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…
As my summer of ultras comes to a close (but not definitely… yet), I begin to turn my attention back to what made me such a running fanatic in the first place: RUNNING FAST.
There is just something immensely rewarding about moving my body as fast as it will go, powered on its own, that hypnotizes me, calls me, begs for me to do it. Even though it hurts.
My ultimate “things-I-must-do-before-I-die” goal is to run a sub-3 hour marathon. My current personal best is 3:15 and my first valid attempt at cracking three will be this coming January, again in Houston. While I know the chances of me pulling off such a feat in such a short amount of time are almost as insane as they seem impossible, I figure the bar is better set high than not high enough.
Challenge is good. Besides, I keep surprising myself with what I’m able to do, on any given day, so I might as well keep crawling deeper into the caverns of my mind to slay every last dragon of doubt.
Enter the Peapod Half Madness Half Marathon in Batavia, IL. I ran this race last year and had a blast, so I made sure to sign up again. This time I would be joined by two new friends: Dan Solera, who is just past the halfway point in running 50 half marathons in 50 states; and Dan “Otter” Otto, who impressed the hell out of me by downing six Old Style heavies WHILE RUNNING a sub-2 hour race at Batavia (more on this a bit later).
Pre-Race 4 a.m.
I’m up before the alarm. I went to bed at 9:30 last night, so I wake up feeling fully charged. Ready to rock. I sip a half a cup of coffee, eat a banana and some toast with jelly before checking the weather report. It’ s already 72 degrees, so I slap on my 1:30 pace bracelet knowing it’s pretty much a given that I won’t be hitting these splits today. But I’m wearing it anyway because I think a PR is definitely possible. I haven’t run too many half marathons; and I’ve never trained to peak for one, so I enter Batavia with a 1:34 best, confident that, as Ice Cube reminds me via my laptop, today always has the potential to be a good day.
5 a.m. and I swing by to pick up Dan and Otter. We are leaving Chicago, on the highway by 5:20 a.m. All is well. There’s something comforting about company just prior to a race. It lessens the nerves, distracts the mind from busying itself with senseless worry. I enjoy the conversation, especially as I learn Otter’s race plan to carry a pack with six Old Styles stowed, with the goal of downing them all prior to the finish.
6:30 a.m. and I’m jogging my warm-up. Holy Nikes! I bump into a friend of mine from high school whom I haven’t seen since the late 90s! It’s so cool to see her! We make plans to meet up at the finish and I go on my merry way, feeling out the legs, wondering Do I have it today?
Early signs point to… probably not.
6:55 a.m. I enter the chute and stand next to Dan towards the front. We fist bump, the horn blows and I… am… ruuuuuuunnnnnnnniiiiiiinnnnnng!!!
This is just four 5Ks and a jog, Jeff, I tell myself. Run four decent 22ish 5Ks and you’re good.
Thanks, me! I appreciate that!
I also appreciate the course. Though the beginning has changed a bit from last year (they got rid of the big hill at the start), I am still impressed with how quiet and quaint this little town of Batavia is. Its river-centric, historic downtown and sprawling neighborhoods with lots of green reminds me of my hometown of Quincy; and the people who are standing out on their lawns at 7 a.m., though not in great numbers, are especially awesome in my book.
Thanks for coming out, everybody! I yell with a smile. I like your town! It reminds me of home!
And boom! Just like that I look down to see I’ve come through the first 5K mark in 20:44. Not too shabby. The 1:30 pace group is about 3o yards ahead of me, running ahead of schedule, but already I can tell that today will not be a 1:30 day for me. I’m totally cool with it though because I feel fine right now and know that holding on to 7-minute pace will be more than enough for me to consider this a solid performance. It’s warm. The sun is blaring down on me at certain points along the course. But I feel fine. My legs are moving in a rhythm that seems sustainable.
I hit the big downhill section just before the 6-mile mark, build speed then bang a hard left onto the bike path that runs alongside the Fox River. Ah yes, this is where I built momentum last year, I recall. Time to push it a little bit.
Covered by the abundant shade, this sudden injection of conscious speed should be sustainable… except that, well, it isn’t. Around the 7-mile mark, the voice of fatigue makes a home between my ears. I take a GU and down some liquids, hoping to shut its ugly face, but alas, here it is, still talking shit.
Okay, dude, you can chill out now, you’re not going to PR so… yeah. It’s too hot. You haven’t been speed training. You can’t even see the 1:30 pace group anymore.
I run harder to shut him up.
Oh, so you think you can shut me up, Jeff? You know who I am, right? I’m your central governor and I make the decisions around here. Just try to get anything past me.
I push. I push again. Yikes! Pull back.
Haha! See. Told ya. I, am, the master.
I look at my Garmin, which tells me I just ran mile 9 in 7:29, a number I don’t like right now. Who’s the boss of who? I decide it’s time to stand up to Mr. Central Governor.
I am the boss of me, Central Governor. Not you. Not anyone. Just me! And look! I’m almost done!
Ha! Yes, this is the beauty of the half. Ten miles into the race and I’m almost done! After the summer of ultras, where training runs regularly lasted 4-6 hours and races 8-10 hours, oh what a glorious feeling it is to know I am an hour and eleven minutes into a race and I’m almost done! With so few miles to go, of course I can go faster!
So I do. The central governor tries to stop me but I pick out a guy ahead, the guy in the green singlet, and reel him in. Concentrate, I tell myself. Catch that green man!
I catch him, he speeds up to race, I go a bit faster and then I’m by him.
I pick out another. Guy in red. I look down at my watch and see I’m cruising at 6:40 pace — something that felt hard just 20 minutes ago seems so easy now, because I have focus. I am here to do something.
Mile 11 and I realize it’s all downhill from here. Literally. The last two miles of this course are a continuous downhill. Ideal for building speed and passing people.
I do both.
I can’t believe how good I feel right now. Who does that central governor jerk think he is? I’m gonna have to learn to shut him up quicker next time. Maybe I’ll train to do just that.
Up ahead I see the big orange sign instructing runners to turn left. I know that once I get there, I’m at mile 13, with just one tenth of a mile (the “jog”) to go. A quick glance at my watch informs me that I AM GOING TO PR TODAY, marking yet another victory over my Debbie Downer subconscious.
Eat it, Central Governor!
I turn left onto the bridge, turn right then left onto the last bridge before making the hard right turn to the finishing chute. I blaze in with the emcee announcing my name, across the line at 1:32:37.
Ice Cube was right. Today was a good day.
There’s something uniquely awesome about eating pizza and drinking Sam Adams before 9 in the morning, so I take full advantage of that as I meet up with Dan, whom I learn had me in his sights for the first half of the race before trailing off a bit. He still finished with a solid 1:36 and was smiling at the end so all signs point to GREAT JOB!
We both look out for Otter, wondering if Dan might get the call from the county jail that he’s been picked up for public intoxication WHILE RUNNING A HALF MARATHON. Luckily, Otter’s drinking on the run made him a race favorite, a point the emcee even brings up as Otter chugs his final beer, crossing the finish line in under two hours.
I am extremely impressed.
High fives are had.
– – –
The Peapod Half Madness Half Marathon proved again to be a great event. It’s just small enough that it doesn’t feel crowded and big enough to feel like each runner’s needs are being met. From the big downhill after mile 5 all the way to the finish I think the course is just fantastic. The aid stations were a bit small for my liking, but the volunteers more than made up for that and everyone out there was extremely positive and energetic. Also, just like last year, the hardware doubles as a bottle opener, which may be the running gods’ way of telling me that, indeed, beer and running do make a beautiful couple.