Lighthouse 100 Recap, Part 2: The Long Night of the Sole

When last we left off, I had resumed my attempt to complete the Lighthouse 100 at mile 65 after coming within minutes of dropping out. A wonderful lady named Laura, crewing for another runner, had helped me recover enough to continue and said she’d see me again in 2.5 miles…

I made it the two and a half miles. It was a slog, but I was in good company. The wind was blowing so hard in our faces that running was a futile waste of energy. Laura was waiting for me. “How do you feel?” she asked.

I wasn’t well, but feeling better than I had. The Gatorade had revived me. And the sun and wind, having wreaked their havoc, had high-fived each other and were getting ready to call it a day.

“I think I can do this,” I told her.

“You can do this,” she replied firmly.

And with that, I was on my way again.

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Aid stations 5 and 6 had been pretty quiet, with runners straggling in one or two at a time. AS7 was busy with staff and crew tending to runners taking an extended rest and dealing with injuries and stomach issues. Ultrarunners are generally stoic when asked how they are doing. I heard a couple respond, “Not good,” which meant they were really suffering.

By contrast, I was starting to feel like myself again. I found Laura and thanked her profusely for her assistance, and said I could go on by myself. Then I called my wife to let her know I’d be mostly walking the last thirty miles. I calculated to my surprise that even at walking pace, I still had a shot at finishing in 24 hours. So she could meet me at the lighthouse around 6 a.m., just like we’d originally planned.

Thanks again, Laura!

It was just starting to get dark as I stepped onto the TART trail to begin the remaining ten miles to downtown Traverse City and the turn north up the peninsula.

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When you gotta go, you gotta go. – Common knowledge

It’s amazing how the mind can focus on a single subject, regardless of how one tries to suppress or divert it. Such was my case as I reached the suburbs of Traverse City. I needed to attend to a certain bodily function. Peeing in the woods is standard for ultrarunners, but number two, not so much.

Some runners don’t mind playing “bear in the woods” but I prefer an actual restroom, and I’d forgotten to bring along toilet paper anyway. The race organizers had not arranged for porta-potties because, we’d been told, there were gas stations and other places with toilets along the route. While true, their frequency did not meet expectations. And two factors complicated the issue; it was the middle of the night, and the trail ran along residential and industrial neighborhoods.

For several miles I carried on, hope rising when I saw lights ahead only to face disappointment when their source was either not open, or inappropriate (for example, the Burger King drive-thru). Civilization was everywhere, but – let’s just say the famous Rime of the Ancient Mariner quote came to mind.

Finally the trail reached a road with a Speedway station a few hundred yards away. My physical and mental relief belied description.

The salvation station!

And my stop provided an unexpected benefit, for as I rejoined the trail I met up with five other runners. For the next fifteen miles we walked and jogged together, providing support and companionship very welcome on a dark trail late in the race.

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When you’re going through hell, keep going. – Winston Churchill

“Do anybody else’s feet hurt as much as mine do?” Joe asked.

Our group had just left AS8 (Mile 80) and we had turned north at last, up the Old Mission Peninsula. The night hadn’t lowered the temperature much, but at least the wind was now at our backs.

Our unanimous answer to Joe’s question was, of course, yes. In a 100-mile race, every runner has sore feet by this point. Anyone who says otherwise is, to put it politely, a lying bastard. This was Joe’s first 100, so he was forgiven for thinking he was a weakling when in fact he was anything but.

There is Absolutely Nothing that fully prepares you for your first 100-miler. It doesn’t matter how much you’ve trained or how tough you think you are. It will push you physically and mentally well beyond whatever your limits were before. Just finishing, even five seconds before the cutoff, is an accomplishment well worth celebrating. And if you fall short? No shame. Lick your wounds, learn from it, and git ‘er done next time.

I didn’t know it when I took this photo, but I think this refers to the same Joe.

And for many runners it’s the first time they’ve run through the night. This can be intimidating and for some, claustrophobic. It’s hard to see very far, nothing looks familiar, and every noise is amplified (was that a raccoon, or a mountain lion?). Distances stretch out; one mile can seem like five. And even on clearly marked routes, an uneasiness sits in the back of the mind. Am I lost? How come I haven’t seen other runners? Where’s that damn aid station?

I usually enjoy night running, even solo, but I was very grateful for the company this time. I think we all were. For we all kept going, despite the pain, the lack of anything interesting to see, and that we still had many miles to go. We bitched and moaned, but we kept putting one foot in front of the other. Misery not only loves company, it needed company at that point. We broke up as the aid station approached, but we’d given each other the support we needed to get through the worst part.

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All good things must come to an end.  – Wait, how does this apply here?

“You’re flirting with the top 10,” Dave the race director told me as I settled into a chair at the mile 91 aid station.

“Are you kidding me?” I said. “I melted down back there.” And so had everyone else, apparently. Only two runners had finished under 20 hours, and only a few more were ahead of me. My energy had returned around mile 85 and I’d been able to start running again. I’d passed a few people and was ahead of the group I’d been walking with.

“To hell with the top ten,” I said. “I’ve been looking forward to this chair for eleven miles, and I’m sitting in it a while.” And I did, chatting with the race staff and sipping iced Vernors. Almost heaven at that point.

When I finally stood up and jogged out of the aid station, an amazing thing had happened. The stomach trouble I’d had since early on was gone, my legs felt good, and I was full of energy. To top it off, there was a long downhill stretch ahead. Go time!

I went from a jog into a full steady run and held it. The course continued on downhill and then onto a gently curving road with hardly any intersections or residences. No one was visible either ahead or behind, adding spookiness to the dark, lonely Smokey Hollow Road – which sounded enough like “Sleepy Hollow” to do the trick.

Light finally appeared in the sky, and I emerged onto an open road and one of the final turns. I was almost home! But oops – the turn-by-turn directions I was carrying were wrong, indicating a right turn where going straight was correct. I spent 10-15 frustrating minutes figuring this out, but finally I saw the mile 95 water jug up ahead and just past that, the final turn onto US 27 leading straight to the lighthouse.

I covered the final miles in good time, and with no one around me, could enjoy them with no competitive pressures. I got to the lighthouse and crossed the finish line in 23 hours 53 minutes. And there was Joe! Sore feet and all, he’d finished the race and beaten me by over a half hour.

Even with the wrong turn mixup, I’d achieved my original goal of under 24 hours, and even won the male Masters division! Of course, the real accomplishment was finishing, given how close I’d come to dropping. Being able to come back from such a low point and finish strong tapped into a reserve I hadn’t known was there. What a great takeaway from the experience.

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I’ll wrap up with a brief race review. Based on my story you might not believe this, but I’m going to recommend the Lighthouse 100 to my fellow ultrarunners. As with the first edition of any race it had challenges, but this event has the potential to become a classic.

The course is well marked and has some beautiful sections. The long stretches on US-31 and Elk Lake Road were hot and miserable, and I hope they can find alternative routes. Aid stations were okay, but did not have as much substantial food as other ultras I’ve run, and that plus the ten-mile separations were tough on the uncrewed runners.

I give the race director and his staff full marks for effort and attitude. They were on the course the entire time we were and remained supportive and upbeat. There was also a lot of communication and opportunities to ask questions before the race. They wanted very much to provide a great experience. The weather threw a monkey wrench into the works, but they had no control over that, of course.

Some changes for next year have already been announced. The biggest is the reversal of the course, a great idea that will allow running the Old Mission Peninsula in daylight and to finish in Petoskey, where it’s a quick trip to your hotel or a restaurant instead of a long shuttle ride back. And by popular demand, porta-potties will be at the aid stations.

I think next year’s Lighthouse races will be much improved and definitely worth considering for ultrarunners who enjoy, or want to check out, northern Michigan..

Thanks for reading!

Lighthouse 100 Recap, Part 1

I ran the first-ever Lighthouse 100 race last weekend. This is not really a race review, but a series of vignettes about my experience. I’ll give my thoughts on the course and race organization in Part 2. Hope you enjoy!

I sprawled in the driver’s seat of a stranger’s car, air conditioning blowing on my flushed face. Laura, the car’s owner, had given me a cold drink which I sipped while wishing the runner she was crewing for would arrive. She’d agreed to drive me to the next aid station as soon as she refilled his bottles and sent him on his way. “He’s just a few minutes away,” she’d told me.

Outside the car it was over 90 degrees in pitiless sunshine, and a 40 mph wind blew grit in the faces of the runners trudging south along Elk Lake Road.

I was at mile 65 of the inaugural Lighthouse 100 race, and, in my mind, done. Toast. Ready to call it a day.

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Oh, what a beautiful morning! Oh, what a beautiful day, etc. – Oklahoma!

THAT DAY HAD BEGUN on a much more positive note.

We set off from Bayfront Park in Petoskey at 6 a.m., following the Little Traverse Wheelway to Charlevoix and southwest from there to Elk Rapids, Traverse City, and then north up the Old Mission Peninsula to the lighthouse at its tip. Seventy runners crossed the starting line, with until noon Sunday (30 hours) to finish.

The morning was cool with a light breeze and the sun eased through the overcast to light up the bay on our right. I felt great, my pace was easy and light, and everyone was upbeat and chatting about the gorgeous view. This was what I’d signed up for, and life was good.

Eventually the pack stretched out and broke up. I settled into a steady pace and passed time with other runners talking about favorite races, nutrition, the usual stuff. The laid-back attitude and camaraderie are characteristic of ultras, and among the reasons I love them.

For the first forty miles all went according to plan. My left IT band oddly flared up at mile six, but stretching at Aid Station 1 (Mile 10) resolved it. In downtown Charlevoix a bearded fellow in a Run Woodstock T-shirt cheered me on. Then onto back roads and rolling hills, with a short stretch on US-31 to Aid Station 4. I was running strong and breathing easy, on pace to finish well under my target of 24 hours.

Things went downhill from there. And not in the good way.

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“There will be times when you’ll want to quit,” Dave Krupski, the race director, had told us at the pre-race meeting the day before. “But do this first; take a long break, 15 minutes or half hour, and drink some electrolyte fluids. If at the end of that time you decide it’s not your day, then okay. But give yourself time to recover and think about it.”

Well, I’d taken that break; several of them. Given myself time. And I’d thought about it. Nope, it wasn’t my day. But it would soon be over. I just had to wait a few more minutes.

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The Road goes ever on and on, Down from the door where it began. Now far ahead the Road has gone, And I must follow, if I can. – Tolkien

The heat and full sun began its work on the US-31 stretch, and I knew there would be more to come, but I wasn’t worried. I’ve run several ultras in hot weather with no problems, and figured I had the process down. Salt tablets every hour. Icewater-soaked cloth under my white sun-reflecting cap. Ease off on pace. Got it.

Naivete, thy name is runner.

Trouble started as I turned (at last) off US-31 back onto country roads, looking forward to cold water at the 45-mile mark. The jug was missing; someone had stolen it. Why, Lord only knows, but obviously he or she had no idea how much it meant to an uncrewed runner on a hot day.

My remaining water was too warm and too little to make it to AS5 (Mile 51), but I’d passed a crew vehicle a half mile back. I retraced and it was fortunately still there. Kevin, the driver, had extra ice and water and was happy to help. Turned out I was not the only other runner he saved that day.

Now the sun began taking its toll, and a nagging stomach issue grew steadily worse. At AS5 I took an extended break to sit, cool off, and re-evaluate. I was #11 overall and it was a bit annoying to watch other runners go by, but I needed the rest and figured I’d catch up. Then a change of shoes, final fluid reload, and back into the fray.

I got to AS6 at mile 60 without trouble, although I was now doing run-walk intervals instead of the steady jog I prefer. And with no interest in food, I didn’t refuel like I should have. Bad move.

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“You are not a bad runner. You are a good runner having a bad moment.” – Pacer to runner, overheard at Run Woodstock during a 100K

I’d pictured Elk Lake Road (miles 60-67) as pretty and meandering, with lots of shade making for an easy stretch. Instead it was straight into a hot south wind, with no shade whatever. I got to mile 65 with just one thought; find that water jug.

Except I didn’t see it. Not where my watch said it should be, nor up ahead.

It was too much. I found a shady swale off the road, lay down, and put my damp cloth over my face. I lay there for a while trying to figure out how I would go on. I did not improve, and eventually I figured if I didn’t get up then, I wouldn’t get up at all. So I staggered to my feet just as another runner came up to me, asking if I was okay.

“I can’t find the water jug,” I said.

He pointed ahead. “It’s right there. Can’t you see it?” I couldn’t. We walked back to the road, and finally I spotted it just over a small rise. Once there I rinsed my face and drank, but I didn’t feel any better.

Then I saw a line of crew vehicles on the other side of the road, I chose one at random and asked the driver if I could sit in her car for a few minutes. She immediately and kindly agreed, and got me an iced cup of Coke to sip. After a few minutes she asked how I was doing.

“I think I’m done,” I said, and asked if she would drive me to AS7 where I could drop. Another 35 miles in these conditions, feeling the way I did, was just not something I could deal with. There was no shame in that. As Dave had said, sometimes it just isn’t your day.

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Get up! Get back on your feet. You’re the one they can’t beat, and you know it. – Styx

Laura’s runner arrived at last. I heard her fill his bottles, say she was proud of him. Then on he went down the road. Laura cleared the front passenger seat for me, then came around to the driver’s side.

I opened the door and stretched out my left leg. It seized up in a calf cramp, which I stretched out only to get a shin cramp. With a grimace and apology, I planted that leg on the ground at last, then the other, emerged from the car, and stood straight. For a moment we just stood there looking at each other.

“You’re going to try to keep going,” she said. She sounded impressed with a strong hint of disbelief.

She was right. Somehow I had recovered just enough to give it one more shot. No way I could run, but I could try to walk it. Heck, every other runner was walking this section of road too.

“I’ll see you at Hawley Road,” she said, indicating it on her map. “That’s two and a half miles.” She mixed some Gatorade and filled one of my bottles with it.

I thanked her, went back out onto the road, turned into that furnace-like wind, and began walking.

How far did I get? What other challenges did I have on my attempt to get through the damn race? What’s all-night running like? All will be revealed in Part 2. Please stay tuned! And thanks for reading!

Quirkiness Postponed

OH, WHAT A QUIRKY YEAR I’D PLANNED. But as Burns says about “best laid plans” it looks like my “year of doing quirky stuff” has been postponed.

This has nothing to do with Robert Burns, but I just couldn’t help it.

My schedule for 2017 originally included some out of the ordinary events. Nothing totally nuts, like skiing off Everest, just stuff I normally do with a twist or two added. And yet one by one, they had to come off this year’s calendar. Here for your reading amusement are some of the things that didn’t work out.

The Great New York Running Exposition

This is a 100-mile footrace, of which there are many these days. What makes this one special is that it takes place entirely within New York City. Think of it as a 24-hour sightseeing trip on foot.

With a strict limit on the number of runners, I made a note in my planner for the day registration opened. But I didn’t check my planner until late that day. Oops! Went to the website, and – sold out. I put my name on the waitlist and hoped for the best.

But as I was commiserating with my running coach, he told me about a brand new ultra in northern Michigan. Did a quick search and came up with the Lighthouse 100 – Petoskey through Traverse City and up to the lighthouse on the Old Mission Peninsula. Signed up right then!

In sort of mixed news, I recently got an email from the TGNY race director. A spot had opened up! I had to decline, as Lighthouse and TGNY are only one week apart, but told him I’d be trying again next year. And I’ll know what 100 miles on pavement feels like.

Burning Man – Black Rock City, NV

This was going to be my highlight for the year – a trip to the planet’s largest and most famous self-expression festival, with a 50K thrown in. My daughter Rachel, who knows several “Burners,” was dumbfounded, which by itself was worth it. Not often I can surprise her.

Registering is a multi-stage process, and I dutifully followed each step – until the day came to buy tickets. I did remember this time, but got caught in a meeting. Still, I got to the website less than an hour after the window opened. And guess what?

There are a couple more ways to get in at “last-minute” or exchange sales, but I decided not to try. Burning Man, with its emphasis on self-sufficiency in the desert, is not a place to make plans at the last minute, or just to wing it. So, next year.

Beat the Blerch” Marathon in Seattle

I thought this might be a fun family activity. Two identical marathons, one Saturday and one Sunday, with cake at aid stations, couches along the way, and featuring The Oatmeal, one of Rachel’s favorite comics. Plus there was plenty of time to sign up.

So what happened? A new job for my daughter which severely limits her time off for a while. Plus it’s a long way to Seattle, and an expensive place to visit. So that too got put on the “back burner.”

The WNBR – Portland, OR

What is the WNBR, you may ask? It’s a bike ride. Just that, an ordinary group bike ride through Portland on a fine June evening. Its purpose is to promote bicycle safety and awareness, which are so important given the number of vehicle-bicycle accidents each year. It also protests all the emissions we produce from fossil-fuel burning transportation. Stuff we can all get behind, right?

What makes this quirky? Well, it being a warm evening and all, most people don’t wear a lot of clothing. In fact, many wear nothing at all. Here’s a (more or less) SFW photo. (There’s lots more on the Internet should you care to do further research.)

WNBR stands for “World Naked Bike Ride” if you hadn’t figured it out already. And Portland is just one of these rides all over the world.

And just so you know, I didn’t go searching for this. I became aware of the WNBR from a Portland native, who basically dared me to do it. So it’s a matter of pride.

And yet fate intervened, in this case my new business, which is doing very well. In fact, I was asked to manage an event that weekend back here in Michigan. Adding to that, the friends we’d planned to visit there were invited on a tubing trip that week. Again, there’s always next year.

But I’ve gotten in at least one quirky thing recently. My daughter Tori got married over the weekend. It was a Harry Potter themed wedding – and look who crashed the rehearsal. One more glorious opportunity to surprise my kids!

Dirty German 50: Ve Vill Run in Ze Rain, Und You Vill Like It

Last Sunday dawned bright and beautiful in Philadelphia. I went out for breakfast on a sunny, cool morning perfect for the trail race I’d come here for, the Dirty German 50-miler in nearby Pennypack Park.

Too bad the race had been the day before.

Steady rain had been forecast for all day Saturday, and for once Nature let the weathermen be right. While they were pounding Bloody Marys in celebration, several hundred trail runners were lining up for what promised to be a long, chilly, muddy slogfest.

It surpassed all expectations.

I’d been drawn to the Dirty German from previous year photos showing happy runners in lederhosen on a bright sunny day, being served by handsome St. Pauli Girls. After a wet, muddy Glacier Ridge 50 the year before, I was ready for something a bit flatter under more pleasant conditions. It was indeed flatter, but pleasant? Not so much.

But I’d paid the money and showed up, and the race was on. And right on time at 7:30 a.m., off we went. Our shoes soaked through in the first big puddle, so that was out of the way and we ran through them with abandon. Not that there was any choice; the course was already flooding and it got steadily worse throughout the day.

See the water gushing in from the river on the left! Thanks Kevin Minteer for this photo.

My main concern wasn’t a winning time, but just staying in the race. That meant keeping warm, primarily. My triathlon shorts were perfect, shedding water rather than soaking it up. Over a singlet and long-sleeved shirt I wore a plastic rain wrap, which retained sweat but kept the wind and rain off. My hands did get cold and numb, leaving me unable to retie a shoelace that had come loose. An aid station volunteer cheerfully helped me with that.

I also made to sure to keep well fueled. The aid stations had standard PB&J, potatoes, fruit, and candy, but the hot grilled cheese sandwiches really made my day! Adequate hydration wasn’t an issue, of course. Salt tablets every two hours kept my electrolytes in balance.

The wonderful folks at the aid stations made things as cheery as possible. But even they had to deal with conditions. The first one was at an underpass. On the second loop, the underpass had flooded, and they had to move uphill. On the third loop, we were diverted around the underpass and had to slide down a muddy slope to reach the station, then climb back up to get on the course again.

Flooded underpass at miles 4 & 12 of the loop. (Thanks to April Arnold for this photo.)

Unsurprisingly, many 50-milers called it a day before finishing; I saw a few hanging out at aid stations, waiting for a ride back to the start. The 50K (two loops) and the 25K (one loop) suffered less, but still had their share of drops. But I was feeling okay; there was no physical reason for me to quit. I just had to remain mentally focused and deal patiently with increasingly flooded paths and sticky, slippery trail.

Halfway through loop 2. Only 25 miles to go!

Knowing the course would get less runnable, I ran the first loop in 2:50, faster than plan, and started the third at the 6:05 mark, close to my original goal of a nine-hour finish. But it was not to be; the singletrack was like chocolate pudding (albeit much less tasty), and combined with normal race fatigue I had a 3:45 final loop and a finish time of 9:50, good for 17th out of 76 starters.

Turns out my age group (50-59) was the toughest out there, with 6 out of 7 finishing the race. I was third in my group and won this cool German weather house as a prize. It’s even made in Germany!

If the woman is out, it’s dry. Since it’s inside, looks accurate to me!

Only one small beef. The finish area was very light on food choices. Sausage and sauerkraut just didn’t appeal to me after ten hours of running. And there was only water to drink. No beer at a German-themed event? Seriously? So it wasn’t long before I hobbled out of there to a hot shower and dry clothes. Rather anticlimactic, but it just wasn’t the day for an extended post-race party.

What really encourages me about this race was that  I never felt the urge to quit, and stayed patient and on a mental even keel throughout. In that regard it was an excellent checkout run for the Lighthouse 100 next month. Hoping for better weather at that one, though!