Once More Around the Block, and The Best Pacer Ever: 12 Hours at Dogwood

I clambered up a long, steady rise out of the trees onto a wide field of grass and sand. Up ahead I would cross a road and descend back onto the woods for the final part of the loop. The sky was dimming and a cold breeze had started up

“You’re doing GREAT!” a woman’s voice shouted.

I looked around but saw no one. Was I hearing things? I was over eleven hours into the Dogwood 12-Hour race, and the way I was feeling right then, anything was possible. I was giving all I had to get through this final loop and hold onto third place.

Then someone burst out of the trees behind me. . .

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The Dogwood is in the category of races measured by a fixed time, rather than a fixed distance. The most well-known is the 24-hour race, but there are shorter and faster varieties including 48 hours and even 72 hours.

These events usually take place on a short loop of road (such as one mile) or on a running track. Results are tracked by loops completed. Advantages include always having gear and refreshments close at hand, and relay team planning is simple, since each exchange takes place at the same point. Disadvantages include – well, sheer monotony – which is why I’d never run one. I like a variety of views and terrain in my ultras.

The Dogwood, however, caught my eye. I wanted an ultra around the end of March and the loop was on trail and decently long (3.4 miles). And it was in Virginia, meaning warmer weather and near where my daughter Tori lives. She even accepted my offer to pace me for a loop. Win!

I showed up at Twin Lakes State Park at 6:30 a.m. and was joined by a couple of relay teams and around 30 fellow solo runners suffering from the same condition – namely, that we find running all day something to look forward to.

I’d set a goal of 15 loops (50 miles) with an average 40 minutes per loop, which on paper would take ten hours. I would use the two remaining hours as cushion. Any extra loops would be gravy, and perhaps just enough to get into the top five.

Off we go.

We set off at 7:15, just as the sun was coming up over Godwin Lake. We ran along the shore for a bit, then up a gravel road and onto singletrack along rolling hills with a few long climbs and some fast downhills. There were a couple of stream crossings, which required nimble steps on the rocks to keep feet dry. Up to a road crossing, then back into the woods, one rooty section, then a final climb to the main park road for a downhill sprint to the finish. Quick stop at the aid station, then back out again.

I ran the first two loops with a nice chap named Alex. The morning was sunny and cool with soft, dry trail, absolutely perfect conditions for a race. My steps were light and easy, and the loops flew by. I lost track of him after that, and settled into running alone, maintaining an aggressive but sustainable pace.

Just as with the Land Between the Lakes 50, I felt terrific for the first third of the race. After five loops I was ahead of my goal pace. But I was beginning to feel subtle hints that things were going to get tougher. My legs were starting to complain on the downhills, and the bottoms of my heels were developing hot spots. I taped them more thoroughly and hoped for the best.

Finishing up an early loop.

My loop times began to slip, but I held onto the 40-minute average until loop 12, at which time I was told I was in second place! Perhaps I’d have been better off not knowing, because I struggled on loop 13, with my slowest time by far. My mind began suggesting that fifteen loops would be quite enough, thank you, regardless of any extra time. Breaking through that mental wall would take some effort, but I’d deal with that if and when I got there.

At the aid station, I met up with Alex again. Turned out he was the leader, one full loop ahead of me. He offered me his company for the next loop, and I set off with renewed energy. Unfortunately, the third-place runner (Corey) had also picked it up, and at the top of the gravel road he caught up to us. Both he and Alex were feeling stronger than I was, and on the trail they politely excused themselves and took off. Well, then, third place would have to do.

Trail runners are the best. They’ll smile and praise your effort while they blow your doors off.

Then, as I finished loop 14, there was Tori, all set to pace me for a loop. And so we ran loop 15 together. She’s a stronger hiker than a runner, but she gamely pushed through it. My one worry was that whoever was in fourth place would catch up. And about two-thirds of the way through the loop, someone ran by at a steady, deliberate speed.

Well, nuts. But what did it matter? A run with my daughter meant far more to me than a podium finish. And after this loop, with my 50 miles logged, I could quit! The clock read 10:30 as we came in. 90 minutes left, but with thoroughly fatigued legs and burning feet, I was happy to call it a race.

Just to be sure I wasn’t in podium contention, I checked with the scorer, who shook his head. “That guy who passed you is two loops behind,” he said. “You’re still in third.”

“So…I suppose I should get back out there,” I said, trying to sound upbeat about it. He agreed. “You’re looking strong!” Perhaps he was being kind, or perhaps I looked better than I felt, but he wasn’t helping me quit. Just one more, I promised myself. Just one more.

I pushed aside the physical and mental exhaustion and walked onto the sidewalk along the beach. Then, as with the previous fifteen loops, I began a slow jog. Final loop started; now just finish it.

I start one of the later loops. Photo courtesy of Dan’s wife, Luce( sp?).

By the clock I had plenty of time, but I still had no idea where the fourth-place runner was. So I ran it scared, at as quick a pace as I could muster. If I had to run this final lap when I’d already mentally checked out, then dammit, I needed something to show for it!

Then, more than halfway though, I heard the voice from nowhere. And as I crossed the road, ready to let it go as a mystery, someone came out of the rise and ran toward me. Fast. Smiling.

*************

He was a kid, perhaps ten years old. Behind him came a woman I assumed to be his mother. Obviously her shout had been meant for him, not me. Such was my mental state that I checked them for race bibs! Seeing none, I finally relaxed and focused on just getting through the remaining mile. Loop 16 and 54.5 miles completed in 11 hours, 23 minutes. Fourth place was 14 loops. I needn’t have worried.

Podium: Me with Alex (left) and Corey (right), who are helping keep me vertical.

The bonk hit me fast and hard as soon as I’d finished. Sitting didn’t help, so I lay on the ground. Alex and Corey, bless them, looked after me and helped me stand back up at awards time. For my third-place finish I got a bottle of Tiramisu Stout. Tori and I split it. She helped, after all.

Best pacer ever!

This was a small race but really well run and a lot of fun. More people should do this one; it’s a hidden gem among ultras. Dan, the race director, is hoping to turn it into a 24-hour race in the future, which may well make it more visible and popular. I hope so.

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If I Can’t Run Your Race, I’ll Make My Own: Ann Arbor Half Marathon

SUPPOSE YOU AND A BUNCH OF YOUR FRIENDS want to run a local marathon, and you sign up for it well in advance. But then the marathon reschedules, and you won’t be in town on the new date.

What would you do?

Well, if you’re this guy here, you create your own race and hold it on the original date.

Meet Troy, who conceived, designed, and conducted the Ann Arbor Trail Half Marathon at Bird Hills Nature Area today. The Ann Arbor Marathon, which was also originally scheduled for today, moved to May this year. Troy’s race wasn’t quite the same, of course. It was on trails instead of road, had no registration, fees, race bibs, or swag, and post-race festivities consisted of music streamed over a phone, and hot cocoa and cookies.

It was a blast.

Bird Hills Nature Area is a hidden gem in the north of Ann Arbor whose trails run through a mix of hilly forest and flat prairie. Troy mapped out a 13.1 mile route and marked it better than many professional trail races, even including distances on his turn arrows. My rough estimate is that about 40 runners braved a cold morning with bitter wind to run the course.

The runners take off into the woods.

My experience was mixed. I’m still recovering from the Land Between the Lakes 50-miler two weeks ago, and that combined with my Saturday club run meant my legs just weren’t all there. So I turned back early for a total of ten miles. It was a good reminder that just perhaps, I’m not (completely) indestructible. I really enjoyed the course, though, and the sunny day, and giving lots of free advice to a young lady (leftmost in photo below) running her first ultra at Trail Marathon Weekend next month.

And my free advice is worth every penny.

Afterward, I asked Troy what his motivation was for creating the trail half. He’s a member of the U-M Triathlon Club, and a bunch of them were looking forward to running the Ann Arbor Marathon. But its new date of May 20 is after the end of the semester, and he’s graduating and moving out of state. So this was how he coped. What a great example of taking lemons and making lemonade.

I don’t blame the marathon organizers for moving the date. The March races have been cold the last several years, and today would have been another miserable experience for race volunteers and spectators. And even while running, it took about three miles for me to thaw out completely. It’s a shame that a May date means many students can’t be part of the marathon, but you can’t satisfy everyone.

So thanks, Troy, for putting this together. It was my pleasure to supply some coffee and to make sure it was a Zero Waste event.

You’d grin like this, too, if you got a gift card for pizza. Yes, you would. Admit it.

P.S. Oh, and where is Troy moving? To San Luis Obispo, which happens to be the site of this year’s U.S. Trail Running Conference, and the home of Race SLO, which puts on some very popular marathons and ultras. I think his running future will be well served there!

Taking Some Self

My first ultra of the year is just a couple of days away, and I’m training for it in the most sensible manner – resting up and eating a lot.

This is not as easy as it sounds.

Having trained hard all winter, it seems unnatural to hit the brakes, even when it’s logical and my body is telling me I need the rest. My coach set me straight. “The hay’s in the barn for this race,” he said. “Pushing yourself now will do no good and could get you hurt.”

So I took some self. I cancelled most of my Body Specs gym sessions and forced myself to take several days completely off. Naturally, it was warm and sunny those days. Sigh. Land Between the Lakes, you’d better be worth it.

I also indulged in a little mental self – as in self-reflection, in particular what it is about ultramarathons that makes me want to keep running them. My thoughts went back a few years to when my wife was bringing my brother up to date on my latest ultrarunning escapade. I forget which one. At any rate, Doug didn’t seem overly impressed.

“Does he enjoy torturing himself like that?” he asked her.

He had a point.

No, I don’t care so much for the pain and discomfort. Or the grind and tedium of the continuous hours of running. Or the mud, bugs, rocks, thorns, and other features of the trail.

But all that is part of the deal. An ultra is a spectrum of highs and lows, excitement and monotony, euphoria and pain, all experienced individually and yet blended into a complete entity I find highly satisfying. All of it, every sensation and emotion, contributes its part and would be missed if absent.

For a rough analogy, try Vietnamese coffee sometime. Espresso + condensed milk = bittersweet magic.

But the satisfaction stems from more than the event. The race is the cashing in of an investment I began months, even years, before the gun goes off. It’s the culmination of all my training, and planning, and the anticipation that motivated me to sign up and get to the starting line. Running the race is the manifestation of all that work, and the medal, or belt buckle, or whatever, represents all of it, not just that I crossed the finish line.

Or in this case, a small copper kettle. Was it worth running 28+ hours for? Yep.

So is racing the reason why I run? I don’t think so. I enjoy running for its own sake, and for the social aspects, and its physical benefits. I don’t need an upcoming race to get me out of bed and off to run club on Saturday mornings, or to toss on one more layer and go out for six miles in the snow. That’s all just part of my life now.

Ultrarunning taps into something deeper within me, an urge to push outside of my normally comfortable life and prove something to myself. Races, and the training for them, are a self-test of my limits. You won’t find me BASE jumping or climbing mountains in Antarctica; I don’t need to defy death to feel alive. But running ultras are times when I feel particularly alive, and in the moment. And that’s special.

Now it’s time to take self to bed. Need my sleep. Big day Saturday!

NOTE: I have Microsoft to thank for the Millennial-style post title. When I saved the first draft, Word used part of my initial sentence as the file name, and may have inadvertently created a new catch phrase. “Taking some self” just crushes. I’m so on fleek!

Spring 2018 Races: A Season of Firsts

I’M DEEP IN IT NOW.

In my first post of 2018 I hinted about my planned races for the year. Since then I’ve discussed options with my coach, made my selections, and signed up. I’m committed for the next several months! (Many of you think I should have been committed years ago, but here we are.)

So without further ado, here are my upcoming spring races:

  1. Land Between the Lakes 50-miler: March 10

This will be my first race in Kentucky. I’m heading down there with a group of local runners who will be doing a bunch of different distances, including the only 60K race I know of. But naturally, I had to sign up for the longest option. You’ll see why below.

One challenge may well be the weather. As the race is still technically in winter, anything can happen. According to the website, last year’s race began with a “beautiful snow shower.” So as long as I pack all the running clothes and gear I own, I’ll be fine.

  1. Dogwood 12-Hour Race: March 31

This will be my first race based on time duration rather than distance. I had two motivations to choose this one. First, it will be a good test of my patience running a loop over and over. Fortunately, it will be a 3.5 mile trail loop instead of an insipid one-mile road loop, or, God forbid, a quarter-mile running track. The other reason is that it’s close to where my daughter Tori lives, and she’s planning to come out on race day and run a loop with me.

One other cool feature: the race is cupless, and runners will need to bring their own containers for hot and cold liquids. (At least I find it cool.)

  1. Trail Marathon Weekend, April 28-29: No Wimps, Baby!

This is the race that began my love affair with trail running. After several years of doing the fast & furious 5-miler, I graduated to the No Wimps challenge: the half marathon on Saturday, and a full marathon or 50K on Sunday.

2015, after the 50K finish.. two days, 44 miles, three medals!

In 2016 and 2017, as I got the Zero Waste program established, I contented myself with just the Sunday marathon. But with the program now firmly in place, I’m returning to the No Wimps for 2018. Back-to-back long runs are excellent training for – well, see below.

So what’s the “first” here? It will be the first time I’ve done the “No Wimps” combo of half marathon Saturday, then full marathon Sunday. I’ve done the half/50K combo, but not this one yet. And I’ll have the additional challenge of trying to defend my 2017 Rogucki title (1st in the marathon age 50+).

And now, the Big One. . .

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  1. Veterans Memorial 150: May 26-28

So after I finished the Lighthouse 100 last year, I promised my wife I wasn’t going to do a 200-miler. At least not anytime soon. But I didn’t say anything about 150 miles.

Actually, I didn’t even know this race existed until late last year, when someone in a Facebook running group I belong to mentioned he’d signed up for it. It’s for a good cause, and it’s in Michigan. How could I turn that down?

This will have several firsts; in addition to the distance, it will be the first race where I’ll have a crew, and the first where I’ll have pacers. God help them all.

More about this race, why I signed up, and how I’m training for it, in future posts.

But wait, there’s still more…

So much for the traditional races this year! In the second half I’ve got some really far-out stuff lined up. Stay tuned – I’ll tell you all about it coming up!