In this year’s comeback from last fall’s IT band injury, I have been doing a lot of sparring at the gym. It’s a good thing I have been doing so, because the only thing that properly prepared me for the type of beating I would take at the Minnesota Voyageur 50 Mile Race on July 27, 2013 was getting punched over and over again by dudes bigger and stronger than me.
And just as it goes in the ring, sometimes getting your bell rung can be the most beautiful thing in the world.
Pre-Race, Friday, July 26, 2013
First thing in the morning and my heels hit the ground pain free.
This is good. This is very good, I say to myself.
I haven’t run a step since Saturday and the extra rest has given me full motion in my ankles and heels, something I am going to need as I mentally and physically prepare myself for Minnesota Voyageur. The Achilles pain that scared me most of the week seems to be absent and with this added rest I feel confident about tackling the tough, gnarly course.
My friend, Kirsten, who I met last year at Clinton Lake, shows up at my house with Jim, another ultrarunner from central Illinois, and all three of us exude excitement with a hint of anxiety as we load the car and begin the 8-hour trek north towards the Minnesota wilderness.
The drive is long and confusing — long because it’s 480 miles from my house to Carlton, Minnesota; and confusing because it’s 55 degrees and pouring rain most of the way. Between the spry conversation and the giddy storytelling of ultra-adventures past, I make sure to look at my watch every now and then just to remind myself that it really is late July.
We arrive in Carlton and walk to packet pick-up shivering in the cold, wet rain.
The high for tomorrow is 57, says Jim as I pinch myself hoping to wake up in a warmer state. Supposed to be 42 at the start.
With our race shirts and bibs in hand, we get news that this year’s course will be different than the original one. Due to some washed out areas and bridge construction, the course has been modified from the one that made it famous, but we are assured that all the familiar Voyageur sections will still be there, including the infamous power line section of steep, brutal climbs.
We head back to the hotel, eat dinner and then commiserate on the less-than-summery skies mother nature will provide us tomorrow. We all agree that the cooler temps will make for nice running weather, but the chilly rain will make things quite sloppy. This isn’t going to be an easy fifty (are any of them really?), but the good news is: we are all prepared for a fight.
Jim, you ready to finish your first 50 miler? I ask.
Yes, I am, he emphatically replies.
More than satisfied with his confident answer, I wish he and Kirsten both a good night, turn off the lights and fall fast asleep.
Pre-Race, Saturday, July 27, 2013
*BEEP BEEP BEEP*
WAKE THE HELL UP, JEFF! says my brain to my body as I desperately reach for the “off” button on my smartphone’s alarm clock. I look around to see Kirsten and Jim are rising along with me.
Who thought it was a good idea to run 50 miles this morning? Jim asks.
Excellent. We’re cracking jokes well before the crack of dawn and that’s a great sign. Unfortunately, the weather report has jokes too, unwavering from its estimated high of 57 degrees. And right now, as I shove two bananas and a Clif Bar down my throat in the black of morning, it’s a balmy 43 degrees.
Armed with this bit of irony, the three of us ready ourselves with our own pre-race rituals. I take some time to get my head right, to focus my mental game on pushing my physical.
There is no question that I am stronger, right now, than I ever have been before. This increased muscle mass was born out of less miles and more rounds in the gym, so while I know the body is there for a full-on physical adventure through the woods, I still have questions about my endurance, especially over the course of a demanding, difficult race like I will face today.
The only other question mark entering my psyche this morning is whether or not my heels will hold up on this challenging terrain. I won’t know until I get going, so it’s no use worrying about it now.
Instead, I focus on being confident, and sometimes, that’s all it takes to get my stubborn ass moving the way I want.
After a 25-minute drive and some nasty, watered down gas station coffee, Jim, Kirsten and I find ourselves shivering together in the Carlton High School parking lot, still scratching our heads at the unorthodox July chill. It’s 47 degrees as we prepare to toe the start line and I overhear another runner say it was 80-something last year.
What a difference a year makes, I say as I stick my hand down my shorts to slather Vaseline all over my nether region, further exemplifying why I love the ultra community so much. Here I am coating my crack with grease mid-conversation and no one seems to notice, or care. It’s just part of the game.
So too is putting yourself in arduous predicaments. In fact, THIS is what I live for — the challenge of NOW — and I know that, no matter what, this entire day is going to be an adventurous exercise in taming doubt and experiencing the present, through every possible channel.
We pose for a final pre-race picture before the race director gives his speech.
A couple of good-luck fist bumps later and…
Slow, slow, slow.
Let’s go slow.
I repeat the above mantra as I settle somewhere in the middle of the pack.
My goal for today is to FINISH, of course. That’s always my first goal of any ultra distance race. But I would be a liar if I didn’t admit my sincere desire to run a sub-11 hour race today. After my dreamlike Western States pacing experience last month, I really want to start putting my name in the Western States lottery, and to do so I need to qualify with a sub-11 hour 50 miler. Because I plan to focus on Chicago Marathon training after this, I likely won’t be running any more 50s this year, so this is my one and only shot.
But considering how tough this course is, combined with the elements of rain and chill, I know that it is going to be nothing short of a fight to achieve that.
I’m also unsure about my heels. And as we start the short jog on paved bike path toward the trail head, my left Achilles starts giving me that wonky, sharp-YOW-YOW-give-out sensation. It’s not as serious as it was before, but it’s there, so each step seems like a question mark. For now, I try to be aware but not obsessive.
Once we turn onto the trail, the conga line of runners keeps my pace in check. Here there are jagged rocks and technical terrain alongside the gorgeously flowing St. Louis River. My heart rate is low. I’m just getting warm. Enjoying the slow.
You have all damn day out here, Jeff. No need to waste yourself now, I tell myself.
By the time we reach the multi-track leading to the first aid station at Leimer Road, my heels are all warmed up and won’t be an issue the rest of the day. Halle-ultra-lujah!!!
At the aid station, I grab a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and some chips that I wash down with a half-water-half-blue-Powerade mix. My most successful fueling strategy for ultras thus far has been to go on the “see food” diet, eating whatever I see that looks/sounds good at the time, favoring savory over sweet as much as possible. Yesterday I made sure to avoid all dairy products (they tend to make my gut a crap-shoot *rimshot*), so as long as I eat a little bit of real food at every station, supplemented with the occasional gel when I need it, I should be okay.
The aid station personnel kick ass with their awesomeness and before I head out, I tell them I can’t wait to see them again, some 44 miles down the road.
The Minnesota Voyageur is a wild, picturesque out-and-back course from Carlton to Duluth. I know I need to average 12-13 minute miles the best I can to finish under 11 hours; and while this seems like it should be no sweat for a three-hour marathoner who averages 7-minute mile pace in a road marathon, maintaining a 13-minute mile pace over this rugged terrain is going to be tough.
There are going to be spots along the course where running is just not possible. Hell, after hearing grizzled vets talk about what was in store for us this morning, I know that there are going to be spots along the course where even power hiking will be impossible — spots where we’ll be lucky to put one foot in front of the other without breaking something!
This is why instead of darting up ahead and through the conga line of mid-packers like I normally would, I just stay right here, somewhere in the middle, letting the natural pace of things rule. I am in no hurry. In fact, at Ice Age and Howl at the Moon last year, I suffered greatly from running too fast too early, so I know better and do my best to keep my heart rate low and my smile wide as I take in the beautiful forest all around me.
In every direction I see the greenest green. Luscious leaves of birch and pine soar high above me, the woodsy waft of nature fills my nose. This section out of Leimer Road is quite runnable, so I find a nice, easy, comfortable gear and just ride it steady, happy to be alive. I cruise along with other runners until there is a sudden halt in the line.
What’s going on? I ask, leaning my head to the side to see if I can see what the hold-up is. Before anyone can answer I see we have reached a shin deep stream crossing and some people up front are trying to figure out how to best get across.
It’s drizzling, it’s chilly. The trail is soaked, soggy and sloppy. It’s an absolute given that the feet are going to get and stay wet all day, so I bust out of the line and charge to the front, happy to jump in and out of the stream, off and running on the other side. Besides, my feet are protected with 2Toms BlisterShield Powder and Injinji socks, a combination that hasn’t let me down yet, so YEEEEEE HAAAAAW!
After another good stretch of running on flat, grassy trail, I cross another stream in much the same way — banging on through without a care in the world, happy to be a part of this lovely forest. I am leap frogging with several friendly faces, but unlike most other races, I am not in a real talkative mood. I’m feeling more introspective, happy to live this particular adventure with my thoughts to myself.
This is pretty suiting, since I’m thinking about a lot of people today, especially my friends running the Burning River 100 Mile Race in Ohio. Thinking of them doubling the distance in similar rainy conditions motivates me to move along the best I can, to pace myself responsibly and to enjoy the experience.
During an ultra, it’s pretty common for me to question myself, to wonder why I keep going out on these long, time-consuming, muscle-busting journeys that test my physical and mental abilities unlike anything else. When such doubt enters the mind I remind myself how much my face hurts from SMILING.
I absolutely love it. What other reason do I need?
The Bull Run aid station greets me at the 8.1 mile mark. I grab some more peanut butter and jelly, some bananas and an orange slice before I kick out down the road.
And yes, it is a road. A long, welcoming downhill, road. My instinct is to bomb down it, but I’m working smart today, so I just take it easy, chilling on the ride down.
What’s really cool is that I can see, about a mile down the road, all of the runners ahead of me. What’s not cool is that I know I’ll have to traverse UP this damn thing later in the race, with 39 miles in my legs.
But today we’re working with the NOW, and that’s all that matters. Right now, I’m having a great time. Legs feel good. Heels feel good. Head feels good. Out on the open road it’s a bit chilly with the breeze, but otherwise I’m quite comfortable in my long sleeve technical tee and trademark short-shorts. Best of all, I’m right on time with my splits as I reach the end of the road and say hello to the good folks at the Chambers Grove aid station. More peanut butter and jelly. More half-water-half-blue-Powerade mix. More bananas and oranges.
Nom nom nom.
A quick thank you and cap tip later and I’m off to tackle the first of the infamous power line sections.
Now begins the climbing. Seriously.
Minnesota Voyageur and the power lines might as well be synonymous, because in my course study before the race, I couldn’t find any source that didn’t mention them both. Notoriously steep climbs equipped with the loud background buzz of high voltage, these hills test my patience as much as my body. But I am ready for both.
After I crest and coast down the last one I turn back to the nice woman behind me and say, Well, that wasn’t so tough.
Ha! she replies, we haven’t even gotten to the big ones yet.
Before we get there, we still have to travel through some more winding up-and-down trail. The ground is wet. It’s still drizzling off and on. But the footing is still pretty good and I make sure to take the downhills easy as opposed to trucking right down. With the grade as high as it is on some of these downhills, bombing them just isn’t possible and my quads probably couldn’t take it later on, even if I could. Caution ain’t a bad idea.
Several times we reach a point where the trail has been “closed” for “our safety”, except that the course markings lead us right through said signs and accompanying fence blockage, not bothered by whatever possible danger may lurk beyond.
The race director has jokes too! Ha! I love it!
As I reach Peterson’s aid station (where they have Ginger Snaps, holy-effing-YES!), I notice my right hip is aching pretty loudly. I stuff my face with cookies, bananas and oranges while I gently massage the bursa sac that likes to get inflamed sometimes during these crazy outings. It’s a nuisance, yes, but a nuisance I can and WILL overcome.
I go through more runnable, grassy trail before I hit the second section of power lines. I know I’ve reached the second section because I’m now looking straight up at the beasts I have to climb and my neck is not a fan.
Here’s where all those pistol squats are going to pay off, Jeff. Here’s where Kettle Moraine and Western States and Big Bertha repeats are going to pay off. Keep your head down, your confidence high and just get the job done.
Up, up, up.
Gingerly. Carefully. Slow enough not to tumble and break my face… down, down, down.
Up, up, up. Down, down, down.
Over and over.
As I cautiously crest a climb, clinging to some foliage to keep from teetering back towards my death, I hear off in the distance RUNNER COMING THROUGH!
What the —
It’s the youthful race leader, coming towards me, blazing by with ease and the most patriotic red, white and blue short-shorts.
Stars and stripes forever!!! I holler as I wave him through. He smiles and thanks me. Wow, the dude isn’t even sweating. He’s 10 miles ahead of me and not even sweating!
TEN MILES! HOLY SHIT! I’M NOT WORTHY, I’M NOT WORTHY!
I will say this to myself again as the rest of the leaders come through behind him. Meanwhile, it’s all I can do to keep moving forward, up and down the last power line before I make it to the Beck’s Road aid station at mile 21.
I have a drop bag here, and while the idea of changing socks and clothes sounds good right now, I’m going to wait until I get back at mile 28 to consider any of that. I still have to get to the turnaround before 11:30 a.m. to be on target with my sub-11 goal, and I have lots of hard work to do before that so I can’t waste any time.
I grab some grub, refill my handheld bottle and boom, I’m off.
Here is a mile and a half section that is flat as a pancake. From studying the course beforehand, I know that this is a place I really gotta push the pace because it’s the calm before the storm that is Jarrow Beach (pronounced JAH-row) — a section I’m told will “chew me up and spit me out”.
I try to run fast, pumping my arms as hard as I can to see if that will get my motor running. The problem is, I’ve been stuck in low gear all day long and now anything more than a steady jog seems impossible. Just as I work myself up to feeling good and speedy, I reach a defunct railroad bridge reminiscent of a Stephen King novel.
As I cautiously tip toe my way across, all the momentum I just built up on the flat ceases. The rain starts to come down a little harder too, further insulting my efforts.
But as soon as I get over the bridge, I have more fast moving terrain to spring me forward, making me feel pretty confident as I cruise along, taking in the sights and sounds. I’ll be at the turnaround soon and it looks like I will get there before 11:30.
My head is filled with happy thoughts.
I’m having a blast.
I’m enjoying the ride of life…
Until I find myself at Jarrow Beach.
Jarrow-effing-Beach. Where the hell is the sand? Where are the bikinis? Can’t I even get a mai-tai?
This ain’t no damn beach, this is a bone-breaking ankle trap intent on taking me down! If the power lines slowed me to a power hike and the dilapidated railroad crossing slowed me to a tip toe, the jaggedly edged boulders protruding through the earth at Jarrow Beach force me to a crawl.
No hyperbole here. I’m definitely crawling over the rocks. Sometimes I can stand enough to tepidly place one foot on another rock while I desperately search for a place to safely put the other, but it’s raining and the rocks are all covered in slippery moss making this traverse quite a challenge on my entire body.
Two guys I’ve been yo-yo-ing with in the race have caught up to me now and the three of us curse like sailors as we try to get through Jarrow without killing ourselves. I can’t help but slip and fall a couple of times. I twist an ankle — not badly, but enough to notice. I slip and land on a jagged edge, bruising my arches, toes, elbows, wrists and heels.
There is no running here. There is only surviving.
For the first time all race, I am extremely hot and sweaty. But we must soldier on.
Together, the three of us — me and two strangers who must like pushing themselves just as much as I do — fight through this section, one rock and misplaced foot at a time.
Our reward for getting through Jarrow Beach is some more flat terrain before the turnaround. I try to bust out with some speed, but my bruised and achy feet aren’t so excited about that, so I just move the best I can.
I reach the Magney aid station, halfway through the race, at 11:15 a.m. Right on target, but not without damage.
Most of all, I’m feeling pretty tired — an all-body tired, the kind you get from being on your feet all day climbing insane hills and picking your way through a boulder laced killing field. But my left arch is particularly achy from a poor landing and my right hip bursitis is really aggravating now. Besides that, both of my piriformis muscles are inflamed, causing that all too familiar butt ache to pulse to the rhythm of my heart.
But my stomach is doing well. I’m pissing clear and often. And I’M HALFWAY DONE, HUZZAH!
Off I go, knowing that I have to go through that damn Jarrow Beach again. Having done it once, I now have the confidence that I will get through it no matter what, and that my reward will be another mile and a half section of fast, flat terrain where I can really make up some time.
While I make the second pass through the boulders, I start to see all the other runners coming back towards me on their way to the turnaround. This offers me some delight. It’s always nice to see friendly, encouraging faces on the trail during a long effort. It’s even nicer to know I don’t have to do the boulder field again.
I get through with just minor scrapes and bruises this time and bust ass over the railroad crossing and back onto the long stretch of runnable trail. I’m moving much faster this time, despite the aches and pains, because I can’t wait to get to Beck’s aid station where I have the ultra-cocktail of Ibuprofen and Red Bull waiting for me. I also plan to change socks, shirt and hat, because the ones I’m in now are disgustingly soaked.
Sometimes, just putting on a dry shirt can make all the difference.
I reach Beck’s and as soon as I locate my drop bag, the sky opens up and, as if to laugh at my plan of getting into drier clothes, it begins to POUR RAIN!
What can I do but laugh?
Haha, you got me, Minnesota Voyageur. I know this wasn’t ever gonna be easy. Trust me, I get it. I get the joke now.
I’m in the middle of changing socks anyway, so I complete the change as planned and top it all off with my ultra-cocktail and some Icy Hot on my hip. I kick out down the trail as the heavens continue to rain down.
I don’t really mind the weather since I’m under canopy for the first part after Beck’s. But when I reach the bottom of the first power line section on the way back I realize what kind of test I’m really in for.
Mud, mud and more mud.
How could we possibly make a terrifying climb harder than it already is? Add pouring rain and a slick, muddy surface so that with every step forward you take at least two or three slip-and-slide ones back.
At first, I move forth daintily, trying to avoid a complete fall into the mud as I cautiously attempt to climb along the best line I can find. The problem is, mother nature don’t give a shit and before I know it I’m falling face down in the mud, clinging to the slanted earth with my fingers deeply embedded into the mud.
The nozzle on my water bottle is all but caked over in the rich, red clay and my new, clean (ha!) shirt is a pretty shade of filth. I’m lucky that one of the women I’ve been leap frogging with today is alongside for this section, because multiple times she has to push my ass up while I attempt to pull myself forward.
The pouring rain makes each step a dangerous one. And once I finally get to the top, I still have to go down.
Only way but one, the woman says as she butt slides her way down ahead of me. She’s totally right. I try to take soft, easy, calculated steps, but the ground is so sloppy and loose that it just gives way, sucking me down with it.
With mud on my face, in my ears and up my ass crack under the pouring rain, I wonder if I’m in an Oliver Stone film or in a 50 miler. Either way, this is the path I chose.
How often do you get to play in the mud? I ask myself.
Obviously, not often enough! YEEEEEE HAAAAAW!
Like a prize fighter just off his stool for the 12th round, I stumble into the Peterson’s aid station, rain and sweat streaking down my body.
Boy, am I happy to see you! I shout. I’ve been thinking about those Ginger Snaps for longer than I’d like to admit!
I grab a couple of them, even though they’re soggy and gross, and I force them down my throat while I get my bottle refilled. I look at my watch and know it’s going to be a struggle. I lost a lot of time on both Jarrow Beach sections and this last set of power lines. What’s worse is that the steepest climb of them all is yet to come and the rain is not letting up. If I want to get in under 11 hours I’m going to have to run all the runnable stuff as hard as I can.
At least the Red Bull and Ibuprofen are kicking in. My left arch and right hip are quieting, but my quads and butt, neck and shoulders are all taking a beating now too. In this tired, downtrodden state, the rest of the run will be an aid-station-to-aid-station test, and I won’t know if I can make the time until I inch a bit closer.
For now, all I can do is get through the aid stations as quickly as possible and give my best effort no matter the terrain.
I bust out of Peterson’s and take advantage of the rolling hills where I can, but once I get to the last power line section, I can’t help but think my time goal is doomed. Under all this rain, on top of all this slippery mud, there is simply no footing. I have no choice but to lie flat on my belly, in a leaning bear crawl position, and dig my hands into the side of the earth to pull myself up the hill.
The last and steepest of the climbs does all it can to knock me out, to put me out of my happy-misery. But it can’t. I signed up for this and I don’t care how much things hurt right now, I’m getting over this hill.
On the peak of the last climb I take a second to stretch my arms out wide, head pointed up towards the pounding rain. I laugh in the face of hardship and beat my chest before I mudslide down on my butt like a little kid.
I look at my watch and know I need to get to Chambers Grove soon. There, in my other drop bag, is another Red Bull. That, combined with the knowledge that I’ll only be 11 miles from the finish line might be enough to get me under 11 hours. But I gotta hurry.
Ahh, yes, but stupid me forgot about that ROAD CLIMB!!!
What was a long, happy, stretched out downhill coast the first time around is now a dooming, massive, impregnable power hike up what looks like forever.
I won’t make eleven hours. Shit. It’s just too much at this point.
*BIG FAT DEFEATED SIGH*
Oh well. I’ll still finish…
I’LL STILL FINISH.
Up, up, up I go.
Waaaaay ahead of me I see the silhouette of a girl who passed me around mile 5. I’m going to go catch her. I’m coming for ya, girl who passed me at mile 5! Here I come.
Head down, arms pumping.
Forget about the rain. Forget about the aches. Forget about the discomfort. You’re going to finish this thing and you’re going to feel so good about it for so long so just… keep… MOVING.
After what seems like forever, I’m finally at the top of the road and back on trail.
Oh yes how I love you, sweet, sweet trail!
I run as fast as I can (which, let’s admit, ain’t that fast really), taking advantage of every single downhill, despite the poor footing, while power hiking my ass off on every significant uphill section. It’s all or nothing now, only 8 miles to the finish.
And I have… (looking at my watch) an hour and thirty minutes to get in under 11?
Hot dog! I holler as I push through the pain and concentrate on high cadence and lots of arm pumping.
I quickly grab some grub at the Bull Run aid station, thank everyone there and move quickly through the rolling terrain. The rain continues to fall, but it’s less violent now and almost undetectable considering I’m nothing short of a muddy, soggy, sweaty mess.
A muddy, soggy, sweaty mess with a SMILE on his face and a pain in his ass! Ha!
She eluded me on the road, but ironically now just five miles from the finish, I see that same girl who passed me at mile five up ahead. I decide I have to pass her now.
Head down, arms pumping.
A few minutes later I’m cruising on by, exchanging happy salutations with her as she keeps her slower pace. I look down at my watch again and know that if I can get to Leimer Road with at least 40 minutes left, I might be able to break 11 hours. I say, “might” because the last three miles include a lot of technical terrain and another jagged rock field that will definitely slow my pace.
You’ll never know if you never try, I tell myself, and we know that the only thing worse than missing your goal is knowing you didn’t give your best effort.
HEAD DOWN. ARMS PUMPING.
I whiz through the Leimer Road aid station, falling just short of telling the volunteers I want to make love to you all! I don’t have time to tell them exactly how much I appreciate their being out here today, so a quick “THANKS I LOVE YOU” will have to do. No doubt, this race features grade-A race personnel. Every single volunteer I have come in to contact with today has been as helpful as he/she has been kind.
And let’s not forget, standing outside in the cold, pouring rain isn’t very fun if you’re not running over gorgeous terrain. I blow them all a kiss and charge down the multi-track trail which turns left and back on to the technical stuff along the St. Louis River.
I have about 30 minutes to get to the finish line now as I slowly and deliberately pick my way over rocky trail. I haven’t been using the GPS function at all today, knowing it would kill my battery, so I have no clue really how far I have yet to go. My body throbs and aches with each slowed step and when I squat down to go under a fallen tree blocking the trail, I realize just how seriously messed up my body is.
Getting back out of the squat takes all the effort I can find — serving as one final joke from mother nature and the Minnesota Voyageur before I am able to push on towards the final stretch.
Ha! Too bad the joke’s not on me today!
I bust out of the trail and onto the paved bike path in Carlton. The finish line is less than a mile away. I have fifteen minutes to make it there.
Oh boy, here it comes.
Why this happens to me so often on the longer, more spirited efforts I’ll never know, but I do know that I can’t fight it anymore.
Fucking cry, who cares. You deserve a good cry every now and then anyway.
I follow the yellow ribbons toward the right hand turn to Carlton High School.
And there it is.
There is that beautiful, glorious, triumphant finish line.
I did it.
I ran the Minnesota Voyageur 50 in 10 hours 51 minutes. I open up my arms, point my head to the sky and enjoy every last drop of rain falling on my face.
After the race I grabbed a quick shower inside Carlton High School (a great race bonus by the way!) and changed clothes so I could wait outside for Kirsten and Jim to finish. Seeing them on the out-and-back section was a real boost to my morale and I wanted to be sure I got to see them finish.
They came in at 12 hours and 40 minutes and we all shared a good hug, especially celebrating Jim’s first 50.
In fact, I hugged just about anyone who would hug me as they came across the finish line. There’s nothing quite like being witness to one’s ultra victory. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, spend some time at a finish line and watch the range of ecstasy flowing through the faces. You won’t regret it.
That night, back at our hotel, celebratory beers in hand, the three of us reminisced over our individual battles. Every single muscle in my body ached. For two whole days! Including muscles that have never ached during a run before (forearms, biceps, neck!)
Admittedly, I’ve never been beat up so badly by a race. But I was doing the Frankenstein walk like a champ.
As every enlightened sage and holy man has ever attested, to be whole, you must be broken.
Right now I’m about as whole as I can get.
Or at least I am until…
The next adventure…
If you aren’t living on the edge, you are taking up too much space.
— Jim Whittaker, the first American to summit Mt. Everest
Running opens the door to infinite adventure. Each test against the clock, each journey through the wilderness and every single foray into the unknown seems to hold the potential for being yet another pinnacle life moment — a time when I can truly disconnect from the busyness of everyday and just soak myself in the nature of epic, blissful surroundings.
Though my proclamations often sound like hyperbole, I assure you: they are not.
Running is real. The adventure spawned by this seemingly simple activity is real. And as long as I remain open to all possibilities — fighting through then learning from the lows while also allowing myself to soak in the ecstatic highs — as long as I stay within myself and embrace this simple way of living life, all the glory in the world is within me.
Few activities rival the profoundness I feel when I run.
Pacing my friend, Siamak Mostoufi (pronounced SEE-mack) at the storied keystone event of ultrarunning, the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run, I knew was yet another opportunity to grasp at the skirt of greatness.
Pre-Race, Friday, June 28
I wake up feeling groggily fresh with the kind of excitement that comes from hours of flight delayed napping combined with more elevation than I’m used to and the prospect of seeing the Western States course with my very own eyes. The day before was rough, but once I landed in Reno, all travel frustrations ceased to exist. The only important task for the day is getting to Squaw Valley and fighting through this thin-air headache so I’m ready to go tomorrow.
Siamak has a bounce in his step and an edge to his gait signifying the countdown to epic adventure. His girlfriend and crew chief, Meret, whom I got to know a little bit during the drive last night from Reno to our hotel in Truckee, also exudes excitement. This is her first time experiencing (let alone CREWING) an ultrarunning event, and I playfully point out to her that this is like a 16-year old getting a Mercedes as her first car.
WE ARE AT WESTERN STATES!!!
And, just in case, I didn’t believe it, here at the Squaw Valley check-in, there’s legendary runner David Horton to remind me. And there’s Tim Olson. And Ian Sharman. And oh yeah, there’s Meghan Arbogast and Mike Morton and Dave Mackey and Rory Bosio and Karl Meltzer and Ann Trason and Gordie Ansleigh and OH MY GOD HOLY SHIT ALL THESE AWESOME RUNNERS ARE HERE FOR THIS AND YOU CAN FEEL THE ELECTRICITY IN THE AIR AND I WANNA JUST SQUEEZE SOMETHING AND HOLD ON AND NEVER LET GO OF ANY OF THIS AWESOMENESS!!!
Goosebumps pop up all over me as Siamak gets checked in. Base weights and vital signs are taken. Some helpful reminders about combating the intense heat he will face tomorrow are given. We move from station to station, acutely receptive to all that is around us, including the breathtaking views of mountainous landscape and the warmth of the sun cutting through clear, blue skies.
I feel like I’m gonna cry at any moment because I’m so happy. I get to be here for THIS! I get to pace my pal, the same guy who pulled me out of the doldrums of crap city during my first 50 miler a year ago. I get to experience THIS.
I am so lucky. And thankful.
The mandatory pre-race meeting ends and everyone disperses, off to stock coolers and stuff faces with all-you-can-eat pasta. Siamak, Meret and I stop at the grocery store to get all the food, drink and Red Bull we will need for the race.
While I stand in line with an armful of deli goods and a sleeve of shortbread cookies, Siamak nods his head to the gentleman in front of us. Look who’s here.
Wow! Mike Morton. Hi, I’m Jeff, I say a bit overeager. I shake the endurance beast from Florida’s hand. I’m an in awe of his humility and slight, thin build. He smiles big when I tell him I’ve been following his career renaissance.
Yeah, but all these fast guys… he says, somewhat nervously.
Dude, you are the American 24 hour record holder. You are the fast guys, I reply.
We wish him well, buy our goods and head back to Truckee for a bite to eat followed by pre-race packing and last minute crew debriefing. Meret and I get the low-down on how Siamak will fuel his race, what is packed where, and how to get from one aid station to the next. Once we are are all on the same page, it’s off to bed for us. While I immediately enter deep, sound sleep, I can only assume Siamak — on the eve of running the race of his life — does his best to not toss and turn.
Race Morning, Saturday June 29, 3:00 a.m. – 5:00 a.m.
Siamak is up and ready to go. I’m getting quite used to seeing him smile, but the one he’s wearing this morning seems a little bigger than the one from yesterday, and for good reason: today he tackles the most coveted 100 mile race in the world.
And as we busy ourselves in and around the Squaw Valley Olympic Village prior to the race start, he knows it. He also knows that he is not alone — that hundreds of our friends back home in Chicago and across the world are following his steps via Facebook, Twitter and the Western States ultracast where his splits will be updated live, for all to see. A simple upload of his smiling face causes my phone to blow up, even at 4:30 in the morning.
A few nervous hugs, high fives and fist bumps later, Meret and I walk him to the start line then make our way a few hundred meters up the trail to record THIS.
IT’S REALLY HAPPENING NOW!!!
While the runners are well on their way to their first bout of suffering, tackling the monstrous escarpment climb of Emigrant Pass, Meret and I make our way back to the car. Still immersed in darkness, we go back to the hotel to stock the car with the day’s provisions before heading out on I-80 towards our first stop of the day: Robinson Flat, 29.7 miles in to the race.
During this 2+ hour drive through the scenic high country, I confess to Meret — an accomplished professional flutist and music educator — my continual obsession with the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. She is quite sympathetic and for once, I am able to have a long conversation about Bach, Albinoni and Vivaldi, freely discussing my love of the Baroque period without feeling like an obnoxious jackass.
Meret and I make a good crew team and she is going to do great today. I can already tell. My thoughts are validated when she says:
Siamak says this is going to be great because you have a lot of experience and I am, as he says, very conscientious.
Conscientiousness is a must and I further explain the time-tested acronym of C.R.E.W. (crabby runner, endless waiting) to Meret so that she knows what to possibly expect later on. Lucky for us, our runner is Siamak Mostoufi — one tough dude rarely seen without a smile on his face.
Robinson Flat, Mile 29.7
Meret and I reach Robinson Flat sometime around 9 a.m. and set up our mini-aid station at the bottom of the hill, next to where the runners exit and head back onto the Western States trail. We get there in time to see the leaders come through: Tim Olson, Rob Krar, Hal Koerner, Karl Meltzer and many more make their way through this colossal aid station to the roars, claps and whistles of the following crowd.
Wow, that is so cool, I couldn’t help but think to myself while watching the leaders pass through, exchanging bottles and aid with their individual crews like formula one drivers. This is some serious ultrarunning!
Following the elites is a steady string of runners, mostly of the hot and sweaty variety, as the Robinson Flat aid station is preceded by quite a a bit of long, steady climbing in exposed high country where the elevation and intense morning sun beats down on all those underneath. Most folks have covered themselves in white clothing: white hats, white shirts, white bandanas. And the smart ones, Siamak included, have been busy dousing themselves with cold water at every opportunity.
I wait at the top of the hill, close to the check-in area while Meret remains with our stuff at the bottom. Our plan is for me to make contact with Siamak as he comes in, to find out what he needs while he’s being weighed and attended to by race officials, then run down the hill to help Meret prepare whatever it is he needs.
It’s been several hours since we have seen him, and with the way I’m pacing back and forth, my eagerness to check in on him is obvious. Finally, amid the crowd of runners, spectators and crew, I see his white shirt and blue shorts emerge from the visible heat waves off in the distance.
Here he comes! I scream.
Couldn’t miss him, since his smile has hardly waned since 5 a.m.
What do you need? I hurriedly ask at the top of the hill.
Gels, amino powder, grapefruit juice, maybe some ice, he says.
Cool. We’re at the bottom of the hill on your left, I say as I dart down the hill to Meret where we rush to prepare the spread. Sifting through the enormous plastic bag of gels Siamak packed, I can’t help but think nauseous thoughts. In running, we are all an experiment of one, that much I know. But I also know my experimentation with solely gel-based nutrition during ultra events has not been good, so I tip my cap to my runner thinking he must truly have an iron belly, which is not a bad thing to have in an event like this.
Meret’s first look at her boyfriend after several hours of sweat and toil seems to go over just fine. They hug and speak briefly as we try to get an understanding of what he has run so far.
It’s hot, he says. Very hot.
Yep. In fact, today is going to go down as the second hottest Western States 100 on record, ever.
We waste little time in debriefing and instead get him everything he needs before setting out again for another long, hot stretch. I give him a pat on the back, Meret gives him a kiss and then off he goes, back into the wilderness, towards Miller’s Defeat.
Hmm… that was a salty kiss! Meret says.
Oh yeah, I forgot to warn you, another given in ultrarunning is, well, the runner is always going to smell bad.
We have a chuckle then pack up the gear and schlepp our way back towards the car.
Michigan Bluff, Mile 55.7
Another significant car ride, this time through narrow, winding switchbacks up and around a mountain, and Meret and I find ourselves at Michigan Bluff — complete with a large party of spectators, crew and staff in what would otherwise be a remote, sparsely populated ghost town featuring lots of horses, chickens and one obnoxious rooster.
Here we park the car and hike to the shuttle. We squeeze ourselves and our belongings into the short bus, already eschewing the unwritten rules of modesty and personal space. As a complete stranger smashes his sweaty body against mine, I can’t help but be grateful that we are all a dirty, sweaty mess.
Once we reach the drop-off point, Meret and I then rush to find what little spot of shade we can find. At this point, just like the entire day thus far, shade is quite a hot commodity (pun intended, naturally).
The temperature gauge back at the car told us it was 102 degrees. In the shade, it seems like a manageable 90. And after devouring a home cooked burger with fresh, grilled onions chased by a lemon flavored popsicle, the shade and a spot of grass is all I need to nod off for 20 minutes or so.
I wake up from my nap to the cheers of the elite women coming through Michigan Bluff — all of them looking fresh to death. I get up and walk around when I can and explore what little exists in the area. Surprisingly, a few people actually do live here and I can’t help but wonder what it’s like in the winter time with two feet of snow on the ground. As is the case with many of the stops along the Western States route, there is a much history to this area, most of it centered around the 19th century gold rush, and I take the time to read some of the commemorative plaques detailing as much.
Meanwhile, Meret and a whole host of others waiting patiently for their runners appreciate the hydration PSA at the main aid station. It is a very clever way of navigating what is a very serious subject. I know Siamak is taking care of his hydration. He had an alarm set on his watch to remind him to drink every 15 minutes. He’s going to be just fine.
Meret and I got to Michigan Bluff quite early, so while we wait for Siamak to come through (and current race updates inform us he should be in between 6:15-6:45 p.m.) we pass the time clapping, cheering and talking about everything from the oddities of online dating to the hilarity of the The Gospel According to Biff.
As the expectant time draws nearer, Meret heads closer to the trail where the runners first appear while I head to the end of the aid station to set up our gear. Sure enough, at 6:30 p.m. I hear cheering and look up to see Meret jumping with joy at the appearance of her man, who comes through strong and still smiling ear to ear.
Hot dog! I say to myself. He looks great!
Anything can happen in a hundo. Anything. In fact, the hundred mile race is the great equalizer. You can be the most prepared, most talented, most in-shape human being on the planet and still get struck down by nausea, or dehydration, or a busted limb. But Siamak comes through the 55 mile mark all smiles, absolutely loving life, and at this point I am certain he has the finish in the bag. It’s only a matter of time.
I laid down in the water before Devil’s Thumb. It was a little bit out of the way but it was worth it because it really brought my core temperature down, he tells us as he takes in some calories. We rush to fill his bottles.
Yes! Great job, I say. Plenty of people have come through here looking pretty rough. The heat is just terrible, I’m sure.
It’s so hot in those canyons.
I can only imagine.
At Forest Hill I’m going to change socks, he tells us. I’ll also need some Bodyglide and my head lamp.
Check, check and check. Meret and I make note, give him a nice, celebratory send off and then watch him as he disappears over the road horizon.
Forest Hill is less than a 7 mile run for him, so we have to book it. This means we have to skip over the long shuttle bus wait and instead hike all of our gear up a nasty hill as the 100+ degree sun continues to beat down on us. Hiking up with all this gear at elevation is making me breathe kinda hard, which sends my mind racing with doubt about my own abilities.
No! I tell myself. Focus. Time to FOCUS.
I put my head down and concentrate on what fun we’ll have running through the Sierra Nevadas at night.
Forest Hill, Mile 62
Meret and I arrive at Forest Hill and are greeted with rock star parking, directly across the street from the runner check-in station. With cell phone service now, I get online and update what I can while also casually skimming through the barrage of social media support for Siamak coming from our friends and family back home. The response to his journey is overwhelming. This community is full of love; and the out pour of affection streaming in from all across the country is just plain badass.
Still, I have a task at hand. I have to finish getting dressed, tape my nipples, lube up in the appropriate spots and make sure to hit the john before 8:15, approximately when I expect Siamak to roll in.
While coating my groin with Vaseline, I look up, embarrassed that I’ve been caught. But then I scratch my head. Um… Dave? I ask. Dave Mackey?
Hi, yeah. That’s me. I dropped.
I can’t really believe it. Dave Mackey, 2011 Ultrarunner of the Year Dave Mackey, was having a bad day and dropped at Forest Hill. And now he’s standing beside me while I slather Vaseline all over my balls.
A bit shy, I offer my standard reply to what I assume is a noble DNF: You live to fight another day.
He smiles and nods while jumping in the back of an SUV. As he drives off, I can’t help but think, on some level, us mid and back of the packers face an entirely different reality than the elites when it comes to ultrarunning. If they’re out of the front running and a fast time or podium is out of reach, it makes better sense for them to just drop rather than suffer on the rest of the way, causing more muscle damage and pushing back recovery time. For most of us though, finishing is all that counts. Finish. Run 100 miles. Just finish.
Lost in this contemplation, I think I hear the PA system announce Runner 293, Siamak Mostoufi, welcome to Forest Hill.
Huh? That can’t be right. It’s just past 8 o’clock–
OH NO! He’s here! They called his name! He’s here, yells a suddenly frantic Meret while moving quickly to grab the gear bags and cooler.
Oh shit! He’s running faster. Damn it, I wasn’t — okay, let’s just take it easy. For a few seconds I panic, but then, a deep breath later, I try to calm us both down. You grab everything and go across the street. I’ll be over in a few seconds.
Meret skips across the road carrying a ton of stuff while I slip on my Salomon water vest and try to prepare mentally for the next 38 miles at hand. I see Siamak now. I can’t keep him waiting. No time for that john stop. Just going to have to deal with that later.
In the Forest Hill Elementary School parking lot now, Siamak busies himself with a quick sock change while we prepare his amino powders, gels and head lamp. The sun is just going down and I figure we have about 40 minutes or so left of daylight.
Man, you really picked up the pace there from Michigan Bluff, I say. He replies with a big, fat smile — a pleasantly reoccurring theme for this particular adventure.
With everything gathered and both of us ready to head out, Siamak gives a goodbye kiss to his girl and we set out on the road leaving the school.
Forest Hill to Rucky Chucky, Miles 62-78
This is my current running pace, just so you know, he says as I excitedly stride alongside him.
Dude, I don’t care what your pace is, I’m with you no matter what. I can barely hide my giddiness, and this pace doesn’t feel slow at all. It feels like my friend has 62 miles in his legs and is still A BONA FIDE WARRIOR.
We traverse through a few neighborhoods on road and then drop down to the trail head, Siamak in front, me right behind him, which is his preference, especially on the downhill sections.
You wearing your hat regular or do you have it on backwards? he asks.
Midstride, in a monumental display of bro solidarity, Siamak turns his hat backwards to match mine. We are wearing the same one — our New Leaf club hats — and now I know this is going to be a fantastic, epic journey.
With that we begin the long, long descent out of Forest Hill.
And we’re flying. Fast. Maybe… too fast?
Man, I don’t know. If he’s feeling good I should just let him feel good and run, I think to myself, but as we continue to drop down, down, down, flying at pretty much top speed to start, I’m only a couple of miles in and my quads are already starting to ache.
Well, that’s too bad, Jeff, this is what you signed up for, I tell myself. If he can fly after running for 13+ hours, you can too.
Down, down, down we go, quad pain receptors extinguished.
We reach the Cal-1 aid station at 65.7 miles, but we don’t stay long. As we leave and get back into a constant, smooth running pace, it hits me. My gut.
Damnit! You should’ve gone before you left! I curse to myself. I was going to, I reply, again, to myself, but he showed up quicker than I thought and now (in my best Luke Skywalker voice) I’ve endangered the mission and I shouldn’t have come.
Negativity. Always a bitch when it comes to ultras!
Knowing as much, I grit my teeth and just concentrate on moving. One of these aid stations will have a john, or I’ll just pull over and do what I have to do. Ultras tend to break life down into its most simple tasks. Move one foot in front of the other, take care of “business”, etc.
The main thing right now is to keep this discomfort away from Siamak, so he can just concentrate on moving, without worrying about me. He’s moving great. In fact, he’s moving SPLENDIDLY! We are taking advantage of the free speed offered to us by gravity, running constant on the flats and power hiking all the ups.
Siamak isn’t much of a trail talker, which I already knew coming into this, having run with him on trails before, so at least I don’t have to say too much while I quietly beg the gastrointestinal baby in my stomach to please calm down.
At Cal 3, Mile 73, I take care of business, and much to my relief, I am a new man.
LET’S ROCK THIS THING!
Heading out towards Rucky Chucky, Siamak and I talk about the 24 hour goal, which, because of the intense heat of the canyons earlier in the day, pretty much seems impossible now. We’re more than an hour behind the 24 hour cut-off, and fatigue is starting to set in.
But I still have a chance to PR, he says quite excitedly. That would be pretty cool to PR at Western States.
Indeed it would, I note to myself. Siamak’s PR, or personal record, at the 100 mile distance came at The Pinhoti 100 back in November. His time then was 24 hours, 56 minutes. And he did that with no pacer, all alone in the night, fighting by himself those last 20 miles.
If Siamak is anything, I told Meret earlier in the day, he is one tough dude.
If we are close, I’m going to get him that PR, I tell myself. It’s a done deal.
For now, I say out loud, let’s just keep doing what we’re doing. Moving steady, running downs and flats, hiking with a purpose on the ups.
And boom! Here we are at Rucky Chucky, the nearside of the river, mile 78.
Meret greets us with the same exuberance and attentiveness she has displayed all day and night. In fact, I’ve been running enough miles this evening now to let my emotional guard down, and I feel the hair stand up as I watch her move, eager to help us in whatever way possible, as fast as she can.
This is her FIRST time crewing! Wow! She’s kicking some major butt!
AND she is wearing a green hoodie that she created bearing the words: SIAMAK ATTACK. Um… somebody get this gal her Girlfriend-of-the-Year Award.
Siamak sees it and does all he can to hide that he’s blushing.
We waste very little time getting what we need here as we say goodbye and focus on the river in front of us. Waiting to assist us in the river crossing are a handful of dry suit donning volunteers who do a fantastic job of telling us where to put our feet as to avoid the most slippery and dangerous of rocks hiding underneath. The air temperature is still in the mid 80s, but boy is this water COOOOOOOOOOOLD!
Siamak is in front of me, shivering quite hard. Just keep moving, I say. Just keep moving til we get to the other side.
Once we do, it is evident that he has a strong case of the shivers. An aid station attendant gets him some hot soup as Siamak and I both decide it’s not worth it to stop and change our shoes and socks here like we had originally planned. I’m afraid if he sits down for more than a few minutes — and let’s face it, changing footwear at this point of the game would require more than a few minutes — he won’t be able to get back up and move like he was moving just before we crossed.
We have quite a big climb to tackle coming out of Rucky Chucky, so we put our heads down and power on up, keeping our legs moving to bring the warmth back into our bodies.
Rucky Chucky to Highway 49, Miles 78.1 to 93.5
We may be power hiking, but we are doing it with a purpose. And up to now, we’ve done nothing else but pass people on the trail. Lots of people. We have passed men. We’ve passed women. We’ve passed people doing the zombie walk. And we even passed the legendary, 14-time Western States Champion, Ann Trason! (Ann was pacing someone rather than running her own race, so this accolade is a bit of a stretch, but still, how many times can one say we passed Ann Trason!?)
Of course, all of this moving up in the overall rankings during the overnight hours is a clear testament to Siamak’s smart first half race strategy of staying within himself, taking it easy during the hottest parts of the day, and taking every opportunity given to lay down in the cool waters to drop his core temperature.
He’s hurting a little bit now, but like in any ultra, it’s coming in waves and he is doing what he can to fight through. After each alarm on his watch goes off, I remind him to eat, to drink, to take salt. We keep running the downs and flats, power hiking the ups. We continue to pass people.
When the occasional runner and his pacer creeps up behind us, a fire is lit under Siamak’s feet and he moves just a little bit faster.
They can pass us, he says, that’s cool. But not for free, he adds, turning on the jets.
Hell to the yeah. This is what it’s all about!
In fact, we take the time to talk about it — how ultrarunning seems to break life down into just one single task: move one foot in front of the other. Nothing seems so hard when all you’re asking yourself to do is move one foot in front of the other. I think we’re both in that emotional guard let down phase as we explore this theme. But hell, it isn’t the first time we’ve waxed this poetic. It surely won’t be the last.
When we get to Auburn Lake Trails (mile 85.2) the aid station staff immediately grab him for a mandatory weigh-in while I hurry to refill my pack. While doing so, a volunteer approaches and puts his hand on my shoulder asking, How’s your runner doing? He looks a little dry. Is he drinking?
Absolutely, I reply. He’s dumping cold water on himself too. It’s pretty dry out there, but I assure you he’s hydrating.
Satisfied with my response, the medical volunteer moves along and I reconnect with Siamak as we head out towards Brown’s Bar. As we surpass the 85.2 mile marker, we both revel in how professional and on-top-of-it these aid stations and their volunteers are.
The minute you step into the checkpoint, someone is there to greet you and they don’t leave your side until you have been totally taken care of and are on your way.
That’s how you do an aid station, I remark. Before I can say much more, Siamak takes off and I follow right behind, passing more folks with an assortment of bad conditions along the way. Some are puking. Some are on the side of the trail, hands over knees, resting. Some are barely moving.
We are moving just fine. In fact, we are moving so well that I give Siamak our estimated time of arrival for Brown’s Bar based on our current average of 4.5 to 5 miles per hour.
Say that again? he asks. I comply. And boom! It’s off to the races. AGAIN!
Siamak takes off flying, utilizing gravity as much as he can.
Was it something I said? Why is he running so fast now? I don’t really know, and I can hardly find the breath to ask so I just dig deep and hold on.
We reach Brown’s Bar (mile 89.9) just after 3 a.m. and know that it’s just a Wednesday night group run distance now to the finish. We have 1 hour and 50 minutes to cover 10 miles. We can do that and break 24 hours. Right?
I hurriedly check the posted 24 hour cutoff times and to my dismay, we’re still an hour behind.
Why? How can this be? I ask, somewhat to myself but loud enough that a volunteer hears me.
You got two really big climbs to go yet, that’s why, the volunteer says with a consoling smile and a wickedly braided goatee.
Siamak and I share a moment of disappointment knowing today won’t be a silver buckle day. But this brief impasse is intercepted by the goatee’d gentleman’s sage words of encouragement:
You know what they told me when I got to No Hands Bridge last year? he asks. They looked me in the eye and said: Today… you’re going to finish Western States!
This hardass with the braided goatee might as well be Confucius himself because that is EXACTLY what Siamak and I need to hear, right this minute!
YES! I scream. YES! THAT’S WHAT I’M TALKIN’ ABOUT, MAN!
Siamak is going to be a Western States finisher today. And I will be his wingman.
As we exit Brown’s Bar on our way to Highway 49, I remind him: We can still go for that PR. Let’s see where we are at Highway 49 and go from there.
He agrees and off we go, a bit reined in now compared to our effort from Auburn Lake Trails, but determined nonetheless.
At Highway 49 I know Meret is waiting for us, and with her are two cans of Red Bull and a bottle of ibuprofen. I check my watch. We might have a chance. We just might have a chance for that PR.
Highway 49 to Robie Point, Miles 93.5 to 98.9
We reach Highway 49 at roughly 4:20 a.m., greeted by raucous cowbells and animated cheers from the kind of strangers I would like to spend a whole lifetime with. After all, it is the people that make these sorts of events so special. Tonight is no different. In fact, a volunteer hands me some bacon and I’m suddenly in heaven while Siamak gravitates towards his own version of heaven in the form of Meret, Red Bull and ibuprofen.
I will have some too, I declare. Ordinarily, the Flintstone vitamin taste of Red Bull turns me off completely, but when tired from the trail just before dawn, there’s no better stay-alert cocktail than NSAIDS and a Red Bull chaser. I am aware of the risks involved with using anti-inflammatories during long efforts like these, but since I can count on one hand the times I actually take ibuprofen in any given year, I feel like the time is now. Besides, we still have work to do.
Next time we see you will be at the finish, Siamak says to Meret with one last kiss goodbye. All three of us are ready for that moment. No doubt.
We exit Highway 49 and enjoy a nice steady drop in elevation down towards No Hands Bridge. I keep checking my watch, calculating splits in my head. I know that if we get to No Hands Bridge by 5:15 or so we will have a fighting chance to break his personal best time. It’s going to be a fight, IF we can even get there with a couple of big climbs to go still, but it’s a fight I’m willing to lead.
We cruise down for about three miles before tackling a big, steep incline. We continue to move forward, with a purpose, passing people along the way. We crest the top and then go down, down, down again, picking up speed.
The sun is coming out as we approach No Hand’s Bridge. Siamak, you good on water? If so, let’s just blow through this aid station, no stops till the finish.
Having left his vest back with Meret, and feeling a bit lighter now, he confidently replies: I’m good with that.
We come into No Hand’s Bridge and fly right on by to the cheers of aid station personnel impressed by this late-race push. We make the turn, crossing the bridge and I switch on the GPS function on my Garmin watch.
Take a look around, Siamak says as my Garmin frantically searches for a signal. All around me is the infinite wonder and beauty of nature — a sight so glorious and perfect for my purposeful demeanor that I get those damn goosebumps all over again. My watch says 5:15 a.m.
Time to go to work.
Without saying anything I instinctively pull ahead of Siamak, leaving a good 10-20 yards between us.
Just stick with me, man. Keep your eyes on me. Just stick with me.
I’m getting him that PR today, or I’m gonna waste us both trying.
I look back to make sure he’s still there. Not only is he there, but his face has now gone a bit white, his mouth hangs open, and it’s quite clear that he’s giving all he’s got. My man. DIG DEEP, SIAMAK. This is what it’s all about.
He won’t say another word to me until the finish line.
We have to run fast here on this flat and slightly downhill section. We have to bank time, I tell him, because we still have the climb into Robie Point and then one more long climb in Auburn.
We have less than 40 minutes to do it. We’re running 8:30 pace right now. I hope I’m not killing him.
I look back every thirty seconds or so to make sure, but it’s difficult to tell. The faces he is making aren’t pleasant, but hell, he’s been running for over 24 hours now and I’m pretty sure nobody looks good after doing that.
Use your arms, I direct. Pump your arms and your legs will follow.
Concentrate on quick turnover, I continue. Dig deep, deep within yourself. You can do it. I know you can do it.
I do know he can do it, but holy Sierra Nevadas I’m pushing him hard.
Just hold on to me, Siamak. Keep chasing after me.
We hit the bottom of the climb up to Robie point and I know we can’t slack now. Time is not on our side. Gotta keep moving.
Power hike with a purpose, Siamak. Lean into it. Use your arms, keep your head down and move with a purpose.
He is doing the best he can, but I know it’s tough. Still, we have to try.
The climb up to Robie Point seems to take FOREVER. I look at my watch: 5:40 a.m. Damn, I don’t know if we can–
And then, I hear it: I hear cowbells. And cheers. Not far in the distance.
Come on, Siamak, pump those arms we’re almost there!
We turn a corner on a switchback and above us are some friendly volunteers with pitchers of ice cold water approaching.
Hello, welcome to Robie Point. Can I get you anything?
Yes! Please pour some water on my friend back there, I say pointing back towards Siamak, who is giving it all he’s got to power hike with a purpose up the never ending, dirt incline.
How about you? the friendly man asks as his fellow volunteer rushes towards Siamak, ice cold water pitcher out and ready to go.
Yes, please, pour some water right here, I say, pointing to the nape of my neck. HOLY EFFING SHIT THAT FEELS AMAZING. I look back and Siamak is chugging water straight out of the pitcher. Good man. No time to fill your water bottle anyway. We got a PR to chase! I say to myself.
Cooled off and hydrated, the two of us crest the climb and are dumped out on a road. A ROAD! MY GOODNESS WE’RE ALMOST THERE!
But we gotta move, gotta book it, can’t waste any time!
We are running at a mighty quick and focused clip now, which is why it takes me a few seconds to even notice Meret is now running alongside us. Wow! Hi, Meret! I say before moving back into the lead position, that dangling carrot to coax Siamak’s ultimate triumph.
Thirty seconds go by before I look back to see Siamak is staying close on my heels, still carrying the face of death. But Meret… Meret has dropped back. And she’s… I think she’s crying. Oh no!
We’ve dropped Meret. Here we are, the two of us with 136 miles in our legs combined and we’re dropping Meret. She is clearly upset.
Don’t worry, Meret. Just meet us at the track, I offer. We’re chasing a time right now. It’s nothing personal. We’ll see you at the track. Take the shortcut!
I don’t know if there is a shortcut, or, if there is, where or what it is, but it sounds like the only good thing I can say right now to console her. She obviously meant well to run it in with us to the finish; and if we weren’t chasing this time we totally would, but this is too important and one’s opportunity to do something this badass is rarely available, so we have no choice but to soldier on now and explain later.
Judging from Siamak’s determined stride and ghastly white gaze, he’s in it to win it.
Just stick with me, Siamak. Pump those arms. Dig deep, my brother! It may hurt now but it will feel SO good for SO long after. I promise.
We hit more incline and power up, up, up. It’s hard. Oh is it so hard! But we are almost there and we don’t have any time to spare.
FINALLY, we reach the top of the last climb and now we are going downhill.
Use that free speed, Siamak! Pump those arms.
I can hear the PA announcer.
I can. I can hear it close by. I can also hear and see the folks waiting and cheering us on the street, obviously wowed by our late race effort.
As I admire it all, I notice Siamak is now beside me. HELL YEAH, BROTHER! I scream. HELL YEAH!
We hit the bottom of the hill, make a turn and THERE is the track entrance. I look at my watch and hope that mine is synced correctly to the race clock because a mere 30 seconds off will derail this entire effort and make me have to explain why I just wasted my runner for the last 4 miles.
No matter what, we’re here now. And we’re RACING IT IN!!!
I lead as we come into the track then I immediately direct him to take the inside lane. No use adding extra distance at this point. Upon entering I hear the PA announcer call out his name to the cheers of people nestled tightly in their seats, eager to watch the last 300 meters of what can only be called a VALIANT finish.
We hit the turn, I see the clock. 24:55:20… 24:55:21… 24:55:22…
We did it. WE DID IT!
SIAMAK DID IT!
DUDE, I scream, YOU DID IT! THIS IS A PR, BABY! SOAK IT UP! OH MY GOD WE DID IT! YES! YES! YES! THIS IS HOW YOU FINISH A HUNDO!!!
I completely lose myself in my own screaming and my own elated state of emotions. I let him take the lead and cross the finish line, victorious, while I do all I can to reel in my complete and utter ecstasy.
Turns out I can’t. But no one cares. To prove it, watch this video of his finish.
Siamak just ran 100.2 miles of the Western States trail in 24 hours, 55 minutes, 57 seconds, setting a new personal best and proving to me and the rest of the world what I already know: he is one tough, dedicated, brave man who knows only one way. And that way is giving it his all.
He collapses backward into my arms and smiles the biggest damn smile I’ve ever seen.
Meret found us about a minute after we crossed the line. She was in tears, but those tears quickly faded once she was in her man’s arms, celebrating with him his champion achievement.
We couldn’t have done it without her and her introduction to the world of ultrarunning was as exciting as it was epic. Siamak was right that her conscientious character would play out, in a variety of ways, from getting us the supplies we needed when we needed them to finding a way — a shortcut that is — of getting to the track by flagging down the help of a kind Robie Point stranger who didn’t think twice about giving her a ride. That’s thinking quick on your feet.
And when it comes to quick feet, Siamak proved you can still run as fast as 6 minute pace, even with 100 miles in your legs. Here is the Garmin profile for those heroic last 3.65 miles — some of the greatest running of my whole life thus far.
The truth is, running these trails, taking part in these adventures, spending time with the kind of people you meet through it all… it just keeps getting better. Each effort is more and more meaningful.
Right now, the 2013 Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run, is at the top of those experiences for me. Running is the Moore’s Law of my life, which means that from here on out, things will only get better.
Then, they’ll get better than better, before they’ll get even better than that!!!
THIS is living the high life. And for me, there’s no other way to live.
*From El Dorado Creek (Mile 52.9) to the finish, Siamak passed over 70 people, moving from 176th place to 106th by the end. He was passed by three people during the night. We caught one of them with a mile to go.
“This race is worth it for the logo alone,” said my pal, Brandt as he held up the devil-horned, mud-splattered, red silhouette of the iconic Muddy Monk on a field of black.
We were getting ready to toe the line at the Wholly Hell 15k, a nice middle distance trail race put on by Art Boulet and his Muddy Monk trail race series.
“Yeah, it’s not every day you see a monk with horns like that,” I replied, eager to throw down 9+ miles so I could get to finish line and guzzle a few Finch’s beers — my ultimate target for the day. In fact, the finish line feel at all of the Muddy Monk races is pretty spectacular: good beer, good food and most of all, good people.
It wasn’t long ago that I was yearning for some sort of trail running entity to take over the Chicagoland area — some sort of portal to the trailrunning world that didn’t require a minimum of 31 miles on your feet. Sure, 5ks and half marathons take up plenty of space on the CARA race calendar, but what about short and middle distance trail races? What about some options for those of us who like to get our running buzz on with a side of mud and a dash of DEET?
Enter Art Boulet and the Muddy Monk.
I met Art at the USOLE Trail Challenge last fall while hanging out with my ultrarunning friends. A few weeks later a few of us volunteered at his Schiller Thriller 5k — a nice 3.1 mile trail run on what was for me a previously unknown trail system on the west side of Chicago. Seeing how well received the race was, especially by those new to the trailrunning community, I decided I had to start showing up at more of these.
The Wholly Hell 15k at Palos’ Swallow Cliffs looked like an ideal race to run.
Even though I consider the Swallow Cliffs trails to be a home game venue for me, I was really surprised at how much single track was there, previously unbeknownst to me. The course had us on and off the crushed limestone multi-track that I am familiar with, but a good chunk of the race was also on heavily canopied, luscious green single track, with plenty of opportunities to get dirty.
And get dirty I did!
I ran the whole race with my friend, Brandt, and our main goal was to beat Peter Sagal, host of Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me on NPR. This goal had no malicious roots at all; it was merely a better alternative to saying “I got beat by Peter Sagal”, something I have also said before. In retrospect, I now know that both statements sound pretty cool to my fellow NPR nerd friends.
I first met Mr. Sagal at the USOLE race last fall, and again at the Paleozoic 25k. When I saw he would be running the Wholly Hell 15k, I told Brandt we had to keep him in our sights.
Unfortunately for us, Sagal took off super quick and I didn’t think we would have a chance to catch him…
Until we did with just a couple miles left to go.
In passing, we shared a few words about our experiences at the 2013 Boston Marathon (his riveting piece on his day is well worth a read) before Brandt and I took off at our own steady 7:40ish pace.
With the finish line in sight, Brandt and I had a good sprint to the finish in just over one hour, eleven minutes. Then we immediately headed to the finish line for Finch’s beer, extended sunshine and good conversation with the many new friends we made.
Whether you are a road runner curious on mixing some more nature into your workouts or a veteran trail ultra runner looking for some shorter distance options, the Muddy Monk trail running series is your ticket to exploring all that hides under the forested canopy Chicagoland can offer.
And did I mention there was good beer?
Last year, the Ice Age Trail was home to a most glorious running experience. It was such a memorable event that I was absolutely adamant about coming back. But when it came time to register, an injury-laden winter and the knowledge that I would be fresh off a challenging Boston Marathon made me bump down to the 50k option.
On May 11, 2013, I ran the Ice Age Trail 50k — a challenging yet highly runnable course and now all I can think about is running it again in 2014. This is my story…
It’s 4:15 a.m. and my alarm sounds off along with my buddy Siamak’s. The unison doesn’t last long as we are both wide awake. In fact, I’ve been tossing and turning all night long and just happy to be fully awake now, ready to get the day started.
My off-and-on sleep was the result of the warm hotel room and a subliminal tick infestation planted in my brain by our waitress at Sperino’s the night before. She warned us that “the ticks were bad”. Indeed, I was tick-incepted by an Elkhornian and I didn’t get much sleep because I was more worried about the invisible critters sucking on my blood than traversing 31 miles of trail.
Still, I feel pretty fresh now that I’m awake. Siamak and I eat, go through our respective rituals of preparation, and by 5:10 we are in the car, driving to the start line.
As expected, the start/finish area at John Muir is a who’s who of familiar, crazy runner folk. Even though the majority of the people stirring about are running the 50 mile race, which begins at 6:00 a.m., I am glad I am here among the crowd because I won’t see most of them again until much later in the day.
My alarm wakes me from what was a fitting 90 minute nap (or was I meditating just now?) and I feel fantastic. I grab the gear I’m going to need (a handheld water bottle, gloves and a cap), I lube up where necessary (this is becoming automatic nowadays) and I head over to the start line. Here I run into two other recurring Run Factory faces, Dan and Otter. This is the first ultra distance race for both of them so I remind them to ENJOY the experience, have fun, take a look around. They both look pumped. I’m excited for them and can’t wait to hear about their experiences once this is all done.
We cheer on our friends in the 50 miler coming through the 9 mile mark at the start/finish line before the race director corrals all the 50k runners and tells us to get on our marks… set…
Miles 1-13, Out to Horseriders and Back
Here we go! The start line energy is high as I take off, trying to remind myself that ultras require pacing. Hell, all races require pacing! It’s just that the longer the distance, the less I tend to adhere to that important nugget of truth. Take it easy, Jeff, take it easy, I tell myself. We got a long way to go.
But, as we start to cruise the luscious single track, it isn’t long before we hit the first series of downhills and I… Simply. Can’t. Help myself.
I feel great. I feel strong. I feel like flying.
Yep. I’m doing this. I shouldn’t be, but I am. I am definitely FLYING down these hills. I’m power hiking up them, but I am flying down. Fast. Too fast. I know this. I know this! But I’m also loving every second of it and am willing to deal with the repercussions later, if they come (they do).
As I pump my arms, tilt my pelvis forward and allow my heels to kick me in the butt on the descent, I think of all the reasons why I should check my ambition right now:
- Limited weekly mileage (no more than 35 per week) since January
- This first 13 mile section is all rocks and roots, quite technical and hard on my unseasoned feet compared to the easier Nordic sections coming up
- I’ve run on trails just ONCE since November and it was only for 25k
- I have only run more than 20 miles in one shot ONE TIME since October and that was at the Boston Marathon, just a few weeks ago
- I have too much energy exploding through my being unchecked for this to end well
I internalize all of the above, and then, like a lot of ultra freaks, I quickly disregard everything and decide to just have fun.
I’ll fly when I wanna fly, walk when I wanna walk.
Later I will also walk when I don’t want to walk, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Right now I’m four miles in and the field has finally spread out. I’m marveling at the lush green landscape, the twisting turns of the trail and the pesky pricks of the rocks under my feet. Every two seconds I also check for ticks. Damn you, lucid dream inspiring Sperino’s waitress!
Suddenly, two strong fellas are right on my tail, so much so that I look back and offer them open passage on my left.
No, we’re good, the one in front replies. This is a good pace for us.
Cool, I reply. I like to let ‘er rip on the downs. I’ll be power hiking the ups.
They fall right into place and suddenly we are one. Down, down, down. Up, up, up. Their names are Tim and Mike. This is their first ultra. They are having a blast.
And they are pretty darn quick too. Turns out one of them (sorry, I can’t remember which because they’re both behind me while we talk) is a Nike Pace Team leader who led the 3:25 pace group at the 2012 Chicago Marathon.
Do you know Chris? He was my pace leader for the 3:05 group, had a California-bro accent of sorts.
Yes, I know Chris.
Boom. We are all instantly connected. That was the best run of my life so far and I spend the next couple of miles rehashing the experience. I get all jazzed, talking about fast marathons. I seem to forget about pacing all together. And when I find out they know another friend of mine, John from Grayslake, another Nike Pace Team leader, I get all bubbly telling them about some of our prior ultra battles (ED50k and Howl most notably).
Before I know it we are seeing the 50k leaders coming back towards us, approximately half a mile from the turnaround at Horseriders. We all marvel at their speed, speak fondly of their poise.
It’s one thing to run fast. It’s another to run fast on elevating, technical terrain.
We get to Horseriders. It’s just the three of us and the aid station crew. We chow down on some peanut butter and jelly. A minute or two goes by and we are just eating and stretching, drinking and breathing. But standing around too long in this chill is not comfortable so it’s time to go. After all, it’s barely 50 degrees and the sky is cloudy — very, very cloudy.
The three of us take off back into the woods, but we aren’t a half mile back in before I realize they are going way faster than me up the hills and there’s no way I can keep up. I tip my cap and wish them the best. It’s going to be a long day yet.
Still, the next several miles present A LOT of smiles because I get to see all my friends passing the other direction. As I scream down the hills I high-five and fist bump lots of folks, Dan and Otter included. Everyone is looking good. Everyone is smiling.
There’s no place I’d rather be right now. THIS is the life!
I’m past 1o miles now and I won’t be seeing anyone else on this out-and-back section. The next sign of human life will be at the start/finish line.
Hmm… I wonder if they have Oreos. I could really go for some Oreos right now.
And just like that, my OCD kicks in and all I can think about are OREOS OREOS OREOS. Such are the strange fixations of an ultra-distance race. In my every day life I wouldn’t touch an Oreo cookie. A drop of soda does not touch my mouth. I make it a point to eat clean — very, very clean. But throw me on a beautiful, wooded trail for hours on end and suddenly I will devour all processed foods and binge on soda pop. Like a boss.
I get to the start/finish. They have Oreos.
Miles 13-22, 1st Nordic Loop
It was nice to see some people at the start/finish line but I got a lot of work to do yet so off I go, back into solitary run mode.
Just a couple of miles in and I realize how much easier the Nordic loop is compared to the one I just finished. Instead of technical, rocky, rooted, up and down terrain, what we have here is a lot of flat, grassy ski trail. I should be able to fly through this.
SHOULD. Of course, I can’t right now because I beat myself up during the first 13, flying downhill like I was a mountain goat or Killian Jornet. Clearly, I am neither, as my quads and now achy heels can attest.
I am 16 miles in and anxiously looking for some hills.
Where are the hills? My legs hurt and I want to walk. Can I have a hill please?
No one can hear me. I’m all by myself. I have been all by myself since mile 8 so if I stop and walk, surely no one will see me.
A little bit of walking is allowed. Right?
I turn the corner and I see a HILL! I sprint towards it — OUCH — get to the base, and power hike up that baby.
For no good reason at all, Mozart’s Requiem pops into my head. Lux Aeterna, the last movement where Wolfy takes us from the world of the living to the world of the dead, blasts through my ears.
Why, brain? What are you trying to tell me?
Oh boy. I am tired.
While the IT band is just fine, my right hip starts to ache. I’ve had this ache before. It feels like bursitis. I stop and stretch. I massage it with my right thumb. Doing so makes it feel better. But as I stretch I notice the bottoms of my feet are sore too, probably from all the pounding during the first loop. I wiggle my toes around… and yep, just as I thought, definitely got some nails loose.
Oh well! What’s an ultra without losing some toenails?!?
REQUIEM, sings the choir.
Hey, finally some company, says a voice behind me.
I turn around and amazingly enough there is another human being! I find out his name is Matt. He’s from Wauwatosa and, of course, we know a lot of the same people from the running community.
As we marvel at how small the world really is, we also relax a little bit and find a nice cruising pace. We are about 18 miles in now and I’m feeling pretty beat up. Instead of complaining, I just hitch on to his heels and let the friendly conversation take us along.
Unfortunately for me though, Matt is much stronger right now and I have to dial back. I know we are on sub-5 hour pace (which, for this course, is a fantastic time), but I just can’t sustain that right now. I’m too tired. When I stop to walk the hills it’s taking a lot more concentration than it should to contract my quads and I know it’s because I went out too fast. I knew slogging along the second half could be the result of my eager start, but it’s way too late now.
A slog it is! Might as well enjoy it.
I complete the first Nordic loop, reach the start/finish aid station and all I want is Oreos. Duh.
Nom nom nom…
Miles 22-31, 2nd Nordic Loop
Just 9 miles to go, I tell myself. You could walk 9 miles. In your sleep. Speaking of sleep, check for ticks!
No ticks, but my armpits are kinda chafed.
Oh what I would give for some Vaseline right now.
And just like that, as if Mother Nature confused “Vaseline” for “sunlight”, the clouds in the sky part on cue, revealing a glorious, GLORIOUS sun.
Take that, Mozart! HALLELUJAH!
Sunlight, Vaseline, whatevs. The sun is out! The sun is out I tell you!
This picks me up as I try my best to run the entire first stretch of my second Nordic loop. But the truth is, my run is more of a shuffle than anything right now.
Doesn’t matter. Still moving. Still having a blast. And if I just keep moving, there will be more… Oreos!!!
Still, there isn’t much company. There is a tall, skinny white guy with a Prefontaine mustache out here every once in a while cheering for me (and others I would assume). Each time I see him I light up with a smile, and try to look as if I’m running strong (even though I’m not).
Next year we’re taking the first loop easy, then flying on the second and third.
Next year? I ask myself.
Yes, of course, next year, I reply to myself. You’re doing Boston again next year, then you’re doing this 50k again. It will be deja vu all over again, except less aches and pains. Probably.
Deal. Just make sure there are plenty of Oreos.
The 27.2 mile aid station is an absolute oasis in the forest. I devour what I can of those tasty, chocolatey, cream-filled treats. I stretch a little. And like I often do during long distance races, I find myself in a poignantly emotional state. I take the time to thank the volunteers and gush about how grateful I am that they are all there. I’ve been on both sides of the table now and volunteering is often harder than running the race. Even though my butt hurts, my hip aches and my feet are sore, I am much happier to be less than 5 miles from being done. These guys are still going to be here a while.
With the volunteers’ blessing and the bright sun in the sky urging me on, I take off on the last leg of my journey. To get me to keep moving I focus on landmarks up ahead, urging myself to just run to that tree, then walk for a few seconds and get around that bend, then stretch for a bit.
After several exhausting rounds of this tortuously fun process, I see the Prefontaine ‘stache guy one last time and he tells me I’m less than a mile from the finish.
Please tell me there is beer, I plead.
Hell yeah, man! Lots of beer! Good beer too!
That’s all I needed to hear. Suddenly my legs are fine and I’m flying again.
I hear a cow bell. And voices. And more Requiem.
There’s the finish line.
With a confident and incessant arm pump I cross the finish line in 5 hours 22 minutes and 11 seconds, sporting a big-ass smile and chafey armpits.
I couldn’t be much happier.
Besides the glorious trail running experience, the other main reason to run Ice Age is for the post-race party. Lots of free beer. The food is good. And there’s nothing like sitting at the finish line cheering on your friends. Most of my pals were running the 50 mile race, so to see them all come through in such epic fashion was a real cherry on top of my day.
Plus, my friend Moffat and I got the McHenry County Ultrarunning Dude and Dudettes’ mascot super drunk:
Like I already told myself:
See ya again next year, Ice Age!
Then I became a runner.
Nowadays, mud spattered tights and mucus crusted gloves are as common for me as bloody nipples and permastink-laden technical tees.
Meh, so what. As long as I’m having fun, right?
And boy did I have some fun on Saturday, March 16, 2013 whilst gliding, sliding, hurdling and traversing the ever treacherous and never clean Paleozoic Trail Runs 25K race course at the nearby forest preserve of Palos Heights. For me, the fun began before the race even started because I was at an event where I knew A TON OF PEOPLE! Having been a part of the trail and ultrarunning community for a couple of years now, I really feel like a part of the family. And that’s what the local New Leaf Ultra Runs group is to me: family. We run together, we get dirty together, we laugh together. That many smiling faces, firm handshakes and strong fist bumps is enough to make one’s day. Running the race was just extra.
And, to be honest, it was a bit confusing as well, but there were many reasons for this. As an inaugural event, I expected some obstacles outside of those offered by the freeze-to-thaw-to-freeze-back-to-thaw terrain. There was some uncertainty about course markings (weather washed a lot of them away). One of the aid stations wasn’t there when I got to it. I had a guy running a few inches off my heels for three quarters of the race. And I was trying to take it easy because a few days prior I aggravated my right ITB running intervals.
But I had a fantastic time in the cold, soupy weather, surrounded by good friends and warm community. I’m going to skip my regular play-by-play reporting of this race because all of the confusion caused by my missing a turn, adding mileage where it shouldn’t have been and then stopping to scratch my head a few times sort of took me out of my normal thinking patterns and now when I think back to the race all I can remember is putting one foot forward through muddy muck with a great big I-don’t-know-where-the-heck-I-am-going smile on my face.
When I finished, my Garmin read 1:55:47, but only 14.29 miles, a bit short of the stated 25K (15.5 miles). Upon further review, I missed a section near Bull Frog Lake but added some mileage on the east loop. All in all, I was still tired when I finished and I crossed the line with a healthy ITB/knee.
And oh yeah, this time I beat Peter Sagal (maybe? I dunno, after my misguided route maybe I didn’t). Still, I enjoyed chatting with him this go around, as he was quite lost too. In fact, I think everyone was lost at one point or another.
But I will be back next year. No doubt about it.
Meanwhile, Boston is just four weeks away…
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?
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.
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.
People who have met me within the last couple of years have a hard time believing I used to be someone else. Not that I was literally someone else, but the lifestyle I led and the things that interested me used to be so far from what they are now that I might as well have been another person.
Every runner has a story. There’s the story about running into a coyote on the trail, the story of getting clipped by that car that one time, the story of blowing up during that race. But a runner’s creation story is what I always find to be the most fascinating: how did a runner become a runner.
Here’s my story:
Growing up I was an active kid. Sure we had Nintendo, but in order to play it we had to be outside most of the day, doing whatever it was we kids would do: baseball, soccer, basketball, tag, kick the can, chase the girl! I grew up with a full house of siblings so we lived for good weather, exploring the neighborhood and bottle rocket fights.
My dad was a runner. Marathons, trail runs, 5Ks. I always had fun going to races and cheering for him in different events. When I was about 12 years old I started running with him in local short races. I didn’t particularly enjoy the running (it was hard!) but I did like the atmosphere and the eclectic group of folks who would get together and run around together for a couple hours. They’re crazy! I used to think.
I ran track in junior high. I ran the mile because it was the furthest distance offered and my dad seemed to like the idea of me running the longer distances like he did, so I just went with it. I wasn’t very good and I whined about how hard it was. I think my fastest time was 6-something. I was getting smoked.
By the time I reached high school I’d had it with track and had moved on to different things — music and theatre mostly. Dad continued to run and whenever I was feeling particularly out of shape I’d hit the road for 5 miles or so. But I didn’t enjoy it. I was used to being comfortable, and back then, for me, running was the absolute opposite of comfort.
In 1997, as a new freshman in college, I went for a run and quickly encountered the hill monsters of Kalamazoo, Michigan. Well, I’m done with this running shit, I thought. And I was.
Which is probably a good thing for the 18-year old me, because I quickly found other passions, like booze and smoking and chasing tail. My outta-this-world metabolism kept me from becoming Jabba the Hutt, so I ate whatever I felt like eating. I also drank and smoked, drank and smoked, drank and smoked.
Fast forward to December 30, 2009. The only part of my college lifestyle that had changed was that I wasn’t in college, and my metabolism wasn’t quite as efficient. I was constantly feeling tired (despite never having done anything), I struggled with severe bouts of depression and I was all the time coughing/wheezing/gasping.
Meh. This is my place in the universe, I told myself. This is who I am. I smoke a pack and a half a day. That’s just the way it is.
I was late for work and had about 4 minutes to catch the bus. From my place to the bus stop is about a quarter of a mile. If I walked I’d be late, so I decided to run.
Couldn’t make it.
About halfway through I stopped, keeled over onto my knees, gasping for breath. WHEEEEEEZE HUHHHH WHEEEEEEEZE HUHHHH. People were staring at me, kids were pointing, an old lady asked “Are you okay?”
I’M DONE WITH THIS, I yelled at myself. JUST STOP IT! THIS IS INSANE!
I was so embarrassed, so full of shame of what I was right then and there at that moment that I decided to do something I’d seemingly forgotten how to do: I took control of my life.
I quit smoking. That day. I haven’t smoked a cigarette since.
I quit boozing. I quit depriving my body of sleep. I quit filling my body with synthetic food stuffs, learned about basic nutrition and revamped my entire diet.
But most of all, I decided I wanted to be a runner again.
The first “run” lasted about 3 minutes. I didn’t get very far. But I kept going. I’d walk a little, jog a little, walk a little, jog a little. I made it a whole mile in about 20 minutes.
The next day, instead of quitting, I put on my shoes and went out the door again. Every time I thought about quitting, I saw myself keeled over, embarrassed by my lack of fitness, my lack of identity.
I’M A RUNNER GODDAMMIT. I’M A RUNNER.
I told myself this. I made myself believe it. And over the next couple of months, one mile became two, then two became three. I was feeling good. And most of all, I was HAPPY. I finished every run with a great big smile on my face.
Then, in the summer of 2010, a colleague of mine told me he was running a 5K sponsored by one of the museums we work with in Chinatown. He asked if I wanted to run it. A 5K? Me? My first instinct was to decline, so instead, I said yes.
Immediately, I wrote an email to my father, telling him as much. He seemed incredulous. In fact, to him, this entire “lifestyle transformation” of mine seemed too abrupt to be real. And considering how little attention I paid to personal health and well-being prior, I don’t blame him for thinking that way.
But I emailed him a copy of my race registration confirmation.
And a little bit later he emailed me a copy of his.
My dad traveled all the way from Houston, Texas to Chicago, Illinois to run a goddamn 5K with me, to show his support for my new direction, to pat me on the back for having the courage to finally change.
I ran my heart out in that race. I made my dad proud. And I never looked back.
I was a runner.
I am a runner.
And in becoming one, I found out it makes me the happiest me I can be.
Running around a snowy 2.28 mile loop course for six straight hours against a relentlessly swirling 30 mph wind on a Saturday in January with about 50 or so other running fanatics is truly one of the most enjoyable activities I’ve ever participated in.
And I ain’t speakin’ in absolutes just to be speakin’ in absolutes.
I mean it. I had a blast!
Chicagoland’s New Leaf Ultra Runs ultrarunning club has been a key component in my successful transition past 26.2 miles and into distances that would cause the casual 5K runner to pick his jaw up off the floor. With several 50Ks under my belt and having just set a marathon PR, my focus turns to completing my first 50 mile race, the Ice Age Trail 50 in May. So a six hour fun run couldn’t have been more timely!
The Windburn Six fat ass event — a run that I’d been gazing at on the calendar with a heightened sense of anticipation for many weeks prior — gave me a good idea of where I am physically, but, more importantly, it also gave me a good idea of where I’m about to go, how far I’ll have to dig, and a titillating glimpse at the raw me still yet to be fully discovered.
For me, that’s what running is all about: self-discovery. And during the Windburn Six I discovered the following:
- Ultrarunners are the kindest, most genuine, most non-judgmental people on the planet. Unlike the road racing community, no one is there to size you up, to “beat” you, to make you look stupid. Everyone’s on your team, raring to support you and one can never get enough of that. Your success is the community’s success. And the collective spirit generated from this worldview is as contagious as it is electrifying.
- When it comes to running for six hours, snow ain’t a thing, but sunglasses would’ve been a smart idea. I spent the rest of my day doing my best Gizmo impression: Bright Light! Bright Light!
- The joy that comes from suffering can often be the sweetest, most everlasting kind. It’s the kind that reminds you I’M ALIVE! The longer we ran in circles, the happier we all seemed. The volume and intensity of smiles and thumbs-ups and high-fives increased with each hour that passed. Sure my legs were feeling a bit heavy with only an hour to go, but I ran faster and stronger in that last hour than I did the previous five because the group mind was willing me to perform!
- After several bundled up hours of running, nothing tastes quite as good as homemade chicken noodle soup!
- Singing on the trail is not only allowed: IT’S ENCOURAGED! I got to hear a couple of sweet tunes sung by some very happy ultrarunners and they definitely served as highlights of the day.
- If you’re feeling tired but want to go as fast as possible without it feeling bad, run with Tony Cesario for a mile or so. I did towards the end of the run and boy did he bring my legs back to life! I didn’t know they could do that!
- I get sick of gels after a couple hours, so eating just a little bit of real food often seems to keep my engine running!
- When you run on an exposed, markerless and snow covered loop over and over again, it’s hard to gauge exactly where you are at any given time. The only thing I could be sure of during the run was that I was indeed running. This put my mind exactly where I wanted it to be: totally immersed in the run. When everything else (negativity, self-doubt, reservations) was put aside, true introspection began to flourish. I was pleasantly surprised at what my mind thinks I’m capable of doing and I look forward to following it further.
- No one will make fun of you if you decide to FLY down the downhills like a little kid, arms waving, battle cry roaring all the way.
- At the zenith of any strenuous exercise, Oreo cookies are the bomb!!!
- Running is the perfect ice breaker. I met a bunch of cool people whom I had never met before and the communitas born of our shared experience serves as a special bond.
Most of all, I discovered what I already knew to be even more true: running long boosts my serotonin levels and fills me with satisfaction. And running long with like-minded, friendly folks sends me to the proverbial moon of happiness.
Total distance covered for the six hour run was 31.64 miles.
*Special thanks to Brian and Kelly for their impeccable organization skills and also to those who didn’t run but who were manning the aid station, eager to lend a helping hand. It’s people like you who make ours a paragon of the running community!