The running gods giveth, and the running gods taketh away.
One thing I easily forget as I tally up personal bests and races of a lifetime is that no one is immune to the possibility of failure. And that definitely includes me.
Unfortunately, accepting that reality doesn’t make the process any easier on my mind (or body).
I signed up for the Des Plaines River Trail 50 Mile race just a few days prior to the Chicago Marathon. I did it for several reasons, all of which now, in retrospect, seem foolish. In fact, I’m a bit embarrassed by admitting as much and I’ve seriously contemplated just skipping over the reporting aspect of this race experience all together, thinking that if I don’t acknowledge my failure then it will just quietly go away.
Life ain’t always champagne and chocolate. Sometimes it’s Old Style and pork rinds. And it’s best to just accept as much, learn from it, then move on to the next thing before you’re uncontrollably drunk and smell like pig.
Fear of missing out (FOMO as I’ve heard it called) played a primary role in my signing up for this race. Focusing on road marathons is sometimes a lonely place for me because most of my friends in the running community are focusing on the longer distances (50 miles, 100 miles, etc). We go on weekend camping trips to run/pace the big distances. No one packs the car up and makes an epic trip out of running a road marathon. And running a 3:03 in a road marathon is great and all, but it’s still only enough for 1,049th place in a mega race, whereas a fast time in an ultra will likely bring a top-10 finish and accolades galore from my peers.
(Of course, as I write this, I realize just how bogus such a mentality is. WHY ARE YOU RUNNING, JEFF? Get the hell outta here, dude…)
Having spent the summer witnessing a collection of great performances from my friends (Supergirl’s Hallucination 100 win, my friends’ epic Run Across Illinois, Siamak’s Woodstock 50, Whitney’s Howl at the Moon victory, among many others), I could not help but get wrapped up in what everybody else is doing while easily forgetting my own personal strengths and weaknesses. One of those weaknesses — recovery time from a road marathon — would end up killing my race.
I don’t know the exact reason, but it takes me a good three weeks to fully recover from a road marathon. I tend to run road marathons as hard as I can, and even though the residual soreness goes away in a day or two, the lingering effects of fatigue and lowered performance remain. In the two weeks after the Chicago Marathon, I had a hard time maintaining an 8:30 pace. Each run labored into a jog — some even a slog — and a dull ache in my lateral right knee developed, most likely from a tight IT band, something I’ve been aware of and trying to fix for some time.
Even with all of this knowledge, I still thought all I needed was a few days of rest to clear everything up, so I took the Wednesday, Thursday and Friday before DPRT off completely. No running.
But perhaps the worst part of my lead-up to a DNF was the cocky mentality I had going in. Despite the aforementioned fatigue, the aforementioned achy knee and the aforementioned FOMO, I still had it in my head that I could run a very fast 50 miles. The Des Plaines River Trail course is flat. It is fast. And based on my recent marathon time and a few delusional minutes plugging numbers into the McMillan Pace Calculator, I figured a 7-hour 50 miler was definitely doable.
And sure enough, as I started out on Saturday morning, all systems were go. The rest had left me feeling fresh. Holding an 8 minute pace seemed easy. The trail was perfect and the day was beautiful. Who knows, I thought, could be something special.
But by mile 5 my right knee was aching. By mile 10 it was throbbing. By mile 15 it was hobbling.
Yet, I kept pushing on. WHY!?!?
I had never DNF’d before. And I always told myself the only reason I would ever DNF is if I was injured. Well, there I was, obviously injured, and yet I still couldn’t convince my stupid self to hang it up. The thought kept coming, but I kept shooing it out, thinking that if I just ignored it (and the knee pain) that it would eventually go away.
It did not. In fact, by the 20 mile mark, my stride had shortened considerably to compensate, and people started passing me.
At the 24 mile mark, I could barely walk. My knee wouldn’t bend. It was stiff as a board, and throbbing.
I walked/hobbled the 2.5 miles to Aid Station number 9, and as I approached, I knew that I was going to have to do the one thing I never wanted to do. I dropped from the race.
I haven’t had much of a love life in the last five years, but I still couldn’t help but notice the irony that exists in relationships as well as my favorite activity. Sometimes the thing (or person) you love the most, is the very thing (or person) that will hurt you the most. Not being able to run is my biggest fear. But I also know that sometimes, in order to avoid long-lasting, devastating damage that would keep me from running, that taking some time off is the only remedy.
The time spent in the back of the sweeper van allowed me to reflect on this. And I made it a point to suck it up and not make it an issue as I waited out the rest of the day, cheering on my friends to some fantastic finishes.
In fact, my friends were my saviors on Saturday. Siamak ran a 7:28 — A SEVEN HOUR TWENTY-EIGHT MINUTE FIFTY MILER!!!! — and Alfredo finished under 10 hours after having fought through his own troubles, both physical and mental. My friend Tracy WON THE WOMEN’S RACE! My friends Jen and Patrice both finished their very first 50 milers and a whole host of others had great days in the marathon and half-marathon as well.
Watching the joy and triumph from others was a good reminder of why I do what I do. And it was also a reminder to not get too wrapped up in the feats of others and feel obligated to replicate them. Right now my focus is on road marathons and that’s where it should stay until I finally reach all of my goals. Trying to push my body to do things it’s not exactly trained for, just because everyone else is doing it, is not beneficial to me.
So I am going to take a couple weeks off from running. I need to let my knee/IT band heal. I will get body work done. I will rest and regroup before starting my next training cycle. It will be pretty hard for me to do, mentally, but I will get through it by supporting my friends’ efforts (I’ll be manning an aid station at the Lakefront 50 all day this coming Saturday) and by acknowledging that everybody needs a break sometime, whether it be to heal an injury or to reboot from a long, long season.
Onwards and upwards!
As my summer of ultras comes to a close (but not definitely… yet), I begin to turn my attention back to what made me such a running fanatic in the first place: RUNNING FAST.
There is just something immensely rewarding about moving my body as fast as it will go, powered on its own, that hypnotizes me, calls me, begs for me to do it. Even though it hurts.
My ultimate “things-I-must-do-before-I-die” goal is to run a sub-3 hour marathon. My current personal best is 3:15 and my first valid attempt at cracking three will be this coming January, again in Houston. While I know the chances of me pulling off such a feat in such a short amount of time are almost as insane as they seem impossible, I figure the bar is better set high than not high enough.
Challenge is good. Besides, I keep surprising myself with what I’m able to do, on any given day, so I might as well keep crawling deeper into the caverns of my mind to slay every last dragon of doubt.
Enter the Peapod Half Madness Half Marathon in Batavia, IL. I ran this race last year and had a blast, so I made sure to sign up again. This time I would be joined by two new friends: Dan Solera, who is just past the halfway point in running 50 half marathons in 50 states; and Dan “Otter” Otto, who impressed the hell out of me by downing six Old Style heavies WHILE RUNNING a sub-2 hour race at Batavia (more on this a bit later).
Pre-Race 4 a.m.
I’m up before the alarm. I went to bed at 9:30 last night, so I wake up feeling fully charged. Ready to rock. I sip a half a cup of coffee, eat a banana and some toast with jelly before checking the weather report. It’ s already 72 degrees, so I slap on my 1:30 pace bracelet knowing it’s pretty much a given that I won’t be hitting these splits today. But I’m wearing it anyway because I think a PR is definitely possible. I haven’t run too many half marathons; and I’ve never trained to peak for one, so I enter Batavia with a 1:34 best, confident that, as Ice Cube reminds me via my laptop, today always has the potential to be a good day.
5 a.m. and I swing by to pick up Dan and Otter. We are leaving Chicago, on the highway by 5:20 a.m. All is well. There’s something comforting about company just prior to a race. It lessens the nerves, distracts the mind from busying itself with senseless worry. I enjoy the conversation, especially as I learn Otter’s race plan to carry a pack with six Old Styles stowed, with the goal of downing them all prior to the finish.
6:30 a.m. and I’m jogging my warm-up. Holy Nikes! I bump into a friend of mine from high school whom I haven’t seen since the late 90s! It’s so cool to see her! We make plans to meet up at the finish and I go on my merry way, feeling out the legs, wondering Do I have it today?
Early signs point to… probably not.
6:55 a.m. I enter the chute and stand next to Dan towards the front. We fist bump, the horn blows and I… am… ruuuuuuunnnnnnnniiiiiiinnnnnng!!!
This is just four 5Ks and a jog, Jeff, I tell myself. Run four decent 22ish 5Ks and you’re good.
Thanks, me! I appreciate that!
I also appreciate the course. Though the beginning has changed a bit from last year (they got rid of the big hill at the start), I am still impressed with how quiet and quaint this little town of Batavia is. Its river-centric, historic downtown and sprawling neighborhoods with lots of green reminds me of my hometown of Quincy; and the people who are standing out on their lawns at 7 a.m., though not in great numbers, are especially awesome in my book.
Thanks for coming out, everybody! I yell with a smile. I like your town! It reminds me of home!
And boom! Just like that I look down to see I’ve come through the first 5K mark in 20:44. Not too shabby. The 1:30 pace group is about 3o yards ahead of me, running ahead of schedule, but already I can tell that today will not be a 1:30 day for me. I’m totally cool with it though because I feel fine right now and know that holding on to 7-minute pace will be more than enough for me to consider this a solid performance. It’s warm. The sun is blaring down on me at certain points along the course. But I feel fine. My legs are moving in a rhythm that seems sustainable.
I hit the big downhill section just before the 6-mile mark, build speed then bang a hard left onto the bike path that runs alongside the Fox River. Ah yes, this is where I built momentum last year, I recall. Time to push it a little bit.
Covered by the abundant shade, this sudden injection of conscious speed should be sustainable… except that, well, it isn’t. Around the 7-mile mark, the voice of fatigue makes a home between my ears. I take a GU and down some liquids, hoping to shut its ugly face, but alas, here it is, still talking shit.
Okay, dude, you can chill out now, you’re not going to PR so… yeah. It’s too hot. You haven’t been speed training. You can’t even see the 1:30 pace group anymore.
I run harder to shut him up.
Oh, so you think you can shut me up, Jeff? You know who I am, right? I’m your central governor and I make the decisions around here. Just try to get anything past me.
I push. I push again. Yikes! Pull back.
Haha! See. Told ya. I, am, the master.
I look at my Garmin, which tells me I just ran mile 9 in 7:29, a number I don’t like right now. Who’s the boss of who? I decide it’s time to stand up to Mr. Central Governor.
I am the boss of me, Central Governor. Not you. Not anyone. Just me! And look! I’m almost done!
Ha! Yes, this is the beauty of the half. Ten miles into the race and I’m almost done! After the summer of ultras, where training runs regularly lasted 4-6 hours and races 8-10 hours, oh what a glorious feeling it is to know I am an hour and eleven minutes into a race and I’m almost done! With so few miles to go, of course I can go faster!
So I do. The central governor tries to stop me but I pick out a guy ahead, the guy in the green singlet, and reel him in. Concentrate, I tell myself. Catch that green man!
I catch him, he speeds up to race, I go a bit faster and then I’m by him.
I pick out another. Guy in red. I look down at my watch and see I’m cruising at 6:40 pace — something that felt hard just 20 minutes ago seems so easy now, because I have focus. I am here to do something.
Mile 11 and I realize it’s all downhill from here. Literally. The last two miles of this course are a continuous downhill. Ideal for building speed and passing people.
I do both.
I can’t believe how good I feel right now. Who does that central governor jerk think he is? I’m gonna have to learn to shut him up quicker next time. Maybe I’ll train to do just that.
Up ahead I see the big orange sign instructing runners to turn left. I know that once I get there, I’m at mile 13, with just one tenth of a mile (the “jog”) to go. A quick glance at my watch informs me that I AM GOING TO PR TODAY, marking yet another victory over my Debbie Downer subconscious.
Eat it, Central Governor!
I turn left onto the bridge, turn right then left onto the last bridge before making the hard right turn to the finishing chute. I blaze in with the emcee announcing my name, across the line at 1:32:37.
Ice Cube was right. Today was a good day.
There’s something uniquely awesome about eating pizza and drinking Sam Adams before 9 in the morning, so I take full advantage of that as I meet up with Dan, whom I learn had me in his sights for the first half of the race before trailing off a bit. He still finished with a solid 1:36 and was smiling at the end so all signs point to GREAT JOB!
We both look out for Otter, wondering if Dan might get the call from the county jail that he’s been picked up for public intoxication WHILE RUNNING A HALF MARATHON. Luckily, Otter’s drinking on the run made him a race favorite, a point the emcee even brings up as Otter chugs his final beer, crossing the finish line in under two hours.
I am extremely impressed.
High fives are had.
– – –
The Peapod Half Madness Half Marathon proved again to be a great event. It’s just small enough that it doesn’t feel crowded and big enough to feel like each runner’s needs are being met. From the big downhill after mile 5 all the way to the finish I think the course is just fantastic. The aid stations were a bit small for my liking, but the volunteers more than made up for that and everyone out there was extremely positive and energetic. Also, just like last year, the hardware doubles as a bottle opener, which may be the running gods’ way of telling me that, indeed, beer and running do make a beautiful couple.
Every once in a while life allows us the rare opportunity to really live, in the moment for an extended period of time, undisturbed and unfazed by distractions from the outside world. Beginning at 5 a.m. on Friday, August 17, and all the way through 6 p.m. on Sunday, August 19, my life had but one purpose: get my friends from the Mississippi River to Lake Michigan as they ran 161 miles along the northern border of Illinois.
To say it was one of the most phenomenal experiences of my life would be an understatement.
Which is why a typical race report will not suffice. How does one even begin to summarize the myriad stories, themes and struggles that developed over 58 harrowing hours?
It is impossible.
Yet, not impossible. In fact, if I learned anything over this past weekend, it’s that pure guts and determination and confidence can overcome anything.
So instead of the typical race report, I’m going to take on my biggest literary challenge yet. It may take some time — I may get tired, I may bonk, I may do the zombie walk — but for someone who enjoys hours and hours and hours of perpetual motion in the way of running, sitting down for the hours and hours and hours it will take to flesh out this epic tale seems quite fitting. And now, it also seems doable.
So to Juan, Chuck, Kamil, Tony, Brian, Mike, Kathy, Scott and the steady stream of heroic volunteer pacers and crew who made Team LOL’s Run Across Illinois a beaming success, I tip my cap.
And I thank you. From the bottom of my heart, I thank you. You inspired me beyond words, and you also showed me that if you really care about something enough, you will find a way.
I am going to find a way.
– – –
Team LOL’s Run Across Illinois was done to raise money for Chicago youth charity Chicago Run. And there is still time to help! Please consider supporting this worthy cause so that today’s youth can overcome the obesity crisis that it currently faces. You can support Team LOL’s efforts for Chicago Run *HERE*.
I have run enough marathon+ distance races now to know that aches and pains are simply going to come. There is no shortcut. I know this. I either accept the discomfort and move on or I suffer defeat. I also know that anything can go wrong, at any time — that a successful race is never a given and the best runners are those who are able to adapt on the fly.
Yet I somehow still seem to underestimate just how uncomfortable I will be at times and how I might possibly struggle to keep up the fight. In my mind, it’s always a given. In reality, it is much harder.
In preparation for the Kennekuk Road Runners’ 22nd Annual Howl at the Moon 8 Hour Run, a race that typically features hellaciously high temps and unforgiving humidity, I heat trained in winter gear at high noon and suffered through several long road runs outside of Houston, TX, just so I would be ready for whatever mother nature would throw at me. I put myself in painful situations and prepared my mind to reinterpret the norm.
Naturally, August 11, 2012 would bring unseasonably cool temperatures (mid-high 50s for low, low 80s for the high) to the Danville area, I would be bothered by an old nemesis that had been dormant since October 2011 and I would realize that one can train and train and train, but that there really is no substitution for the feelings associated with running 50 miles other than running 50 miles.
The Night Before
Me, my sister Cara and my friend Jerret all arrive together at the Kennekuk Cove County Park where we will camp along the course prior to the race. It turns out that even though I have recently acquired a strong taste for all things outdoors, I am still an idiot when it comes to putting things together, as is evident by my inability to put up our tent. Luckily, ten or so special aides jump in to
make fun of assist me. These helpers are just some of the 30 or so runners from my New Leaf and M.U.D.D. groups, fellow ultra junkies who know how to have a good time. It turns out we’re all having such a good time that the tent is thwarting our focus. Finally, Tony and Alfredo save the day and I can begin my pre-race routine.
I have ONE beer, eat a salad and some pasta, then try to relax as much as I can as the group gathers around to share race stories and good cheer. Admittedly, it’s hard for me to calm my nerves when there is so much excitement in the air. I’ve been looking forward to this race for a long time now, mostly because of how many familiar faces I will see on the 3.29 mile looped course and how good I feel knowing that, right now, I am in the best shape I have ever been, my whole life.
My sister and I have already had an EPIC week, so I’m taking those positive vibes, channeling them through my mind with deep belly breaths, and being confident in my training. I begin to yawn, so I say good night to everyone and retire to the tent.
The air is cool. Dew all around. The chill peps me out of my zombie-like state. Did I sleep last night? A little, but not much. Cara’s allergies had her coughing most of the night and my rookie camping ass didn’t bring a soft base layer for the tent, so I rolled around on uneven ground most of the evening. Still, it’s rare that I get a lot of sleep the night before a race anyway, so I’m not too bothered. Instead, I go about my normal routine, which includes a liberal application of heavy-duty lubrication (you knew that was coming, right?).
I make sure I proudly display my red short-shorts around the start/finish area so everyone can get their taunting out of their system (I say this in the most endearing of ways, because I know the shorts are insanely short, and are considered a running fashion faux pas by some — that some not including me, obviously).
I check in with my official scorer, Pat, the man who will be recording each of my laps as I pass by throughout the day. I introduce myself and shake Pat’s hand. He seems just as excited as I am, so I know he and I are going to have a connection — whether he knows it or not. “Nice meeting you, Pat. I will see you soon!” I say as I head back towards the tent.
My mom arrives to help my sister crew the race. I give Mom a big hug and marvel at the shirt she has on! Both she and Cara are wearing custom made shirts that read “Jeff’s Crew” on the back. Wow! How awesome is that! I know I am spoiled having a family that is so supportive of my never-ending running adventures. I don’t take that for granted. Having them involved by crewing my races, sharing in my ups and downs, serves as a real mental boost. Makes me feel special.
I go over last minute instructions with them both, but Cara has done this before, so we all feel confident and are ready to go.
7:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m.
As the race director makes his announcements, I position myself at the front. My goal for this 8 hour run today is to be in the mix. Ultimately, I want to run no less than 50 miles, hoping that is enough to get me another top ten finish; but deep down, I want more. I want to push and see what happens. That doesn’t mean I am dumb enough to kill myself early on, but I do plan to straddle the line between stupid and daring.
We take a moment of silence to remember Scott Hathaway, a remarkable runner who died on the course five years ago.
I dart out, being led by the man who has owned this event since 2004, Scott Colford of Logansport, IN. He has the course record (61.72 miles) and has won it every year he has participated. I figure he is going to set a pretty quick pace to drop as many of us as he can, and, indeed, he does just that as we settle around 6:30 to 7:00 minute pace out of the gate.
As we hit the first turn onto shaded rocky trail, we all take a moment to touch the memorial set up for Scott Hathaway — a salute to a fellow ultra runner. We all touch it for good luck.
About a mile in and already the lead pack is well separated from the rest. Colford takes off at a pace I simply can’t match — not this early anyway. There is a young fellow with him and a slim runner dressed in Marathon Maniac gear chasing close behind, but I settle into my own 7:00-7:30 pace, and focus on memorizing the course.
From my training I learned that one way to beat the monotony of a looped course is to know its every nook and cranny, to know where to accelerate, where to slow down, what tangents to run to shorten it up, to isolate any spots that may offer trouble along the way. This course is mostly grass and dirt trail, with some occasional pavement. There’s one tricky spot in the middle that throws a gauntlet of uneven footing highlighted by a couple of ankle traps. There is one relative downhill section, just after the first aid station at the halfway point, where one can genuinely take advantage of free speed. And there is one significant uphill section that I decide to run the first few times, but know I will have to walk at some point.
I finish the first loop in a quick 23 minutes. I run by the tent where my mom and sister are waiting for me (something they will do a lot of all day long!). I assure them I’m good to go and I zoom on by.
I make eye contact with my scorer, Pat, we establish the first of many connections we’ll have throughout the day and now I start to think about what I’m really in for: 7 hours and 37 more minutes of RUNNING!!!
After a couple of steady 25-minute loops, and no change in the three leaders up front, I settle into the chase pack that offers another familiar face, John Kiser from Grayslake.
“I remember you,” I offer to John. “You blazed by me at the Earth Day 50K with just three miles left.”
“Yeah, I was feeling good that day,” he says with a good-hearted smile.
We carry on, running and chatting here and there with another runner, Gary, who hails from Mokena, IL. For the next several loops, we ebb and flow, picking up, slowing down, chatting every so often and trying to catch up to one another just as much. I feel especially confident on the down and uphill sections, so I tend to drop them there only to have them catch up to me soon after. In fact, I crown Gary as “The Accelerator”, because no matter how big a gap I put between us on the hills, he seems to have no problem closing it with his speed.
Back and forth we go… back and forth for one loop, two loops, three loops. Back and forth. Back and forth. UGH! The more we exchange positions, the more irritated I become. I can’t seem to drop him. My mind is losing focus! But before I can battle any of my thoughts, another obstacle is kicking me in the butt. Literally.
And I’ve nowhere to hide.
Piriformis syndrome. A real pain in the ass. Deep down inside the gluteus maximus. A condition I have been dealing with off and on for a few years now, it is most positively rooted in the fact that my day job has me sitting for eight hours a day. It probably doesn’t help that, when I’m not running or working, I am usually writing, from a sitting position. The only way to beat it is to apply great pressure to the piriformis itself — a muscle that excels at being elusive to even the deepest of deep tissue massages, or settle for a series of elaborate stretches that help elongate it.
Unfortunately, none of those remedies are very applicable during a race. It flared up on me during the 2011 Chicago Marathon, but I was able to run it off after 20 minutes or so. That isn’t happening today. I’ve been redirecting my attention from the aches for almost an hour now but as I finish up my 7th loop, this time in 27 minutes, I slow down considerably as I approach my crew. I bark orders at my sister, then immediately feel guilty for letting my frustrations dictate my voice.
“Sorry,” I offer. “I’m just not feeling so great right now.” I try to explain.
Supergirl (yes, THAT Supergirl) is there with my mom and sister now, and she offers to help, but I know there is nothing that can be done for this royal pain in the butt, so I just grab some grapes and a new bottle and head off knowing I’m going to have to slow it down.
I think I was sorta short with Supergirl just now, too. What is wrong with me?
In fact, my mom’s notes from the race at this point read “Shitty”, and well, yeah. That’s about how I feel right now.
10:00 a.m. to 1 p.m.
I want to scream. But I can’t. I can’t be a baby now. I just gotta suck it up. Or… drop.
That’s right. I could drop. I could just stop now and say I gave it my all.
But… am I giving it my all?
No. Yes, my butt hurts. Can I still move forward without causing any further damage? Yes. It’s just a butt-ache! It will go away!
There goes Gary, flying by me. For the last time. I can’t keep up.
Damn it! I should just DNF. Who cares?!? It’s stupid if I’m not having fun!
Why aren’t you having fun? That’s no one’s fault but yours… mine. Suck it up, Jeff! This shit isn’t easy. It’s supposed to be tough!
Of course, it is. Just keep moving.
John flies by me. A few minutes later two guys I passed earlier in the race whiz by me. A few minutes later, another. I’m fading.
So what? Be glad you’re moving, dummy. Be glad you’re alive, running around this park with your mom and sister waiting on your every need, a friendly face around every bend. Wake up!!!
There’s Alfredo up ahead. Let’s go catch him and see how he’s doing.
“Jeff!” he says, excited to see me. “How are you doing?”
I want to tell him about my issues, about how I was in 4th and now I’m in… I have no idea where I am now and that my butt hurts and that it’s hot now and I want to be sitting down with something cold in my hand and I am feeling sorry for myself and I am thinking about dropping and THEN…
“I’m doing okay,” I say.
We run along together for a short bit and he spontaneously tells me that I inspire him. He tells me that he uses me to push himself to be better — this coming from a man who went from being a 250+ pound alcoholic to a sober, slim running beam of light! Wow.
I really am being stupid.
“Thanks, Alfredo. You inspire me too.”
In fact, he’s inspiring me RIGHT NOW.
I dart off, fully aware of the lingering pain in my butt, but accepting (finally) the fact that mulling about it in my own head isn’t going to help me run any faster. I’m going to run this next little bit for Alfredo.
Then I catch up to another friend, Art. I’m going to run this little bit for Art.
And there’s Jeremy. I’m gonna run this little bit for Jeremy.
And Eric. And Kelly. And Tony. AND MY LORD I COULD RUN THE WHOLE REST OF THIS RACE ON THE ENERGY OF ALL MY FRIENDS!!!
I may be slowing down considerably as I roll past my crew and check in with Pat for my 10th, 11th and 12th loops, but I see I’ve logged 39.48 miles with two hours to go and suddenly I am ready to MOVE AGAIN!
1:00 p.m. to 3:00 p.m.
Pain in the ass? WHAT pain in the ass? Move along, son!
Okay, so it’s not the most conventional of running mantras, but it’ll work. Especially now, since this is a race against the clock! I have two hours to run 10 miles, something that I could normally do with my eyes closed and feet shackled. Of course, it’s a bit harder with 40 miles already in the legs, but I get another boost of inspiration from my friend, Whitney Richman, who sneaks up on me as I start running out of the start/finish area aid station.
I am officially getting “chicked”.
So what? It’s Whitney! Whitney is a badass.
She is currently running in the first female position. I respect her speed as much as her toughness.
“You started running again just as I pass you,” she says jokingly.
“It’s all good, Whitney. You’re going to pass me. And you’re going to win! Great job!”
Getting “chicked” (passed by a female competitor) can be a big stain on the psyche of many males. I used to think it was just out of jest, but apparently some dudes do take it very seriously. I am not one of those dudes. I started off in road running, where I was getting beat by fit, fast and elite women quite regularly. What the hell do I care if a girl passes me? She must be fast if she’s blowing by me so more power to her!
All I care about now is getting my 5o miles in.
And I’m gettin’ it now. In fact, I even have a little bounce in my step. I keep a decent 9:00-9:30 pace at this point and just concentrate on moving forward. For a little while I run with another Kennekuk regular named Scott who tells me this is his 20th year running Howl. 20 YEARS! WOW! Eventually he runs on past me but I definitely appreciate the conversation while it lasted.
My pal Siamak catches up to me and we run together for a while. Hmm, been in this situation before, I thought. I could get used to this! It really is comforting to have a familiar face join you in your most primordial pits of pain, if only to distract the mind and body from feeling so crappy.
We eventually separate, and once again, I concentrate on catching up to the next friend, and then the next.
I finish my 13th loop in 33 minutes, a whole five minutes faster than the 12th loop as my mother quickly points out.
“Why do I do this stuff again, Mom?”
“Because you’re going to feel really good once you’re done.”
“Exactly.” I knew the answer. Deep down I know that. But sometimes, in the middle of it all, it’s easy to forget. It’s nice to be reminded by someone who has your best interests at heart.
“I’m getting my 50 miles.” I declare.
The 14th loop is a blur. Really. To keep my mind from doing annoyingly instantaneous calculations that never seem to accumulate fast enough, I force myself to look down at the ground in front of me, so when I eventually do look up and see that I’m done with the loop, it doesn’t seem like it took that long.
“I got you down for 14 loops, headed out for your 15th, Jeff.” says Pat.
“Thank you, Pat!”
I like Pat. I really like that guy. Something about the way he says my name every time and looks me straight in the eye and raises his hand so I know he is talking to me… I don’t know him, but I think I know that he’s an awesome dude and he probably has a whole circle of friends and family who would back that up.
This last loop is for Pat.
I get to the bottom of the great big hill. I power hike my way up and thank the aid station volunteers at the top. Nearly ever time I crested that big old thing I immediately craved ice cold water. And there, every time at my service, were the kind souls at the top of that hill with just that very thing to ease my pain. This last swig of water is for you, awesome aid station workers!
Up ahead of me is Jerret. We’re runnin’ this in together.
I finish the 15th loop alongside Jerret. We have 20 minutes left, but since we don’t have enough time to make another full 3.29 mile loop, we now have to hit the quarter mile out-and-backs as many times as we can before the eight hours are finally up. I need just two out-and-backs to make 50 miles.
I run three and finish with 50.85 miles.
My mom and Cara are there to hold me up, because now that the race is over, I don’t feel like using my legs much at all. I lean on them both as we make our way back to the tent so I can begin the healing process.
As usual, tears start to fall out of my face like a big old softy.
“Why does this always happen to me, Mom?” I ask.
She says something about serotonin overdrive or something like that and I realize it doesn’t much matter. These are tears of joy. I fought the fight today and I won, because I’m still standing.
I didn’t give up. And in the end I won my age group, finishing 8th overall.
– – –
Everything else was just gravy. The folks who put on this race are awesome people! As the RD repeatedly said, they love to party. We ate, we drank, we hung around for a kick-ass awards ceremony where our New Leaf and M.U.D.D. groups took home some major bling. We hung out and just relaxed knowing that we all did something special out there while most of America was probably busy sitting down, watching awful reality TV, eating something engineered in a chemistry lab.
Congratulations to Whitney Richman who won the women’s race, coming in 6th overall! And, of course, a tip of the cap to Scott Colford, the winner and STILL champion of Howl.
I’ll be baaaaaaack…
Also, thanks, Brian for all these fantastic pictures!
As soon as I finished the Chinatown 5K, I hopped in the car and headed out to the suburbs to meet all my ultrarunning buddies for the New Leaf Ultra Runs Sunburn 8-Hour Run. Like our other club timed events, this fun run took place on a short 2.2 mile looped trail of crushed limestone through exposed prairie grass and big open sky.
The perfect recipe for… a sunburn.
And I got one. But I ain’t sweatin’ it because the smiles and high-fives and good times were well worth it. And though I showed up two hours late, I was happy to get in a nice and easy 50 km run while sharing the communal good cheer with all my pals. Here are some of the highlights:
- My short shorts make for a great conversation piece, or, at least they make for a good show. I’m used to getting cat calls when I hit the city streets dressed in my open split racers, so being serenaded by my peers with songs like “I’m Too Sexy”, “We Wear Short Shorts” and “She’s Got Legs” just make me want to wear them all the time, not just when I’m running.
- If you’re going to wear your hat backwards in the hot sun, be ready for an awkwardly placed tan square on your forehead. Yes, yes, yes, I know it’s there, but thanks for pointing it out.
- Running a hard 5K, followed by an hour long car ride is a good recipe for stiff legs. Though I had a blast running around in circles with all my friends, I never could get my legs to loosen up, which resulted in tight IT bans, tight piriformis, tight everything and a slower pace.
- Coca-Cola can save the day. I don’t drink soda, but for some reason, during ultra events, I crave it. And I have never craved it like I did on Saturday. Thankfully, my friend Juan saved the day by giving me one of his. It was like sweet, sweet nectar from the running gods. Ahhhhhh…
- Good company makes the time FLY!!! Seriously, getting to run alongside so many cool and interesting people does make the miles tick by quicker than if I were running alone. Each time I glanced at my watch I was surprised at how much time had gone by.
- Which leads me to the realization that I need to focus better on nutrition, even during club runs. Because I was spending so much time socializing, I wasn’t paying much attention to what I had eaten or how much I’d been drinking. There were several points where I felt a little woozy, mostly because I wasn’t eating and drinking properly, so I will know better for the future.
But maybe the biggest thing I took home from Sunburn is the fact that a kiddie pool full of ice water needs to be a staple of every single summertime running event. YES?!?!? Having reached the 50 km mark in my run with a little over a half an hour left on the clock, I headed out for another loop when, from the corner of my eye, I caught a friend of mine soaking in the kiddie pool. She looked so happy and so at peace.
I want to be there, I said to myself.
So I hung ’em up, soaked my legs, and enjoyed the last bit of running from the sidelines, which also gave me a head start on the delicious smorgasbord BBQ potluck. Nothing goes together like running and eating, which means I’ll be looking forward to this event again next year!
The Chicago Chinatown 5K will always hold a special place in my heart. It is the first race I ran post-transformation, and it was the springboard for my running obsession — one that never seems to let up. The 2012 edition was my third running and it has been fun to see the same faces come out, not to mention the joy of watching my finishing times drop from 24 minutes to 21 minutes to 19 minutes.
This race is always hot. It’s in July, and there’s little shade along the course. But I showed up perky as could be, ready to do a little speedwork.
– – –
I park the car at my office on South Michigan and run a 20 minute warm-up to the start line. It has been a year since I last ran a 5K, but I do remember the importance of a warm-up. If I’m going to start hard at the beginning, the legs need to be ready.
I haven’t tapered for this. I’m just doing it for fun. In fact, for the week, I’ve already run over 40 miles so I’m not sure there’s much steam left in the engine, but I do want to go hard and see what happens. My mind thinks I can get done in the 18:30 range, and as I slowly churn the legs, priming them for a hard effort, it seems they aren’t so sure. It’s warm. 80-something degrees. There are no clouds in sight.
At the start line, I look around and can’t help but think snobbish thoughts (when did I become a running snob?).
Is a 60 oz. Camelback really necessary for a 5K?, I wonder as I count three of them in the crowd of 500+ runners. And what’s with all the Nip Guards? How long do these guys plan to be out there?
But to me, the most hilarious thing is being pushed out of the way by some, er, “bigger” runners who feel they need to be right at the front when the gun goes off. The starting chute is already narrow enough, I don’t see how blocking the faster guys who are going to run them over anyway is going to make their race experience any better. I’m chalking it up to inexperience.
Thankfully, some race official with a megaphone instructs those out-of-place runners to move to the back.
3… 2… 1…
We’re off. I’m through the chute, fighting my way past a few ambitious 12-year-olds and a slew of overzealous adults. We fly east down Archer, take a sharp right turn on Wentworth and head towards Old Chinatown. I already know, from years past, that the Old Chinatown section is the worst part of this race. In fact, in my training runs that take me through Chinatown, I make sure to always avoid the old section on Wentworth. I love Chinese food and all, but when red-lining, the toxic combination of Chinese food + garbage + old men chain-smoking on the street is just lethal.
Sure enough, my nose is hit with the aforementioned poisonous waft and I do what I can to breathe through my mouth so I don’t die.
Just off to my right, it sounds like someone else is dying. I look behind me and it’s a little kid. Couldn’t be more than 10 years old or so, yet he’s sticking with me at 6 minute pace. He’s huffing and puffing and struggling and coughing.
You okay? I ask.
Maybe you should slow down a little, I offer.
He takes off, past me. But he doesn’t get far before he just stops. Completely.
I zoom on by.
And now I’m already halfway done!
I hit the turnaround aid station just north of Sox Park on Wentworth. I’m going too fast to drink anything, so I just dump all the water I can on my head. It helps. Barely. I try to run along the tiny bit of shade that the highway barrier offers there, but so are most runners, so as it crowds, I just hop back in the sunlight. I’m almost done anyway.
I hit the 2-mile mark and the clock says 12:00 exactly. Damn. I’m doing pretty good, I think to myself.
So I start calculating in my head and start thinking about how this will end up being a great race for me and how much I’m going to brag to my old man about it and then, I’m back in Old Chinatown, struggling to not puke from the food/garbage/second-hand smoke onslaught.
I feel… gross.
Just before I reach the turn on Archer to head for the finish line I look at my watch and see I’m at 19 minutes and change.
Oh well. I sprint through the finish line at 19:47 — not terribly excited but not terribly disappointed either. As I grab some water and a banana, I think my lack of concentration towards the end is what slowed me down. But I’m not gonna dwell on it. I ran sub-20, bettered my time from the year before and I have to get in the car to meet my ultra buddies for a whole day of running yet anyway.
This was just a warm-up.
(for the main event, continue reading *here*)
One of the myriad benefits of being involved with the ultrarunning community is that one never wants for inspiration. Everywhere I look there are fascinating individuals who run long for a variety of reasons, all of them willing and eager to share their stories, each one as special as they are profound.
So when my friend, Anastasia (from here often referred to by her popular nickname “Supergirl”), asked me if I would pace her at the Mohican Trail 100 Mile Trail Run in Loudonville, OH, I jumped at the opportunity. For the last several months, I have been eagerly awaiting a chance to pace someone in a hundo and this couldn’t have come at a better time.
Fresh off my first 50, well rested and eager to see a 100 miler up close, I cleared my weekend and got mentally prepared to be the best pacer I could possibly be. In preparation for the task, I asked around, picking the brains of my fellow ultrarunners (thanks Jennifer, Tony and Siamak!), trying to get a good idea of what would be expected of me and how I could best handle my duties. After all, Supergirl was going for her SECOND 100 mile finish in just TWO WEEKS, aiming to reach the halfway mark of completing the Midwest Grand Slam of Ultrarunning, a feat, which if accomplished, would solidify what most associated with her already know: that Supergirl is one ultrarunning badass! The pressure was on me to make sure she finished, so I did my homework.
My duties would basically come down to the following: safety, nutrition monitoring, time management and, of course, encouragement.
The Mohican Trail 100 consists of four loops of rugged, technical, monster up-and-down trail (two 26.7 mile loops followed by two 23.4 mile loops). Runners were allowed pacers after completing the first two loops, so while Supergirl tackled the first half of the race I merely served as crew. This required preparing drop bags, trouble shooting any problems she encountered, monitoring her checkpoint status online and being ready for her to arrive at the Start/Finish area upon completing each loop. Supergirl is an extremely calculated runner with a great inner-pacing system already. She said her plan was to complete her first loop in 7 hours and by golly she did just that. She said she would finish her second loop in 7 and a half hours, and whad’ya know, she did that too! After completing both loops I noticed her spirits were extremely high. Her face was lit with bounds of energy and despite having 53 miles in her legs, she was punchy as could be. After all, she was having fun!
Ready to tackle loop three, I geared up and joined her at 7:35 p.m., 14 hours and 35 minutes since she first began.
Heading out, my only concern was that she wasn’t really eating much. Sure she was getting down plenty of carbohydrates through liquids (Perpetuem, Gatorade, Mt. Dew, etc) but she was still having difficulty taking in solid foods. I took note of such and would encourage her to eat something (ANYTHING!) at each aid station along the way. This would prove to be a challenge as the aid station spread deteriorated throughout the evening and into the next day, but she did tell me, long before the race even started, that this was an ongoing issue she’d been dealing with in other 100 mile races and that as long as she was still feeling okay and able to drink, we would successfully fuel her run.
As we began I was happy to see she was the same Supergirl I’d come to recognize from our club events: full of life, full of energy! As is her tradition when tackling hundos, she wore her “Supergirl” outfit, which consisted of a red and blue ensemble accented by her trademark red tutu. I ran behind her at her pace and watched as the trail lit up every time we came in contact with other runners. “Party girl!” one woman yelled in jubilation. “Awww yeah! Here comes Supergirl” said another. Our encounters only solidified what I already knew: I like being around Supergirl and people like her because she LIVES LIFE. She doesn’t hold back. She celebrates the beauty of being alive by pushing herself to see what she’s capable of and her electric personality is contagious. Her mere presence was enough to lift the spirits of many along our way.
Close to 9 o’clock, the sun went down and the dark canopy of the Mohican forest faded to black. With our headlamps lit, I took over lead position, scouting the way to the cleanest line of trail (a trail that was nastily decorated with unforgiving rocks and roots throughout). At this point we transitioned to a fast hike. It was just too dangerous for us to run with limited visibility; plus it was her game plan from the beginning to fast-walk the night. The last thing she wanted to do was injure herself in the dark by being stupid when she had plenty of time to work with. The 100 mile cut-off was 32 hours and by her calculations a 31 hour finish was the goal. “The most important thing,” she reminded me, “is FINISHING.” So that’s what we focused on.
The main reason for having a pacer in the first place is to insure a runner’s safety. Fatigue is a nasty constant in any endurance event, and when a runner tackles the trail after nightfall, the danger zone increases tenfold. The Mohican Trail, unforgiving in its constant climbs, twisting switchbacks and rugged downs, was a serious injury just waiting to happen in the dark. Having some experience with night running already, I made sure to bring a second light, one that I would hold in my free hand to create shadows so that our depth perception would not suffer (with only a single head lamp, rocks and roots become 2D objects that become tripping machines and trail tattoo guns). Leading the way, I scoped out any would-be hazards and alerted her of their existence with a wiggle of a light. We had only a couple of close-calls, but no actual falls.
All through the night we soldiered up and down and through rough terrain. We met up with several other pairs along the way and engaged in one interesting conversation after another. We laughed, we told stories, we sang songs. We made fun of the shitty aid station food, drew inspiration from our fellow club-members and their memorable catchphrases (LET’S GO MACHINE, BABY!), and reveled in past running adventures.
At one point it became clear that Supergirl had developed some nasty blisters, on both feet, and we faced the decision of whether we were going to stop and fix them or not. I can fix blisters. I’ve been doing it to myself for a long time now, but I didn’t have all the necessary tools I would need to do a good job. From asking other runners, we found out that the aid stations weren’t exactly well equipped to fix them either, so she decided to just keep going rather than risk a bad tape job that could possibly cause more problems. This was against my better judgement but I could tell that with Supergirl, she needed to be in control, especially when it concerned her own body and capabilities. She knew better than anyone what she could tough out and what needed immediate attention. What she needed from me was positive reinforcement and calculated guidance. Using this strategy, and making a point to approach every suggestion with a jolt of positivity, I was able to get her to start eating (chips, noodles, licorice and even the occasional gel). Sure her feet hurt. She was running 100 miles. OF COURSE HER FEET HURT. This wasn’t her first hundo. A few aggravating blisters weren’t going to hold her back.
But would they hold me back? Little did she know, all the walking (something I was simply not accustomed to) combined with the gnarly trail surface caused my feet to swell and throb and ache and burn. The last thing she needed was a whiny, wimpy pacer holding her back, so I picked my spots, telling her to go on ahead so I could fix my own issues (ball chafing, ass chafing, blistery feet among them) without her having to see or hear any of it. I likened this process to my old tripping/partying days from way back, when only positive thoughts were allowed. NO NEGATIVITY. I ate and drank appropriately, making sure I was hydrated and fueled enough to make smart decisions.
As the night dragged on, we began to tire. Eventually I had to slow my leading pace. And the 2 o’clock hour brought a sudden lag in mood and energy. I looked behind me to see once happy-go-lucky Supergirl had her head down, stumbling along the trail, sighing deeply every now and then.
“You feeling okay?” I would ask.
“Eh.” She would whimper.
I knew that was going to happen eventually, that at some point the long effort would team up with the darkness of night, bringing her spirits down. Hell, she’d been awake for nearly 24 hours already, of course she was going to experience some down time. We finished loop three in about 8 hours — the absolute longest, most ache-inducing 23.7 miles I’ve ever traversed.
But she didn’t dally at the aid station. She got in. Ate. Refilled her bottle and got out. I told her to go ahead, that I’d catch up. I had to really examine my feet and see if I could fix them. Quickly. Both forefeet were throbbing with firey pain, but I didn’t find any actual bubbly blisters. I changed my socks, massaged my feet rigorously, then ran to catch up.
When I finally found her on the trail, about a mile away, she was a zombie.
“Anastasia, you feel okay?”
Head down, shoulders sunk, she sniffled. “No” she cried. She took a deep, deep breath and said something that nearly broke my heart: “I don’t want to be here anymore.”
These were not the words I was expecting to hear, but here they were. Thumping me in the face. I felt my stomach drop.
“Everything hurts,” she said, “my feet…”
“I know, I know. You’ve been out here for over 75 miles already, of course everything hurts. You know this. And you’ve conquered worse before. But you’re Supergirl.” (She had conquered worse, just 12 days earlier at the Kettle Moraine 100 Miler, but that’s another story.)
“Anastasia, you told me I can’t let you quit unless you are seriously injured. Now, are your feet problems a serious injury? Is this something you really want to q–”
Before I could get out that awfully dreaded word, she cut me off, “Just, just, let me… sit down for a second.”
“Do you think that’s really a good idea?” Earlier we had discussed that common ultra running mantra “beware the chair”, because once you sit your tired ass down it’s gonna be REALLY hard to get your tired ass back up.
“It’s okay, this isn’t a chair… it’s just a rock.” She sat down on a big boulder. I took the opportunity to squat-stretch my hams and quads. She closed her eyes for 30 seconds, then stood up.
“Okay, I’m better now.” Except, now she was leaning against me, eyes open, but glassy, far off somewhere.
“You know, it’s 3:40 in the morning now. In just a little while, the sun is going to come up and everything is going to be beautiful again. The birds will start to talk to us, the forest will come to life. Everything will be okay.” (Long pause)
“Anastasia, are you awake?”
She snapped to. “I am now. I was just sleeping with my eyes open for a second. (sigh) Let’s go. I’m better now.”
And that was it. We took off back down the trail. She was all better. She had her deep, dark moment of despair, and now she was party rockin’ again. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.
What a tough, strong, inspiring woman. Wow. Just… wow.
We moved down trail and as the 4 o’clock hour approached we switched positions, with her in the lead. I followed and within a half hour or so I started to get noddy. I took some caffeine and desperately waited for it to kick in because I was having a very difficult time keeping my eyes open.
We reached an aid station, I slammed some Coke, got Supergirl to drink some chicken broth (against her wishes) and we were back on our way. A quarter mile outside the aid station I let out a belch so loud I’m sure it was heard back home, which got Supergirl to do something she hadn’t done for a couple hours: LAUGH!
And with that laugh, the first inklings of sunlight poked through the thick canopy. “Do you see that?” she asked. “It’s… the sun!!!”
“I know! I know!” I replied. No wonder so many cultures are based on worshiping the sun. “I love the sun!”
Soon, the birds were chirping like mad, rays of light shone through the tree tops, and suddenly, out of nowhere, Supergirl just took off.
She… was… RUNNING!!!
I followed, happy to be moving quickly again, and watched with delight as we were greeted with enthusiastic and encouraging smiles from runners along the way. “Looks like someone got her second wind!” someone said. “Party rockers are rockin’ again!” said another. It was no secret. Supergirl was back.
It started to rain, but it was a slight, cool, refreshing rain. We scooted along, taking walk breaks on the tough inclines, traversing the rocky downs gingerly yet efficiently. My feet were killing me, so I knew hers had to be even worse, but you wouldn’t know it from looking at her. She just powered away. Strong and deliberate. It was when we overtook a brawny pair of dudes on a steep incline when I realized just how badass Supergirl was.
These guys were strong, sculpted muscle machines. And here comes 5-foot nothing, 100-pound Supergirl leaving them in her dust. I looked back and caught their exasperated looks. I had to stop and marvel at her badassery myself. Indeed, this is one tough chick.
The rain stopped and before I knew it, we were in single digit mileage. There’s really no way to describe the feeling associated with asking an aid-station captain “What mile marker is this?” and hearing him say “94.4.” How does one react to that? He or she just smiles and picks up the pace. And that’s exactly what we did.
A mile or so out and we were off the trail, on a long dirt road climb. I made sure to look at her face, to study the emotions coming through her expressions. There was only one: DETERMINATION.
No smiles at this point. Just concentration, will and desire. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a person so focused. She was in the proverbial zone. And why wouldn’t she be? The girl had just run 99 miles, with only one more to go, on her way to completing her second 100 mile race in two weeks and her third in six months. I was witnessing a true ultrarunning rock star work!
So when we came down the big hill that dumps on to the home stretch, I fell back and off to the side, making sure to give her the spotlight. And boy did she shine. A race favorite of volunteers and fellow runners alike, Supergirl did not disappoint. Her face lit up with a victorious sheen, arms raised high above her head symbolizing her warrior like conquering of one of the toughest race courses I’ve seen.
As she crossed the finish line in 30 hours, 13 minutes, the crowd roared in her accomplishment. And I couldn’t have been more proud.
“Running is a vehicle for self-discovery.”
In May of 2009, I was a pack-and-a-half a day smoker who drank too much, ate like shit and never exercised. In May of 2010, I was logging 3-mile runs two or three times a week. In May of 2011, I was recovering from my first marathon.
And in May of 2012, I unleashed an ultrarunning, trail-diggin’, dirt lovin’ dragon.
Here is my story:
Race Morning, 3:30 a.m.
I’m up! Banana, granola bar, a big gooey blueberry muffin and a cup of coffee. Did I sleep last night? A little. Am I nervous? No! But I should be… right?
In a couple of hours I will begin the journey of completing my very first 50 mile race. With four road marathons and five trail 50Ks in my legs already, this is the trip that will really stretch my psyche. This is the one that I’ve been daydreaming about for well over a year.
I’m craving it. I’m expecting it. I can’t wait to test the body I’ve been steadily building for this exact day, May 12, 2012.
Dad doesn’t seem to hear the blaring alarm clock deafening my ears so I nudge him awake and then we both busy ourselves with prepping for a very long day. I’m really glad he’s here with me. He’s one of the main reasons I fell in love with running in the first place and he’s been with me at every step of my transformation. Despite the fact that he lives outside of Houston (which is pretty far from Chicago and the midwest) he was at my first 5K, my first half marathon, first marathon and first 50K!
Now he’s here for my first 50 miler, only instead of participating as runner or spectator, this time I’m puttin’ him to work as my crew. Last night we went over his duties and I’m pretty confident that he’ll be a big help to me throughout the day. This might be almost as epic for him as it will be for me.
I think that’s pretty cool.
Start Line, 5:30 a.m.
With so many of my New Leaf and M.U.D.D. friends also running in this race, I know the start and finish lines are gonna be buzzin’ with awesome-sauce. Every time I look around I see someone I know, which is just fantastic! With this kind of good company, it’s hard for me to give in to the normal anxieties and fears I usually have before a big race. My stomach’s not churning at all. I’m not shaking. Instead, I’m crackin’ jokes and shakin’ hands.
If I were all alone right now, surely I’d be worrying about the unknown, about the fact that I’ve never run more than 32 miles at any one time, or longer than 6 and a half hours — both tasks I’m going to have to deal with. But I’m not alone. I’m surrounded by a loving, joyous community.
And some kick-ass trail.
The temp is in the mid 50s. It will get up into the high 60s, but we’ll have cloud cover for most of the day and virtually no rain (some spits here and there).
The race director addresses all 360+ of us, then comes the National Anthem. I hug my dad goodbye and take my place at the start line. This is really happening now.
This is really, actually happening.
The first section of the race takes place on the Nordic Loop, which is a relatively wide and flat grassy section, ideal for speed. But this ain’t no speed contest. This is a long haul. And pacing will either save me, or destroy me.
My goal for today is to just finish the race, to enjoy the virginal voyage. After the last few trail races, where I’ve placed in the top 10, it is paramount that I stay humble and don’t get cocky. There are world class athletes here today with lots of experience and I need to just watch them blow by.
Racing a 50K is much different than racing a 50 miler. I think. Hell, I don’t even know how to race a 50 miler yet, because I’ve never done it! And my track record on first races at all the different distances is not very good.
Sure, I’ve finished them all, but in each case (my first half marathon, first marathon, first 50K) I went out WAAAY too fast and had to suffer through some gut-busting, painful miles at the end. I don’t want that to happen today.
So the plan is to run this first loop at a controlled 10-11 minute pace with my new friend, Geoff, whom I met at the Earth Day 50K. He and I finished a close 4th and 5th there and since our paces are about the same, we decided to run this first bit together.
I’m very glad we did, because the conversation with Geoff is making this early portion quite fun. As if the infinitely luscious green forest isn’t enough to make me smile, the chatter we have going makes it all the sweeter. We share our running backgrounds and talk race schedules. We wax on nutrition, training, and of course, beer (this will be an all-day theme actually). We also share the strategy of running the flats, walking the uphills, and running the downs. The Ice Age Trail is notorious for its incessant batch of rolling hills and having an attack plan could be key.
I’m carrying a 20 oz. handheld bottle and lots of GU stuffed in my short pockets. All is going well so we blow by the first aid station. In fact, the first 8 miles breeze by, but nature calls and I tell Geoff to head on while I make a quick stop to water the trees.
A few minutes later, I’m back on the trail, but the lot of racers has already spread out so much that I have little company. That’s to be expected in a trail race, so I embrace the alone time while I have it. As I come into the second aid station at mile 9, I see Dad waving his arms, yelling my name.
The temperature is rising, so I rip off my singlet, get a quick bottle refill and get back to work.
Cruising. Damn. I just feel… good. I’m not going too fast. Am I? No. I think. I don’t know.
Because it is so early still, I try not to think about what I’m doing too much. I mean, I don’t wanna stress myself out with math and splits and whatever else problem could come up. I’m pretty much just zooming along by myself here, enjoying the magnificent surroundings, eating a GU every half hour and taking a sip of my half-water-half-Gatorade mix every few minutes. It’s not really too warm, but it is a bit humid and when the sun does break out of the clouds it jumps up and smacks me in the face.
Of course, the actual trail does a good job of smacking me in the face as well. Literally. While it’s not uncommon for me to trip and do a face-plant during the latter stages of a race, this early section sees me fall *BOOM* not once but *BOOM* twice. Luckily, I’m alone and my embarrassment is limited to just me and Mother Nature, who graciously covers me with mud and dirt upon each trip.
After collecting myself, I reach one of the rare exposed sections of the course, close to a lake, and suddenly I’m choking on a swarm of bugs.
What the — … are these gnats or… midges or…. what the hell are these things?!?
Whatever they are, they swarm in bunches and attack from out of nowhere. While some of them kamikaze into my sweaty torso, the majority decide to invade my eyes, ears and mouth.
I look behind me and see another runner falling victim to the same insect army.
Disgusting, he says. He has a very pleasant sounding British accent, and he’s running faster than I am, so I move out of the way and let him lead.
His name is Mark. He’s from Evanston via Cambridge, England. I recognize him from some earlier banter, back when I was running with Geoff. We were talking about beer.
Though it’s quite early, we pick up our beer conversation in anticipation of the finish line refreshment and share some stories of races past. Along the way, we pick up another runner, one donning a Marathon Maniacs singlet, whom I sheepishly anoint as “Maniac”. Turns out his real name is Steve.
For the next 10-20 miles, I will spend a lot of time with Mark and Steve, ebbing and flowing according to the terrain.
Shortly after we depart the Highway 12 aid station at approximately 17.3 miles, I trip and fall AGAIN, this time breaking the strap on my water bottle.
I don’t have a backup strap either. Damn it! But… wait… I do have… duct tape! It’s in my gear bag that Dad is hauling around, and if anyone can create something functional out of duct tape, it’s my father. He’s been doing it my whole life.
I will see him in 5 miles or so. I can hold on to this thing the old fashioned way until then. I hope.
BOOM. I trip again. What the FUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUU!!!!
Pick up yer damn feet, Forest! I tell myself. I can’t go a week of running in my neighborhood without some jackass yelling Run, Forest, Run! at me through his car window, so when I do something stupid I like to call myself Forest. And today, Forest is falling all over his face.
BUT I’M STILL HAVING FUUUUUN! says Forest, er… I mean, me.
Here is where time sorta stops and I don’t know what’s happening where. I know that my right IT band is aching. And that has NEVER happened before. On the uphill power hikes, when I have a chance, I stop and knead my knuckles into the band as hard as I can. This relieves whatever pressure is building up, but my hand can’t keep up with the tightness and the lateral portion of my right knee begins to ache. I know this is not good but I ain’t stoppin’ so I’ll just deal with it later.
Luckily, there are a lot of out-and-back sections in this race so there is a constant flow of traffic coming from the other direction. At first it’s the leaders — whom I can’t help but stop and watch with complete awe. Such form! Such ease! And then I’m on the other side, high-fiving those who are behind me.
Perhaps this is why everyone says the Ice Age Trail 50 is so special. Hell, I know at least 50 people who are running this thing, and each time I see their smiling, suffering faces, I get a HUGE energy boost. Pushing my limits is fun enough on its own I guess, but when it involves the type of camaraderie and support inherent in the ultrarunning community, it’s just like a big old party. Instead of boozing, we’re running. That’s all.
I try to use that energy in hammering the downhills, but eventually, all that force causes my right knee to ache, so I begin to take it easy on the downs. This is probably a good thing, because now I’m starting to feel pretty tired. Not wasted, just tired, as expected. I look down at my watch to see 4 hours and 10 minutes have gone by and I’m only at 24.2 miles.
Can I sustain this pace for another marathon? Will my knee hold up? How many more times am I going to trip and fall? Can I even feel my right toe anymore?
Before I can answer these questions I’m at another aid station, instructing Dad to rig me a duct tape bottle handle — a task he gleefully accepts. I reload on GUs (even though I’m getting sick of them now), suck on some orange slices and I’m back on the trail.
Sticking with Mark and Steve, back and forth, all this time and finally I fall back. I’m starting to feel more and more gassed. The sun is busting out. Mark takes off, Steve is right behind him, but I gotta slow down for a minute.
Zone out. Just keep moving. Don’t think too much.
I get to the shoulder of Duffin Road, 30.2 miles in the bag, and I see Dad.
VAS! I yell.
What? he says.
VAS! I need VAS.
VASELINE, yells the crowd of other crew members, spectators and volunteers. In unison.
I didn’t realize it until just now but I need some lubrication down in the nether regions and this aid station couldn’t have come at a better time. In true trail runner form, I dip my hand in the jar, pull out of big glob and then immediately stick my hand down my shorts. Apparently, I don’t mind an audience.
I’m starting to get hot, I tell Dad. I don’t feel too good. He douses me with ice water, dumps ice cubes in my bottle — a bottle that NOW has a nice, new and STRONG duct tape strap, (good work, Dad!) — and asks if I need anything else.
Salt. I need salt.
He hurries to grab some salt tablets out of my bag and he kindly puts them in a plastic baggie for me to take. My old man has always been there for me, and I know he always has my back, but in this instance, watching him run around all over this forest preserve, jumping into quick action at my slightest command, to help me, is quite a comforting feeling. I know he’d like to be out there adventuring himself, and that crewing can be a drag sometimes, but more than anything, he is here for me. I am not alone.
He believes in me.
You’re doing great, Jeff. Keep going. Just keep going, he says.
I catch up to Steve again.
Mark took off, he says. Just flew. Had a lot of energy left.
Not me, man. I’m starting to feel tired, I admitted.
Steve and I share the trail. We talk about races we’ve run, races we want to run. We keep each other going.
I see a bunch of folks coming on from the opposite direction again and the salutations, while maybe a bit quieter than they were during the first half, still serve as pleasant boosts of mental energy. I say “mental”, because that’s what is taking over now. My mind has to control everything from here on out because my body is starting to revolt.
Eventually Steve starts to fade, but I keep trucking.
BOOM. I trip and fall. Again.
Fuck you, earth. Fuck you. Then I look and see that the duct tape water bottle strap did not break. Alas, duct tape is better than anything I could buy in a running store! I’m sorry, earth. I didn’t mean to say ‘fuck you’. I love you. Seriously. I really do.
I get back up. Keep on moving.
I’m still surrounded by lush, green canopy, but I hear traffic. And voices. And… a cowbell!
I come out of the forest and realize I am at Emma Carlin, aid station 10, and I’ve run 40.2 miles so far. Holy shit. 40.2 miles.
Dad is waving his arms, yelling my name, and with all these people watching me run in I suddenly feel the urge to pick up the pace and at least LOOK strong, even if I don’t feel it.
40 miles already, Jeff! Dang. Just think how much you’ve done. You’ve never gone that far before, says Dad.
I think I wanna be done now.
Nooo, you’re doing good. Just keep going.
Just keep going. Just keep moving. Just put one foot in front of the other.
What time is it? I ask.
One thirty, someone says.
I want it to be beer thirty, I say. Everyone within ear shot chuckles. I smile too. Dad tries to hand me GUs but I’ll puke if I eat another so I go for the orange slices instead. Also, some Coke, some water, some whatever… I don’t know, I’m tired and I’m pretty sure I smell worse than I ever have before and I’m globbing Vaseline all over my balls and I had some bugs for lunch and… wha… huh…
This is the last time I’ll see Dad before I make it to the finish line, so I give him a big hug and thank him for his help.
I honestly feel like shit right now. Just completely zapped of energy. I went too fast in the middle sections and now my unseasoned body is paying for it. But there’s a huge crowd here at Emma Carlin and I won’t be out of their sight as I run away for a good quarter mile so I’m gonna bust it outta here and will myself to finish strong.
Off I go… 10 minute pace, 9 minute pace, 8 minute pace! I look at my watch and see I can finish under 9 hours if I just stay strong and steady.
But where will the energy come from? I ask myself. Don’t worry, I answer myself. Just keep moving.
And then, SNAP, THWACK, BOOM.
I’m on the ground. Again. Face down.
I hear the Inception soundtrack as I look at the deceivingly beautiful rocks and roots responsible for slamming me to the ground. I roll over, slowly, and gaze up at the light peaking through the gargantuan canopy. I’m tired. I’m so, so tired.
SO WHAT. GET UP.
I’m achy. So, so achy.
SO WHAT. GET. UP.
I want to be in bed, under the covers, with the lights off.
I get up. I put one foot in front of the other. I tell myself I can walk all the hills, but I have to run — or at least try to run — the remaining flats and downs.
I reach an oasis at Horseriders, the 43.3 mile mark and I see some friendly faces (Brian, Kelly, Geoff and Paige). Their encouragement gives me an extra boost. But I got 6.7 miles to go and I think I wanna die so I’m not sure how much the boost will last.
As quickly as I was surrounded by a swarm of people, I’m just as quickly all by myself. I come to a series of big hills — DO THESE HILLS EVER FRIGGIN’ STOP??? — and before I can power hike (can we even call it that at this point? more like anti-power crawl) up the dang thing I actually have to come to a complete stop, take a few deep breaths, then psyche myself into moving further along.
People start to pass me. I’m wavin’ ’em through. They’re saying “good work” and “dig deep” and “stay strong” but they’re all full of shit. I look terrible. I feel terrible. I’m slow and I’m basically crippled. I can’t feel my right big toe. My IT band and knee still ache but I can hardly tell because I’ve fallen so many times that all the scrapes and bruises are beginning to take precedent.
BUT I SIGNED UP FOR THIS.
A guy passes me, moving pretty swiftly. As he darts by I throw out an invisible lasso, hook him around the waist and let him pull me. My feet are moving along quite nicely (considering) for a good bit so the invisible lasso works. Eventually another dude flies by. I lasso him too and let him carry me for a few hundred yards until the invisible rope breaks, just as I break myself.
I hear Jimmy Buffett off in the distance. I lasso that motherfucker and let him bring me in. Maybe he has margaritas.
If he does, I don’t see them. I don’t ask either, for fear they might actually have them. The thought of putting anything in my mouth (liquid or otherwise) absolutely disgusts me at this point. I feel kind of sick. Dizzy. Am I gonna throw up? I try, but I can’t.
My only option is to just go finish this thing. At least I’m only 1.5 miles from the finish, right? Nope. Someone tells me I’m still 2.5 miles from the finish. Oh well. I don’t know what to believe anymore. All I believe is I’m broken.
I leave the aid station and find myself alone again. I’m shuffling now.
And then, I start to cry. Like a big baby.
I have no idea why. Maybe it’s because it has taken me about an hour to go these last 4 miles. Maybe it’s because my body aches and wants to sit in a pool. Maybe it’s because I’m just not as tough as I think I am.
NO, YOU DUMMY. IT’S BECAUSE YOU’RE PUSHING YOURSELF. YOU’RE BREAKING THROUGH. YOU’RE REALLY DOING THIS.
Really? I’m really doing this?
I’m really doing this!
I wipe the tears away, dust myself off and put one foot in front of the other as fast as I can.
– – –
Jeff!!! someone shouts from behind.
*CUE THE HALLELUJAH ANGEL CHOIR, BITCHES, CUZ I’M ABOUT TO GET ALL VERKLEMPT*
Behind me is my buddy, Siamak. He’s in my running club and we’ve spent most Wednesday nights since January running together. He looks strong. He looks fresh. And most importantly, he’s wearing a big old smile on his face.
Siamak, man… oh, god, I… I’m not doin’ so good… I…
Come on, bro, run it in with me. You got this. Let’s go in together.
I pick up the pace to match his, which is much faster than what I was going. I search my brain for something to say. I’m searching hard, but I have that Microsoft hourglass of death spinning relentlessly and I don’t know what to say. I felt so small just now, like a burned up piece of space junk ready to disintegrate into the atmosphere, and then Siamak came along and now… now everything is okay and I’m gonna finish this race and my dad’s gonna be there and all my friends and I’ve worked so hard and…
I’m crying again.
I’m sorry, man… I don’ know why… I don’t know why I’m so emotional right now.
Hey, it happens. To a lot of people.
I look at him and he’s all there. Has his wits. His legs. Dude, if you want to go ahead of me, don’t let me hold you back —
Nah, let’s do this together.
Time. There is no time. This moment, right now, even with these last few hills to climb and these last few meters to run, this moment, it will always live. It will always be.
Here on Saturday, May 12, 2012, I woke up with the goal of running 50 miles — FIFTY FRIGGIN’ MILES — and I sure as hell am about to reach that goal.
I made some mistakes. Yes. I fell flat on my face. I also marveled at nature’s endless beauty while getting to play in the most gorgeous of forests for hours on end. I had a ton of laughs, a bunch of real conversations with real, fascinating, INTERESTING people. And I had an endless amount of support, from my family, from my friends.
But right now, it’s just Siamak and I. And the finish line.
Smile, he says, you’ll feel better.
I do. He is right.
We end our journeys together. 9 hours, 38 minutes. I collapse into my Dad’s arms. I don’t know if I’ve ever felt happier.
Man, we had a blast. I had at least six beers, got to catch up with Steve and Mark. I talked to everyone who would talk to me. I cheered on all my other buddies coming through the finish line in style. It was such a fantastic day — a day that I will never forget, ever.
And, despite all the pain and suffering I experienced in the last 10 miles, my body is recovering nicely. I promised myself I would take a week off. But, once an ultrarunner, always an ultrarunner.
The next target race? The Howl at the Moon 8 Hour Ultra in August. It’s gonna be hot, humid and downright nasty as I try to run as many miles as I can in an 8-hour period on a 3.2 mile loop course.
The more I run, the harder I push and the further I go, I learn just what kind of man I really am. And I’ll tell ya what: I’m a damn happy one.
Hello, Kentucky Derby Festival Marathon!
With two weeks to go until my spring target race, the Ice Age Trail 50 Miler, the Derby Marathon would be my first crack at running a road marathon as a training run: a super-exciting, fully supported, training run! Having run the Derby Mini the year before with my brother-in-law, Patrick, I was quite familiar with the first 8 miles of the course, and I knew that the easy terrain and jubilant crowd support would make for a fantastic final long run before beginning my taper.
It did not disappoint.
I took off work Friday. Early in the morning, I drove down to my sister’s place in Jeffersonville, IN, just across the bridge from Louisville. That afternoon, Patrick and I picked up our race packets (he ran the mini), had a pasta dinner and were in bed by 9:30 p.m. I slept fairly well, but I couldn’t shake all of my nervousness left over from the proceeding week.
After my hard effort last Sunday at the Earth Day 50K, I felt some ominous muscular oddities in my plantaris, behind my right knee. Thinking it was something I could run off, I ended up aggravating it on Tuesday during a short recovery jog and decided that the best thing to do was to rest it completely. This was not easy for me to do. I’ve been averaging 60-70 miles a week, so to take it down so dramatically so quickly left me stewing. BUT, part of being a running fiend is listening to your body — backing off when necessary, keeping things in perspective. By Friday night, my plantaris felt about 85%. I went to bed thinking I would at least start the race, but I had to make peace with the idea that if it became painful, I might have to drop. Nothing could be worse than losing out to Ice Age because of an injury I could have prevented, I repeated to myself, as if counting sheep.
When I awoke at 5 a.m., my feet hit the ground and… VOILA! No plantaris pain. Some light, eccentric stretching confirmed such a miracle. I ate some breakfast, lubed and laced up, and by 6:15 Patrick and I were out the door.
We parked at his office building across from the Yum Center, gave each other some encouraging words and then I left him to meet fellow Chicago running blogger, Dan Solera. Dan is not only a good writer, but a great runner as well! He is currently tackling the task of running a half-marathon in all 50 states and boy did he do something special in Louisville! Check out his blog for the details.
I entered my corral and reminded myself of the following:
- You’re not racing. Period. Don’t even try it.
- Respect the distance. You may consider yourself an ultrarunner, but 26.2 is 26.2 and that shit ain’t easy. Ever. So don’t treat it as such.
- Stop if you feel like it. Talk to people if you feel like it. This is your chance to do the things you always wished you could do during a marathon.
- Smile at everyone you meet along the way.
- If you feel any pain (not to be confused with discomfort, ‘cuz ain’t no marathon run without discomfort), drop. Immediately.
- HAVE FUN, YA DINGUS!
And we’re off!
The first few miles were pretty fun, I gotta admit. Usually, this is not the case in a mega-race, but since I wasn’t watching my splits, I found it quite pleasant to just look around and soak up all the excitement of plodding away with 17,999 other people. To an implanted, intentional observer, the start of a race is a fascinating mural of motion. And since the half-marathoners and marathoners run the first 8.5 miles together, this was even more the case. Runners of all abilities were jammed together, bumping elbows, lining up the tangents, gesturing and surging for position.
The Derby Marathon course if pretty flat. The Mini is completely flat. So I wasn’t even thinking about hills until mile 14 or so. Instead, I marveled at the perfect weather (mid 50s with sunshine) and waited for the Churchill Downs section at mile 8, my favorite part of the course.
I already knew it was my favorite part from running the Mini last year. So when I entered those hallowed grounds again I slowed a bit and took in the sights. I even stopped and jogged backwards on the way out so I could have as much of it in my memory as possible. My only disappointment was that this year they didn’t have the loudspeakers playing archived Derby broadcasts like they did before. Hearing those speedy calls of the fastest two minutes in sports really gave me a mental boost last year, but in 2012 I’d have to do without.
When we exited the track, it wasn’t long before the marathoners split off from the half-marathoners. And then…
Is anyone else running the full marathon? I asked myself as I turned right on to an empty street, seemingly by myself. Up ahead were a few runners. I looked behind and a woman said to me: Wow, that’s depressing, isn’t it?
Yeah. I guess we’re on our own until the very end now, I replied.
I actually meant that I’d rather be running with them.
Not me, I said. I live for the long stuff.
She was right though. It was a bit depressing. For the rest of the race the crowd support would be sparse. The silence continuous. And just because I was taking my sweet-ass time, soaking in the experience, didn’t mean that my fellow runners were. On the contrary, they were working hard. Instead of engaging in conversation, I embraced the role of quiet observer. I stared at a lot of calves and read the backs of many a tech-tee.
Meanwhile, as we entered Iroquois Park for the first of several gentle climbs, I noticed that my right calf was suffering from a deliberate forefoot strike, presumably from the weakened plantaris and extra days off. I stopped several times to stretch it, checking in with the plantaris itself, but none of that really helped. I was forced to alter into a midfoot strike, which meant as I tired, I would probably begin to land on my heels, which meant I’d most likely be doing the Frankenstein walk on Sunday, but that’s how it goes. At least I was still running. Pain free!
My recent ultratraining made the hills seem easy. I encouraged others up the climbs, even leading a peloton of sorts for most of it. Despite the camaraderie, part of me wanted to break off from the road and go discover whatever trails existed behind the beautiful green forest. But just as soon as I my mind wondered about what was in there, we were descending out of the park and back onto the flats.
When I hit the 16 mile mark, I felt quite good. Other than my right calf, nothing ached. Nothing was debilitating. There was no pain. I thought to myself, just an easy 10 miler with my Wednesday night running buddies now. I started to think about those guys and what they might be doing. The Illinois Marathon. Horseriders 27 Mile Club Run. The Kettle Moraine Trainer. I’ll see y’all on Wednesday, I thought. Can’t wait!
By the 20 mile mark I reflected on how awesome it was to not be a part of the marathon carnage for once. All around me people looked rough. Cramping. Spasms. Dehydration. That’s what happens when you give it your all in the mother of all race distances. Hell, it KILLED Pheidippides!
I wanted to help. I wanted to say Dig Deep and Lookin’ Good and Almost There to those who looked liked they needed it, but then I remembered how much I hated hearing that shit myself when feeling bad, so I just kept my mouth shut and respected the process.
When I got just past the 22 mile mark, the terrain shifted from flat and fast to mountainous and slow. Of course, describing the elevation spikes as “mountainous” is more hyperbolic than truthful, but believe me: after running on road for that long, any climb is gonna look like Everest. I ran the hills, but I ran them slowly. And I didn’t fly down them like I normally do. I kept myself in check, as I had been doing the entire race, and all I could think about with a mile to go was….. BEER.
So, I thought, let’s go get that beer sooner rather than later. And I took off.
With a half mile left I looked down to see I was running 6:30 pace and decided to keep it right there. The few spectators strewn about cheered me on and I gave ’em a show.
Where is everybody? I thought as I passed the 26 mile marker sign. There should be crowds galore at the finish.
Then I made the right turn onto Preston Street, reuniting with the mini-runners, and realized that’s where they all were. With a boosting roar of the crowd I turned on the afterburners and shot through the finish with a time of 3:43:25, almost an entire half hour slower than my current PR.
I did it right. And had blast.
I got my medal, grabbed a banana and headed straight for the beer tent.
My only complaint (other than the absence of the Derby broadcast at Churchill Downs) is that for the first half of the marathon, not all of the aid stations were stocked with sports drink. In my opinion, that is ABSOLUTELY UNACCEPTABLE. It may be okay for a half-marathon, but in a full marathon, it is WISE to be drinking sports drink from the very beginning, to help defend against hyponatremia. Had the temperature been warmer, this could have made for a very dangerous situation and race officials would be wise to address this danger for future events.
Also, it would’ve been nice to have crowd support for the full marathon like they do the half, but in my experience, this is commonplace in races that combine the two.
When it comes to running long and having a blast, the McHenry County Ultrarunning Dudes and Dudettes (M.U.D.D.) sure do set the bar high. Over the last couple of years I have gotten to know many of them through volunteering, running the trails and of course, through racing, so when they announced they would be hosting the first ever Earth Day 50K in nearby Crystal Lake, I circled April 22 on my calendar and made sure I would be rockin’ a smile, ready to race.
All day long.
Man, this is like a party! To look at all the happy faces around me, one would have a hard time believing any of us are in for 31 miles of pain and suffering today. That’s ultrarunning for ya!
I say hi to Alfredo, to Brandi, to Juan, to Edna, to Carrie, Jerret, Tony and so many others. I compliment the collection of yellow “Ultra-Virgin” shirts adorning an anxious crowd. And there is Michele Hartwig, Team Inov-8 member, trail runner extraordinaire and Earth Day 50K race director!
We runners gather for instruction from Michele, pause for the national anthem, and at the sound of the horn… we’re off!
The Earth Day 50K is comprised of five loops of 6 miles with an extra mile added to the first (remember, I LOVE LOOPS). It is run on the trails of picturesque Veteran Acres: a good mix of winding singletrack with some multi-track interspersed. It’s about 50 degrees, the sun is out and everything is GREEN! Mother Earth decided to show up to this party, and so did I!
At the start, my first move is to… lead the way! In fact, my goals coming into this race are to to finish in the top 10, be in the lead pack as long as possible and smile at everyone I see along the way.
David Epstein’s recent S.I. article on Sammy Wanjiru is fresh in my mind, reminding me of a ballsy (read: dangerous?) yet effective racing strategy: beat them at the beginning. The idea is to go hard at the start — to create a gap so immense that it is nearly impossible to clip. The unfortunate part of this strategy (as I will later find out) is that it could leave one gassed at the end, when finishing speed is needed to put it away.
But at this point, I’m only ONE mile into this journey, with THIRTY to go. I have a looooong day ahead, so I just go fast enough to get out front, but not fast enough to kill myself. Yet.
As the field spreads out, we step onto luscious singletrack, and I am not alone. On my heels is Trey Robinson, an awesome runner from Gurnee. We talk a little, but it is obvious that running this hard and talking is easier for him than it is me. His movement is fluid and deliberate. His stride is near perfect. I can’t keep up with him, so I just run my pace. Sure it’s fun to be competitive, to push my body to see what I’m capable of, but thrashing too hard too early and not running my race is as pointless as it is debilitating, so I let him go and just focus.
I have a song in my head: “Rapture at Sea” by Eastern Sun. I don’t run with music, but I do find it helpful to have a song that I like stuck in my head, to act as an equalizer between body and mind when things really get tough. Also, any time I can prevent “I’m Henry the Eighth I Am” from getting in my brain, I take advantage of it. Thankfully, “Rapture at Sea” has me cruisin’.
In fact, this first cruising loop is all about taking in the terrain. There are rolling hills. Bombs away on the down, bound on the ups! A couple steep climbs require power hiking, but barely. There is a lot of variation. Sometimes I’m enveloped by green forest only to escape into an open field. Sometimes I’m running on soft earth, sometimes crushed limestone. I come out of one downhill trail section that empties onto a paved bike path and BOOM. There are two curious deer staring straight at me, just 10 feet away. More like me are a comin’, fellas. Ya might wanna stand clear. They bound away, as if to say, naa naa na boo boo, we’re faster than yooouuuu!
Besides the one at the start/finish, there is also an aid station at the halfway point of the loop. The volunteers there are a jubilant and supportive bunch! They are so quick and efficient that I barely get to see who they are before I’m off again.
Just as I come up on a rather ominous group of trees that boast gigantic, man-made question marks on their heavy trunks, I realize I’ve lost Trey. He’s gotta be waaaaay ahead. Go get ’em, bro!
I feel like I got a lock on second if I can just hold pace. I’m having fun. I feel good.
Loop 1 done in 51:52.
Um… about that “lock on second”… hmm… you’re 7 miles in, pal. Let’s just focus on the here and now. M’kay, thanks.
I blow through the aid station and look behind me to see I’m not as alone as all that singletrack would have me think. There’s a chase pack of three and they’re not far behind. Everybody looks good too. Not a struggler in the bunch. This is where my meditative mindset needs to take over: focus on the now. Right now. And then, RIGHT NOW. What’s going to happen later, or what has already happened is not going to help me. I need to just stay focused, take advantage of all the downhills and remember that this is something I enjoy.
WEEEEE! I scream as I leap up and over a section the locals call “Little Pig Hill”. I also marvel at the dandy and equally descriptive handmade signs put up all along the course, reminding me how creative and fun ultrarunners are: Land of the Aliens. Snake Hill. Costa Rica. Every time I get to Costa Rica, a section at the top of a gnarly downhill, I tell myself THIS IS FUN! IT’S LIKE A TROPICAL VACATION! Anything to get my mind off the guys gunning for me from behind.
At the end of the loop, the single track empties into the park where a girls softball game is going on and I must look like a mad man: A sweaty mess in short-shorts, a singlet and armsleeves. One softball spectator asks me, Are you okay?
Yep. I’m good. Actually, I feel great!
Loop 2 done in 48:14.
It’s easy to tell myself I feel great, but with the chase pack closing in and gaining every time we reach a clearing (the only time I can actually see them), I realize it’s getting harder for my body to buy into the game plan. Mentally, all is well. I think. Before I can decide, I hear blazing footsteps approaching from behind. They’re coming so fast that I have no choice but to stop, turn and look. Here comes a dude so full of energy and so strong that I feel absolutely deflated about my own performance.
Hey, man, keep up the good work. I think you’re in second, he says.
Uh… yeah. I am. I am? Wait —
I’m in the relay. Just starting out.
Comic relief to the rescue! Thank you, running gods! Thank you, Mother Earth! I needed that! Now, back to work.
With the spark of a good laugh, I put my head down and focus on turnover. Quick. Rapid. Turnover. I begin to pass people still on the second loop and I make sure to give words of encouragement to all, just as they do to me. Singletrack can be lonely sometimes, but coming into contact with others who love running and are as passionate about the trails as I am is a welcome comfort.
Meanwhile, my butt is starting to hurt. Literally. Both the left and right piriformis muscles are beginning to ache, but I’m not gonna let a pain in the ass stop me from tearing up dirt.
Loop 3 is done in 49:34.
As I leave the aid station, I think I’ve lost the chase pack. But then, as I power hike the steep climb to the trail head I hear footsteps right behind.
Hi there. You’re doing great, man. C’mon!
It’s Damian Nathaniel. I recognize him from my frantic looks back earlier. We exchange names and salutations.
Man, you’re running way stronger than me, I offer, somewhat deflated. After running in second by myself for 20 miles, then being caught on an uphill climb, I start feeling sorry for myself. But before I can give into the despair, Damian puts his hand on my shoulder and says, C’mon, let’s go!
Who is this guy and why is he so awesome!?!? He takes off downhill, balls to the wall and I follow, injected with energy I didn’t know I had. This dude could have totally smoked me but instead he offers encouragement and talks me through a low point.
After a couple of miles, we reach the paved section and talk about how much we hate it compared to the singletrack. We jockey back and forth on position, but I know he’s going to go ahead of me once we reach the aid station so I wisely ease off the jets. My butt hurts and I need some Coca-Cola to give me a jolt. I doubt he’s gonna stick around for any of that.
I make peace with this development. I accept it. Hell, I’m out running my butt off (literally) and I’m still having the time of my life!
I realize that, when discussing my running adventures, it appears that I often use hyperbole to describe my experiences. That couldn’t be further from the truth. There is no hyperbole. If I’m doing it right, every run is the best run I’ve ever had, because it’s happening NOW and I’m loving it NOW more than I’ve ever loved it before.
Competitiveness, for me, is a healthy addition to my running. When I choose to embrace it, it pushes me to do things I never thought I could do. So I use Damian as inspiration. Follow that runner! I tell myself. Head down. Back to work.
Then, out of nowhere, my own body throws up an obstacle by way of… a gastrointestinal scare. Yikes! Where’s my ginger? I grab a Ginger Chew (a must-have for any race) out of my pocket, quickly unwrap it and throw it in my mouth midstride. Of course, chewing this thing would be easier if it wasn’t so damn hard! The chilly temps have left it solid, nearly impossible to bite down on, so instead, I just swallow it.
Now I’m choking at the top of Costa Rica. I try to cough it up. Can’t do it. I pour the water/Gatorade mix from my handheld bottle down my throat and desperately try to swallow again, and again…
So how did Jeff die again? Oh, he ran himself silly then choked to death on a Ginger Chew. He was also wearing short-shorts.
Gulp. Whew. Got it down.
Back to work.
Loop 4 done in 52:01.
Suddenly. I’ve been running around in circles with a big, goofy grin on my face for 3 and a half hours now, talking to deer, choking on Ginger Chews, high-fiving strangers. Also, my butt hurts.
I’m at a low point, but these things come and go, so I just go back to what’s been working: the song in my head, bomb the downhills, focus on the now.
And then, just as quickly as I felt terrible, magically, I feel good again. I feel so good that I don’t even care when John Kiser clips me, leaving me fourth overall, with just 3 miles to go. Dude, you look fantastic! I holler at him as he blazes by (he eventually took 2nd overall). He did look fantastic.
I slam some Coke at the last aid station and put my head down one last time. Song in my head. Bomb the downhills. Focus on the now.
I feel the earth under my feet. I marvel at its touch, its beauty. I smile each time I see one of the M.U.D.D.ers’ clever signs.
I am so happy. This is what makes me truly happy. This land, this Earth. This life, this journey. This is why I’m here.
Loop 5 done in 56:24.
At an event like this, there is no going home right after. I rehydrate, I eat. There’s something delicious here called “Taco Soup” and I’ve eaten two servings. There’s homemade muffins and cookies and cakes. I devour everything in sight.
I change my clothes. I hug anyone who will hug me, including the race director! I call my Mom and Dad and then I sit my sore butt on the ground and cheer on all my friends coming through the finish.
Congratulations to Trey Robinson on the win. That was some spectacular running, my friend.
I won my age division, took 4th place overall and set a 50K trail P.R. of 4:17:55.
I could use a beer. And a nap.
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!
Yes. 7K. Your very non-standard 4.34959835 mile race.
Since my recent 5o mile training has focused mostly on tough, hilly long runs, a short distance race seemed like a nice change of pace. Besides, when well rested, running fast is fun! The 7K distance made it so I would PR no matter what and the Get Lucky! schwag (a kelly green zip-up hoodie) was pretty sweet.
My goal going into the race was to just run hard from the beginning and hold it as long as I could. I wanted to focus on high leg turnover and a smooth cadence throughout. With nearly 800 registrants, I didn’t figure I’d have much of a chance at a top three finish, so the thought never entered my mind.
Until I lined up.
There was a half marathon (The Chicago Get Lucky! 21K) run in conjunction with this race. 20 minutes after the half marathon began, the 7K racers were told to line up.
Wanting to run smooth 6:30s, I got in the 7 minute per mile corral. It was the fastest one next to the one labeled “elite” — one that, astonishingly, no one was standing in. I quickly looked around to see that indeed, I was standing alone, that most people were lined up way behind me. Then there was an athletic looking youngster dressed in green who approached and confidently stood ground next to me. We smiled and said “hi” to one another.
I think both of us knew that we might be in for a special day if we were the only ones in the front of the pack. You could almost see the both of us salivating, sizing each other up. Then along came a Mary Keitany lookalike. I quickly let her in front of me. Just a few minutes before the race was to start, it looked like only the three of us would start out at the front.
Competitive spirit override. Race strategy chucked.
Hell no. If I have a chance to win — AN ACTUAL CHANCE TO WIN — I’m going for it.
The horn blew and we were off, the three of us in front along with a guy dressed like a leprechaun, whom if beaten in the race demanded an ancillary cash prize.
The starting pace was about 6:20. Not too bad. The Mary Keitany lookalike made it appear effortless though, so I immediately figured she was my main competition.
We hit the first turn and boom, there took off the leprechaun and the athletic dude in green. I wouldn’t see them again for a while. Mary Keitany lookalike gave chase, I looked down at my watch to see I was under 6 minute pace and thought, nah, I’m gonna stick with 6:30s. I eased off but kept her in my sights.
For the next 2.5K I slowly reeled her in. But before I did, I looked behind me to see… um… no one! I was way out in front of everyone else, virtually guaranteed a top three finish if I just didn’t crash and burn. I kept a steady pace and it seemed pretty easy. Cruise control.
I caught her on the weird downhill just after the aid station between 3K and 4K. On the Lakeshore Path, it’s the abrupt bridged hill before going under the road, south of Illinois Avenue. I’ve run that part of the path about a bazillion times in my life, so I knew I could fly on the short downward section. I made my move and BLASTED DOWN past her. She didn’t counter, seemingly content with the idea of a 1st female finish rather than 2nd place overall.
Sounded good to me! I kicked it up a notch.
But then I encountered a series of weird, poorly marked turns and… yes, no course marshals. Not long after seeing a 4K mark banner, I came across a mess of oddly grouped orange cones, but no people. The leader and the leprechaun had already started the back portion of the out-and-back-esque course, so I wasn’t sure where the turnaround was. Is it still ahead? Is it here? Oh shit.
I was flying. And starting to panic. I made it about a quarter mile further before I realized there was no one around and I’d definitely gone off course. I stopped, turned, and boom, there was Mary Keitany lookalike. We both threw our arms up in the air. Confused. She said, “that must’ve been the turnaround, back there.” I nodded, said, “Sorry”, and dug deep in a concentrated spurt past her, back to the right spot, back to those oddly grouped, messy orange cones. Back on course.
To my horror I saw: NOW TWO PEOPLE IN FRONT OF ME!
Competitive spirit override. Again. Harder.
DIG DEEP. Vrrrrrroooom.
Zoomed by the first guy, unsuspecting. Clearly, he did not care. “Good job, buddy!” he yelled. Thumbs up, I gave. Head down.
The second guy in front of me was moving slow. I knew I’d catch him. “Lookin’ good”, he said. Thanks, bro! I passed. I focused further down the line on… the bike!
The leader and leprechaun were too far ahead to be seen, so course marshals (who magically appeared after my detour) responded by sending a bike out to lead second place. At the 5K mark, that was me. I wasn’t even looking at my watch now. I could care less about my time. All I wanted to do was finish strong with nothing less than second place. I was content with that.
Until I saw the leprechaun in my sights with 1 kilometer to go.
Did not think about it. Just dug in and told my legs to catch him. I turned off my mind and let instinct kick in. I was surprised at how easy it seemed. I passed him on the first of a couple sharp right turns in the last half kilometer, got a huge buzz from the cowbell-ringing, shamrock-clad crowd who came out in strong numbers cheering and clapping. I slowed a little, soaked it in. Crossed the finish fist pumping with a smile. I was handed a medal and a mug with CASH MONEY in it from beating the leprechaun. I’m told a top three finisher prize will be in the mail.
I’ve said it before, but it’s still true so I will keep saying it: I’ll never take a pitch in the big leagues, or drive the lane in the NBA. The NFL will never see my touchdown dance. But today I ran the Chicago Get Lucky! 7K race and finished 2nd out of 797 competitors, and for that I’m claiming baller status.
Running around a snowy 2.28 mile loop course for six straight hours against a relentlessly swirling 30 mph wind on a Saturday in January with about 50 or so other running fanatics is truly one of the most enjoyable activities I’ve ever participated in.
And I ain’t speakin’ in absolutes just to be speakin’ in absolutes.
I mean it. I had a blast!
Chicagoland’s New Leaf Ultra Runs ultrarunning club has been a key component in my successful transition past 26.2 miles and into distances that would cause the casual 5K runner to pick his jaw up off the floor. With several 50Ks under my belt and having just set a marathon PR, my focus turns to completing my first 50 mile race, the Ice Age Trail 50 in May. So a six hour fun run couldn’t have been more timely!
The Windburn Six fat ass event — a run that I’d been gazing at on the calendar with a heightened sense of anticipation for many weeks prior — gave me a good idea of where I am physically, but, more importantly, it also gave me a good idea of where I’m about to go, how far I’ll have to dig, and a titillating glimpse at the raw me still yet to be fully discovered.
For me, that’s what running is all about: self-discovery. And during the Windburn Six I discovered the following:
- Ultrarunners are the kindest, most genuine, most non-judgmental people on the planet. Unlike the road racing community, no one is there to size you up, to “beat” you, to make you look stupid. Everyone’s on your team, raring to support you and one can never get enough of that. Your success is the community’s success. And the collective spirit generated from this worldview is as contagious as it is electrifying.
- When it comes to running for six hours, snow ain’t a thing, but sunglasses would’ve been a smart idea. I spent the rest of my day doing my best Gizmo impression: Bright Light! Bright Light!
- The joy that comes from suffering can often be the sweetest, most everlasting kind. It’s the kind that reminds you I’M ALIVE! The longer we ran in circles, the happier we all seemed. The volume and intensity of smiles and thumbs-ups and high-fives increased with each hour that passed. Sure my legs were feeling a bit heavy with only an hour to go, but I ran faster and stronger in that last hour than I did the previous five because the group mind was willing me to perform!
- After several bundled up hours of running, nothing tastes quite as good as homemade chicken noodle soup!
- Singing on the trail is not only allowed: IT’S ENCOURAGED! I got to hear a couple of sweet tunes sung by some very happy ultrarunners and they definitely served as highlights of the day.
- If you’re feeling tired but want to go as fast as possible without it feeling bad, run with Tony Cesario for a mile or so. I did towards the end of the run and boy did he bring my legs back to life! I didn’t know they could do that!
- I get sick of gels after a couple hours, so eating just a little bit of real food often seems to keep my engine running!
- When you run on an exposed, markerless and snow covered loop over and over again, it’s hard to gauge exactly where you are at any given time. The only thing I could be sure of during the run was that I was indeed running. This put my mind exactly where I wanted it to be: totally immersed in the run. When everything else (negativity, self-doubt, reservations) was put aside, true introspection began to flourish. I was pleasantly surprised at what my mind thinks I’m capable of doing and I look forward to following it further.
- No one will make fun of you if you decide to FLY down the downhills like a little kid, arms waving, battle cry roaring all the way.
- At the zenith of any strenuous exercise, Oreo cookies are the bomb!!!
- Running is the perfect ice breaker. I met a bunch of cool people whom I had never met before and the communitas born of our shared experience serves as a special bond.
Most of all, I discovered what I already knew to be even more true: running long boosts my serotonin levels and fills me with satisfaction. And running long with like-minded, friendly folks sends me to the proverbial moon of happiness.
Total distance covered for the six hour run was 31.64 miles.
*Special thanks to Brian and Kelly for their impeccable organization skills and also to those who didn’t run but who were manning the aid station, eager to lend a helping hand. It’s people like you who make ours a paragon of the running community!
–Anonymous, quoted by Rachel Toor, Running Times, Feb/Mar ’12
Nothing beats the pure satisfaction of setting a high goal, working hard to reach it, then kicking some serious asphalt ass. On Sunday, January 15th, 2012 — one of the single greatest days of my life — I put the exclamation mark on all of the above. As a result, the Houston Marathon will be running on a forever-loop in my mind.
After clocking a 3:20:49 finish at the Chicago Marathon in October, on an unseasonably warm day in my first legitimately speedy attempt (read: not running to just finish) at the distance that killed Pheidippides, I realized that the potential for logging a 3:15 was probably there if I was willing to work for it.
I know that every runner has his or her own personal reason for running these stupid long distances; one of mine just happens to be an incurable curiosity to see exactly what my body is capable of doing.
So with 12 weeks to prepare, I upped my mileage, learned to love the tempo run and swallowed intervals in massively uncomfortable gulps. I was gonna run 3:15 in Houston. No doubt.
My dad lives in a Houston suburb and I knew having him along for my PR attempt was going to be a plus. I blame him for my running addiction (he’s been running his whole life) so I felt it fitting that I try to go faster than I’ve ever gone before right in his back yard. If I blew up and looked stupid, at least he would be there to make me feel better. Dad has been my strongest supporter in everything I set out to do, and I know that for him, watching my transformation over the last few years from an unhealthy smoker to fit distance runner has been something he’s taken a bit of pride in.
I wanted to continue that streak.
When I told him goodbye and entered the starting corral, it was dark and chilly. I gave him a hug, walked inside the gates and tried to quell the butterflies in my stomach by jumping up and down for a bit. I can’t help but get nervous for all the mega races, but this one in particular, where I was attempting to run at least a solid 7:25 pace for the entire 26.2 miles gave me a few more jitters because it was something I hadn’t ever done before. Tempo runs from 6:30 to 7:00 pace were common, as were even faster intervals, but to string it all together — without stopping and despite all the intangibles — sorta freaked me out.
But then the gun went off and no more thinking. Just run.
The weather was perfect — mid 40s at the start and dry. As we runners crossed the start line, I couldn’t help but find some bit of peace in the relative quiet of the first overpass (Houston’s course has a lot of them). Contrary to the loud and fiery start of Chicago, Houston’s first few miles were virtually spectatorless and serene. The only noise I could hear was the orchestra of feet pounding the pavement. Before I knew it, I was already at 5K.
I went out a little fast — around 7:15 for the first three miles, but I felt okay — or rather, I didn’t feel awful. In fact, this would be the physical theme of the race. I never felt “good”. In other races or training runs I have felt good, like “I FEEL GREAT!”, but in Houston, that would not be the case. I had several bouts of feeling gross, feeling leg-heavy, just feeling blah. But through the first 5 miles I was still hitting 7:15 splits on the dot and feeling fine enough to keep going.
So I did.
My right piriformis was achey. Stop, it would say. Shut up, I would reply. Kept on going.
The crowd started to pick up and the song in my head (M83’s “Midnight City”) continued to get louder so I wasn’t able to hear myself think (was I even thinking?) about what exactly I was doing, but I was cruising right along. Drinking on the run. Gelling on the run. High-fivin’ folks on the run. Through 10 miles I looked down at my watch and noticed I’d built a nice, comfortable 2-minute cushion under a 3:15 finish pace. If I kept that up I was going to beat my goal and then some!
Of course, I wasn’t naive enough to think I was going to keep up at that pace without issue. I was already beginning to feel quite fatigued and I knew I had a long way to go. But before I could really worry about any of that, I reached the halfway mark and my pea-sized bladder decided to bring me back down to earth.
I’d been holding it, but holding it for 13 more miles could mean disaster. So for the first time in an hour and thirty-four minutes, I stopped. To take a leak.
Maybe it was the leak that saved me, because after that 30 second break, I surged out of the port-a-john with a renewed sense of purpose. I’m gonna PR by at least five minutes today, I told myself. I have some cushion. I don’t have to kill myself. Just keep running. And enjoy it.
So I did. I took pleasure in knowing I was in the middle of a 26-mile journey, that I was covering more ground in one day on my feet than most people do in a week, that I was being treated to the honor of running in one of the country’s biggest cities, without traffic, in the middle of the street. I noticed my surroundings, the beautiful buildings all around, the kind folks cheering me on, making me smile with goofy signs, handing me Gatorade.
I sucked in the air. I looked up into the blue sky. I smiled knowing that this was an honor, and I was doing some pretty seriously honorable shit.
Running does that for me. It gets me high on BEING ALIVE.
I slowed up a little, not as a sign of retreat, but rather as a tip of the cap to the sport. I wanted to be sure that I finished with enough juice to get to the end strong. So I knocked it down to about a 7:25 pace and decided to keep it there until I got to Mile 20. From there I’d see how I felt.
From my research on the course, I learned that the biggest physical obstacle it had to offer was the big overpass hill at Mile 14. I knew it was coming so mentally, I was prepared for it. I made sure to hit the aid station at the bottom of the hill pretty good before charging up and over. I found a guy who looked a little stronger than me and tucked into his wind blockage as we went up. He flew and I just hung on.
On the down hill, I flew by him. We did this dance with each other a couple times throughout the second half of the race. It was pretty cool and we both knew it. I eventually passed him for good in the last mile.
But before I got that far, I had to get to Mile 20, and when I did, reality hit. I wasn’t feeling so hot. My stomach was acting weird. My bowels were messing with me. Another six miles of hard racing looked a bit intimidating, especially after I realized I’d given back those two minutes now. I was gonna have to kick it hard to the end at some point if I wanted 3:15. I took an extra gel, took two Gatorades, a water and then I doused my body in more water.
A few minutes later, I was fine.
This happened a couple of times. I felt bad at Mile 22 and again at Mile 24, but I bounced back quickly each time.
To me, that’s what the marathon is: just see if you can go 20 miles before you have to really crawl into your own head and see what’s in there. Those last six miles had me battling myself, over and over. Take it easy, dude. You’ve come this far. It’s all good. Just relax, while the other guy is saying: No! Don’t stop now. GO!!! You’re gonna feel so good for so long if you just do this!!!
This is gonna sound stupid but it’s true. With about a mile and a half to go they had the Rocky theme song blaring on the loudspeakers. And it worked. I picked it up. I started to move.
I zipped by one, two, three, four-five-six, seven… more. The streets were all so full of carnage, people blowing up and walking and sitting on their butts. I heard a guy blazing in front of me tell his buddy: “From this exact spot we are one mile away. Let’s do this.”
And boom. They were off.
I chased them.
They were faster than me but I got to the last section where the crowd was fantastic and the last few minutes were run on someone else’s legs. I guy in a Luke’s Locker singlet, actually. Dude reeled me in and I thanked him for it at the finish.
When I crossed that line and saw 3:15:19 on my watch I tried to scream victory but nothing came out. I’d given it all I had. And some tears fell out of my face.
Now, the vitals:
The course was flat and fast with easy hills that can really be utilized for speed on the down sections. I think being prepared for this was helpful to me in the first half because I was able to get some early speed and build a cushion. There aren’t many turns. It was well marked, accurate with my readings. The big hill is at Mile 14 and then Miles 21-24 are all downhill (which is awesome!!!). In the last couple miles there are some smaller ones too.
The crowd was awesome. While not the size of those in Chicago (which are the best I’ve ever experienced), they were very vocal. I can’t tell you how many kind people read my name on my bib and encouraged me in a very genuine manner. Hearing your name all throughout the race, for me, is a HUGE help in staying in the moment and remembering why you are actually there.
Aid stations were well stocked and the volunteers were stupendous. They were such kind people. Southern comfort definitely has its place in a mega race.
But for me, the 2012 Houston Marathon will always be about learning that even when I don’t feel good, I know I’m still capable of doing wonderful things.
Thanksgiving and running go together like baseball and hot dogs. And while most people enjoy the casual Turkey Trot 5K as a way to compensate for the inevitable overeating, my own brand of gluttony requires a much longer distance. Enter the Schaumburg Half Marathon — a fun (and growing) event out in the ‘burbs that makes it okay to eat an entire pie (or two) and not feel guilty about it.
I ran this race last year and had a fantastic time. I even set what was then a P.R., so I was hoping I might be able to run my way to another speedy finish, if the setting was right.
The morning was chilly (low 40s) and overcast with a chance of rain, that would later come about halfway through my race in the form of a heavy, annoying mist. Besides having logged a 50K fun run just seven days before, I thought my legs could still get me a sub 1:34 time, which would be a personal best. All through this latest training cycle, I have been routinely plugging away 6:50 to 7:15 miles, so I thought doing something special was not outside reality.
In fact, prior to the start, I forced the issue by lining up with the 1:30 pace group, intent on hanging with them as long as I could. A quick look around the group and it was obvious I was the odd man out. Sure I had on all the right gear and the demeanor of one sure-as-hell determined son of a bitch, but my 5’8 frame — which is somewhat hobbled by a muscular build (something I’ve been unwilling to abandon thus far) — wasn’t nearly as lean and speedy looking as all the rest.
I didn’t care. Just stick with the group. For as long as you can. That’s what I told myself.
And then we were off…
Mile 1. Check. Mile 2. Awesome. Mile 3. Damn! We’re running a 6:15 pace! Mile 4. Look, Mom! I’m hangin’ with the big boys! Mile 5. Oh shit.
That’s all it took. Five miles and I was blowing up.
How do I describe the feeling? For me, it was sorta like back in my partying days, where I’d be straddling the line of being super drunk and having a blast to being super drunk and feeling like death. Without much warning, I went from great to awful.
I had to pull up. I kept running, but it turned into a slog. I looked down at my Garmin:
8:45 pace… 8:55 pace… 9:20 pace…
Bleh. Well, now you know what that feels like, Jeff. Let’s just finish the run. You only have 8 miles to go (HAHA!) and feeling bad isn’t the end of the world.
And suddenly, I didn’t feel that bad anymore. I took a gel, cranked the legs back up to a comfortable 7:30 pace and moved on, reflecting on how my body felt despite what I had just put it through.
Mile 6. Mile 7. Mile 8. I was smiling again and high fiving folks on the out-and-back sections.
Mile 9. Mile 10. Mile 11. I’m gonna finish this in 1:36 and change.
Mile 12. Mile 13. And we’re done. And I’m freezing!!!
I finished in 1:36:30, a pretty decent time for me but not close to what I’m capable of. Doesn’t matter though, because for me, running isn’t always about the time on the clock at the end; it’s about what it does to me as a human being — how it makes me feel, how it makes me a part of something, how it makes me grow.
The people who organize this race are extremely friendly and accommodating, the aid stations were well placed, and the medal/schwag were all worth the entry fee. But for some reason they changed the course from last year’s and the last five miles put runners through one hell of a clusterfuck as the walking 5k’ers got in the way of the finishing half-marathoners (I can only imagine the traffic horrors the elite runners faced as they were trying to run the gauntlet of 5K participants in their way), but I’m sure race management will fix that for future events.
Barring any turkey over-consumption issues, I will be back in 2012.
…And there was Dad, slowly plodding up the trail to greet me.
I was close to the halfway mark of the Rocky Raccoon 50K and the sun was really shining now. My arm warmers and skull cap were soggy messes when I ripped them off and handed them to him. I slowed to a walk so I could talk to him for a second.
“How do you feel?” he asked.
“I feel great!”
I did feel great. It was my first ultra distance race and all of the anxiety that normally comes with a big event (will I get that PR? will my stomach act up? will I have to stop and pee fifty times?) were nonexistent. I was just out there having a good time. That was my one and only goal going into it.
“Everyone’s so nice and friendly, Dad.”
“Yeah, well, that’s what people who run these types of races are like. They’re nice.”
When the race started it was cold and pitch black. I had a headlamp and a handheld flashlight to light my way, but this would also mark the first time I had really done any significant running in the dark.
The Rocky Raccoon course isn’t much in the way of elevation gain, but it is one rooty minefield, so I had no choice but to go gingerly slow until dawn broke. What I wasn’t prepared for was how running in the dark would alter my sense of time. When I finally glanced at my watch, I expected to see something like 10 or 11 minutes gone by, instead, I saw that I’d been running for 30 minutes!
And that would set the tone for the rest of the day. Big lush green forest with rolling trail, charming wooden bridges and the occasional calming lake or pond greeted me all throughout, muting any allegiance to time. I couldn’t stop smiling. I was just so… happy. I was so happy to be there in Texas, close to my dad, experiencing the 50K distance for the first time in such a welcoming environment.
So when Dad was there waiting for me close to the halfway mark to check how I was doing and switch me out some dry clothes, I knew the rest of the day was just going to be icing on top of icing.
Yeah, my glutes seized up on me a few times, but all I had to do was stop and stretch for a couple seconds and I was back at it. And yes, I did have a brief stomach scare around 3 and a half hours, but it wasn’t anything a Ginger Chew couldn’t cure.
Nothing could keep me down. Running that race and meeting the people I met and watching the landscape change from pitch black cold to warm, bright and inviting was an honor and a pleasure.
The hug I got from my dad once I sprinted through the finish line…