For over a year I dreamed about what it would feel like to run in the 118th edition of the Boston Marathon. Like many others, I felt compelled to be there no matter what it took. I was inspired to stand up as part of the running community, to help New England heal, to show my compassion and my support by doing what I love to do most: run long.
The whole world would be watching.
This is my story:
Saturday, April 19, 2014
Sitting in the airport terminal, donned in a bright orange and blue Boston Marathon jacket, I see I am not alone. The head nods and thumbs ups from complete strangers come from runners and non-runners alike, but the runners are easily identified by their Boston Athletic Association gear. Hats, tech tees and of course, the iconic marathon jacket, like the one I am wearing, bring a sense of togetherness for what would otherwise be just another boring plane ride.
Once on the plane, the captain makes his welcome speech. He ends it with the following:
“And for all of our marathoners onboard today, we wish you the best of luck and hope you have a fantastic run.”
The cabin erupts with applause.
*Chills up and down my body*
Wow. This ain’t just your everyday marathon, I think to myself.
– – –
In Boston, having checked in to my hotel, I enjoy a pleasant walk along Charles Street, scoping out the perfect spot for a bowl of clam chowder. Along the way I am greeted by many a passerby and random shouts of “Good luck on Monday!”, “Hope ya have a great run!”, “Thanks for being hee-ya!”.
The street is dotted with other marathoners, coming and going along Boston’s iconic Beacon Hill neighborhood, and the sentiment throughout remains equally enthusiastic for all.
It’s not every day that strangers go out of their way to make you feel welcome. I experienced it here last year, so I’m not surprised at all. I’m relishing the moment. Bostonians love their marathon and what it does for the city. I love them for it.
Full of clam chowder and ready for more walking, I make my way to the Hynes Center for the marathon expo. The closer I get to Boylston Street, the more powerful the city’s buzz and when I finally find myself standing at the finish line I notice its reverence is like that of a Greek temple. I too pay my respects.
Sunday, April 20, 2014
I arrived in Boston on Saturday specifically so I could have all day Sunday to sit around and do nothing. For the last year or so, I have been working a lot of 13 hour days, so this break is exactly what I need. I start the day off with a nice 2-mile shake out jog along the Charles River and then spend the rest of the morning and afternoon with my feet up, napping, reading and munching on overpriced hotel fare.
In the evening, I head over to the Government Center to meet my friends Mike and Rita for the official pasta dinner. They are also from Chicagoland. In fact, Rita finished the 2013 marathon just minutes before the bombs went off, giving all of us Chicago folk quite a scare until we knew she was okay.
Now it’s a year later, and I don’t think any of us can wait much longer to toe the line for this 2014 Boston Marathon. There is a deep sense of urgency felt throughout the running community to get this race off and going, to make it the best marathon ever run. The chorus of smile accompanied chatter here at the pasta dinner serves as a grand prologue.
But to make sure this prologue is just grand enough, Mike, Rita and I find ourselves randomly sitting at a table with Lisa and Jeff, a couple from Winona, MN. This choice meeting is grand because Rita met Lisa at St. Mary’s University of Minnesota several months ago while on a college tour with her daughter. To make things even more coincidental, after some conversation we discovered that Jeff knows Rita’s brother from the mountain biking community.
In a sea of 36,000 runners, from all around the globe, we randomly sit down next to familiar ones. In gleeful unison, we stuff ourselves with pasta.
After dinner I head back to the hotel and count down the minutes before Game of Thrones Season 4, Episode 3. For a solid hour I abandon all thoughts of marathoning for the dramatic tribulations of Westeros. Fiercely satisfied, with an acute obsession for the mother of dragons, I close my eyes and find myself fast asleep.
Monday, April 21, 2014
**BEEP BEEP BEEP**
Here we go!
I shoot out of bed, hit the power button on the coffee machine and eagerly flip on the news to check the weather. Reporting live from Hopkinton, the weather man confirms what I already know from countless weather app checks over the last 24 hours: low 40 degree temps at the start with highs reaching the mid to upper 60s by the time I hit the half marathon mark.
Could I be any more excited for this race? For this day? For this moment?!?
I eat my regular breakfast (bagel, banana, Clif Bar) and go through my regular pre-race preparations, which this time includes as much sunscreen as it does Bodyglide. A quick mental and physical check-in combined with some gentle foam rolling reveals an all-systems-go status.
But when it comes to another familiar routine, that of strapping on my watch, I hesitate.
Can I really do this? I ask myself. Can I really run without a watch?
You’re going to, I answer myself. You’re going to today. And you’re going to love it.
Sometimes I’m not sure if I believe myself. Today I choose to believe.
It’s been no secret that this training cycle has been one of my worst. I know that I don’t have the legs right now to run my best race. I have long made peace with this. But as much as I declare myself acceptant of my current condition, I know that if I run with my watch I will be checking it obsessively. And if I do that, I’m quite sure my competitive self, the one who often shows up to these sorts of events regardless of physical condition, won’t like what he sees.
Leave the watch at home, I tell myself. Run by feel. Give whatever you got today, but most importantly, enjoy the moment. Be present in it. Today doesn’t have to be about you or your performance. Let it be about people, about compassion, peace.
I leave my hotel room before I can change my mind.
In the elevator, I run into another, equally giddy runner.
His name is Steve and he’s from Pennsylvania. This is his first Boston Marathon and he plans to break three hours today. We split a cab to the Boston Commons and I give him the lowdown on the course: be conservative early on; don’t let the first 10k of downhill seduce you into blowing out your quads; kiss the girls at Wellesley; be ready to suck it up in Newton; when you hit the 21 mile mark let ‘er loose; when you see the Citgo sign you’re almost there.
He’s probably heard all of this already but I still lay it out there like it’s the most important speech he’ll ever hear. He thanks me for the advice and the conversation and before we know it we’re packed into a bus on the way to Hopkinton.
I close my eyes. I sleep a little. I turn off my mind.
When it comes back on we’re at the Athlete’s Village, deboarding the bus. The sweet chill in the air is invigoratin, the adrenaline in my blood plenty. This will be my 8th marathon. I have had butterflies before. I have been nervous. But today I feel none of that. Only adrenaline.
I feel pure adrenaline.
I look down where my watch should be to see how many hours I have to wait until the start.
Oh yeah, I forgot. No watch. No time.
No worry, no obsessing.
The Athlete’s Village is at Hopkinton High School. I head towards the baseball diamond, camp out next to the backstop and, now lying prostrate with a poncho as my mattress, I calm myself back into a deep, meditative state. The noise all around slowly fades and soon all I hear is the metronome of my breath.
– – –
I wake and find that I am now surrounded by a field of runners. The one almost uncomfortably close to me says, “Hey, mate. You were sleeping mighty well right then.”
His name is Robert. He’s a ginger. And he’s from London. This is his first Boston Marathon, and he too plans to run sub-3 hours.
If only I were in shape for a sub-3 hour race… struth gov’nr, cor blimey!
Robert and I chat, helping tick away the time that I can’t keep.
After a thorough comparison of races past and bucket lists to come, he finally notices, “You forget your watch?”
“Yeah, on purpose.”
“Wow, that would be hard for me.”
“Might be hard for me too.”
Nature calls Robert away while the PA announcer calls me and the rest of Wave 1 to our corrals.
Here we go…
With 15,000 more participants this year, I feel like a tuna fish tightly packed inside his school. During this long march from the Athelete’s Village out to the corrals I am hit by a cacophony of smells — from Icy Hot to Starbucks to b.o. — it’s a mixture specifically attune to running culture.
Once in line for my corral, I follow the leader even further down a long road towards Main Street (Route 135) in Hopkinton. It is here that I shed my warm-up clothing and feel that first skipping heart beat — nothing a short series of concentrated deep breaths can’t fix.
Here the crowds are already deep in support. On one lawn in particular stands a man with a sign yelling “Free Donuts, Cigarettes and Beer!” Like everyone else, I enjoy a laugh, but immediately after, the mood grows somber, reflective.
As we draw closer and closer to Main Street, the crowd of runners grows eerily quiet. This is the direct opposite of what I experienced last year. This is the group mind understanding the implications of this moment, the group mind preparing itself for an epic day.
– – –
Packed deep inside my corral now, squeezing elbow to elbow with my fellow tuna runners, I bump into Robert again.
“Hey, mate. Have a good run.”
“You too,” I say as the National Anthem begins.
Hat in my hand, hand on my heart, every hair on my body stands on end.
A massive cheer is followed by a Blackhawk helicopter flyover and finally…
Miles 1 – 6
I cross the first timing mat and instinctively try to start the timer on the watch that isn’t there. Whoops. Laughing at myself and feeling somewhat liberated as I go watchless, I begin the long descent out of Hopkinton. Already the crowd is loud, boisterous and Boston strong.
The adrenaline runs thick so I remind myself to not let my emotions dictate a fast pace. From experience, I already know that it is here, in these first 10 kilometers, where most people ruin their Boston Marathon. For we go down, down, down, banging our quadriceps in the opposite way mother nature designed them. If one goes too hard early on and blows out his quads, when he reaches Newton and really needs them to get up the longer climbs, he is going to feel a lot of pain and suffering.
Knowing this and having the good sense to reel myself in, last year I managed to run my one and only negative split marathon. Maybe today will yield similar results.
Still, it’s pretty demoralizing to have so many people pass by me — correction: FLY BY ME — so early on in the race. To avoid getting stomped to death, I straddle the center line of the narrow roadway and let everyone fight to go around me.
I step over the first 5k timing mat and think about all my friends and loved ones who are receiving a text message as a result. Technology is pretty sweet. I look down at my wrist to check my split but oh wait, yeah, never mind.
Look around you, I remind myself. You will never live this moment again. Soak it in!
Oh, man. I apologize for my rough language here, but How fucking cool is this?!?! I repeat to myself. This is just so fucking cool: the deep, cheering crowds; the speedsters; the gentle downhill making me feel like I’m floating on air.
And BAM, just like that, I’m over the 10k timing mat, texting my mom and dad again.
I finally break my habit of looking at my invisible watch.
Miles 6 – 12
After the initial 10k of quad thrashing, I do a full mind-body scan to take inventory. I feel great. My breathing is consistent and calculated. I’m running on feel, adjusting pace and cadence based on the course. My smile is about as big as it can get. If anything, my cheeks are beginning to hurt.
But most importantly, my quadriceps are perfectly fine. And they should be. I spent a lot of time over the last 18 weeks working and building my quads, just for this moment. Since I was confined to a treadmill for 90% of my training runs this winter, one of my favorite workouts was warming up for 10 minutes followed by 5 minutes at 6:30/mile pace, followed by 1 minute of air squats, 1 minute of lunges and a 1 minute wall-sit before going back to 5 minutes at 6:30/pace. I would repeat the 8 minute segment 3-8 times, depending on where I was in my training cycle. I typically like to think of myself as a pretty humble guy, but I can’t stop myself from saying I have big ass horse legs right now as a result of all the hard work.
They are coming in handy now.
As my mind drifts from those treadmill workouts to right this second to what kind of beer I’m going to drink after this, I try to always come back to right now. This moment. This little bit of history. This awesomeness.
I pass Team Hoyt and I give them a “WAY TO GO, TEAM HOYT!” while marveling at all those two have accomplished. Just thinking about how many people they’ve inspired the last 30 years makes me feel extremely appreciative to share the road with them. The crowd reacts to their presence appropriately and I am happy to be along for the ride.
Despite the roaring support, there are a couple of quiet spots in between Framingham and Natick. Just before mile 11 now, we hit another brief quiet spot before Wellesley when I feel a man approaching fast on my left side. As he sails by me I take one look at him from behind and immediately yell: “DEAN!”
It’s Dean Karnazes. No one has a body composition like that besides Dean. He’s also ridiculously tan, wearing his famous North Face singlet and visor.
“Hey, bro,” he replies looking back but not slowing down one bit, “how’s it going?”
“Wow! Going great!” I say, suddenly finding the energy and the turnover to keep up with him. I park myself on his right and match him stride for stride. “This is awesome, Dean,” I gush. “I gotta tell you, my name is Jeff and you’re the reason I run ultras! ”
“Cool, that means a lot to me to hear that. I’m glad to see you’re still running marathons too.”
“Yes, sir. In fact, I was training for my first marathon a few years ago when I wondered if people were crazy enough to ever run more than 26.2.”
“So I Googled it and up came your book, Ultramarathon Man. I bought it, read it in one day and about halfway through the book I said to myself ‘I’m doin’ that.'”
“That’s a great story,” he says, smiling almost as big as me. “Thanks for sharing that with me.”
We chat on about upcoming ultras and about how awesome this Boston Marathon is. But just as I start to hear the screaming women of Wellesley off in the distance, I realize there’s no way I can keep up this pace much longer without crashing hard. So I tell Dean as much and wish him an awesome second half of the race.
“Thanks, Jeff. You too, man. Take it all in. Today is special.”
Indeed, today is special. I just ran with one of my running idols in one of the biggest races of my life!
And now I’m in Wellesley, where hoards of women are screaming, asking me to kiss them! Woo hoo!
Admittedly, I don’t spend as much time with the Wellesley women as I did last year. It’s tradition here to kiss the girls, but I am in a happy relationship now and don’t need the attention nor the flattery. What I do need is the boost of energy their voracious cheering provides, so I tuck in close to the guard rail and sail on the power of their collective voices.
Miles 12 – 17
In the town of Wellesley I am greeted by “Sweeeeeeeeet Caroline…. BAH BAH BAHHHH!”
Oh boy the chill I get when that song comes on is a great boost to my psyche. And now that I cross the halfway mark (thus texting my friends and family again) I know I am going to need it. It’s getting warm, the sun is bright and high in the sky and yes, I’m starting to get a little tired.
I know the infamous Newton Hills are coming. Thinking about them, my mind begins to drift towards thoughts of suffering.
Now, Jeff! Stay in the now! Stay in the now!
That’s right. Stay in the now. After all, my love affair with running long is deeply rooted in being able to stay in the now for as long as I’m in motion.
Don’t think about mile 18 or 25 or the finish, just think about RIGHT NOW… then RIGHT NOW… then RIGHT NOW.
I do. I stay right here, right in this magical moment at the center of the world. I hug the left side of the road and high five as many hands as I can, riding on the cheers of countless strangers intent on making right now as special as it can be.
The more I begin to suffer, the more I hear my name. “Go Lung!” “You can do it, Lung!” “Pump those arms, Lung!”
My last name is prominently displayed across my chest specifically for tough times like these as I enter the town of Newton. Each time I hear my name I’m able to focus on the now, eschewing thoughts of discomfort.
Miles 17 – 21
As I embark on arguably the toughest part of the race, I fight back a brief bout of nausea. For some reason, I feel like I am going to throw up a the top of the first big Newton climb, but I remind myself that it’s just a phase and I’ll feel better soon.
I take water and Gatorade at every aid station, just as I have been doing all throughout the race, and after a half mile or so I feel much better. Dumping cold water on my head every chance I get helps. The sun is really shining on me now. I’m getting burned but there’s not much else I can do about it.
My heels are stiff and sore too, but running by some blade runners reminds me how lucky I am to be able-bodied, so I tell myself to suck it up and focus on the glory all around me.
“Go Lung! Get up that hill, Lung! You can do it!”
Good god these people are awesome!
While all day long the crowd has featured an array of wicked smaht signs, one seemingly boring one grabs my attention now. It reads: HAVE FUN. MEB WON.
WHAAAAAT???? MEB WON????
“Did Meb really win?” I yell back, corkscrewing my body into an awkward position not meant for marathoning.
“Yes!” the gentleman holding the sign says. “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!”
Wow, that is really cool. Meb Keflezighi won the marathon. This declaration provides me with even more untapped energy — enough to take me all the way up to Heartbreak Hill.
This spot, famous for its place in Boston Marathon lore, is also one where the crowds really provide a boost. Though my body is aching, I am happy knowing it’s simply fatigue and nothing else. My pace has slowed considerably, but I have not stopped running. I will NOT stop running, especially now. I will conquer this hill on the shoulders of this animated and positive crowd. While I shorten my stride to get to the top, I high-five little kids and blow kisses to those cheering me on.
At the top, finally, I think to myself, now that wasn’t so bad.
Miles 21 – 25.6
My reward for cresting the last of the Newton Hills is a nice, long downhill. Recovered and feeling the excitement of almost being done, I decide to let ‘er rip down this one.
In Brookline now and I am simply amazed at how the crowd just grows more and more intense the closer I get to the finish. My ears are ringing!
Do these people lover their marathon or what?!?!
My constant mind-body feedback loop yields the familiar aches and pains associated with three hours of continuous running but it’s all masked by the enormous amount of love I feel radiating through my every cell. My emotions are starting to come out. It’s a good thing I’m wearing sunglasses.
I have run in a lot of marathons, including three Chicago Marathons where I thought the crowds simply couldn’t be beat. I am being proved wrong. This moment, right here, in Hopkinton-Ashland-Framingham-Natick-Wellesley-Newton-Brookline and now BOSTON, MASSACHUSSETS is the most alive I’ve ever felt. This is history! Like 36,000 of my brothers and sisters, I am an integral part of this celebration of life, this festival of compassion, this party of love.
The Citgo sign greets me and I know I’m almost done.
My god, what am I going to do when I get to the finish line, I ask myself. Am I going to cry like a baby? Am I going to pass out?
STAY IN THE NOW, JEFF, IN THE NOW.
In the now. High-fiving this kid. In the now. Blowing kisses to that crowd. In the now. Being uplifted by the sound of my own name “GO LUNG GO!”
Miles 25.6 – 26.2
I turn right on Hereford, left on Boylston and there it is: the finish line. In all its glory, in all its majesty, there stands the finish line, drawing me near. It’s only 600 meters from here to the finish — one and a half times around the track.
This is where I usually sprint my heart out, pumping my arms and my legs to the beat of the fastest drummer I can summon.
But not today. Today I’m taking my sweet ass time. I’m soaking this in — this love, this peace. I’m right in the middle of it all and I’m not going to miss a second of it.
I let the wave of warmth and emotion flow over and through me. I know that this is one of the most special moments of my life.
I am in the now. I did it. I am right here, right here in Boston where I’m supposed to be.
I cross the finish line in 3 hours 38 minutes on the dot and can’t hold back the tears of joy any longer.
1968 Boston Marathon champion and longtime Runner’s World fixture Amby Burfoot described the 118th Boston Marathon as “the best day in running history”. I really can’t argue with that.
For me, it goes even further. The 2014 Boston Marathon was a celebration in motion, an honest tour of compassion and a testament to the love deep down inside us all. Whether we ran, we cheered or we watched via text messages at home, we were all together as one, running through the center of the world.
Just get to Butt Slide Hill, just get to Butt Slide Hill, just get to Butt Slide Hill…
No me dejes nunca, nunca, nunca… te lo PIIIIIIIIIIIDO por favor…
Soup, soup, soup… hot… soup, soup, soup…
No doubt the above is an odd collection of unrelated thoughts turned mantras. But these, along with some choice others, were the phrases that kept me moving throughout my 7 hour 9 minute journey through frosty McHenry County wonderland at the 2014 Frozen Gnome 50k. This is my story:
Saturday, January 11, 2014
*BEEP BEEP BEEP*
Boom. I’m awake. I can smell the coffee brewing.
I jump to my feet and shove a couple of bananas and a Clif Bar down my throat while I check the weather. A night of freezing rain descended on the Veterans Acres course and the high for today looks like it will crest above 40. This is good news, or this is bad news.
So far this winter, over 30 inches of snow have accumulated in the Chicagoland area and with the Polar Vortex treating us to negative high temperatures just a few days ago, I’m feeling quite joyous about not having to risk hypothermia and frostbite during this race. However, above freezing temps and lots of rain will likely make the already challenging, hilly course a roller coaster of slushy, slick and slow surprises.
I love surprises.
My girlfriend and I arrive at Veteran Acres in Crystal Lake, IL and we both take note of the pleasant, warm air. But as soon as we try to navigate the parking lot turned ice rink, we immediately connect on what kind of adventure is in store for us today.
“We’re going to have to take it easy,” I say, “we’ll be just one spill away from six weeks in a walking boot.”
We pick up our bib numbers and greet the swarms of friendly faces near the start line. This event, hosted by our dear friends from the McHenry County Ultrarunning Dudes and Dudettes (M.U.D.D.) group, has attracted runners from all over the Chicago area. And like other ultra races held around here, the sense of love, joy and community is in high definition surround sound.
I greet race director Michele Hartwig and course director, Geoff Moffat, both with a hearty hug followed by a questioning grin.
“I think we’re in for quite a test today,” I say.
Geoff’s sinister chuckle validates my thought.
The 10k’ers go off, hopefully packing down the snow-slush trail for us on the way.
15 minutes later and…
Loop 1, Miles 1 – 6.2
My game plan for today is to go out nice and easy, survey the course the first time around and adjust my effort accordingly. I’m in Boston training mode, so everything I do right now is in preparation for that. Today I expect to get some gnarly hill and mental toughness training; and I would like to keep my heart rate around 150 bpm, so I’ll be keeping a close watch.
The course is a 10k loop, repeated 5 times, so I should know it (possibly love it, or hate it) very well by the end.
The initial findings in my constant mind-body-mind feedback loop are: oh boy, this is a toughie, what have I gotten myself into?
The snow is packed down in spots, not so much in others. The ongoing thaw has created a perpetually messy slush-soup in some parts and when we hit the occasional paved paths it’s nothing short of an ice rink. Oh, and then there are the hills — steep climbs that force me to dig in hard with the fat lugs on my Salomon Speedcross 3s on the way up and cautiously pick away through an admittedly odd looking dance on the way down.
I prepare my mind for the impending hip flexor hurt and subsequent butt soreness.
Traffic on the trail is moving pretty well. I am in a group of steady movers who, like me, seem to be striving to go home in one piece. Everything is going swell until suddenly, at the crest of a long climb, we stop. Completely.
“What’s going on?” I ask to those up ahead.
“Butt Slide Hill,” I hear someone holler back.
I poke my head out from the congested conga line to see a group of runners stopped in their slushy tracks, unsure of how to navigate down the frighteningly steep descent. Their facial expressions say they aren’t sure, so I cut the line and head straight to the front.
“It’s not called ‘Butt Slide Hill’ for nothin’,” I say as I scoot to my backside and slide — WEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!! — all the way down.
Wow. That. Was. AWESOME.
I rise to my feet, and despite the snow filling my crack, I can’t stop from laughing.
“That was worth the price of registration alone,” I say to a runner close behind. “And to think, we get to do that four more times!!!”
A couple of miles later and my smile finally starts to wane as the thick slush soaking and freezing my feet reminds me that I have a lot of work to do, and a long way to go.
But I reach the start/finish line to a raucous cheer from a familiar cast of friends and volunteers. I fill my bottle, grab some grub and head back out for more punishment.
Loop 2, Miles 6.2 – 12.4
I walk fast while chomping down on some delicious cookies and notice my heart rate hovering around 140, even while walking. So far I have been successful in keeping my heart rate in the 150 range while running. I only wish it would drop a bit more when going slow. When I tackle any hill it seems to soar around 160-170.
I contemplate this, as well as the recipe to these scrumptious cookies, when suddenly I hear “What the–?” from behind. I turn back to see Jeff Moss, a friendly runner (with an awesome name) whom I met at the 2013 DPRT 50. He seems surprised to have caught me so early in the race.
“Oh no, it’s going to be slow-going for me today,” I assure him. “I want to go home in one piece.”
For the entirety of this loop, Jeff and I run together, sometimes talking, sometimes not, but always moving. We chat about races past and those to come. I am impressed with Jeff’s running resume, especially that he’s going to take on his first 100 miler this spring at the Potawatami 100.
“You definitely have the bug, don’t you? The racing bug.” I say.
“Oh yes, definitely.”
As we climb up towards the peak of Butt Slide Hill for the second time, I look back to see I’m first in a long line of runners. Eager to lead by good example, I excitedly drop down on my butt and — WEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!! — zoom down the hill.
I stop at the bottom, but again, I can’t stop laughing. I feel like a goofy kid drunk off life.
A couple miles of more slogging and we’re back at the start/finish line. This time there are cinnamon rolls! YES!
Loop 3, Miles 12.4 – 18.6
I start back out on my own, but it doesn’t take long for Jeff to catch up to me again. I welcome the company, even when the trail forces us to concentrate hard on staying upright, leading to limited conversation. It’s just nice to know that if I fall and snap my femur, someone will be there to help me up.
The loop is getting to be familiar now. Up this hill, down that one. Around this snow bank, zig-zagging over that one. Ankle high sloppy slush through this multi-track, cross country skiing with trail shoes through that one.
Every once in a while we are greeted by smiling course marshals and a ringing cow bell. It’s all becoming as familiar to me now as the rising ache in my butt.
“I’m getting beat up,” Jeff says.
“Me too. Me. Too.”
We reach the start/finish line and I head right for my drop bag and a much needed Red Bull. Friend and volunteer Julie Bane offers me some hot soup and I take it as fast as I can.
Ahhhhh… yes. It warms my soul as much as my gut.
“Wow, this soup is delicious, Julie,” I say. “It doesn’t necessarily pair well with the Red Bull, but man, did I need that!”
As I stand around my drop bag slurping soup and Red Bull, I contemplate a sock and shoe change. After 18+ miles of stomping through snow and slush, my feet are frozen bricks, and the more I stand around, the colder they get. It might be nice to have dry feet, I think to myself, but as soon as I get back on the trail they will go right back to being cold and soaking wet.
I’m better off just dealing with it.
So I do.
Loop 4, Miles 18.6 – 24.8
Jeff passes me as we head out for this loop and his backside quickly disappears from my view. That’s the last time I will see him until the finish line.
“Go get ’em, Jeff!” I yell, mostly to myself, because he is too far away to hear.
I put my head down, pump my arms and force myself to just… keep… moving.
My heart rate is hovering around 155-160 now and it’s getting harder and harder to bring it down. Each hill I climb sends it to 170 and beyond, and even when I slow to a fast hike I find it difficult to get below 150. I guess this is because THIS RACE IS HARD.
Up the hills, down the hills, up the hills, down the hills.
It’s a hard course, but beautiful, no doubt. I am all alone on this loop and the surrounding forest keeps me entertained with its eery quiet and comforting, wintery surprises.
I hit Butt Slide Hill again, chuckling all the way down, and when I find myself back at the start/finish line, volunteer extraordinaire Karen Shearer greets me with a beaming smile and more hot soup.
I really don’t want to leave the comforts of the start/finish area. My feet are bricks. My hip flexors are screaming. My butt aches. Heck, it’s taken me five and a half hours to complete 40k, cementing the idea that this will be my slowest 50k finish ever, in the seven hour plus range. But race director Michele said she brought my favorite post-race grub, her famous taco soup, and I would feel guilty filling up on that treasure without having finished the race, so I put on my big-boy smile and get the hell back out there.
Loop 5, Miles 24.8 – 31
The biggest difference between this loop and the previous four is the fact that I’m doing a LOT of walking now, even on the flats. Also, I’m singing. To be specific, I’m singing “Te Lo Pido, Por Favor”, a song that has been stuck in my head for a couple of weeks now. Since I’m all alone and suffering, I’m even singing three different versions (Juan Gabriel, Banda El Recodo and my favorite, Marc Anthony) at the top of my lungs.
Tu me sabes bien guiar, tu me sabes bien cuidar…
Oh man, my butt hurts.
Good grief my feet are cold. I could use some taco soup right about now. Yes, soup… hot soup, soup, soup…
Whew. Wow. I’m gonna suggest to the course director THAT HE MAKE THIS RACE A LITTLE TOUGHER NEXT TIME.
Just get to Butt Slide Hill, just get to Butt Slide Hill, just get to Butt Slide Hill…
I get to Butt Slide Hill and now I know, yes, it’s… all downhill from here. WEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!!
At the bottom of the hill, resting on my back, I just smile. And laugh. Sure I’m sore. Sure I ache. Sure my feet are frigidly cold.
But is there anything else you’d rather be doing today?
And with that, I’m up running again. I’m running slow, using an exaggerated arm pump to convince myself I’m running faster than I really am, but I am running.
Hot soup, soup, soup.
Te lo pido, por favor.
As I reach the finish line to cheering voices, my eyes grow large with with the type of joy only arduous adventure can provide. Somehow the sun, an entity that has laid dormant throughout the entire day, comes out to shine, as if to say:
“Welcome to the finish line, Jeff. Now get yer ass some taco soup.”
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.
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!
“Running is a vehicle for self-discovery.”
In May of 2009, I was a pack-and-a-half a day smoker who drank too much, ate like shit and never exercised. In May of 2010, I was logging 3-mile runs two or three times a week. In May of 2011, I was recovering from my first marathon.
And in May of 2012, I unleashed an ultrarunning, trail-diggin’, dirt lovin’ dragon.
Here is my story:
Race Morning, 3:30 a.m.
I’m up! Banana, granola bar, a big gooey blueberry muffin and a cup of coffee. Did I sleep last night? A little. Am I nervous? No! But I should be… right?
In a couple of hours I will begin the journey of completing my very first 50 mile race. With four road marathons and five trail 50Ks in my legs already, this is the trip that will really stretch my psyche. This is the one that I’ve been daydreaming about for well over a year.
I’m craving it. I’m expecting it. I can’t wait to test the body I’ve been steadily building for this exact day, May 12, 2012.
Dad doesn’t seem to hear the blaring alarm clock deafening my ears so I nudge him awake and then we both busy ourselves with prepping for a very long day. I’m really glad he’s here with me. He’s one of the main reasons I fell in love with running in the first place and he’s been with me at every step of my transformation. Despite the fact that he lives outside of Houston (which is pretty far from Chicago and the midwest) he was at my first 5K, my first half marathon, first marathon and first 50K!
Now he’s here for my first 50 miler, only instead of participating as runner or spectator, this time I’m puttin’ him to work as my crew. Last night we went over his duties and I’m pretty confident that he’ll be a big help to me throughout the day. This might be almost as epic for him as it will be for me.
I think that’s pretty cool.
Start Line, 5:30 a.m.
With so many of my New Leaf and M.U.D.D. friends also running in this race, I know the start and finish lines are gonna be buzzin’ with awesome-sauce. Every time I look around I see someone I know, which is just fantastic! With this kind of good company, it’s hard for me to give in to the normal anxieties and fears I usually have before a big race. My stomach’s not churning at all. I’m not shaking. Instead, I’m crackin’ jokes and shakin’ hands.
If I were all alone right now, surely I’d be worrying about the unknown, about the fact that I’ve never run more than 32 miles at any one time, or longer than 6 and a half hours — both tasks I’m going to have to deal with. But I’m not alone. I’m surrounded by a loving, joyous community.
And some kick-ass trail.
The temp is in the mid 50s. It will get up into the high 60s, but we’ll have cloud cover for most of the day and virtually no rain (some spits here and there).
The race director addresses all 360+ of us, then comes the National Anthem. I hug my dad goodbye and take my place at the start line. This is really happening now.
This is really, actually happening.
The first section of the race takes place on the Nordic Loop, which is a relatively wide and flat grassy section, ideal for speed. But this ain’t no speed contest. This is a long haul. And pacing will either save me, or destroy me.
My goal for today is to just finish the race, to enjoy the virginal voyage. After the last few trail races, where I’ve placed in the top 10, it is paramount that I stay humble and don’t get cocky. There are world class athletes here today with lots of experience and I need to just watch them blow by.
Racing a 50K is much different than racing a 50 miler. I think. Hell, I don’t even know how to race a 50 miler yet, because I’ve never done it! And my track record on first races at all the different distances is not very good.
Sure, I’ve finished them all, but in each case (my first half marathon, first marathon, first 50K) I went out WAAAY too fast and had to suffer through some gut-busting, painful miles at the end. I don’t want that to happen today.
So the plan is to run this first loop at a controlled 10-11 minute pace with my new friend, Geoff, whom I met at the Earth Day 50K. He and I finished a close 4th and 5th there and since our paces are about the same, we decided to run this first bit together.
I’m very glad we did, because the conversation with Geoff is making this early portion quite fun. As if the infinitely luscious green forest isn’t enough to make me smile, the chatter we have going makes it all the sweeter. We share our running backgrounds and talk race schedules. We wax on nutrition, training, and of course, beer (this will be an all-day theme actually). We also share the strategy of running the flats, walking the uphills, and running the downs. The Ice Age Trail is notorious for its incessant batch of rolling hills and having an attack plan could be key.
I’m carrying a 20 oz. handheld bottle and lots of GU stuffed in my short pockets. All is going well so we blow by the first aid station. In fact, the first 8 miles breeze by, but nature calls and I tell Geoff to head on while I make a quick stop to water the trees.
A few minutes later, I’m back on the trail, but the lot of racers has already spread out so much that I have little company. That’s to be expected in a trail race, so I embrace the alone time while I have it. As I come into the second aid station at mile 9, I see Dad waving his arms, yelling my name.
The temperature is rising, so I rip off my singlet, get a quick bottle refill and get back to work.
Cruising. Damn. I just feel… good. I’m not going too fast. Am I? No. I think. I don’t know.
Because it is so early still, I try not to think about what I’m doing too much. I mean, I don’t wanna stress myself out with math and splits and whatever else problem could come up. I’m pretty much just zooming along by myself here, enjoying the magnificent surroundings, eating a GU every half hour and taking a sip of my half-water-half-Gatorade mix every few minutes. It’s not really too warm, but it is a bit humid and when the sun does break out of the clouds it jumps up and smacks me in the face.
Of course, the actual trail does a good job of smacking me in the face as well. Literally. While it’s not uncommon for me to trip and do a face-plant during the latter stages of a race, this early section sees me fall *BOOM* not once but *BOOM* twice. Luckily, I’m alone and my embarrassment is limited to just me and Mother Nature, who graciously covers me with mud and dirt upon each trip.
After collecting myself, I reach one of the rare exposed sections of the course, close to a lake, and suddenly I’m choking on a swarm of bugs.
What the — … are these gnats or… midges or…. what the hell are these things?!?
Whatever they are, they swarm in bunches and attack from out of nowhere. While some of them kamikaze into my sweaty torso, the majority decide to invade my eyes, ears and mouth.
I look behind me and see another runner falling victim to the same insect army.
Disgusting, he says. He has a very pleasant sounding British accent, and he’s running faster than I am, so I move out of the way and let him lead.
His name is Mark. He’s from Evanston via Cambridge, England. I recognize him from some earlier banter, back when I was running with Geoff. We were talking about beer.
Though it’s quite early, we pick up our beer conversation in anticipation of the finish line refreshment and share some stories of races past. Along the way, we pick up another runner, one donning a Marathon Maniacs singlet, whom I sheepishly anoint as “Maniac”. Turns out his real name is Steve.
For the next 10-20 miles, I will spend a lot of time with Mark and Steve, ebbing and flowing according to the terrain.
Shortly after we depart the Highway 12 aid station at approximately 17.3 miles, I trip and fall AGAIN, this time breaking the strap on my water bottle.
I don’t have a backup strap either. Damn it! But… wait… I do have… duct tape! It’s in my gear bag that Dad is hauling around, and if anyone can create something functional out of duct tape, it’s my father. He’s been doing it my whole life.
I will see him in 5 miles or so. I can hold on to this thing the old fashioned way until then. I hope.
BOOM. I trip again. What the FUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUU!!!!
Pick up yer damn feet, Forest! I tell myself. I can’t go a week of running in my neighborhood without some jackass yelling Run, Forest, Run! at me through his car window, so when I do something stupid I like to call myself Forest. And today, Forest is falling all over his face.
BUT I’M STILL HAVING FUUUUUN! says Forest, er… I mean, me.
Here is where time sorta stops and I don’t know what’s happening where. I know that my right IT band is aching. And that has NEVER happened before. On the uphill power hikes, when I have a chance, I stop and knead my knuckles into the band as hard as I can. This relieves whatever pressure is building up, but my hand can’t keep up with the tightness and the lateral portion of my right knee begins to ache. I know this is not good but I ain’t stoppin’ so I’ll just deal with it later.
Luckily, there are a lot of out-and-back sections in this race so there is a constant flow of traffic coming from the other direction. At first it’s the leaders — whom I can’t help but stop and watch with complete awe. Such form! Such ease! And then I’m on the other side, high-fiving those who are behind me.
Perhaps this is why everyone says the Ice Age Trail 50 is so special. Hell, I know at least 50 people who are running this thing, and each time I see their smiling, suffering faces, I get a HUGE energy boost. Pushing my limits is fun enough on its own I guess, but when it involves the type of camaraderie and support inherent in the ultrarunning community, it’s just like a big old party. Instead of boozing, we’re running. That’s all.
I try to use that energy in hammering the downhills, but eventually, all that force causes my right knee to ache, so I begin to take it easy on the downs. This is probably a good thing, because now I’m starting to feel pretty tired. Not wasted, just tired, as expected. I look down at my watch to see 4 hours and 10 minutes have gone by and I’m only at 24.2 miles.
Can I sustain this pace for another marathon? Will my knee hold up? How many more times am I going to trip and fall? Can I even feel my right toe anymore?
Before I can answer these questions I’m at another aid station, instructing Dad to rig me a duct tape bottle handle — a task he gleefully accepts. I reload on GUs (even though I’m getting sick of them now), suck on some orange slices and I’m back on the trail.
Sticking with Mark and Steve, back and forth, all this time and finally I fall back. I’m starting to feel more and more gassed. The sun is busting out. Mark takes off, Steve is right behind him, but I gotta slow down for a minute.
Zone out. Just keep moving. Don’t think too much.
I get to the shoulder of Duffin Road, 30.2 miles in the bag, and I see Dad.
VAS! I yell.
What? he says.
VAS! I need VAS.
VASELINE, yells the crowd of other crew members, spectators and volunteers. In unison.
I didn’t realize it until just now but I need some lubrication down in the nether regions and this aid station couldn’t have come at a better time. In true trail runner form, I dip my hand in the jar, pull out of big glob and then immediately stick my hand down my shorts. Apparently, I don’t mind an audience.
I’m starting to get hot, I tell Dad. I don’t feel too good. He douses me with ice water, dumps ice cubes in my bottle — a bottle that NOW has a nice, new and STRONG duct tape strap, (good work, Dad!) — and asks if I need anything else.
Salt. I need salt.
He hurries to grab some salt tablets out of my bag and he kindly puts them in a plastic baggie for me to take. My old man has always been there for me, and I know he always has my back, but in this instance, watching him run around all over this forest preserve, jumping into quick action at my slightest command, to help me, is quite a comforting feeling. I know he’d like to be out there adventuring himself, and that crewing can be a drag sometimes, but more than anything, he is here for me. I am not alone.
He believes in me.
You’re doing great, Jeff. Keep going. Just keep going, he says.
I catch up to Steve again.
Mark took off, he says. Just flew. Had a lot of energy left.
Not me, man. I’m starting to feel tired, I admitted.
Steve and I share the trail. We talk about races we’ve run, races we want to run. We keep each other going.
I see a bunch of folks coming on from the opposite direction again and the salutations, while maybe a bit quieter than they were during the first half, still serve as pleasant boosts of mental energy. I say “mental”, because that’s what is taking over now. My mind has to control everything from here on out because my body is starting to revolt.
Eventually Steve starts to fade, but I keep trucking.
BOOM. I trip and fall. Again.
Fuck you, earth. Fuck you. Then I look and see that the duct tape water bottle strap did not break. Alas, duct tape is better than anything I could buy in a running store! I’m sorry, earth. I didn’t mean to say ‘fuck you’. I love you. Seriously. I really do.
I get back up. Keep on moving.
I’m still surrounded by lush, green canopy, but I hear traffic. And voices. And… a cowbell!
I come out of the forest and realize I am at Emma Carlin, aid station 10, and I’ve run 40.2 miles so far. Holy shit. 40.2 miles.
Dad is waving his arms, yelling my name, and with all these people watching me run in I suddenly feel the urge to pick up the pace and at least LOOK strong, even if I don’t feel it.
40 miles already, Jeff! Dang. Just think how much you’ve done. You’ve never gone that far before, says Dad.
I think I wanna be done now.
Nooo, you’re doing good. Just keep going.
Just keep going. Just keep moving. Just put one foot in front of the other.
What time is it? I ask.
One thirty, someone says.
I want it to be beer thirty, I say. Everyone within ear shot chuckles. I smile too. Dad tries to hand me GUs but I’ll puke if I eat another so I go for the orange slices instead. Also, some Coke, some water, some whatever… I don’t know, I’m tired and I’m pretty sure I smell worse than I ever have before and I’m globbing Vaseline all over my balls and I had some bugs for lunch and… wha… huh…
This is the last time I’ll see Dad before I make it to the finish line, so I give him a big hug and thank him for his help.
I honestly feel like shit right now. Just completely zapped of energy. I went too fast in the middle sections and now my unseasoned body is paying for it. But there’s a huge crowd here at Emma Carlin and I won’t be out of their sight as I run away for a good quarter mile so I’m gonna bust it outta here and will myself to finish strong.
Off I go… 10 minute pace, 9 minute pace, 8 minute pace! I look at my watch and see I can finish under 9 hours if I just stay strong and steady.
But where will the energy come from? I ask myself. Don’t worry, I answer myself. Just keep moving.
And then, SNAP, THWACK, BOOM.
I’m on the ground. Again. Face down.
I hear the Inception soundtrack as I look at the deceivingly beautiful rocks and roots responsible for slamming me to the ground. I roll over, slowly, and gaze up at the light peaking through the gargantuan canopy. I’m tired. I’m so, so tired.
SO WHAT. GET UP.
I’m achy. So, so achy.
SO WHAT. GET. UP.
I want to be in bed, under the covers, with the lights off.
I get up. I put one foot in front of the other. I tell myself I can walk all the hills, but I have to run — or at least try to run — the remaining flats and downs.
I reach an oasis at Horseriders, the 43.3 mile mark and I see some friendly faces (Brian, Kelly, Geoff and Paige). Their encouragement gives me an extra boost. But I got 6.7 miles to go and I think I wanna die so I’m not sure how much the boost will last.
As quickly as I was surrounded by a swarm of people, I’m just as quickly all by myself. I come to a series of big hills — DO THESE HILLS EVER FRIGGIN’ STOP??? — and before I can power hike (can we even call it that at this point? more like anti-power crawl) up the dang thing I actually have to come to a complete stop, take a few deep breaths, then psyche myself into moving further along.
People start to pass me. I’m wavin’ ’em through. They’re saying “good work” and “dig deep” and “stay strong” but they’re all full of shit. I look terrible. I feel terrible. I’m slow and I’m basically crippled. I can’t feel my right big toe. My IT band and knee still ache but I can hardly tell because I’ve fallen so many times that all the scrapes and bruises are beginning to take precedent.
BUT I SIGNED UP FOR THIS.
A guy passes me, moving pretty swiftly. As he darts by I throw out an invisible lasso, hook him around the waist and let him pull me. My feet are moving along quite nicely (considering) for a good bit so the invisible lasso works. Eventually another dude flies by. I lasso him too and let him carry me for a few hundred yards until the invisible rope breaks, just as I break myself.
I hear Jimmy Buffett off in the distance. I lasso that motherfucker and let him bring me in. Maybe he has margaritas.
If he does, I don’t see them. I don’t ask either, for fear they might actually have them. The thought of putting anything in my mouth (liquid or otherwise) absolutely disgusts me at this point. I feel kind of sick. Dizzy. Am I gonna throw up? I try, but I can’t.
My only option is to just go finish this thing. At least I’m only 1.5 miles from the finish, right? Nope. Someone tells me I’m still 2.5 miles from the finish. Oh well. I don’t know what to believe anymore. All I believe is I’m broken.
I leave the aid station and find myself alone again. I’m shuffling now.
And then, I start to cry. Like a big baby.
I have no idea why. Maybe it’s because it has taken me about an hour to go these last 4 miles. Maybe it’s because my body aches and wants to sit in a pool. Maybe it’s because I’m just not as tough as I think I am.
NO, YOU DUMMY. IT’S BECAUSE YOU’RE PUSHING YOURSELF. YOU’RE BREAKING THROUGH. YOU’RE REALLY DOING THIS.
Really? I’m really doing this?
I’m really doing this!
I wipe the tears away, dust myself off and put one foot in front of the other as fast as I can.
– – –
Jeff!!! someone shouts from behind.
*CUE THE HALLELUJAH ANGEL CHOIR, BITCHES, CUZ I’M ABOUT TO GET ALL VERKLEMPT*
Behind me is my buddy, Siamak. He’s in my running club and we’ve spent most Wednesday nights since January running together. He looks strong. He looks fresh. And most importantly, he’s wearing a big old smile on his face.
Siamak, man… oh, god, I… I’m not doin’ so good… I…
Come on, bro, run it in with me. You got this. Let’s go in together.
I pick up the pace to match his, which is much faster than what I was going. I search my brain for something to say. I’m searching hard, but I have that Microsoft hourglass of death spinning relentlessly and I don’t know what to say. I felt so small just now, like a burned up piece of space junk ready to disintegrate into the atmosphere, and then Siamak came along and now… now everything is okay and I’m gonna finish this race and my dad’s gonna be there and all my friends and I’ve worked so hard and…
I’m crying again.
I’m sorry, man… I don’ know why… I don’t know why I’m so emotional right now.
Hey, it happens. To a lot of people.
I look at him and he’s all there. Has his wits. His legs. Dude, if you want to go ahead of me, don’t let me hold you back —
Nah, let’s do this together.
Time. There is no time. This moment, right now, even with these last few hills to climb and these last few meters to run, this moment, it will always live. It will always be.
Here on Saturday, May 12, 2012, I woke up with the goal of running 50 miles — FIFTY FRIGGIN’ MILES — and I sure as hell am about to reach that goal.
I made some mistakes. Yes. I fell flat on my face. I also marveled at nature’s endless beauty while getting to play in the most gorgeous of forests for hours on end. I had a ton of laughs, a bunch of real conversations with real, fascinating, INTERESTING people. And I had an endless amount of support, from my family, from my friends.
But right now, it’s just Siamak and I. And the finish line.
Smile, he says, you’ll feel better.
I do. He is right.
We end our journeys together. 9 hours, 38 minutes. I collapse into my Dad’s arms. I don’t know if I’ve ever felt happier.
Man, we had a blast. I had at least six beers, got to catch up with Steve and Mark. I talked to everyone who would talk to me. I cheered on all my other buddies coming through the finish line in style. It was such a fantastic day — a day that I will never forget, ever.
And, despite all the pain and suffering I experienced in the last 10 miles, my body is recovering nicely. I promised myself I would take a week off. But, once an ultrarunner, always an ultrarunner.
The next target race? The Howl at the Moon 8 Hour Ultra in August. It’s gonna be hot, humid and downright nasty as I try to run as many miles as I can in an 8-hour period on a 3.2 mile loop course.
The more I run, the harder I push and the further I go, I learn just what kind of man I really am. And I’ll tell ya what: I’m a damn happy one.
My recent Kettle Moraine 50K trainer grounded me so into the earth with brute, relentless force that the next day I started to wonder, why am I doing this again? Also, it made me hungry for more! Enter the Clinton Lake 30 Mile Trail Run near DeWitt, IL.
Three Days Prior
I’m looking at the results from last year’s race. I’m reading race reports online. I’m trying not to worry.
Dang this thing is hilly!
But… I’m… feeling competitive? Yes, yes I am! And I have six weeks to recover for Ice Age, so let’s give it a good effort, Jeff! Dig deep!
I’m pumping myself up with positivity, knowing that if it hurts too much I can always pull back.
I’m gonna put myself up front and just see what happens. Let’s live.
I finish work at 5 p.m., then get in the car and head south on a jampacked I-55. I’m going to my mother’s house, just outside of Springfield, IL, but I have to sit in traffic before I can crank up the old ’99 Maxima to 80 mph (not her preferred cruising pace I should add). I want to get as much sleep as I can and it’s a 4-hour drive. My right piriformis is behaving, so I consider myself lucky.
Race Morning, 4:30 a.m.
Up and at ’em! Did I even sleep? I have one cup of coffee, a banana and 5 fistfulls of whole grain Chex. My youngest sister, Cara (17 years old) is awake too, ready to keep me company on the drive and crew during the race. We hop in the car, I crank up The Cranberries Greatest Hits and we are off.
7:00 a.m. — 30 Minutes Before Start
It’s 42 degrees. The sun is creeping up. We are here.
Seriously, when I look to the Google Oracle for directions, even she says whaaaaaaaaat? A country road here, a gravel road there, vast farmland everywhere.
But we are in the right parking lot. Lots of anxious runners are getting ready for the long voyage consisting of three 10-mile loops around Clinton Lake, with about 4500 feet of elevation gain. I go over the last minute details with my sister and she assures me I have nothing to worry about (she’s right). She’s a smart kid and her help will prove invaluable on the day.
Parked just beside us is a friend of mine from my Chicago running club (New Leaf Ultra Runs). We chat a little before he asks if I have any goals for the day.
Yeah, I’d like to finish in 5 hours, I think.
Whoa, he says, 5 hours. It took me 6 hours the first time I ran this race.
Well, shit. Now I’m not so sure about myself. This guy is a great runner. His stride is so effortless and strong that I’ve expressed my jealousy more than once. I’m glad I didn’t also just tell him I hope to finish in the top 10! He might think I’ve gone mad! (I have)
Damn, well, okay, maybe I won’t get 5 hours? I don’t know. I’m gonna try, I say.
We wish each other luck then head towards the start line but, before I get there, I run into another friend of mine, Paul “Crazy Legs” Stofko, a phenomenal runner from northwest Indiana. Paul schooled me on the mighty Indiana sand dunes last summer. After one particular 4-hour run, I recall finishing, then immediately throwing up all over the parking lot. That’s how hard Paul pushed me that day (don’t feel sorry for me, it was an awesome run). In exchanging salutations with him, I’m hoping he has forgotten about my puke job. He doesn’t mention it, so I feel like we’re all good.
7:30 a.m. — Start Line
I position myself at the front. Clinton Lake is almost ALL single track. There’s a short climb up a paved road at the start, another short paved climb at the loop halfway point, but otherwise it’s all trail, so I want to make sure I don’t get stuck too far behind. Once you’re stuck in a single track conga line, it’s pretty hard to get out of it.
The RD gives his speech and… WE’RE OFF!
One guy darts out at the front and the rest of us give chase. We maneuver through the parking lot, bang a louie and go uphill towards the trail head. I’m moving pretty swiftly. There are maybe 4 or 5 or 6 people in front of me, the leader about 40 yards ahead. I look to my left and there is Paul.
Crazy Legs, I don’t know what I’m doing up here, I say.
He laughs. We chat about the upcoming Ice Age Trail 50, then, as we reach the trail head and start our single track adventure, I tuck in behind him. I know I have to be careful here because Paul is fast, and if I try to keep up with his torrid pace too long I might blow up. I mean, I will blow up.
But as we move our way through the first mile of trail, it is apparent that there are a couple of slower folks ahead of us, keeping the pace very conservative. Too conservative, in my opinion. Inevitably, in every race I’ve ever run, there is always someone up front who probably shouldn’t be, blocking the path for everyone else.
Some chatter regarding this scenario starts and it’s apparent that everyone wants to make a move, but no one wants to be the first one to do it. And then, someone does. One guy goes by me. Two. I tuck in behind the second passer, Paul tucks in behind me and we fly by the slower runners, bombing on a downhill.
This course has some mighty big hills, but hills work both ways, and the down sections were a blast to cruise! With trail conditions as ripe as they were (damp, soft, smooth), the footing for bombing was perfect. So that’s just what we did.
A few minutes go by, I give way to Paul, feeling like we would both do better if he were ahead of me and voila! I’m in the chase pack!
That’s right. The four leaders (3 guys and 1 girl) are far enough out front that we can’t see them. The chase pack is two dudes I don’t know, followed by Kirsten Marek (who I get to know a bit later), then Paul, then me in the back. I look behind me and there’s no one.
We are about 3 miles into the race and I’m surprised at how hard those in front of me are hammering the uphills. I spend a lot of time working on my power hike, so I’m able to keep up with them no problem, but I worry about being able to later on. Just run your race, Jeff.
I realize I’m currently in 9th place. I decide to chill out and enjoy the ride.
We hit the first aid station just after the 5-mile mark and I’m feeling pretty darn good. My nutrition plan for the day is my 20 oz. handheld bottle filled with half water, half Gatorade. (I drank about 120 oz total) I plan to eat a GU gel every half hour and suck on an orange slice if it looks good.
We all whiz through the first aid station, cross the bridge then find ourselves quickly back onto single track.
I love watching races on television. Every televised marathon I can watch, I watch. Every track meet too. And one of the things I enjoy watching the most is “the chase pack”. Seeing Dathan Ritzenhein’s effort in the 2012 U.S. Olympic trials is the sort of thing I mean. Complete, utter, AGONY. Screw Law & Order SVU, the CHASE PACK is drama!
We aren’t in agony, but we do have a lot of work to do if we want to catch the leaders. The four runners ahead of me keep charging up those hills. I try to hang with them, but by the 8-mile mark, when a brief stretch through an open meadow allows me to see Paul’s bright orange shirt waaaay up in front of me, I realize I’m gonna have to conserve some energy if I want to finish the race, let alone place in the top ten.
I’m totally cool with that.
I power hike the uphills. Hard. I bomb them on the way down.
I’m playing! I’m having so much fun! And now… I’m all alone!
I come through the start/finish line and there is Cara, waiting for me, all smiles. She switches my empty bottle for a full one, takes my jacket and tells me I’m doing good. I look down at my watch and see my first 10 miles are done in 1:34. Heck, I am doing good!
How many in front of me? I ask. I’m pretty sure I know, but I just want to check if I am right.
Seven or eight, she says.
I don’t even stop. Our entire exchange takes place on the run. My sister does a great job.
Now power hiking up the paved hill towards the trail head again, I see Kirsten ahead. I didn’t know her name until we turned onto the single track together, but over the next 5 miles, we keep each other company by introducing ourselves and doing what ultrarunners usually do on the trail: talk about running!
And oh what a pleasure it is! We are moving along at a pretty fast pace, but the conversation masks the hard effort, makes it flow. She is relatively new to ultrarunning too, so we exchange tips, talk about races, mull about the possibility of one day getting into Western States (don’t we all?!?!).
Just before the next aid station, a friend of hers creeps up on us, then flies by me. He’s moving quickly, but I keep him in my sights as we come out of the woods. We are officially at the halfway mark and I’m feeling great. Kirsten stops to get some fluids, her friend does the same. I have plenty with me (thanks to Cara!), so I just grab an orange slice, thank the volunteers and boom, I’m off before they know it.
I won’t see either of them again until the end (Kirsten eventually took home 2nd overall female. Good work!).
And now… I’m all alone. For real. No one in front. No one in back. But this doesn’t stop me from keeping my pace.
The toughest hills are on miles 8 through 10, on the back half of the course. I make sure to power hike hard, but to fly downhill even harder.
I’m having so much fun.
There’s Cara! Ready to go! She switches my bottles, takes my arm warmers, skull cap, gloves. She hands me a fresh hat, a sweatband for my wrist and three gels. I’ve already eaten 4 at this point, and now that the temperature is warming up (about 60 degrees), I decide to pop a salt pill too.
Good work, Bro! says Cara.
Looking at my watch, I holler back, Definitely going to finish under 5 hours. Next time I see ya, I’ll be done!
I charge back up the paved road to the trail head and then:
Holy shit, I’ve got 20 miles in my legs right now and I feel fantastic! Let’s do this!
No hyperbole here. This is an historic moment for me.
The course is not easy. Just 7 days earlier I was getting my ass kicked by hill after hill after hill and now I’m conquering them like a warrior. I know I’m in the top ten, but not exactly sure where because each race official I ask tells me something different, but it doesn’t matter. What matters is I feel great, my body is adapting to all this crazy running, and I’m surrounded by some kickass forest! Lots and lots of green. Lots of birds: woodpeckers, cardinals, pelicans! (I didn’t know we had pelicans in Illinois either) I’m feeling great, I’m feeling alive and I ain’t backin’ down. Instead of slowing, I speed up.
Still, this loop is lonely. I pass several folks on just their second loop, each one offering me a hearty cheer and a Great job! I reciprocate with high fives and encouraging words of my own, for them, and I can’t help but revel in the awesomeness that is the ultra community.
In standard road races (5Ks, 10Ks, marathons), when someone gets passed, there is no “great job” or “you’re doing great” or go “get ’em”. There’s… nothing. But the ultra community survives on kindness, on mutual encouragement. It is so full of altruism that I can’t ever imagine myself not being a part of it.
This is what I think about on this loop. Well, that, and I wonder just how fast I can go on these downhills.
Turns out, pretty fast.
I hit the last aid station, look each one of the volunteers in the eye and thank them. Then I’m off.
I’m in La La Land. I’m so happy. I can’t wait to sprint through the finisher’s shoot, give my sister a hug and soak my warrior legs in that big ass lake.
After 4 hours 48 minutes and 12 seconds, an 8th place overall (7th male) finish*, I do just that.
And I feel as happy and alive as I ever have.
– – –
*At the finish line, I asked the race officials what place I came in overall and they told me 7th. So that’s what I told all my friends/family. The official results show that I came in 8th overall, 7th male. Still, not too shabby for an early spring race, or, any race for that matter.
Paul Stofko came in 3rd overall. Awesome work, Paul!
– – –
The post-race food and vibe was also pretty sweet. That homemade turkey chili… someone should get an award for that!
All this rugged trail running is making me tough and leathery. I feel stronger. Gettin’ dirty. But being so often bombarded by nature’s beauty is also leaving me emotionally vulnerable. It’s hard for me to not stop, to soak in my surroundings, to dissociate from time and to just be in the moment.
I think that’s a perfect mix of cojones and heart.
My running club organized a 50K (31 mile) fun run through Wisconsin’s southern unit of the Kettle Moraine forest yesterday. With the Ice Age Trail 50 Miler just 7 weeks away, I knew logging some long hours on the actual route I’ll be running during the race would be nothing but beneficial, so I took the whole day to really immerse myself in the trail.
Holy bejeebus. It’s as beautiful as it is tough.
The elevation gain from my forest adventure only totaled about 2,400 feet, but the constant up and down rolling nature of the moraines (a result of the last ice age glacier melts, thus the name) is so relentless that I never could find a consistent rhythm to my stride. Walk up hill a little, fly down hill a little, walk up hill a little, fly down, and so on. WHERE ARE THE FLATS?
I never found them, but I did find out that Wisconsin is home to one of the most luscious forests I’ve ever seen. It was like running on Endor! I kept anticipating an Ewok ambush or stumbling across one of the Empire’s hidden bases. Green, green, green!
And the sounds: loons, bullfrogs, crickets, swallows, robins, my tired footfalls.
There were several moments along the trail when I thought, Man this is hard! How am I ever going to run 50 miles on it if I’m struggling through 31? I had moments where I felt awful, but I also had moments where I felt euphoric, and the switch was made within minutes.
At one point I looked down to notice I’d “run” a 15 minute mile. That’s some real humbling shit right there, especially to a guy who touts himself as a regional class speedster. 15 minute mile!?! Good grief.
But I later realized, if having to suck up some slow miles is what it takes to become part of nature’s truest gifts, then I’m all for it. In the end, it took me 6 hours and 21 minutes to complete my 31 mile Kettle adventure. That’s the longest run I’ve ever logged to date. To put that time in perspective, my current 50K trail PR is 5:15, and I barely gave any effort in attaining that time, as it too was just a fun run.
Yet I can’t help but think 6 hours and 21 minutes still isn’t enough time to sufficiently gallivant through such luscious forest. It surely didn’t feel like I was out there that long. And despite the aches in my glutes and the pains in my quads, I didn’t want to escape the canopy. I wanted to stay in there as long as I could.
Time stops in there. And in a world where time is often my enemy, suddenly I don’t mind reevaluating my expectations.
The area around Malibu is home to some beautiful peaks. And though none of them would be considered overly “mountainous” to someone calling himself a mountain runner, the bottom of a 2,000 foot climb looks pretty damn mountainous to this flatlander. Hell, we Chicagoans run parking garage platforms and bridge spans to get in our hill work. Swallow Cliffs, part of the Palos Hills trail system outside the city, features the gnarliest hill we have around these parts: Big Bertha. And even with her, you gotta run up and down, up and down, over and over again to simulate even the slightest mountain route. And it still doesn’t simulate. Not well anyway. Honestly, there’s really no good way for flatlanders to practice running/power hiking/slogging up a mountain other than just running/power hiking/slogging up a mountain.
Thanks goodness for vacation!
While a great deal of my time was spent exploring Malibu Creek State Park, my first encounter with running closer to the sky actually came on the trails of the Zuma/Trancas Canyon. In order to maximize my time (remember, this was not a running trip, allegedly), I got up before dawn and started the four mile trek along the Pacific Coast Highway to reach the trail head. The weather called for sunny, clear skies and a high of 70 degrees. Holy hell I would be running in heaven and I didn’t even know it yet!
By the time I reached the trail head, the sun had risen, and I was totally aware of just how beautiful everything was around me. Before I started my climb up the Zuma Ridge Trail, I took in a deep breath, surveyed my surroundings and admired the silence. Believe me, no matter how many times I use the word “beautiful” to describe this adventure, it will never be accurate enough to relate what I saw.
Up, up, up!
After a quarter mile on the trail, ahead of me I saw the one (and only) person I would see out that day — an elderly lady, grandma-fit and truckin’ along — whom I apparently scared when I approached. Turns out power hiking up a hill makes for less foot noise. That and the fact that she was rockin’ an iPod are probably why she didn’t hear me coming until I was right next to her.
AH! she screamed. You scared me!
It’s okay. Just not used to seeing people out here this early. (Swigs her water bottle) You trying to scare away the mountain lions with that shirt?
I was wearing my SCREAMING fluorescent green St. Louis Marathon tech tee from 2011, mostly so I could be clearly seen by motorists while I ran along the PCH, but I didn’t feel like having a long conversation, so I smiled and just kept going past her. Before I got too far along, I couldn’t help but ask: Are there really mountain lions out here?
You bet! They’re all over the place! But don’t worry. They won’t like that shirt. Too bright!
She laughed. At my shirt? At the prospect of me getting eaten by a mountain lion? Too much coffee? Her shirt was white. Didn’t she want to scare the mountain lions? Where was her SCREAMING fluorescent green shirt?
I laughed back. Have a nice day! I told her as I dug deeper into the power hike.
I guess part of me knew beforehand that mountain running would require quite a bit of power hiking, but an hour of it? Two hours of it? I thought, gee, this isn’t really what I think of when I think of “running”. I wanna move! I tried running up the incline, even though I knew it was counterproductive. After 15 seconds I realized as much. But that didn’t stop me from trying it again. And again. And again.
I’m a stubborn dude sometimes.
Still, stubbornness is no match for nature. And every time I tried to do the impossible I was humbled back to the slow, slow, slow power hike.
It didn’t matter. The scenery… OH THE SCENERY! How can I even possibly describe it? First of all, it’s Malibu so, HELLO BEAUTY. Luscious, rolling green mountains with the ocean and the beach up against their side and multimillion dollar homes tucked neatly into pockets of pristine vegetation. The sea breezed air was refreshingly clean. The sky as blue as I’d ever seen.
I stopped. Often. Just to take it all in.
I’ve been sucker punched by beauty during long runs before, but never anything like this. I was so overwhelmed with love for nature and all that surrounded me that I broke down. I didn’t now what else to do or how to handle it. I was totally unprepared for such sensory overload, but I am so glad I got it anyway. A couple minutes of crying like a baby was all I needed to get my power hiking legs back on to go further up, up, up…
And then BOOM! A flat! And a downhill! Both of them brief, but utterly invigorating before… more power hiking. Up, up, up…
BEEP BEEP BEEP. My watch. Dammit. I knew what that meant. Time to turn around. I was, after all, in Malibu with other people and we had other things planned for the day. So after two hours of climbing, I knew it was time to turn it around, which meant….
With one of nature’s greatest gifts guiding me down the mountain, I thought here’s my chance to clock some 5:30 miles without feelin’ it. And I would be a total liar if I did not admit to screaming WEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!
all most of the way down.
It’s really difficult for me to think of something more fun than running downhill. It’s not even running really. It’s play. It’s fun!!! For a little while anyway. After 30 minutes of non-ntop flying on the decline, I realized it wasn’t always fun and my quads were not happy, nor would they be if I didn’t slow up and take it easy some.
The quads don’t know what to do going downhill. They’re doing the opposite of what they’re made to do (lift/extend the knee) and so they revolt by HURTING LIKE A BITCH. Like all the other pains, it’s just another truth about running — something that must be battled, defeated, pushed through.
Eventually it would go away.
I was celebrating that fact, and then before I knew it I was at the bottom of the canyon. Very, very sad.
Luckily for me, I had a nice (and flat!) four mile cool down jog along the beach and, literally, an ocean of cold water to soak my battered posts in. When I got back to the house, my friends were waiting for me. Smiles, all of ’em.
How was it? they asked.
I tried to speak but as soon as I opened my mouth I realized there was nothing I could say that would do the experience justice. As I struggled to give an answer, a great, big boyish grin consumed my face. I shook my head and quickly brushed away the trickle forming in the corner of my left eye.
They knew. They all smiled and they all knew.