity, a daring dash of DO IT. I’d been feeling this wave of confidence in the weeks that led up to January 1st, 2013; and now that the arbitrary date has come and gone, I feel even more pumped riding on the very top of that proverbial wave.
One product of said wave riding is that I am officially training people now. My personal training and fitness website, Iron Lung Fitness, has all the details. This is a career move I have been planning for a year and a half, so to actually be doing it, to actually make it happen, is quite a joyous relief.
Another wave that came upon my shore is that of increased strength, power and flexibility. The six weeks I took off of running were not spent in front of the television with my feet kicked up, rather, they were spent in the gym, gutting it out, punching holes into heavy bags and doing pistol squats until I puked (well, okay, I didn’t actually puke, but I might have felt better had I done so). Those six weeks were also spent in a yoga studio, where I learned to love bending stuff, including my preconceived notions of what yoga could (or could not) do for me. Instead of kicking rocks and cursing my injured IT band for not letting me run, I focused on the only thing I could: getting better.
Boy am I better.
On my runs this week I have noticed my easy jogging pace is a whole minute faster than it was at the end of the 2012 season. Slowly burning into tempo speed also seems easier. My core feels more firm, my gait more balanced. And while I suspect some of this perception could be attributed to the extended period of rest, I am quite confident that most of it is due to hard work: getting it done, riding a wave.
My focus for this year, as previously mentioned, is breaking the 3-hour mark in the marathon. At this point I am going to look towards the Chicago Marathon in October to make the attempt, fully aware that weather could be a deciding factor. If it happens to be a fluke year weather wise, I’ll adapt and try again late in the season.
The build-up to that will be full of fun too. I have the Houston Half Marathon coming this Sunday, which will give me a good idea of where my current speed threshold lies, followed by an exciting new local 25K race trail race. Then April will bring with it my first Boston Marathon, something I’m itching to experience firsthand. I’m signed up for the Ice Age Trail 50K in May, another new and local middle distance trail race called the Wholly Hell 15K in June and as of now, I’m still trying to find a suitable 50 mile or timed event to tackle in July/August. Mohican seems to be calling me, but so too does a repeat at Howl at the Moon.
The decision making wave will come to me, eventually.
To stretch my legs out and relax before the big October surge, I’m looking forward to a wild weekend in Hell, Michigan, where I aim to take part in the Run Woodstock weekend. Tentatively, I’m thinking I’ll do the 50K option, but I may drop down to something shorter so I have time to run the “natural” 5Ks they feature each evening. Yes, natural. That means I have to invent a non-invasive adhesive for certain body parts that may be prone to floppage.
After the Chicago Marathon, I’m not quite sure what I will do next. Hopefully, I’ll be organizing a big party to celebrate an epic finish. But after my experiences in 2012, I think a good amount of rest will also be in the plan.
Or maybe I’ll just run along and see what wave decides to take me next.
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!
Glenn Goodman at See Glenn Run was kind enough to interview me for his Profiles in Running series. Stop by his blog to check it out, especially if you want to see an even better photoshop than the mustachioed bulls.
Most people who know me well wouldn’t flinch at describing me as a “loner”. I grew up with six sisters, and, as the only boy, I spent a lot of time doing my own thing. Not much has changed.
In fact, I learned early on in life that I have a transient, vagabond spirit. Rather than fight it, I’ve just always learned to embrace that persona, even if it means enduring losses along the way. This default demeanor has been a comforting crutch for the hours and hours I tend to spend in my own head, running roads, traversing trail.
But this mentality does not take away from my basic human desire to be a part of something — to be a part of a community greater than any one individual. For most of my life I’ve been wandering, looking for that elusively small section of the planet that would make me whole.
As a runner, I have finally found it.
I am a part of something — something so great and so inspirational that it makes living every day as much a joy as it is an adventure.
Pretty sweet, eh?
The running gods giveth, and the running gods taketh away.
One thing I easily forget as I tally up personal bests and races of a lifetime is that no one is immune to the possibility of failure. And that definitely includes me.
Unfortunately, accepting that reality doesn’t make the process any easier on my mind (or body).
I signed up for the Des Plaines River Trail 50 Mile race just a few days prior to the Chicago Marathon. I did it for several reasons, all of which now, in retrospect, seem foolish. In fact, I’m a bit embarrassed by admitting as much and I’ve seriously contemplated just skipping over the reporting aspect of this race experience all together, thinking that if I don’t acknowledge my failure then it will just quietly go away.
Life ain’t always champagne and chocolate. Sometimes it’s Old Style and pork rinds. And it’s best to just accept as much, learn from it, then move on to the next thing before you’re uncontrollably drunk and smell like pig.
Fear of missing out (FOMO as I’ve heard it called) played a primary role in my signing up for this race. Focusing on road marathons is sometimes a lonely place for me because most of my friends in the running community are focusing on the longer distances (50 miles, 100 miles, etc). We go on weekend camping trips to run/pace the big distances. No one packs the car up and makes an epic trip out of running a road marathon. And running a 3:03 in a road marathon is great and all, but it’s still only enough for 1,049th place in a mega race, whereas a fast time in an ultra will likely bring a top-10 finish and accolades galore from my peers.
(Of course, as I write this, I realize just how bogus such a mentality is. WHY ARE YOU RUNNING, JEFF? Get the hell outta here, dude…)
Having spent the summer witnessing a collection of great performances from my friends (Supergirl’s Hallucination 100 win, my friends’ epic Run Across Illinois, Siamak’s Woodstock 50, Whitney’s Howl at the Moon victory, among many others), I could not help but get wrapped up in what everybody else is doing while easily forgetting my own personal strengths and weaknesses. One of those weaknesses — recovery time from a road marathon — would end up killing my race.
I don’t know the exact reason, but it takes me a good three weeks to fully recover from a road marathon. I tend to run road marathons as hard as I can, and even though the residual soreness goes away in a day or two, the lingering effects of fatigue and lowered performance remain. In the two weeks after the Chicago Marathon, I had a hard time maintaining an 8:30 pace. Each run labored into a jog — some even a slog — and a dull ache in my lateral right knee developed, most likely from a tight IT band, something I’ve been aware of and trying to fix for some time.
Even with all of this knowledge, I still thought all I needed was a few days of rest to clear everything up, so I took the Wednesday, Thursday and Friday before DPRT off completely. No running.
But perhaps the worst part of my lead-up to a DNF was the cocky mentality I had going in. Despite the aforementioned fatigue, the aforementioned achy knee and the aforementioned FOMO, I still had it in my head that I could run a very fast 50 miles. The Des Plaines River Trail course is flat. It is fast. And based on my recent marathon time and a few delusional minutes plugging numbers into the McMillan Pace Calculator, I figured a 7-hour 50 miler was definitely doable.
And sure enough, as I started out on Saturday morning, all systems were go. The rest had left me feeling fresh. Holding an 8 minute pace seemed easy. The trail was perfect and the day was beautiful. Who knows, I thought, could be something special.
But by mile 5 my right knee was aching. By mile 10 it was throbbing. By mile 15 it was hobbling.
Yet, I kept pushing on. WHY!?!?
I had never DNF’d before. And I always told myself the only reason I would ever DNF is if I was injured. Well, there I was, obviously injured, and yet I still couldn’t convince my stupid self to hang it up. The thought kept coming, but I kept shooing it out, thinking that if I just ignored it (and the knee pain) that it would eventually go away.
It did not. In fact, by the 20 mile mark, my stride had shortened considerably to compensate, and people started passing me.
At the 24 mile mark, I could barely walk. My knee wouldn’t bend. It was stiff as a board, and throbbing.
I walked/hobbled the 2.5 miles to Aid Station number 9, and as I approached, I knew that I was going to have to do the one thing I never wanted to do. I dropped from the race.
I haven’t had much of a love life in the last five years, but I still couldn’t help but notice the irony that exists in relationships as well as my favorite activity. Sometimes the thing (or person) you love the most, is the very thing (or person) that will hurt you the most. Not being able to run is my biggest fear. But I also know that sometimes, in order to avoid long-lasting, devastating damage that would keep me from running, that taking some time off is the only remedy.
The time spent in the back of the sweeper van allowed me to reflect on this. And I made it a point to suck it up and not make it an issue as I waited out the rest of the day, cheering on my friends to some fantastic finishes.
In fact, my friends were my saviors on Saturday. Siamak ran a 7:28 — A SEVEN HOUR TWENTY-EIGHT MINUTE FIFTY MILER!!!! — and Alfredo finished under 10 hours after having fought through his own troubles, both physical and mental. My friend Tracy WON THE WOMEN’S RACE! My friends Jen and Patrice both finished their very first 50 milers and a whole host of others had great days in the marathon and half-marathon as well.
Watching the joy and triumph from others was a good reminder of why I do what I do. And it was also a reminder to not get too wrapped up in the feats of others and feel obligated to replicate them. Right now my focus is on road marathons and that’s where it should stay until I finally reach all of my goals. Trying to push my body to do things it’s not exactly trained for, just because everyone else is doing it, is not beneficial to me.
So I am going to take a couple weeks off from running. I need to let my knee/IT band heal. I will get body work done. I will rest and regroup before starting my next training cycle. It will be pretty hard for me to do, mentally, but I will get through it by supporting my friends’ efforts (I’ll be manning an aid station at the Lakefront 50 all day this coming Saturday) and by acknowledging that everybody needs a break sometime, whether it be to heal an injury or to reboot from a long, long season.
Onwards and upwards!
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.
Every once in a while life allows us the rare opportunity to really live, in the moment for an extended period of time, undisturbed and unfazed by distractions from the outside world. Beginning at 5 a.m. on Friday, August 17, and all the way through 6 p.m. on Sunday, August 19, my life had but one purpose: get my friends from the Mississippi River to Lake Michigan as they ran 161 miles along the northern border of Illinois.
To say it was one of the most phenomenal experiences of my life would be an understatement.
Which is why a typical race report will not suffice. How does one even begin to summarize the myriad stories, themes and struggles that developed over 58 harrowing hours?
It is impossible.
Yet, not impossible. In fact, if I learned anything over this past weekend, it’s that pure guts and determination and confidence can overcome anything.
So instead of the typical race report, I’m going to take on my biggest literary challenge yet. It may take some time — I may get tired, I may bonk, I may do the zombie walk — but for someone who enjoys hours and hours and hours of perpetual motion in the way of running, sitting down for the hours and hours and hours it will take to flesh out this epic tale seems quite fitting. And now, it also seems doable.
So to Juan, Chuck, Kamil, Tony, Brian, Mike, Kathy, Scott and the steady stream of heroic volunteer pacers and crew who made Team LOL’s Run Across Illinois a beaming success, I tip my cap.
And I thank you. From the bottom of my heart, I thank you. You inspired me beyond words, and you also showed me that if you really care about something enough, you will find a way.
I am going to find a way.
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Team LOL’s Run Across Illinois was done to raise money for Chicago youth charity Chicago Run. And there is still time to help! Please consider supporting this worthy cause so that today’s youth can overcome the obesity crisis that it currently faces. You can support Team LOL’s efforts for Chicago Run *HERE*.
I have run enough marathon+ distance races now to know that aches and pains are simply going to come. There is no shortcut. I know this. I either accept the discomfort and move on or I suffer defeat. I also know that anything can go wrong, at any time — that a successful race is never a given and the best runners are those who are able to adapt on the fly.
Yet I somehow still seem to underestimate just how uncomfortable I will be at times and how I might possibly struggle to keep up the fight. In my mind, it’s always a given. In reality, it is much harder.
In preparation for the Kennekuk Road Runners’ 22nd Annual Howl at the Moon 8 Hour Run, a race that typically features hellaciously high temps and unforgiving humidity, I heat trained in winter gear at high noon and suffered through several long road runs outside of Houston, TX, just so I would be ready for whatever mother nature would throw at me. I put myself in painful situations and prepared my mind to reinterpret the norm.
Naturally, August 11, 2012 would bring unseasonably cool temperatures (mid-high 50s for low, low 80s for the high) to the Danville area, I would be bothered by an old nemesis that had been dormant since October 2011 and I would realize that one can train and train and train, but that there really is no substitution for the feelings associated with running 50 miles other than running 50 miles.
The Night Before
Me, my sister Cara and my friend Jerret all arrive together at the Kennekuk Cove County Park where we will camp along the course prior to the race. It turns out that even though I have recently acquired a strong taste for all things outdoors, I am still an idiot when it comes to putting things together, as is evident by my inability to put up our tent. Luckily, ten or so special aides jump in to
make fun of assist me. These helpers are just some of the 30 or so runners from my New Leaf and M.U.D.D. groups, fellow ultra junkies who know how to have a good time. It turns out we’re all having such a good time that the tent is thwarting our focus. Finally, Tony and Alfredo save the day and I can begin my pre-race routine.
I have ONE beer, eat a salad and some pasta, then try to relax as much as I can as the group gathers around to share race stories and good cheer. Admittedly, it’s hard for me to calm my nerves when there is so much excitement in the air. I’ve been looking forward to this race for a long time now, mostly because of how many familiar faces I will see on the 3.29 mile looped course and how good I feel knowing that, right now, I am in the best shape I have ever been, my whole life.
My sister and I have already had an EPIC week, so I’m taking those positive vibes, channeling them through my mind with deep belly breaths, and being confident in my training. I begin to yawn, so I say good night to everyone and retire to the tent.
The air is cool. Dew all around. The chill peps me out of my zombie-like state. Did I sleep last night? A little, but not much. Cara’s allergies had her coughing most of the night and my rookie camping ass didn’t bring a soft base layer for the tent, so I rolled around on uneven ground most of the evening. Still, it’s rare that I get a lot of sleep the night before a race anyway, so I’m not too bothered. Instead, I go about my normal routine, which includes a liberal application of heavy-duty lubrication (you knew that was coming, right?).
I make sure I proudly display my red short-shorts around the start/finish area so everyone can get their taunting out of their system (I say this in the most endearing of ways, because I know the shorts are insanely short, and are considered a running fashion faux pas by some — that some not including me, obviously).
I check in with my official scorer, Pat, the man who will be recording each of my laps as I pass by throughout the day. I introduce myself and shake Pat’s hand. He seems just as excited as I am, so I know he and I are going to have a connection — whether he knows it or not. “Nice meeting you, Pat. I will see you soon!” I say as I head back towards the tent.
My mom arrives to help my sister crew the race. I give Mom a big hug and marvel at the shirt she has on! Both she and Cara are wearing custom made shirts that read “Jeff’s Crew” on the back. Wow! How awesome is that! I know I am spoiled having a family that is so supportive of my never-ending running adventures. I don’t take that for granted. Having them involved by crewing my races, sharing in my ups and downs, serves as a real mental boost. Makes me feel special.
I go over last minute instructions with them both, but Cara has done this before, so we all feel confident and are ready to go.
7:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m.
As the race director makes his announcements, I position myself at the front. My goal for this 8 hour run today is to be in the mix. Ultimately, I want to run no less than 50 miles, hoping that is enough to get me another top ten finish; but deep down, I want more. I want to push and see what happens. That doesn’t mean I am dumb enough to kill myself early on, but I do plan to straddle the line between stupid and daring.
We take a moment of silence to remember Scott Hathaway, a remarkable runner who died on the course five years ago.
I dart out, being led by the man who has owned this event since 2004, Scott Colford of Logansport, IN. He has the course record (61.72 miles) and has won it every year he has participated. I figure he is going to set a pretty quick pace to drop as many of us as he can, and, indeed, he does just that as we settle around 6:30 to 7:00 minute pace out of the gate.
As we hit the first turn onto shaded rocky trail, we all take a moment to touch the memorial set up for Scott Hathaway — a salute to a fellow ultra runner. We all touch it for good luck.
About a mile in and already the lead pack is well separated from the rest. Colford takes off at a pace I simply can’t match — not this early anyway. There is a young fellow with him and a slim runner dressed in Marathon Maniac gear chasing close behind, but I settle into my own 7:00-7:30 pace, and focus on memorizing the course.
From my training I learned that one way to beat the monotony of a looped course is to know its every nook and cranny, to know where to accelerate, where to slow down, what tangents to run to shorten it up, to isolate any spots that may offer trouble along the way. This course is mostly grass and dirt trail, with some occasional pavement. There’s one tricky spot in the middle that throws a gauntlet of uneven footing highlighted by a couple of ankle traps. There is one relative downhill section, just after the first aid station at the halfway point, where one can genuinely take advantage of free speed. And there is one significant uphill section that I decide to run the first few times, but know I will have to walk at some point.
I finish the first loop in a quick 23 minutes. I run by the tent where my mom and sister are waiting for me (something they will do a lot of all day long!). I assure them I’m good to go and I zoom on by.
I make eye contact with my scorer, Pat, we establish the first of many connections we’ll have throughout the day and now I start to think about what I’m really in for: 7 hours and 37 more minutes of RUNNING!!!
After a couple of steady 25-minute loops, and no change in the three leaders up front, I settle into the chase pack that offers another familiar face, John Kiser from Grayslake.
“I remember you,” I offer to John. “You blazed by me at the Earth Day 50K with just three miles left.”
“Yeah, I was feeling good that day,” he says with a good-hearted smile.
We carry on, running and chatting here and there with another runner, Gary, who hails from Mokena, IL. For the next several loops, we ebb and flow, picking up, slowing down, chatting every so often and trying to catch up to one another just as much. I feel especially confident on the down and uphill sections, so I tend to drop them there only to have them catch up to me soon after. In fact, I crown Gary as “The Accelerator”, because no matter how big a gap I put between us on the hills, he seems to have no problem closing it with his speed.
Back and forth we go… back and forth for one loop, two loops, three loops. Back and forth. Back and forth. UGH! The more we exchange positions, the more irritated I become. I can’t seem to drop him. My mind is losing focus! But before I can battle any of my thoughts, another obstacle is kicking me in the butt. Literally.
And I’ve nowhere to hide.
Piriformis syndrome. A real pain in the ass. Deep down inside the gluteus maximus. A condition I have been dealing with off and on for a few years now, it is most positively rooted in the fact that my day job has me sitting for eight hours a day. It probably doesn’t help that, when I’m not running or working, I am usually writing, from a sitting position. The only way to beat it is to apply great pressure to the piriformis itself — a muscle that excels at being elusive to even the deepest of deep tissue massages, or settle for a series of elaborate stretches that help elongate it.
Unfortunately, none of those remedies are very applicable during a race. It flared up on me during the 2011 Chicago Marathon, but I was able to run it off after 20 minutes or so. That isn’t happening today. I’ve been redirecting my attention from the aches for almost an hour now but as I finish up my 7th loop, this time in 27 minutes, I slow down considerably as I approach my crew. I bark orders at my sister, then immediately feel guilty for letting my frustrations dictate my voice.
“Sorry,” I offer. “I’m just not feeling so great right now.” I try to explain.
Supergirl (yes, THAT Supergirl) is there with my mom and sister now, and she offers to help, but I know there is nothing that can be done for this royal pain in the butt, so I just grab some grapes and a new bottle and head off knowing I’m going to have to slow it down.
I think I was sorta short with Supergirl just now, too. What is wrong with me?
In fact, my mom’s notes from the race at this point read “Shitty”, and well, yeah. That’s about how I feel right now.
10:00 a.m. to 1 p.m.
I want to scream. But I can’t. I can’t be a baby now. I just gotta suck it up. Or… drop.
That’s right. I could drop. I could just stop now and say I gave it my all.
But… am I giving it my all?
No. Yes, my butt hurts. Can I still move forward without causing any further damage? Yes. It’s just a butt-ache! It will go away!
There goes Gary, flying by me. For the last time. I can’t keep up.
Damn it! I should just DNF. Who cares?!? It’s stupid if I’m not having fun!
Why aren’t you having fun? That’s no one’s fault but yours… mine. Suck it up, Jeff! This shit isn’t easy. It’s supposed to be tough!
Of course, it is. Just keep moving.
John flies by me. A few minutes later two guys I passed earlier in the race whiz by me. A few minutes later, another. I’m fading.
So what? Be glad you’re moving, dummy. Be glad you’re alive, running around this park with your mom and sister waiting on your every need, a friendly face around every bend. Wake up!!!
There’s Alfredo up ahead. Let’s go catch him and see how he’s doing.
“Jeff!” he says, excited to see me. “How are you doing?”
I want to tell him about my issues, about how I was in 4th and now I’m in… I have no idea where I am now and that my butt hurts and that it’s hot now and I want to be sitting down with something cold in my hand and I am feeling sorry for myself and I am thinking about dropping and THEN…
“I’m doing okay,” I say.
We run along together for a short bit and he spontaneously tells me that I inspire him. He tells me that he uses me to push himself to be better — this coming from a man who went from being a 250+ pound alcoholic to a sober, slim running beam of light! Wow.
I really am being stupid.
“Thanks, Alfredo. You inspire me too.”
In fact, he’s inspiring me RIGHT NOW.
I dart off, fully aware of the lingering pain in my butt, but accepting (finally) the fact that mulling about it in my own head isn’t going to help me run any faster. I’m going to run this next little bit for Alfredo.
Then I catch up to another friend, Art. I’m going to run this little bit for Art.
And there’s Jeremy. I’m gonna run this little bit for Jeremy.
And Eric. And Kelly. And Tony. AND MY LORD I COULD RUN THE WHOLE REST OF THIS RACE ON THE ENERGY OF ALL MY FRIENDS!!!
I may be slowing down considerably as I roll past my crew and check in with Pat for my 10th, 11th and 12th loops, but I see I’ve logged 39.48 miles with two hours to go and suddenly I am ready to MOVE AGAIN!
1:00 p.m. to 3:00 p.m.
Pain in the ass? WHAT pain in the ass? Move along, son!
Okay, so it’s not the most conventional of running mantras, but it’ll work. Especially now, since this is a race against the clock! I have two hours to run 10 miles, something that I could normally do with my eyes closed and feet shackled. Of course, it’s a bit harder with 40 miles already in the legs, but I get another boost of inspiration from my friend, Whitney Richman, who sneaks up on me as I start running out of the start/finish area aid station.
I am officially getting “chicked”.
So what? It’s Whitney! Whitney is a badass.
She is currently running in the first female position. I respect her speed as much as her toughness.
“You started running again just as I pass you,” she says jokingly.
“It’s all good, Whitney. You’re going to pass me. And you’re going to win! Great job!”
Getting “chicked” (passed by a female competitor) can be a big stain on the psyche of many males. I used to think it was just out of jest, but apparently some dudes do take it very seriously. I am not one of those dudes. I started off in road running, where I was getting beat by fit, fast and elite women quite regularly. What the hell do I care if a girl passes me? She must be fast if she’s blowing by me so more power to her!
All I care about now is getting my 5o miles in.
And I’m gettin’ it now. In fact, I even have a little bounce in my step. I keep a decent 9:00-9:30 pace at this point and just concentrate on moving forward. For a little while I run with another Kennekuk regular named Scott who tells me this is his 20th year running Howl. 20 YEARS! WOW! Eventually he runs on past me but I definitely appreciate the conversation while it lasted.
My pal Siamak catches up to me and we run together for a while. Hmm, been in this situation before, I thought. I could get used to this! It really is comforting to have a familiar face join you in your most primordial pits of pain, if only to distract the mind and body from feeling so crappy.
We eventually separate, and once again, I concentrate on catching up to the next friend, and then the next.
I finish my 13th loop in 33 minutes, a whole five minutes faster than the 12th loop as my mother quickly points out.
“Why do I do this stuff again, Mom?”
“Because you’re going to feel really good once you’re done.”
“Exactly.” I knew the answer. Deep down I know that. But sometimes, in the middle of it all, it’s easy to forget. It’s nice to be reminded by someone who has your best interests at heart.
“I’m getting my 50 miles.” I declare.
The 14th loop is a blur. Really. To keep my mind from doing annoyingly instantaneous calculations that never seem to accumulate fast enough, I force myself to look down at the ground in front of me, so when I eventually do look up and see that I’m done with the loop, it doesn’t seem like it took that long.
“I got you down for 14 loops, headed out for your 15th, Jeff.” says Pat.
“Thank you, Pat!”
I like Pat. I really like that guy. Something about the way he says my name every time and looks me straight in the eye and raises his hand so I know he is talking to me… I don’t know him, but I think I know that he’s an awesome dude and he probably has a whole circle of friends and family who would back that up.
This last loop is for Pat.
I get to the bottom of the great big hill. I power hike my way up and thank the aid station volunteers at the top. Nearly ever time I crested that big old thing I immediately craved ice cold water. And there, every time at my service, were the kind souls at the top of that hill with just that very thing to ease my pain. This last swig of water is for you, awesome aid station workers!
Up ahead of me is Jerret. We’re runnin’ this in together.
I finish the 15th loop alongside Jerret. We have 20 minutes left, but since we don’t have enough time to make another full 3.29 mile loop, we now have to hit the quarter mile out-and-backs as many times as we can before the eight hours are finally up. I need just two out-and-backs to make 50 miles.
I run three and finish with 50.85 miles.
My mom and Cara are there to hold me up, because now that the race is over, I don’t feel like using my legs much at all. I lean on them both as we make our way back to the tent so I can begin the healing process.
As usual, tears start to fall out of my face like a big old softy.
“Why does this always happen to me, Mom?” I ask.
She says something about serotonin overdrive or something like that and I realize it doesn’t much matter. These are tears of joy. I fought the fight today and I won, because I’m still standing.
I didn’t give up. And in the end I won my age group, finishing 8th overall.
- – -
Everything else was just gravy. The folks who put on this race are awesome people! As the RD repeatedly said, they love to party. We ate, we drank, we hung around for a kick-ass awards ceremony where our New Leaf and M.U.D.D. groups took home some major bling. We hung out and just relaxed knowing that we all did something special out there while most of America was probably busy sitting down, watching awful reality TV, eating something engineered in a chemistry lab.
Congratulations to Whitney Richman who won the women’s race, coming in 6th overall! And, of course, a tip of the cap to Scott Colford, the winner and STILL champion of Howl.
I’ll be baaaaaaack…
Also, thanks, Brian for all these fantastic pictures!
During U.S. Olympian Aly Raisman’s gold medal floor routine, NBC commentator Tim Daggett mentioned her unique ability to view the nervous energy associated with such daring gymnastics (something most of us call “pressure” or “anxiety”) into something much more performance enhancing. He called it “excitement”.
What a novel yet extraordinarily simple idea!
Embrace the nervousness, the anxiety, the pressure and transform it into something positive. Use it as a springboard for optimal performance. Face it. Take it. And run with it.
Digging deeper, I know that, for me, most of that pre-race energy comes from knowing the type of pain that will be involved. If you have ever raced a race, I mean, really put yourself out there, leaving nothing behind, then you know the type of pain I am talking about. It’s the type of pain dictated by the central governor, that annoyingly present theoretic portion of the brain that says, “Stop! Are you crazy? This is unnecessary!”
It’s also the type of pain that, when challenged and overridden, leads to bouts of ecstasy. That’s one of the reasons why I love racing. I love pushing myself beyond what I think I can do. Even in failure, I am guaranteed to experience something most people never will, a satisfying feat all by itself.
Overriding the central governor, attempting to accomplish extraordinary goals, I remind myself of Dave Terry’s wisdom as told by Scott Jurek: “Not all pain is significant.”
And just in case you don’t believe that, consider the fact that Jurek won the 2007 Hardrock 100 on a severely sprained ankle, or that Thomas Voeckler’s captivating Stage 10 victory at the 2012 Tour de France — the one that had him making all sorts of uncomfortable faces towards the end — was done despite a bum knee.
I know a thing or two about pain myself. Just look at my face as I crossed the finish line during my current marathon PR. That was a painful race, no doubt. But the pain has long subsided and all that is left is the purest joy I have ever come to know.
The smile on my face reassured them that indeed, I was just fine. Ecstatic, actually. Hours and hours of running tends to leave me with a permanent grin, even if the body aches.
After my first couple of hours circling the track, one of the dads from a nearby little league game approached me with his young son. “Man, you’re a beast,” he said. “I’ve been here for two baseball games and you’ve been running the whole time.”
I smiled in response, a bit shy. “Just doing what I love,” I said, “it’s a nice day for it.”
The dad looked down at his son holding his hand. “Do you mind if my son runs a lap with you?” he asked.
“Not at all. Let’s go.”
The boy let go of his father’s hand and hitched on to my heels. I slowed my pace and asked him his name. He responded by giggling and sprinting off ahead of me. I ran to catch him.
Laughing and running. I got a little chill up my spine. This kid was having a blast. And before I knew it, as we circled the track (a bit slower now that he reached his lactate threshold level, I assume) we gradually picked up other little leaguers from his team. I counted six happy little runners following me in circles. No talking, just giggling. And several pick-ups in pace among them.
I didn’t say anything either. Just smiled and kept on. Our actions were more than enough. I felt like the pied piper of fitness. The kids were having fun just moving.
Because kids love to run! It’s part of their nature! It’s who they are!
Unfortunately, many Chicago kids are forced to curb that natural instinct. They live in unsafe environments. Their homes are in food deserts that leave them with poor nutrition. They go to schools with budgets that fail them.
But Chicago Run, the non-profit organization Team LOL is running across Illinois for in a few weeks, is restoring that natural freedom back to the children who so desperately need it. They are working with Chicago Public Schools to get kids active again. They are building the foundation for a future of educated, empowered, physically fit young people — a foundation that is paramount to the wellness of our city.
They are doing amazing things. They are putting smiles on kids’ faces. They are making a difference.
And they need our help. You can help by visiting *HERE*.
In the meantime, consider the case of Alex, a student from Walsh Elementary in the Pilsen neighborhood. A participant in Chicago Run’s “Running Mates” program, affected by the program’s nutrition lessons and running challenges, Alex soon started to notice that his belt was in need of extra holes, that his pants were getting bigger and no longer fit properly. He took the lessons he was learning and shared them with his family, igniting a healthier lifestyle at home. Months later, Alex found himself on the steps of the White House, giving a speech on how Chicago Run empowered him to be healthy before introducing first lady, Michelle Obama.
Chicago Run is bringing health and longevity back to our kids. Consider being a part of this important mission. You won’t be sorry.
As soon as I finished the Chinatown 5K, I hopped in the car and headed out to the suburbs to meet all my ultrarunning buddies for the New Leaf Ultra Runs Sunburn 8-Hour Run. Like our other club timed events, this fun run took place on a short 2.2 mile looped trail of crushed limestone through exposed prairie grass and big open sky.
The perfect recipe for… a sunburn.
And I got one. But I ain’t sweatin’ it because the smiles and high-fives and good times were well worth it. And though I showed up two hours late, I was happy to get in a nice and easy 50 km run while sharing the communal good cheer with all my pals. Here are some of the highlights:
- My short shorts make for a great conversation piece, or, at least they make for a good show. I’m used to getting cat calls when I hit the city streets dressed in my open split racers, so being serenaded by my peers with songs like “I’m Too Sexy”, “We Wear Short Shorts” and “She’s Got Legs” just make me want to wear them all the time, not just when I’m running.
- If you’re going to wear your hat backwards in the hot sun, be ready for an awkwardly placed tan square on your forehead. Yes, yes, yes, I know it’s there, but thanks for pointing it out.
- Running a hard 5K, followed by an hour long car ride is a good recipe for stiff legs. Though I had a blast running around in circles with all my friends, I never could get my legs to loosen up, which resulted in tight IT bans, tight piriformis, tight everything and a slower pace.
- Coca-Cola can save the day. I don’t drink soda, but for some reason, during ultra events, I crave it. And I have never craved it like I did on Saturday. Thankfully, my friend Juan saved the day by giving me one of his. It was like sweet, sweet nectar from the running gods. Ahhhhhh…
- Good company makes the time FLY!!! Seriously, getting to run alongside so many cool and interesting people does make the miles tick by quicker than if I were running alone. Each time I glanced at my watch I was surprised at how much time had gone by.
- Which leads me to the realization that I need to focus better on nutrition, even during club runs. Because I was spending so much time socializing, I wasn’t paying much attention to what I had eaten or how much I’d been drinking. There were several points where I felt a little woozy, mostly because I wasn’t eating and drinking properly, so I will know better for the future.
But maybe the biggest thing I took home from Sunburn is the fact that a kiddie pool full of ice water needs to be a staple of every single summertime running event. YES?!?!? Having reached the 50 km mark in my run with a little over a half an hour left on the clock, I headed out for another loop when, from the corner of my eye, I caught a friend of mine soaking in the kiddie pool. She looked so happy and so at peace.
I want to be there, I said to myself.
So I hung ‘em up, soaked my legs, and enjoyed the last bit of running from the sidelines, which also gave me a head start on the delicious smorgasbord BBQ potluck. Nothing goes together like running and eating, which means I’ll be looking forward to this event again next year!
The heat training I’ve been experiencing has been a great indicator of my body’s ability to adapt. Six weeks ago I began layering in my winter gear for an hour or two around the track each week — part of my build-up for the Howl at the Moon 8 Hour Ultra in August — and by the time the real heat wave came last week, I was pleasantly surprised at my body’s ability to withstand the suffocating elements.
That doesn’t mean I particularly enjoyed suffering for three long hours on the 4th of July, soaked with my own sweat-Gatorade-Gu filth and tattooed with Jeff-addicted horse flies; but it does mean that I was able to keep pushing through, moving one foot in front of the other, even when my body was uncooperative.
Curiously, the mild torture sessions have increased my brain power. My mind is overriding my body. Hot damn! That’s an accomplishment all on its own!
When everything becomes immensely hard, when I’m breaking down, when I’m ready to call it quits… I just keep going anyway. I think to myself, it could always be worse.
And believe me, it can always be worse.
No matter how hard I think I’m pushing, nor how difficult the task, I find motivation in knowing that someone else is out there pushing harder, suffering more. Some folks might find that sick and twisted, but sick and twisted gets results.
Bring the pain, Mother Earth. Bring it all! Your harsh servings of spirit-breaking elements might be hard to withstand at first, but I’m gonna figure you out, or at least drown myself in electrolytes trying.
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.
“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.
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. I meet Dorn Peddy, who created all the earth-themed hardware. 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 and Dorn, 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.
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.
Running distances further than a marathon — in some cases, running distances A LOT further than a marathon — takes a certain type of character.
I believe that character is deep inside all of us, there for the unlocking. I didn’t know I had one, and WOULD HAVE LAUGHED if you said I had one, just a couple years ago. But now I am certain we all have it.
It just takes something to trigger it.
Like rage. Fear. A broken heart.
For me, it was all three. At once.
I had just caught the running bug and my destination was: THE MARATHON. I thought there was no finer achievement. So I dug right in.
At the time, I was dating a girl who I really dug. She was perfect. Maybe I was falling in love.
She was a runner too. She’d drawn me in to the sport actually. She was training for her first marathon as well and her target was Chicago 2010. I loved being with her for the build up and the excitement. And I started thinking about what it would be like to run further than a marathon. Is it possible? Do people hurt themselves trying? I was really clueless that an entire world of ultrarunners even existed.
And then I found Dean Karnazes’ book, Ultramarathon Man. I was fascinated. And determined I would test the waters. Some day. Soon.
The girl thought that running more than a marathon was dangerous. And stupid.
I didn’t say much. I put it in my brain’s back pocket and forgot about it.
But then, exactly one week before she was to run the Chicago Marathon, on a cold October morning, she broke up with me.
I went for a run. And on that run, I decided I was not only going to beat her marathon time (by a lot), but I was also going to tackle the ultra distances. 50 miles. 100 miles. 24 hour races. I’m doing that shit.
That was how my switch was flipped.
And now I’m doing that. I’m really doing it.
So much hurt has brought so much joy to my life. I find it astoundingly ironic.
And just perfect.
As race fees continue to go up, one needn’t search far to find someone with an opinion on the matter. From Runner’s World to the blogosphere to the regulars of my weekly group run, people are talkin’ about it and sometimes it gets FEISTY!
Earlier this month, I signed up for the now sold out 2012 Chicago Marathon. I was so paranoid of missing entry that I registered THE EXACT MINUTE registration opened. I whizzed through the many pages of sign-up and when it came to pay the $150 registration fee (up $5 from 2011), I didn’t even flinch.
I would’ve paid $300 to run the Chicago Marathon. Any more than that and I’d have to seriously check my budget, but to me, every single penny of that $150 is well beyond worth it.
I’m a dreamer. I love to picture myself doing extraordinary things. But reality is an asskicker.
I will never take a pitch in the Big Leagues. I will never drive the lane or shoot a game-tying three in the NBA. The NFL will never see my touchdown dance.
But on October 7, 2012, I will take to 26.2 miles of my home city like a rock star, running at top speed, supported by the voracious cheers of the million plus spectators lining the streets with their bodies and their roars. The entire city will stop for me. I will be on top of my universe.
I will never get that feeling at the St. Louis Marathon. Or the Houston Marathon. Or any marathon that isn’t a World Major, or at least treated as such. If one hasn’t had this experience, he or she will have a hard time understanding it, but trust me: it’s definitely worth $150.
Not everyone feels this way.
And that’s cool too. Some folks have a dollar per mile limit, like they won’t pay more than $3 a mile, so no more than $78 for a marathon. That’s totally cool. You can run the St. Louis Marathon for that.
But it’s lonely. You won’t feel like a rock star (unless you win it maybe). And you’re in… St. Louis. I would pay $78 for that kind of experience too.
But Chicago… there’s just something about Chicago…