I am new to the sport of ultrarunning. I ran a 50K (31 miles) last fall on Chicago’s Lakefront, but aside from the distance, the race lacked the challenge of a trail ultramarathon. As simple as that sounds, I had to discover it myself. I love running on trails though I fear rolling or spraining an ankle. That in itself is somewhat funny given that there are hazards on the trail far greater than an ankle sprain, including falling, insect bites, and wild animals — but fear of rolling an ankle consumes me. I think about it on daily runs and, as a consequence, often look at the ground while running as I try to spot tree roots or holes. I should add here that I do most of my running in a flat suburban setting and mostly run on the parkway grass (the strip between the sidewalk and the street). I believe that running on grass is both softer and a way to strengthen my ankles to give me protection against rolling them and to give me an edge on trails. I am rethinking that now.
I circled May 9 on my calendar nearly a year ago as my spring race for 2015. The first real hurdle for the Ice Age 50K – run annually in the Kettle Moraine State Forest, South Unit – is getting a spot in the race. Back in December 2014, on the day registration went live, the servers the race uses choked on the volume of people trying to register. Would-be participants (me included) feverishly emailed the race director and lit up the race Facebook page as we feared being shut out. That struggle was temporary and I secured my spot in the race. My visions of myself as a trail ultra marathoner now had a date, a venue, and a six month window in which to prepare.
As I often do, I feel I should jump ahead to the end of the story and then grind through the details. I can now call myself a trail ultra marathoner. It took me five hours and thirty-eight minutes to run the thirty-one miles, but, I did cross the finish line on my feet and my name appears in the results as 60th of 195 finishers and sixth in my age group of 31 finishers (read on).
My winter’s worth of training seemed lighter than in past years, but when I totalled my log a couple weeks ago, I had run nearly as many miles as I did in 2014 to prepare for Boston. Reflecting back on the disaster that Boston was last year, I should have recognized that my fitness was inadequate. I did more hill work than I typically do in the winter knowing that Ice Age would be hilly (but only on a vague recollection of mountain biking in Kettle Moraine in the late 1990s). I think I crossed my wires a bit when I was in Portland, OR in early April and ran for an hour or so on back to back days in Forest Park. The hills were intense and I ran up and down them with only minor difficulty. I also confused the butter smooth Forest Park trails for the glacial detritus that is the Ice Age Trail (lesson learned: all trails are not the same).
I planned to finish training with a two week taper given my history of missing an entire week of training every time I taper for three weeks. The interesting sidenote to that is I still missed a week (race week) and once again turned it into a fire drill for my chiropractor. Two weeks prior to the race, I ran a 16 miler with some hill repeats. On a flat section, about 3.5 miles from home, I stepped on some uneven ground and very slightly rolled my right ankle. It scared me a bit, but I barely broke stride and I completed the run pain free. The next few days were similarly pain free, but by mid-week the ankle had tightened a bit and my foot was flopping as I started runs. It wasn’t particularly painful, so I mostly ignored it. By Friday of that week (one week prior to Ice Age), my right foot really hurt. I submerged the foot in icy water a couple times and took some Vitamin I (the fun name for Ibuprofen – something I try hard to avoid). One week out, I did a 9 mile trail run and the foot hurt most of the way. I started to panic. I took the next couple days off, iced more, and took Ibuprofen twice a day. I saw my chiropractor on Wednesday (3 days out) and he did active release techniques on my right quad and gave me a mix of strengthening and mobilization exercises to do. By Thursday, it was pretty clear that I needed more help or I wasn’t going to make it to the starting line.
On Friday (the day before the race), I found myself face down on my chiropractor’s table with needles in my calf and electrical stimulation pulsing through my calf muscle. The pain in my ankle and right foot were very present when I left his office, but I had resolved to run the race (isn’t that what most runners do? pay for a bib and your brains go out the window). I figured if push came to shove, I could run the first section of the race (about 13 miles) and then drop out.
4:45 AM Saturday morning came and I was out the door with coffee and the aforementioned resolve. Ninety minutes later, I passed the LaGrange General Store (which I recommend – they serve Colectivo Coffee) and then hunted for a parking spot near the start/finish line of the race. I walked gingerly to the packet pick-up area not quite knowing what to expect from my foot. As I walked, I passed cars with license plates like “Ultra,” “100 miles” and some variation on ultra runner without vowels. I saw runners of all shapes and sizes wearing trail gear I had only read about but never seen in person (like most runners, I am a bit of gear nerd and love to see it all in action).
Fast forward to 8:15 AM and the starter counted backwards from 5, said go, and then we (a group of 195 runners) surged forward and the race was on. I was surprised and excited to find that my foot felt the best it had felt in 8 or 9 days as I took those first few steps into the forest. Ten minutes later, I heard someone’s GPS watch beep and knew we had run a mile (I shun high tech watches and was actually wearing a little kid Timex watch that I kept on clock time throughout the race). I gave some thought to my foot and ankle as the trail narrowed to single track and was excited that things were going so well (only 30 miles to go). My excitement wore off pretty quickly as we started to climb the first hill and I experienced first hand the bizarre ultra approach to hills – power hiking. I have always been a strong climber and found myself moving pretty quickly up the hills (I paid for this later). My weakness is running downhills. I can usually open up my stride on a road course, but found that between my general squeamishness to downhill trail running and my ankle soreness, I took it easy heading down the hills. This became a running joke (pun not intended) between me and two other runners who seemed to bomb down the hills but struggle going up. It was “see you later” and “oh, you again” for the first two hours of the race.
An hour or so in, as we descended one of the singletrack hills, I landed on a rock-turned-fulcrum that cranked my tender right ankle something close to 90 degrees. I screamed out a fairly profanity laden yell just loud enough that other runners gave me the quick “was that you screaming?” and “are you ok?”. I stopped briefly and rotated the ankle a bit. It hurt, but not more than it had at the start. Another runner ran by and reminded me that my choices were to keep going or keep going. So, I kept going. Quitting a race is something runners think about often, but discuss rarely. I have DNF’d (did not finish) exactly one race in over 30 years of running – the 2001 Chicago Marathon. I dropped out because of an upper respiratory infection that left me feeling lightheaded and unable to continue. More typical, is to take an assessment of the situation and figure out a way to keep running. Runners run and often it isn’t more complicated than that.
I got back into a rhythm and then we descended a couple more hills, crossed a road and had maybe 5 more miles to get us back to the Start/Finish aid station and the start of the “real” race, the double nine mile loop on the Nordic Trail. I was feeling pretty good as we cruised into the aid station. I followed the pro-tip I had read before the race of removing the lid of my hand held water bottle before I got to the aid station. I was rewarded for my planning by a smiling volunteer who quickly filled my empty bottle and sent me on my way. Another volunteer told me I was “halfway there” which quickly got me thinking I had run over 15 miles, when I knew that couldn’t be true. Know the course and don’t let people confuse you as to how much time or distance remains. This can really cause problems later.
The “final” 18 miles of the race was a double loop on the Nordic trail. This loop lacks the technical aspects of the Ice Age Trail, but has its own tortuous charm. It starts out deceptively flat on double track that meanders through the woods with 50+ foot pines on either side. While beautiful, these trees created a tunnel-like effect that played tricks on my very depleted body and mind. The initial nature hike feel quickly gives way to hills that constantly roll. They seemed initially runnable and I gave it a go as I was in a bit of no man’s land at this point with no other runners I could key off. Pretty quickly thereafter, I started to see runners in ones and twos and walking the hills seemed to be what most were doing. From the start/finish to the first aid station on this loop, it was about 5 miles. I rolled into the aid station with my bottle lid in hand and a massive craving for something to get my engine restarted. I handed my bottle to an aid station volunteer and begin furiously devouring navel orange quarters like a little kid at halftime of a park district soccer game. As I ate, I looked longingly at a sign, much like a “last gas for 50 miles” highway sign, that told me that the next aid station was in 1.9 miles. This was an encouraging guidepost in a race that lacks the mile markers of a road race. This sign would be a virtual lifeline for me on the second go round of the double loop and keep me going when I didn’t feel much like running.
The next 5 miles were a mix of shuffle, jog, and fast paced walked up the steeper hills. The pain in my right ankle and foot was now pulsing with the regularity of one of those road closure sawhorses. The surge of pain was coming at predictable intervals. A few miles later, I crested what in 9 miles would be the final hill of the race and took it at a power hike that lacked power. I came around a curve and spied the Finish line, though it wasn’t for me just now and answered to a chorus of helpful volunteers directing me to the left of the Finish line to the aid station and the second time around. I made a quick stop, refilled my bottle and chugged an entire cup of Coke and two cups of water. I then launched into an internal debate where one side screamed (in my head) “you’ve run 22 miles on a bad ankle, call it a day” and the other side argued (persuasively, as it would turn out) that the race was 31 miles, I was still on my feet and, my long held belief that no one will listen to a DNF story that doesn’t involve an actual physical injury (blood, IV, broken bones, that sort of thing).
The finish line was 9 miles away and having run the first loop, I knew what to expect from the remainder of the course. My thought was get as much ground covered as quickly as possible after leaving the aid station and that worked, to a point. I figured I was running ten or eleven minute miles at that point when I did no walking. I ran alone for a while and looked up at the pine trees and thought about the now ridiculous goals I had brought into the race. My goals seemed so simply put and at least some of them seemed achievable. Coming in, I had an absolute stretch goal of breaking four hours. I chuckled reflecting on that now. The winner (who would pass me in a few miles just after I took a natural break on the trail) would run 3:43 or so and be lauded for his fast time. I don’t think I could ever break 4 hours on that course. Next up was my break the 50-59 course record of 4:28. From the comfort of my desk, staring at that time on a screen, it seemed like something I could do (after all, I ran 4:32 or so at the Lakefront 50K and that had a 20+ MPH headwind. Wouldn’t wind convert to hills? It did not). Thinking about that now when the math had me way above 5 hours made me a little sad and started me on the phrase “grossly underestimated.” I was thinking I had grossly underestimated the course and how hard the race would be. The funny thing was I could have run the course in an organized training run two weeks before the race. I thought about that now too and wondered if that would have made things better (knowing what to expect) or worse (knowing what to expect).
Not long after that, a runner pulled up alongside me and we talked for a while. I tried out my grossly underestimated phrase with him and we discussed how hard the race was (the humidity was having its way with me and my nearly always empty water bottle). He told me he was running the 50K as a training run for his upcoming seventh 100 mile race. Shortly after we spoke, my running slowed to a trudge and 100 mile guy disappeared around a pine-lined curve. I never saw him again.
I passed a couple runners who were walking in places that seemed runnable and we spoke briefly. They told me they were on the first loop and they wished me well and said I was doing great. I didn’t feel great and then I was greeted by a series of hills. I slowed to a walk and had the thought “I remember you.” One set of hills yielded to a beautiful open field sliced by the trail down the middle. It reminded me of a Midwestern version of the poppy field in Wizard of Oz – I felt equally sleepy. Soon enough I reached the next aid station. I was cheered by this because I knew that no matter what, I would cross the finish line. I filled my bottle, ate an orange and shuffled away.
Back to my goals, and I really only had two left. One was run well and have a good time. Heavy sigh, I hadn’t even come close to that goal. I wasn’t having much fun and I couldn’t think of why. My final goal, the obvious goal, was to cross the finish line. As I thought about that, I saw the final aid station off in the distance. I wanted to run there, but found I really couldn’t. I was exhausted, my ankle was really hurting, and my feet really hurt. I stopped at the aid station and found that even though I was less than two miles from the finish, I wanted to eat. I ate part of a banana and grabbed a few potato chips. The chips were terrible. I thanked the volunteers (I always do and think it’s so awesome that people volunteer) and then turned my sights to finishing.
Fifteen or twenty minutes later, a spectator (there weren’t many), told me you could hear the finish line cheering, and I did hear it. I started to pick up the pace and passed two runners and then broke into something of a sprint. I came down a short hill, made the final turn, and saw the finish clock ticking off the time. Five hours thirty-eight minutes and change. I couldn’t believe I had been running that long. I pumped my fists as I ran under the Finish banner and then asked where I could get water. I had done it. I finished my first trail ultra marathon.