Category Archives: Running and Cycling

When the Runner is Ready

IT MUST HAVE BEEN THE FATIGUE.

I’d just finished the Potawatomi 50 and was seated at one of the base camp picnic tables, removing my soaking, mud-caked shoes and examining my feet. To my surprise I had no blisters, just a raw spot on one toe. Pretty amazing given what they’d been through.

Next to me, a woman about my age was conversing with someone about the trail. She’d been pacing one of the ultrarunners and her knees were acting up. She said something like, “I wish I’d been doing this twenty years earlier. I could have done more loops.”

As an introvert I’m not comfortable butting into other people’s conversations, but my natural restraint was offline. Maybe it was the finisher’s high, or the need to talk to someone after a long day of solitude, or I was just too damn tired to feel awkward. At any rate, I spoke up.

“Hey, Emily,” I said. (I knew her name because it was printed on her hat.) “As one person who discovered running later in life to another, let me tell you that I would have been a terrible runner twenty years ago, because back then I hated running. I wasn’t ready.”

Not that I follow my own advice, of course. I too have “wasted” plenty of time musing about how good a runner I’d have been had I started in my twenties or thirties. No matter how successful we are at something, don’t we fantasize about being even better?

When I was younger, I imagined myself as a famous golf pro (Arnold Palmer was my hero) and even more unlikely, a basketball star. But I’d never, ever, imagined becoming a runner. Nothing about the sport appealed to me; it seemed like a lot of pointless, unenjoyable effort.

And my life back then, with career challenges, raising kids, and other interests, was already full. To train and race like I do now wasn’t feasible without giving up something else I enjoyed. Then in my mid-forties, more time and mental space freed up for new pursuits. Add in my desire to remain physically fit, and the way had opened to give running a try. I’d become ready for it.

I don’t find it surprising that trail ultrarunning has so many participants over forty. I think the “long haul” aspect of it appeals to folks who’ve lived long enough to acquire some perspective. They’ve developed the discipline to see something through when the path is unknown and the end is a long way off.

In the 2016 Kettle Moraine 100, my first hundred-miler, 73 out of the 133 finishers, and six of the top ten, were age 40 or older. And a 74-year old finished too, less than a half hour before the cutoff. He was the first-ever runner over seventy to complete that particular race, but for him, victory and fulfillment wasn’t about his finish time. It was about getting over that line. As it was for me at that race, too.

I finished number 96 out of 133. The crowd went wild. (Trust me.)

As for Emily, she accepted my unsolicited advice with grace, and we chatted about ultrarunning, the trail conditions, other stuff. I don’t remember the specifics, but it was a pleasant conversation. She even said it was nice to have met me. (Whew.)

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Gut Check at the Potawatomi 50

My first (and possibly only) ultramarathon of 2019 is done. I can’t say I enjoyed every mile, or even most of them. Yet I’m grateful for the experience. Lemme tell ya why.

I’ve run 22 ultras now, and every one has been memorable, whether for a competitive time (Veterans Memorial, Dogwood), extreme heat (Lighthouse) or cold (Yankee Springs), challenging terrain (Voyageur) or the surreal (Burning Man). Last Saturday’s 50-miler at the Potawatomi Trail Races combined sticky mud, hard climbs, and physical discomfort into a thirteen-plus hour sufferfest.

My shoes after the event.

It was worth it.

The race website quotes a runner as saying, “…they took all the hills [in Illinois] and put them ALL into one spot and called it McNaughton Park.” Having driven across Illinois, then run in the park, I can confirm this is true.

With 1,600 feet of elevation gain per ten-mile loop, I climbed nearly as much in 50 miles as I did at the Kettle Moraine 100. The uphills are sudden and steep, including one with rope assist. Yet they are exceeded in quad-shattering ferocity by the downhills, aptly described as, “elevator shafts.”

Two friends, John and Kurt, were responsible for my presence there. Kurt was attempting the 150-miler (15 loops), while John would try the 200, a 20-loop exercise in torture which awards a belt buckle too big to wear. This I wanted to witness. I settled on Saturday’s 50-miler as my limit after an inconsistent winter of training, but I was there to see them off at 4 p.m. Thursday.

Kurt (left) and John, just before race start on Thursday.

On Friday I volunteered at the base camp aid station, ran a few miles to keep loose, and went to bed early. I headed down the muddy path at 6:00 Saturday morning fired up and feeling good.

One mile in. Welcome to nine more miles of this!

The first loop, messy, slippery, and still a bit dark, was quite fun. I completed it in two hours flat, which I was very pleased with. No PR here, but even with a shoe change or two I expected to finish in around 11 hours. That plan went south starting late in the second loop.

Runners climbing one of the signature hills in the park.

A burning sensation appeared in my lower abdomen, almost like needing to pee, except I didn’t. This had happened at the Lighthouse 100, which I’d blamed on an unfamiliar electrolyte drink. I’d stuck with familiar food and drink this time, but here was that pain again, and getting worse.

Not wanting to quit, I pressed on and began experimenting. I tried drinking less, then a lot. I consumed more salt. I tried eating and not eating. After loop three I sat for a while. Nothing made any difference whatever. Even ginger ale and a Tums had zero effect. The day was pleasant and the trail was drying out nicely, but the constant pain was ruining any chance of enjoyment.

I made it through lap four (40 miles) and collapsed into a chair next to the timer. “Ready for your victory lap, Jeff?” he asked. No, I was not. In fact, I felt a tingling in my hands and flush in my face that signaled a bonk coming on. I got to my feet, walked to a nearby grassy patch and lay down for a nap. Plenty of time for one. Heck, with race cutoff over 24 hours away, I could even leave, recover, sleep, and finish the next day. I dozed for about twenty minutes with the afternoon sun warm on my face and body.

When I got up, a miracle had occurred. The abdominal pain had vanished, and I was full of energy. Victory lap on! I walked the first mile just to be sure all was well, then ran the rest of it comfortably. With competitive pressure gone, and feeling well again, I was able to fully enjoy those final miles. I finished just as it was getting dark. At 13-plus hours it was my slowest 50, but I was satisfied. And grateful.

So what made the experience worthwhile? I learned I could push through a long period of discomfort. That I can use a bad situation to learn more about myself and what I’m capable of.

Also, two things stood out about how my body performed. Though my quads were screaming from the downhills, they held up, and everything else – glutes, hamstrings, calves, even knees – felt fine throughout. And on a steep, muddy trail, I didn’t fall once. I give full credit to the trainers at Body Specs for their attention to whole-body training and stability work. All those one-legged squats and work on the wobble boards paid off. Thanks, Skip and crew!

This will pay off…this WILL pay off…

And how did my friends doing the crazy miles make out? Mixed results. John’s attempt at 200 ended after five loops and a rainy, miserable night. He was understandably bummed, but is already looking forward to his next challenge. Kurt finished his 150 miles at 7:30 a.m. Sunday, one of three to complete that distance. And four runners actually completed the full 200. Outstanding work, guys. I am in awe.

A Strange and Fickle Beast

Last weekend I had an opportunity to run a “fatass” trail race (up to 30 miles) reasonably near where I live. On that morning it was near freezing temperatures, raining, and I had a slightly painful knee that I’d “tweaked” somehow the previous night. Plus I had a 50-miler coming up in a week. So I passed on the fatass, stayed home, and did my taxes.

From last December’s Fatass run. I’m in the bright yellow jacket on the right. I did 21 miles because I had no excuses.

Now, those of you who aren’t ultrarunners, or who don’t know me all that well, are probably saying, “Sensible choice, what’s the issue?” The rest of you have, to a person, who I’ve told this to fully supported my decision.

Everyone except me.

Despite knowing it was the best choice, I still had some twinges of regret for at least not showing up and giving it a shot.

Why?

Because I have run ultras in the cold, and in the rain, and with a bum knee (although not yet all three at once). And enjoyed the experience each time. So I have a certain reputation of “indestructibility” that’s hard to set aside. Plus I just like being around trail runners.

This weekend is the aforementioned 50-miler at McNaughton State Park in Illinois. I arrived Thursday to see off those running the really long distances here, including my friends Kurt (150 miles) and John (200 miles). It was chilly and raining at the 4 p.m. start. The runners were geared up and ready. And no one – runners, race staff, or race director – complained about the weather.

Kurt (bib #400) and John (bib #415).

There’s very little fanfare at the start of most ultras. Runners are upbeat but quiet, grabbing a snack, conversing about other ultras, stretching, or jogging a bit to loosen up. Usually no music – that’s for pumping up people at shorter races, like marathons. And the starting “gun” is the race director saying something like, “Get outta here.”

And yet the energy is palpable, a current washing over the entire starting area. I’ve felt it every time, running or not. Watching the runners standing quietly in the queue before the start yesterday, I began twitching, and bouncing on my heels. Mind you, I was grateful not to be starting with them. But part of me was ready to jump in anyway. And had I signed up for that start time, I’d have been there, just as eager as the rest of them to get out on that trail.

They’re off! (Okay, maybe some are feeling the vibe more than others.)

My race begins early Saturday morning, and it promises to be a great day – sunny, with temperatures in the sixties. I’m really looking forward to it. And I’m only a little disappointed that it won’t be raining.

Yes, motivation is a strange beast, indeed.

March Weather Rambles, so I Will Too

The problem with March is that it can’t figure out what it wants to be.

At the start of this month I ran on a sunny morning in Minnesota, temperature -11 degrees F. Here’s what I wore on that run – and yes, I wore EVERY article pictured.

In like a lion, out like a lamb? This year it was more like, “In like a polar bear, go through every creature in the zoo, and on the last day it snatches the lamb away (PSYCH!) and back comes the bear.”

Help! March is chasing me!

Then last Friday I ran in shorts and a single T-shirt. Spring was coming. Life was good! Saturday it rained, then snowed, and today (Sunday, March 31) it was back to winter.

I was so discouraged…I gave up a Saturday trail run to do my taxes.

NOOOOOOOOOO!!!!

But some good things happened in March. Two PR Run Club members, Jason and Hirak, were awarded U.S. citizenship! The club threw a little party for them yesterday.

Jason contemplates what he’s just accomplished. Or what a wicked good cake that is.

Jason runs the club’s interval training Thursday afternoons. I’ve been able to avoid them, hiding behind my ultra training. But as I’ll be working on my shorter distances this year, I get the feeling I’ll be joining them. It’s good for me. At least that’s what I’ll tell myself.

Hirak and his family help clean up the Ann Arbor Marathon course last week.

Hirak organizes a 6-mile run every Wednesday at 6 a.m. Which I’m a regular at. After all, why just run in the cold when you can in darkness, too? While sometimes we have up to six people, sometimes, like with this week, it was just Hirak and me, and his dog Ashoka. (Bonus points if you are familiar with that name.)

And hope lies ahead. Next weekend is the Potawatomi Trail 50 in Illinois, and the forecast is for dry weather with temps in the 60s.

And my taxes are done!